Opening Day Glitches Agitate Passengers at Bangkok's New Airport

People waited hours for their luggage and suffered a chaotic taxi queue, but overall, Bangkok's sleek new international airport officially opened Thursday with relatively minor glitches - despite the coup last week that ousted its chief advocate Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Flights to Bangkok stopped landing at the old, overcrowded Don Muang airport after midnight Wednesday. The full transfer of hundreds of passenger flights to the airy, expansive Suvarnabhumi Airport was completed at 3 a.m. Thursday (2000 GMT Wednesday), more than four decades after the project was originally conceived in 1960.

Built on an area aptly known as Cobra Swamp, the construction of Suvarnabhumi (pronounced "sue-wanna-poom") was blighted by everything from corruption scandals and a deadly fire to the military coup that deposed Thaksin on Sept. 19.

Thaksin, who turned up the pressure to complete the US$3.8 billion (euro3 billion) airport - built in four and a half years, all during his time in office - heralded Suvarnabhumi as one of his administration's crowning achievements.

Surprisingly, the coup had no impact on the airport transition, which went relatively smoothly, aside from computers briefly crashing at check-in counters and long delays at baggage carousels.

Airport staff said heavy rain delayed the overnight transfer of baggage lorries from the old airport, slowing the movement of luggage from the aircraft to arriving passengers. Frank Weiand, a 44-year-old German living in Bangkok, said he waited an hour and a half.

"I got all my luggage back anyway," Weiand said with a smile of relief as he braved the chaotic taxi queue.

Local media reported some passengers waiting as long as 4 hours for their bags, and Thai Airways issued an apology to passengers Thursday evening "for any inconvenience caused as a result of delay baggage arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport." It added Thai would ensure that every baggage is delivered to the passengers' residential addresses as soon as possible.

Thai Airways also suffered computer problems and check-in staff had to temporarily issue boarding passes and luggage tags by hand for domestic and international flights, Thai Airways said on condition of anonymity, citing company policy. The problem was fixed after about 15 minutes.

Furthermore, several flights to Manila were canceled because of a typhoon.

"My flight is also delayed by an hour and a half," said Therdsak Leokprasirtkul, a well-traveled Thai businessman en route to Hong Kong. "The place is nice, but the service is a bit slow."

Other people complained about a lack of seating in the check-in hall, and not enough toilets.

"The bathroom is too small. We had to queue," said Alex Chia, 43, a tourist flying home to Malaysia. "There was no liquid soap, no hand dryer - or I didn't see it.

Several motorists were confused by the looping roads around the airport and ended up making long, unnecessary tours of the grounds. Traffic was jammed and trickling slowly on some routes, turning the normal half-hour ride to Bangkok into an hour or so-long trip.

Nonetheless, many were wowed by the chic architecture and surprised by how little went wrong considering the enormity of the move.

"For the first day, it's pretty good. I thought there would be a lot more confusion," said Stephen Gordon, a 54-year-old car mechanic from Queensland, Australia, who said he was impressed by the modern, airy design of the new airport but missed the cramped, chaotic feel of Don Muang.

"The old airport had character - as soon as you landed, it felt like you were in Thailand," said Gordon, as he waited with his wife and daughter to board a flight to the resort island of Phuket. "Here, you could be flying into anywhere. This could be Sweden."

Designed by Helmut Jahn of Chicago-based architecture firm Murphy/Jahn, Suvarnabhumi is constructed of steel, concrete and lots of glass that lets in natural light while keeping out the tropical heat. The oval-shaped concourse corridors are roofed by glass and white fabric panels.

Suvarnabhumi - a name conferred by the Thai king which means "Golden Land" - lies a little over 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) east of Bangkok in a 563,000-square-meter (6 million-square-foot) H-shaped building.

The new airport is capable of handling 76 flights per hour and 45 million passengers per year.

The military assigned 800 troops to the airport for 90 days to support the transfer and help with troubleshooting. Several army canine units were deployed at the passenger terminal to inspect suspicious packages.

A 28-kilometer (17-mile) rail link under construction will connect the airport with mass transit trains in central Bangkok and is scheduled for completion in November 2007.

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