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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Taxis at Suvarnabhumi Airport a tourist turn-off


By Veena Thupkrajae

One could blame the global economic recession or point the finger at the political mess for the decline in tourism, but actually one needs look no further than the arrival hall at Suvarnabhumi Airport to see what really turns off most tourists.


Yes, I'm talking about airport taxis.


Bring this topic up the next time you're having a conversation and see if it ever comes to an end.


Somebody in your group will have either been bombarded by an illegal front-man or woman for a taxi mafia; experienced a driver who refuses to use the metre or been dumped when the driver finds a passenger headed for Pattaya or another destination for which they can get a handsome fare.


Even getting a taxi from an official stand does not ensure good service.


"I get harassed all the way home by the taxi-driver, who is invariably angry that I am not going to a destination that is far away from the airport. The driver keeps complaining about having to wait a long time for one passenger," a female traveller wrote recently on the mthai.com discussion board.


So do we need to turn to the Airports of Thailand (AOT) for a solution?


Probably not, because AOT's official Bt50 (S$2.10) surcharge for each taxi was never enough for the time they had to spend waiting for passengers.


In March 2006, when around 1,000 taxi-drivers gathered and blockaded the airport to protest against competition from "ghost taxis", AOT management promised to crack down on illegal vehicles.


Somchai Sawasphol, then AOT director, told legal cabbies that they would not have to wait too long for passengers once AOT got rid of all the illegal operators.


That promise was made in March 2006, and yet nothing has been done.


This "small" problem annoys anyone and seriously turns off first-time visitors.


Yet the government and the airport authorities are doing little to help.


The authorities seem to be all deaf or blind or have serious short-term memory problems, as they have been reminded of this problem over and over again. The latest reminder was on Channel 3's "Three-Dimension News", which aired a scoop on the airport taxi mafia.


Sadly, transportation at Suvarnabhumi is deteriorating speedily just two years after the airport's inauguration in 2006.


What's worse is that the airport's sheer size is a blessing for the illegal, paai dam or "black-plate" taxis, who can lie in wait for their victims anywhere in the terminal without getting caught.


According a local media estimation, there are more than 10 groups of illegal operators, and if one of them employs 10 "front" staff, there are 100 of these taxi-hunters wandering around the airport. My instincts say there are bound to be more.


What I can't understand is why the legal limousine-operators just stand there and "politely" witness illegal taxi/limousine-operators stalking passengers, especially foreigners.


Of course, I agree that the THAI limousine fare is a rip-off and gives illegal operators a chance to offer better, cheaper deals. However, paying a little bit more would at least guarantee one's safety, especially if one is female and travelling late.


Foreigners may consider a Bt2,000-ride (S$84) to Pattaya cheap and convenient, but they need to keep an eye out for tricks employed by the driver to make more. One of the tricks is to charge extra for the toll fee or to take male passengers to a massage parlour in exchange for commission.


Now, AOT can either consider this a "national" problem or a "personal" problem, but it can't avoid the responsibility.


Every time someone mentions the problem, we hear: "Powerful people are behind this, and nobody can solve the problem."


Unfortunately, there are no specific laws to punish these illegal operators and they have "insider" knowledge of how to get away with it, or so say the airport guards.


The police station in the area believes that cracking down on illegal vehicles around Suvarnabhumi is not its responsibility.


So what can one do to stop this embarrassing impression visitors get of Thailand?


Maybe the AOT director and top management should pretend playing tourist and take a tour around the arrival hall? Maybe then they will see for themselves what the problem really is.


What is the point of having the tallest control tower and being the world's third largest airport terminal when you can't manage it properly?


Visitors are not interested in the architecture or how impressive a building looks; they are more interested in how they are treated.


No wonder tourists are fleeing Thailand.


This article was first published in The Nation on Nov 1, 2008.

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