SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT OPENS
Touch down...into chaos
Lost baggage, crashed computer check-in systems, shouting passengers - AOT calls opening day a '75% success'
Passengers wait in long queues at Thai Airways International check-in counters due to a computer glitch during the grand opening of Suvarnabhumi Airport yesterday.
It took the Korean visitors three hours to get their luggage, and they left no one in doubt as to their displeasure. A computer system crash forced staff into the unfamiliar role of manually checking-in passengers. Then more bags were lost and a scrum formed around the "Lost and Found" office. Flights were delayed time and again. Snafu was the order of the day.
Utter chaos for Suvarnabhumi's opening? Definitely not, say the airport's spin doctors.
Officials and system consultants shrugged off the teething problems and expressed complete confidence that Suvarnabhumi Airport would soon be free of "hiccups".
"We are 75 per cent satisfied," Chotisak Asapaviriya, president of Airports of Thailand Plc, said yesterday. "There were some minor problems that have upset us."
At 11am, the centralised check-in system crashed, first paralysing 11 counters of Thai Airways International and later spreading to 13 counters of Nok Air and some international airlines.
Ground staff resorted to using computer notebooks and filling out boarding passes by hand.
According to reports, many passengers on a variety of flights waited for at least two hours to get their luggage. Over 100 visitors from Incheon, arriving on flight OX301, vented their anger at Thai Airways International's counters. They shouted at THAI ground agents when three hours passed and still their luggage had not appeared.
Passengers on other flights encountered similar problems. Those on TG343 from Jakarta also waited for three hours. TG 917 from London landed at 3pm and the designated carousel was empty until 5pm. To the dismay of first-class passengers, they retrieved their belongings at the same time as economy-class travellers.
"The Lost and Found counter was flooded with complaints," said a ground officer who asked not to be named.
"Passengers of airlines including THAI and Aerosvit Airlines faced the same problem," said one AOT official.
Air Chief Marshall Chalit Pukbhasuk, chairman of the Council for Democratic Reform's committee in charge of the airport opening, visited the facility at 7am. He acknowledged the foul ups but said all units were attacking the mishaps one by one.
"Problems are common for the first operating hour of a new airport. We should know better later on," he told a swarm of reporters.
AOT's Chotisak said it took time for ground crews to transfer bags from planes to conveyer belts due to the delay in the relocation of baggage handling equipment from Don Muang to Suvarnabhumi. THAI supplies the AOT with the baggage-handling equipment.
A fierce overnight storm had thrown THAI's schedule for its migration programme completely out of whack. As of 7am, only 80 per cent of the removal was complete.
"The conveyor system functioned well, but there was a problem transferring luggage from the aircraft to the conveyor belts because baggage lorries had not arrived [from Don Muang]," Chotisak said. "This is a minor problem and will not happen again once the transition period is over."
About 200 suitcases were also found left behind at the airport after some THAI flights took off for domestic and international destinations.
THAI president Apinan Sumanaseni was sure that his airline's system functioned well, but the problem could lie with the baggage handling system, which is under AOT's supervision.
"We are contacting the bag owners to send them their belongings. This is a big blunder happening at THAI," he said.
Somchai Swasdipol, director of Suvarnabhumi Airport, said AOT is investigating the matter. The bungling could have arisen from the slow transfer of luggage rather than any trouble with the actual baggage handling system, he said.
The botched baggage handling was partially attributable to flights arriving late. About 17 flights were overdue, 45 minutes in the worst case. Most departing passengers anticipated the delay and arrived at the airport well in advance.
The first commercial flight to alight at Suvarnabhumi was also 20 minutes behind schedule. Flying from Kiev, the Aerosvit Airlines plane landed at 4.30am, instead of the original time of 4.10am. It landed at the same time as an EVA Airways flight from Amsterdam.
"Aerosvit's flight was delayed at the originating port, not because of technical problems at Suvarnabhumi," the AOT official said.
Upon arrival, the first passengers received commemorative souvenirs from AOT chairman Srisook Chandrangsu and his management team, who waited in front of Gate E4. One of the passengers was a local from Udon Thani who was unaware that his plane would put down at the new airport.
"I'm confused. Don Muang is more familiar to me as I don't know the traffic network of Suvarnabhumi," he said.
Aerosvit Airlines also operated the first flight from Suvarnabhumi. Bound for Kiev, it left at 5.40am. It took four minutes for each passenger to check in, instead of the normal two minutes at Don Muang, as staff needed time to get used to the new IT system.
Cathay Pacific also operated a flight from Hong Kong, but with only a 55-per-cent load factor rather than the usual 80 per cent.
"Passengers were worried about convenience on the first day of operations," said Yongyut Lujintanont, marketing manager for Thailand and Burma. The cabin factor should return to normal today, he said.
The chaotic environment on the first day also dulled the appetite for shopping among passengers. Most of the visitors concentrated on checking out the airport's amenities. Some of the duty free shops were still being fitted out and were not open yet.
A manager for King Power Duty Free Shop said total sales on the first day were only Bt3,000-Bt4,000, less than 10 per cent of what the company used to ring up at Don Muang. However, she was optimistic that more customers would come later.