Suvarnabhumi Expands, But Still Struggles With Baggage Basics

Sitting at our desks on the other side of the world, it’s hard to comprehend everything we’ve read about Thailand’s six-year-old international gateway, Suvarnabhumi Airport, located about 16 miles from Bangkok.

From 200 armed thugs taking over a parking lot for an afternoon to demonstrators occupying the terminal for days. From sinkholes in the runways to an outage in BKK’s otherwise “Uninterruptible Power Supply” that knocked out radar.

We’ve read so much about BKK that we wonder if each and every one of the airport’s problems could be true.

But we don’t doubt the truth behind the airport’s expansion plans. Last year, 48 million travelers passed through BKK, and the number is likely to reach more than 52 million this year.

The problem is BKK was designed to handle 45 million annually and passed that threshold years ago.

“We are, consequently, planning to expand our passenger capacity to 60 million,” says Toompetch Boonyaridh, vice president of corporate communications for Airports of Thailand Public Company Ltd., the airport authority for BKK and five other Thai airports.

As a result, AOT is speeding up completion of BKK’s expansion by one year with Phase 2 scheduled for completion in 2016.

Under Phase 2, a satellite terminal will be built with 28 gates, eight of which will be able to handle the A380.

The expansion also includes more than 10 million square feet of new apron area for aircraft parking.

But the added space will only catch up with projected traffic demand by 2016.


Meanwhile, the airport is addressing problems with baggage handling at its current capacity. Neither of the airport’s two main ground support companies can meet the set time limit for delivering baggage.

Thai Ground Services, a part of the Thai Airways brand, could meet the mark only a third of the time. That’s particularly alarming since Thai Ground Services handles about three-quarters of the bags at BKK.

Bangkok Flight Services, a joint venture between Worldwide Flight Services and Bangkok Airways, handles most of the rest of the load and did better, but still met the set time limit 63 percent of the time.

According to Somchai Sawasdeepon, director of Suvarnabhumi Airport, guidelines call for the first bags to appear in baggage claim no more than 20 minutes after deplanement with the last bag to appear within a half hour.

“I’m afraid the problems persist despite numerous warnings and they have yet to get their acts together,” Sawasdeepon told the Bangkok Post last July.

He blamed delays on insufficient manpower and equipment rather than any glitches with airport’s baggage system.

We reached out to both ground handlers for their comments and heard this from BFS.

“The issue with the baggage handling is mainly directed at TG and AOT have met with them to get their commitment to improve the service,” Robert Ruesz, director of passenger services and sales, BFS, told us by email. “We are working with the Airport Baggage Committee identifying infrastructure and other issues that are challenges at such a large, single terminal airport.”

He added that the company rarely receives any complaints from its customers since he believes BFS operates well compared with airports of a similar size.

“However, we are always looking for improvement and have suggested some areas that could reduce delivery times,” he adds. “These are ongoing discussions with the airport authority.”

With the expansion of BKK years away, AOT is taking other action to ease congestion at the airport.

Last March, the government ordered all low-cost carriers to move to Don Mueang International Airport – once the country’s premier gateway that was originally closed the day BKK opened.

Some 10 LCCs began moving to the airport’s single runway as of Oct. 1. These include some LCCs that might be light on price, but are heavy on passengers. Thai AirAsia, for example, carried 7.2 million passengers in 2011.

Of course, that amounts to half the total capacity for Terminal 1, but DMK has two other unused terminals.

While the government order to move LCC traffic to DMK began Oct. 1, it isn’t scheduled to conclude until next summer.

However, the fast pace to hire two ground handlers by Oct. 1 for DMK has many asking questions about the process.

Bidders complained that the process gave them three business days to prepare bids and that the period of time granted to the winning bidders was for three years instead of the usual five years that AOT typically grants.