I know it takes awhile for any major new airport to work out the kinks and make life better for passengers but Bangkok’s gleaming new Suvarnabhumi International Airport was still a major disappointment in its first week or so of operation.
While planners had expected to open the U$4 billion-plus facility sometime in November after it was actually ready, then-caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had other plans. Shackled with political problems, he insisted on a late September date. Most observers say he wanted a political boost by cracking open the mega-project ahead of elections, which were to have been held later this year.
Of course Thaksin is now a private citizen living in well-heeled exile in London courtesy of the bloodless coup staged by royalist generals the week before the airport opened. The new regime is investigating all kinds of nagging allegations that Suvarnabhumi, which was 42 years in the making, was a convenient place for kickbacks as it was built during Thaksin’s watch.
I have no idea if that is true but I can say they should have plugged in the phones, let the cement dry and finished a few more jetways before opening this mammoth airport to the public. The old Don Muang airport may have been tattered around the edges after its many decades of loyal service but it worked and it had a kind of Thai charm that made up for its age. I flew out of that place dozens of times and was rarely delayed, seldom irritated and once even got a haircut from a beautiful woman in a cocktail dress at 7 in the morning.
While the local newspapers have dutifully reported that the only real glitch was in baggage handling and that all is basically well, it’s just not true. Starting with the traffic jam to park the taxi, Suvarnabhumi is a charmless mess. Not enough room was given to facilitate traffic flow along the entryway and it is hard to lug the bags into the terminal. “I miss Don Muang,” said the Thai Airways lady as I admired the hotel-like appointments in the business-class check-in area. “Even the phone don’t work,” she said.
Inside, the place is overheated, the floors are dirty and the air smells of glue as workers shuttle here and there to patch up problems. The mammoth Thai Airways business class lounge has just one toilet for hundreds of passengers. The Internet was not connected when I flew out of here and it was still not working four days later. The long walk to get to the gate was unrelieved by anything other than standard-issue duty free shops – that contract is also under investigation, it was announced, because it seems that the concessionaire is encroaching on public space in the airport.
Speaking of which, there are no comfortable chairs in the public areas, just a relatively few hard aluminum backbreakers. The tile floors already appear smudged and soiled, there is a shortage of luggage carts and few of the amenities that one has grown accustomed to in such modern airports as Hong Kong and Singapore, which seem somehow inviting even for economy-class passengers who want to kill some time without having to buy flagons of XO cognac. The place is designed for annual passenger movements of 45 million people. That’s a lot of sore backs.
There also seems to be a major problem with the high-tech glass walls that open up to a view of the runway. On the days I was in transit, the fourth-floor concourse was a sweltering sauna. The air conditioning was just not working and the stifling atmosphere was made worse by the scaffolding that is still much in evidence and the aroma of solvent in the air.
Even the arrival scenario was irritating. Flying in from Phnom Penh, we were berthed at the far end of the airport, about three provinces away from the customs area. And just like at bad old Don Muang, we were crammed into a humid airport bus for a 15-minute drive to the entrance past dozens of empty parking bays. I guess they aren’t ready either.
I suppose it will get better given the Thai genius for hospitality and making even the mundane somehow special with a spray of orchids and a smile. So I have no doubt that one day Suvarnabhumi will be all spruced up and lovely. But for now, kind of like Thailand’s badly dented democracy, the airport is not ready for prime time.