Making the best out of airport debacle
Reopening of Don Muang a needed fallback position brought on by careless rush to open Suvarnabhumi
The Surayud government's decision to reopen Don Muang Airport for both domestic and international flights pending repair work on cracked runways and taxiways at Suvarnabhumi Airport and a formal inquiry into a host of corruption scandals there came as a surprise. It is still not clear how long Don Muang will serve as the country's second international airport, or whether it will be in operation on a permanent basis alongside Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said the expansion of Suvarnabhumi Airport, including a new passenger terminus and two additional runways, would be put on hold until a full assessment of the damage to its runways and taxiways is completed. This is to ensure that relevant authorities are able to gauge the extent of traffic congestion that may occur while cracked runways and taxiways are being fixed. Perhaps the prime minister needed to take stock of the situation at Suvarnabhumi and wanted to avoid throwing good money after bad if it is determined that problems at the new airport are more serious than previously thought. If that is the case, Surayud should be commended for his prudence and good judgement.
However, the plan for Don Muang was not well received by representatives of international airlines who said that reopening the old airport could be an expensive mistake, not to mention the confusion and inconvenience it may cause for the tens of millions of international tourists who visit Thailand each year. Some aviation industry experts said that Thailand's efforts to promote itself as an aviation hub for Southeast Asia would stand a better chance of success if the country stuck to a single airport operation.
There may be some truth to these objections. Don Muang was stripped of its air-traffic control equipment, passenger handling systems and relevant facilities when it was shut down in September of last year when Suvarnabhumi opened for business. Getting Don Muang back online will require a substantial investment in terms of financial and human resources. But then operations at Don Muang can be gradually phased in as airlines, especially low-cost airlines operating domestic and short-haul international flights, are persuaded to come back to use the old airport. In that case, there will be no need for a huge investment upfront to cover facilities or an explosive growth in personnel in order to get Don Muang operational again.
Meanwhile Thai Airways International and some low-cost airlines said they would consider moving some of their domestic and short-haul international flights back to Don Muang, except those servicing major destinations popular among international tourists like Chiang Mai, Phuket and Krabi - flights that carry a large number of connecting passengers. One clear incentive to using Don Muang is the considerably lower landing fees.
One question that has been raised by critics of the two-airport arrangement is that although several major cities - New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Milan, Rome and Paris - appear able to operate two international airports smoothly, Bangkok with its notorious traffic jams it not well known for having a world-class public transportation system. With careful planning to minimise the likelihood of a number of passengers having to travel between Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang to catch flights, there is no reason why Bangkok shouldn't be able to run two international airports with a tolerable level of efficiency.
It must be said that the best solution for Thailand to achieve maximum operational efficiency is to use Suvarnabhumi Airport for all its domestic and international flights. But the military coup-makers who ousted Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in a coup on September 19 had no choice but to follow through with the deposed leader's plans for an early opening of Suvarnabhumi.
Thaksin rushed the opening of Suvarnabhumi despite widespread doubts about Airports of Thailand's preparedness, not to mention a host of corruption scandals involving politicians, building contractors and procurers, as part of his pet project aimed at self-glorification. In a manner of speaking, the two-airport idea is a fallback position that the government must take for now to ensure Suvarnabhumi can be run with minimal hitches. The decision as to whether to use Don Muang as the country's second international airport temporarily or permanently will have to be made by future governments.