Two decades ago, airports were perceived purely as transportation infrastructure.
Not anymore, now they're business opportunities as much as anything else, as Airports of Thailand (AoT) president Nitinai Sirismatthakarn knows only too well.
AoT, the listed state agency which oversees major national airports, is experiencing a boom in earnings driven by huge government investment in transport infrastructure.
Last year, its profits were 25 billion baht, double those of 2014. In fact, AoT has been praised as one of the best-performing stocks in Asia.
A bullish aviation industry, the proliferation of low-cost airlines and thriving tourism industry are the driving factors, but Mr Nitinai has also been credited with being a key factor behind AoT's impressive growth.
Mr Nitinai told the Bangkok Post in an exclusive interview that the recent boom is only the beginning.
"The aviation and travel industries show no sign of abating. They will only keep increasing [in profitability] over the next five years," he said.
Last year, 140 million travellers passed through AoT's five airports, compared to 87 million in 2014.
"But profits are not the only marker of success for AoT. We need to pay heed to the quality of our services too," he said.
Mr Nitinai does not have a background in aviation or the service sector. He trained as an economist and has previously worked for both the ministry of finance and the United Nations Development Programme.
In his view, services are not just fixed rigid steps of actions to serve and impress people. "Service is a transformable act. It can be developed and adjusted to suit changing environments in order to cope with demand and make customers happier," he said.
For him, service at AoT airports does not stop at just good hospitality. "Airport services," he said, "must make use of digital innovation, to serve travellers and customers better."
For instance, AoT will launch its own smartphone application this August.
The mobile app, he said, will help travellers avoid confusion at airports, better manage their flight schedules and give them more time enjoy shopping and dining while waiting to board their flights.
"Passengers can check information like their flights and check-in counters in real time and let a 'smart map' lead them precisely to various zones in a terminal," he said.
Travellers can even consult the application on local traffic conditions to help them avoid delays on their way to the airport, Mr Nitinai added.
The app is just one of the elements of the "Anachak Digital AoT" (Digital Kingdom of AoT) project.
In the future, he said, the AoT will also have its own digital currency for use within its airports, and the application will record what they buy and give them AoT points to spend -- similar credit cards' loyalty programmes.
While travellers will enjoy convenience and privileges, AoT will be able to harvest data and consumption behaviours to create big data to sell to tourism-related businesses, like Agoda and Wongnai.
"In the future, our revenues will not only come from the real world. We'll be making money virtually too," Mr Nitinai envisaged.
But this does not mean the AoT will stop developing its physical facilities.
It is pushing ahead with its "Airport City" at the Suvarnabhumi airport, a 10-billion-baht mega-project of commercial areas covering more than 1,600 rai.
"The project is so attractive that up to 40 investors have already contacted AoT asking to invest," Mr Nitinai said.
Mr Nitinai was promoted as AoT president five years ago by the military government and is full of praise for the political stability since then.
"In terms of work style, I see myself as a sedan passenger car that can work well only on a level road. But when you travel on rough terrain, you need a tough SUV car which I think other executives are better at," said Mr Nitinai who admits he lacks the skills of a strong lobbyist.
But no matter what the future holds, Mr Nitinai, whose contract will expire in 2022, said he will focus on making AoT stronger and sustainable.
"If AoT fails in future, I will have to take a share of the responsibility. So, I'm I'm determined to make sure that doesn't happen," he said.
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