Travel chaos: Bangkok airport ordered to get its act together
Airport officials are working to solve issues of overcrowding and painfully long immigration lines that are causing many passengers to miss flights at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
Immigration troubles have been acute for nearly a month according to various reports, with some travelers complaining of wait times of more than two hours at both departure and arrival immigration checkpoints last week.
Depending on the time of day, international fliers either breeze through or get stuck in travel gridlock.
"Allow plenty of time to go through passport control," advised traveler J Cullen of the United Kingdom on Skytrax's Airlinequality.com on Wednesday. "It took us a very uncomfortable [and squashed] hour to get through a queue of only 20 meters."
In response to the overcrowding and insufferable lines, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra says she wants all budget carriers to move to Bangkok’s secondary Don Muang airport to ease congestion at Suvarnabhumi.
According to state-run media conglomerate MCOT, beginning April 11, four automatic gates will be introduced at Suvarnabhumi that will scan Thai passports and help ease congestion. It also stated on Wednesday that additional staff have been added to man immigration booths at 80 to 90 percent of capacity, up from the previous 50 to 60 percent.
Weighing in on the issue, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said the airport urgently needs to get its act together.
“Bangkok is one of the main aviation hubs in the region –- alongside Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore -- and it needs to keep building a strong hub,” IATA spokesperson Albert Tjoeng told CNNGo.
"In the short term, Don Muang is fulfilling a vital role with relieving capacity. In the long term, that means focusing on one airport, not two."
Don Muang, Bangkok's former international airport, reopened earlier this month after being closed following last year's floods.
So far, the only airline to return to Don Muang is Nok Air, a domestic budget airline. Orient Thai, which was also forced to relocate due to the floods, is still operating out of Suvarnabhumi.
AirAsia, which was already operating out of Suvarnabhumi before Don Muang's forced closure, isn't rushing to the secondary airport either, despite the government's call for all low-cost airlines to move.
“AirAsia will have to take many factors into consideration," says Tassapon Bijleveld, CEO of Thai AirAsia. "We are currently looking into the pros and cons of moving to Don Muang Airport, including the conveniences and connectivity offered to passengers who will depart and arrive in Don Muang."
Passengers told to arrive extra early
Last Friday, Bangkok Airways issued a statement advising passengers traveling on international routes to show up at least three hours before scheduled departure times in order to avoid missing flights due to the long waits at Suvaranbhumi's immigration checkpoints.
Despite reports that lines had eased this week thanks to additional staff being brought in to manage crowds during peak travel times, the reality is Suvarnabhumi Airport, which opened in 2006, was built to handle only 45 million passengers a year.
Yet it will handle 51 million throughput passengers this year, up from 47.2 million last year, according to the Bangkok Post. Expansion of the airport is still at least five years away.
"The government needs to urgently look at expansion projects for Suvarnabhumi Airport," says Tjoeng.
"This must all be done in full consultation with the airline users to ensure that costs and design are in line with the needs of airlines. A single hub airport would make it more convenient for passengers –- it is not practical for passengers to transfer between two airports for their connections."
Don Muang is about 40 kilometers away from Suvarnabhumi, meaning transfer passengers would have to take a bus or taxi and run the risk of getting stuck in Bangkok's notorious traffic.
Rather than simply use Don Muang to fix the problem, Bert van Walbeek, chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association's Thailand chapter, says the challenge is to operate Suvarnabhumi like a team.
"It’s a whole chain. If one link breaks, the whole chain is weak," he says. "We hope officials stop blaming each other and start finding solutions. Unfortunately, not all problems can be solved with money. The biggest problem is inconsistency. You never know how long it’s going to take to get through immigration.
"Everybody should start working together and stop reinventing the wheel. If they can do it in Hong Kong and Singapore, which have similar flight arrival patterns, why can’t they do it here?" asks van Walbeek.
Attempts by CNNGo to contact Airports of Thailand, which manages Suvarnabhumi, were unsuccessful.
Suvarnabhumi's string of bad luck
This isn't the first time Suvarnabhumi has dealt with bad press.
Since opening in 2006, the international airport has suffered a range of problems -- from the yellow shirt protest airport occupation and alleged duty-free scams to the highly criticized airport rail link.
"We all hope this [immigration and long line issues] will blow over very fast," say van Walbeek. "It's another one of those things that seems to happen in Thailand on a regular basis, and not only in tourism."
Searching for optimism, van Walbeek says the long-term damage is likely to be minimal.
"If people are standing in line two hours, what can they do but SMS and Twitter what’s happening?" says van Walbeek. "On the other hand, it’s a nice story in the pub to tell. Like a great fish tale, the two hours will turn into five."
"Up to a certain extent it will be damaging, but I don’t think people will not come to Thailand because of challenges at the airport.”
Have you flown through Suvarnabhumi Airport lately? Share your experiences in the comments box below.