Hurry up and wait

Hurry up and wait

Suvarnabhumi airport likes to call itself the "airport of smiles", an accolade that is being questioned by passengers using its facilities. While no one expects an airport to be a fun place, they do expect it to provide a seamless transition from air to ground with a minimum of fuss and as much convenience as airline, immigration and security regulations allow. The key to achieving this is good organisation and an absence of bottlenecks. But something is going wrong.

In the 66 months it has been open, the airport has generated plenty of controversy, scandals and complaints. Grievances have been tackled, solutions found and put into practice. The problem is these "solutions" are not always permanent and then the headache is back. There is one category particularly susceptible to this and it eclipses all others in sheer nuisance value. These are the huge delays many passengers are being subjected to while waiting to process immigration formalities and enter or leave the kingdom. Passenger numbers have grown but the number of staff at Passport Control apparently has not. It is a major source of concern to tourism operators because of the damage such terrible service does to the country's reputation.

At peak periods these queues become impossibly long and move at a snail's pace, causing tempers to fray and angry exchanges to take place as passengers suffer delays of up to two hours. That is a long time to stand in a queue, especially for elderly and frail tourists, parents with children and businessmen pressed for time. Since first and last impressions stick in the mind, a poor welcome or send-off gives a visitor a negative image of Thailand and influences any decision to return.

This is not a new situation but one that has grown progressively worse despite repeated promises by immigration police and airport authorities to solve it. Although the blame, this month, is being put on renovations, that does not explain why some immigration counters are left unattended at periods of peak demand and why the whole area has acquired the reputation of being a smile-free zone where even cooperative passengers are sometimes greeted with a grimace. True, immigration officers have a boring, thankless task but so do those carrying out security checks. These are usually the culprit when it comes to congestion and bad manners. But at Suvarnabhumi, security and customs staff usually get an acceptable passenger approval rating.

Airport director Somchai Sawasdipol says the terminal is now handling an average of 150,000 to 170,000 passengers and more than a thousand flights daily. Most passengers dread the potential chaos this represents. While a short- or medium-haul flight might relax a passenger, a large international airport has the opposite effect and people are quick to show their anger and frustration. The mix of strict security measures, rigorous bureaucracy, language difficulties, unsmiling officials and shoving, ill-mannered, queue-jumping crowds all contribute to a stressful experience which strips flying of any glamour it might once have had. Big airports also act as a magnet to scam artists and taxi touts.

The growth in air travel generated by low-cost carriers and mushrooming mass tourism have raised passenger demand to the extent that many airports are running at, or beyond, capacity. Budget airlines should have their own separate facilities just as they do in Kuala Lumpur. Fortunately Don Mueang is always available. That would ease the pressure until the second-phase expansion of Suvarnabhumi is completed in 2016. For now let's concentrate on immediate problems and put talk of a regional hub on hold until they are solved.

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