Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bangkok airport's making porgress to fix problems

Smooth landing in sight

Suvarnabhumi Airport is slowly resolving problems that have rankled passengers and airlines alike

BOONSONG KOSITCHOTETHANA

It will be one year next month since the premature opening of Suvarnabhumi Airport amid a host of problems including widespread corruption, construction defects, mismanagement and service deficiencies.

Have the flaws, which have given the 155-billion-baht airport a bad name internationally rather than being the "pride of Thailand," been fixed over the past 11 months?

A fair answer is that the facility's drawbacks, which have irked travellers and those whose work revolves around the airport, are getting fixed, albeit slowly.

But the good news is that fixing problems at Bangkok's new international airport is receiving greater attention from Airports of Thailand Plc (AoT), the 70% state-owned monopoly that runs the kingdom's six major airports.

AoT now seems to be more focused on correcting the airport's shortcomings, rather than devoting all of its effort to dealing with corruption cases related to airport construction and equipment-supplying contracts, concession deals and others.

However, Serirat Prasutanond, the general manager of Suvarnabhumi Airport, insisted in an interview with the Bangkok Post that the airport officials were doing their best to resolve problems.

Furthermore, AoT is even challenging itself in a very ambitious plan to gain a top ranking in the global chart as one of the world's favourite airports in the next two years.

"Our aim is to become one of the top 10 best airports in the world in the annual rating by the Airports Council International (ACI) in 2009 and move further up in the ladder in the following years," said Mr Serirat.

Suvarnabhumi is now 40th in the ranking of ACI, the Geneva-based organisation representing 1,643 airports in 178 countries and territories.

In March it named South Korea's Incheon International the "Best Airport Worldwide for 2006", followed by Hong Kong International Airport, Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Singapore Changi Airport, respectively.

These are the airports that have strived to give what travellers want, by offering a good airport ambience, a sense of security, clean terminals, friendly and courteous staff and comfortable waiting areas, to name just a few factors.

Showing its intention to resolve service deficiencies at Suvarnabhumi, AoT has commissioned ACI to conduct a series of passenger surveys on service quality and what really needs to be done to satisfy travellers.

The 900,000-baht survey will involve 700 questionnaires in the first quarter of the study, with a final report due in the next 18 months.

AoT has already spent about 600 million baht fixing problems at Suvarnabhumi and another 500-million-baht budget is on its way to address unresolved issues.

"If that is not enough we can always ask for more, as AoT is really serious about solving pending problems," Mr Serirat said.

AoT's current mission is geared toward completely eliminating passenger-service deficiencies at Suvarnabhumi by the end of this year.

"With several improvements underway, Suvarnabhumi would be able to offer the speedy, connivent and safe services to passengers by the end of this year," he said.

According to Mr Serirat, one of the most irritating issues, the shortage of toilets, is being cleared, with facilities capable of accommodating 208 more people being added to the existing ones that are capable of serving 1,464 people at any one time.

New toilets come with a better design, materials and equipment that are easier to locate with bigger signs.

Some of the existing restrooms, while functiong well but looking dull in shades of grey, have also been undergoing improvement.

The dim lighting issue has been tackled with the rearrangement of lighting angles and addition of reflectors and more lights in required spots.

Signage has also been improved. More than 300 additional signs have been installed in various spots such as the check-in area, ways to departure gates and fire escapes, with colour schemes in compliance with international colour-coding standards.

In the near future, Chinese characters will be added to the signs, now in Thai and English, at key spots or main junctions. Thee main direction signs, now in shades of grey on a white background, are being replaced by white characters on bright blue for more visibility.

As many as 2,000 chairs were brought from the old Don Muang airport, raising the numbers of terminal seating capacity to 20,000, thus clearing another main passenger complaint.

The recent completion of repairs to a taxiway has also enabled AoT to reopen 10 aircraft parking bays, solving one of the problems requiring embarking and disembarking passengers to be transferred by coaches from remote bays to the terminal, he added.

Next year, the airport will continue with another major campaign, to inspire service mind in those responsible for running Suvarnabhumi, including 2,900 AoT staff and more than 6,700 contractors' employees.

Mr Serirat also regconised the need to remove the authoritarian and monopolistic attitude among airport personnel, including immigration and customs officers, and replace it with a mindset that is more passenger-friendly.

Plans are afoot to draw up a best-practices reference that all parties dealing with passenger services will be committed to observe.

But despite a host of problems including damage to runways and taxiways, Suvarnabhumi has not posed any safety concerns to the 90 airlines that have aircraft taking off and landing 800 times a day, involving around 120,000 passengers daily.

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