Cracks, Leaks, Corruption: Thailand's New Airport Off to a Rough Start

The taxiways are cracked, the terminal has leaks and some airlines even wonder whether it's safe to fly into Thailand's new international airport.

Bangkok's sleek and modern Suvarnabhumi Airport, which opened to great fanfare in September, was supposed to transform the Thai capital into Southeast Asia's leading air hub. Instead it has become a national embarrassment and a monument to the alleged corruption of a prime minister deposed in a coup five months ago.

"There is so much bad news about this airport - and so much that needs to be fixed," said Yodiam Teptaranon, a board member of Airports of Thailand, or AOT, the national airport authority. "Everything seems to be happening all at once. It makes everyone concerned."

On Monday, Transport Minister Thira Haocharoen recommended reopening Bangkok's older, smaller Don Muang airport to domestic-bound flights to ease congestion at Suvarnabhumi at least while the new airport undergoes repairs. The government is expected to approve the move next week.

Don Muang was shuttered to make way for Suvarnabhumi, which bills itself as the world's biggest single terminal airport. Its name means "Golden Land," and it is the gateway for millions of tourists lured to Thailand every year by the country's splendid white sand beaches.

While authorities insist the problems at Suvarnabhumi pose no safety threat, the timing couldn't be worse for Thailand. The country is still struggling to recover from months of anti-government protests that culminated in the military coup and deadly bombings in Bangkok on New Year's Eve.

The AOT board has found 61 glitches, problems and design flaws that need to be repaired at an estimated cost of $45 million. The airport authority hopes to fix the problems within six months and sees no need to close the airport during repairs.

But Thira, the transport minister, admitted last week that "some airlines have concerns" about the airport's safety.

The most urgent problem is cracks on the tarmac. Airport authorities have said more than 100 fissures have been detected in taxiways leading to Suvarnabhumi's two runways. As a result, planes are unable to use 11 out of 51 air bridges for boarding aircraft, causing inconvenience to passengers who are shuttled by bus to and from their planes.

Then there's a shortage of toilets. Passengers have complained so much about dirty bathrooms, authorities plan to spend $1.2 million to build 200 new toilets through the giant terminal.

Bathrooms are also being redesigned for the handicapped, whose needs were widely overlooked, AOT's Yodiam said.

Problems with the baggage-handling system and computerized check-in services have led to lost luggage and long lines for passengers.

Signs in many areas are confusing or nonexistent. The air conditioning and revolving doors don't always work, and over the weekend a pipe burst in an upper-level bathroom, causing leaks that damaged luggage on a lower level.

Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation decided Friday to hold off on renewing the airport's international safety certificate, known as its Aerodrome Certificate. The airport can continue to operate without the license - Don Muang airport never had one - but the announcement was another setback for the airport.

Some said Suvarnabhumi was doomed from the start. The airport was built on a wetlands, known as "Cobra Swamp," a name deemed by some as inauspicious. Indeed the cracks are believed to stem from underground water seeping through the asphalt and cement.

More than 40 years in the making, the airport was dogged by corruption allegations throughout its planning and building.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose administration handed out most of the airport's building contracts, is widely accused of crafting policies to enrich himself and his cronies.

He was ousted in a coup just days before Suvarnabhumi opened Sept. 28 and replaced by a military-installed government that has opened several corruption investigations into the airport.

"You're beginning to see the evidence of Thaksin's wrongdoing in this," Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram told a gathering of foreign journalists Monday.

Newspapers columnists have filled their pages with renewed accusations that Thaksin rushed the airport through despite warnings that it wasn't ready for business.


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