'Can we get to work please?'
Engineers say they are waiting for green light to drain water from sand below airfield in damage-control operation
Engineers are wondering how bad the problems need to get at Suvarnabhumi Airport before the government gives them the go-ahead to start fixing things. In one of its strongest public statements, the Engineering Institute of Thailand (EIT) insisted on the urgent need to drain water from beneath the tarmac now - or risk closure of the entire runway and taxiway system.
Karun Chandrarangsu, EIT president, said technical studies have clearly shown that water trapped in the sand layer under the airport tarmac causes ruts and cracks in the airfield. Draining the water is imperative for damage control before experts determine permanent repair methods.
"Suvarnabhumi is like a patient in a coma who continues to suffer from severe bleeding. Stopping the blood flow now is more urgent and important than debating what caused the injury," Karun said.
In their statement issued yesterday, EIT experts warned that if the water is allowed to remain in the sand, the airport may start to see ruts and cracks spread from the currently damaged areas of about 80,000 square metres to the rest of the two million square metres of runways and taxiways.
It is becoming clearer that the problems affecting Suvarnabhumi are far more administrative and political than technical, many engineers said.
Since Tortrakul Yomnak, chairman of the airport's tarmac inspection panel, announced his findings on Monday, there have been a series of meetings at the airport this week to discuss installing a network of pipes and filters to allow water to flow back out from under the sand, which would then allow the area to be repaired.
An Airports of Thailand (AOT) source told The Nation that while it's agreed this method should be employed, no one seems to know who is to give the workers the go-ahead to get started.
"Engineers and technicians on the ground have been ready since Wednesday, but we have to wait for someone higher up to give us the green light," the source said. "If this is a normal situation we would have done it by now, but Suvarnabhumi is now so politically sensitive we can't take the risk in case somebody doesn't like what we do."
The source said technical staff would have more confidence if the drainage operation were commissioned by the AOT board of directors.
However, AOT's board president General Saprang Kalayanamitr told The Nation that the board's job was to oversee the organisation's policy - not the technical side of the operation.
"Why wait for my order? If they see a drowning man, will they wait for my order to jump into the river to the man's rescue?" Saprang asked. "If they can't do their jobs, let someone else do it."
Nonetheless, EIT's Suebsak Promboon agreed with ground engineers that the matter needed to be decided by someone with higher authority, possibly as high as the Cabinet level, because of the legal implications of the issue.
Some concerns were raised about warranty issues associated with intervening before a more complete investigation has identified if some of the engineering and construction firms are liable for the problems.
However, all parties were assured that such an intervention in these situations were not uncommon and only needed to be well-documented.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont chaired a meeting of officials and experts to tackle the problems at Suvarnabhumi yesterday, but government reports about the meeting did not mention when and how the repair work would start at the airport.
The frustrating part about all of this, noted Suebsak, is that AOT was informed about the water problem four months ago. His organisation sent AOT a report warning them that a few cracks that had already occurred were likely the result of water leaking into the sand layer beneath the pavement, and that immediate action should be taken to extract it.
"The AOT did nothing about the problem," Suebsak recalled. "The situation might not have become this bad if the water had been drained then."