||14 September 2009
New Bangkok airport undergoes image makeover
An overhaul is under way at Bangkok's $3.8 billion Suvarnabhumi Airport, which is virtually brand new but trying to put a scandal-plagued past behind and become one of the world's top 10 airports - a goal senior officials concede might be a long shot for this year, the Associated Press reported.
The campaign is partly aimed at addressing passenger complaints logged since Suvarnabhumi opened in 2006.
Free Wi-Fi will be in place by the end of the month and 126 Internet terminals have been installed for travelers without laptops, according to Airports of Thailand, the airport's operator. Other upgrades include more restrooms, improved signs and the upholstery of all 19,000 cold metallic seats with turquoise, peach, green and purple cushions that brighten Suvarnabhumi's concrete-and-steel design, panned by some critics as too monotone.
More than cosmetic, the cleanup has become a matter of national pride. It comes amid a rash of bad publicity that prompted the prime minister to tour the airport's trouble spots last month - from its luggage-sorting underbelly up through duty-free shops and out to the arrival hall.
"We must have high and strict standards," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said during his Aug. 15 visit, prompted by highly publicized claims by European tourists that they were falsely accused of shoplifting at duty-free stores and then taken to seedy motels and extorted by a police interpreter.
On Abhisit's orders, tourists accused of stealing will now be handled "transparently so there are no complaints," said Ayuth Sucantharuna, a spokesman for Airports of Thailand, or AOT. They will be interrogated at the airport, rather than transferred to an outside police station, and interviews will be videotaped.
Scams against tourists are the subject of a new British documentary series called "Big Trouble in Tourist Thailand.
The program, which aired its first of eight episodes last week on British television, "explores the ugly side of tourism in Thailand" - like getting ripped off by a gun-wielding jet-ski operator and landing in jail after partying at a drugged-out, all-night beach rave.
The show is sure to hit a sore spot in Thailand, where the tourism industry has barely recovered from last year's public relations disaster at Suvarnabhumi - the main gateway to the country - when anti-government protesters shut the airport for a week and stranded 300,000 travelers.
Abhisit set a realistic target while discussing Suvarnabhumi on his weekly TV broadcast recently: "I think the problems can be significantly reduced - but to get rid of them all together will be difficult."
Take the case of taxi touts with "broken meters," which Nirandra Theeranartsin, the airport's general manager, calls "a monumental problem" that started 40 years ago at Bangkok's previous international airport.
Part of the problem appears to be that senior AOT officials were sanctioning the touts in exchange for kickbacks, Nirandra said, adding "it's hard to prove" but several high-ranking officials are nonetheless being transferred.
So far, a six-week crackdown on illegal touts and unauthorised tour guides at Suvarnabhumi has resulted in more than 1,200 arrests - a misleading number since several are repeat offenders, AOT and police officials say.
Touts are charged with creating a public nuisance, which carries a maximum 1,000 baht ($30) fine and is too weak a deterrent, authorities say. Fifty new security cameras are now being installed in the arrival zone to get proof of trespassing and other offenses that carry stiffer penalties.
Another 327 new security cameras are going up in the luggage-sorting zone, where a "no pocket" rule took effect September 1.
After Abhisit's visit, baggage handlers were ordered to turn in their uniforms and all pockets were stripped off or sewn shut, Nirandra said.
"They walk in with the clothes on their back - without pockets - and no mobile phones, no wallets, nothing. Not even a pen," said Nirandra. "And they come back out the same way."
The crackdown has been a regular topic of letters to the editor and editorials that urge authorities not to relent, predicting touts will return once arrests stop. The Bangkok Post newspaper applauded the new cushioned seats with the headline, "AOT ends Suvarnabhumi's Pain in the Rear."
The upgrades and new security measures are costing upward of 150 million baht ($4.4 million), which the airport hopes will pay off with a top-10 ranking in the Geneva-based Airports Council International's annual list, based on passenger surveys of 120 airports. Suvarnabhumi is ranked 28th, a point of contention since regional rivals Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong hold the top three spots.
"It's about pride of the Thai people," Nirandra said. "I don't know if we can reach the top 10 yet. But we're trying. If not this year, maybe next year."
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