Opening Day Glitches Agitate Passengers at Bangkok's Chic 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.

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 several hours later - and more than four decades after the project was originally conceived in 1960.

The opening occurred despite the coup last week that ousted its chief advocate, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

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 $3.8 billion airport, heralded Suvarnabhumi as one of his administration's crowning achievements.

Suvarnabhumi - a name conferred by the Thai king which means "Golden Land" - lies about 20 miles east of Bangkok in a 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 coup appeared to have 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 slowed the overnight transfer of baggage lorries from the old airport. 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 delayed baggage arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport." It added that Thai would ensure that all wayward bags were delivered to passengers' residential addresses as soon as possible.

Thai Airways also suffered computer problems, so for a while, check-in staff had to issue boarding passes and luggage tags by hand for domestic and international flights. The problem was fixed after about 15 minutes, according to a Thai Airways employee who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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.

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

"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.


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