Flawed airport exposed by 'Great Escape'

Flawed airport exposed by 'Great Escape'

Suvarnabhumi airport lives up to its slogan, the ''Airport of Smiles''. At least for Carlo Konstantin Kohl. The German fugitive showed Thai authorities how friendly Suvarnabhumi is when passengers want to leave the airport without the bother of having to wait in immigration lanes or mingling among the long lines of air travellers passing through the place.

A passport was not a problem. Oh, no. Kohl simply walked around the transit area. He went to a massage salon first, and then other places before finally finding an emergency exit. The door was locked. Again, no problem. He used a coin to open a circuit box and cut one of the two electric wires.

Alarms did not go off _ perfect! The convict opened the door, strolled through it like he was having a day in the park, and voila! Freedom.

As if that was not enough to embarrass Thai (and Australian) authorities, the 25-year-old roamed the airport for 30 hours before deciding he might meander off to Khao San Road and enjoy other areas of Bangkok for the first time.

He took a taxi downtown and, when he had had enough of amazing Bangkok, contacted the Germany embassy _ and immigration police were there on Thursday to arrest him.

''Sawasdee khrap. Khob khun khrap,'' Kohl said to reporters on Friday before being taken back to the Immigration Bureau from the airport, where he had performed a crime re-enactment.

He appeared not to have a worry in the world and even smiled for the press. For his impertinence of entering the country illegally _ in other words, leaving the airport through a channel not designated for travellers _ he was fined 6,000 baht and handed a two-year suspended jail term.

His unexpected ''holiday'' is now over. But he would not have had that chance had a Bangkok flight to Frankfurt on the night of May 15 not been delayed until the next day due to bad weather in Europe.

He was supposed to have only a three-hour transit stopover at the airport after arriving from Brisbane that day.

As he awaits the next step in his incredible journey, Airports of Thailand (AoT) officials should thank him for exposing Suvarnabhumi's weaknesses.

Suvarnabhumi should have tough, really tough, security measures if it's to stay in the same ranks as other top international airports. No one should be able to easily slip in or out of the airport. It is not a supermarket. The immigration lanes at Suvarnabhumi are the only way to screen criminals, hijackers and those on watchlists or blacklists trying to enter or leave.

When it was inaugurated in 2006 to replace the ageing Don Mueang airport, Suvarnabhumi encountered countless problems. The roof leaked when it rained. There were too many shops and too few toilets. Fire exits were hard to find because they were blocked by shops. The airport still does not have enough signs to direct passengers inside and outside the terminal, and illegal taxis are still looking for victims.

But none is quite as serious as that which Kohl demonstrated to airport authorities.

Thailand has always been confident that its location in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia would give Suvarnabhumi an edge over its rivals, including Singapore's Changi and Kuala Lumpur International Airport, as an aviation hub in the region.

But without proper security measures, that ambitious goal is looking a little fragile.

The public would never have known just how easy it is to sneak out of Suvarnabhumi until the news of Kohl's escape. That news came 10 days after he fled and after the AoT and immigration police were informed about the case and realised there was a flaw at the airport. Immigration authorities should not be criticised, as Australia did not alert them that a convict would be around for a transit stop on that day, but the AoT cannot escape the blame for the security breach inside Suvarnabhumi.

Airport chairman Sita Divari promised to fix the ''holes'' by checking all emergency exits and tightening measures to make sure the airport is safe.

That probably would not have happened had Kohl not decided to see Thailand from outside Suvarnabhumi. Without him, airport authorities would go on believing Suvarnabhumi is safe and secure and not a place to just wander in and out at will.

Bon voyage, Herr Kohl. Hope you enjoyed Amazing Thailand.

Saritdet Marukatat is digital media news editor, Bangkok Post.

Saritdet Marukatat

Digital Media News Editor

He is Bangkok Post's Online Editor and is in charge of all online content.

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