Sunday, September 16, 2007

Bangkok's new airport weathers harsh criticism

Home-truth time for Suvarnabhumi

Published on September 17, 2007

Iata and others offer harsh words of advice to airport's operators

Aviation experts evaluating Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport after one year of operation have said the airport is losing competitiveness due to high charges while still being poor in public services.

They urge authorities to add more capacity, either through a mid-field terminal or a low-cost terminal.

International and local aviation associations as well as airport users were asked to comment on the airport, which will mark its first anniversary of operation on September 28.

According to Albert Tjoeng, International Air Transport Association (Iata) manager of corporate communications for Asia Pacific, general operations at Suvarnabhumi are better than when it opened.

He said signposting had improved and there were more toilets but there was still work to be done before Suvarnabhumi could be a world-class airport ranking among the top 20 airports in the Airports Council International's survey.

These include more signs, redesigning the retail area, installing more toilets and adding more capacity, either through a mid-field terminal or a low-cost terminal.

Tjoeng said Airports of Thailand (AOT) should quickly rectify the remaining deficiencies as well as addressing the outstanding problems identified during the operations and security audits conducted in April this year.

AOT has reassured Iata that it is addressing these findings in consultation with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao).

Regarding the airport's competitiveness, Iata was critical of the unilateral 15-per-cent increase in landing/parking charges, along with increases in other airport charges in April. The concession fees levied by AOT on ground-handling companies are being passed on to airlines.

The total turnaround costs at Bangkok are higher than at Kuala Lumpur or Singapore for various aircraft types, so airlines pay more than at Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and yet get worse service.

Moving forward, AOT needs to establish an effective consultation process with Iata and the airlines to reach a long-term charges agreement to be in line with international best practices, Tjoeng said, and AOT needs to take steps to improve cost efficiency to ensure that its own expenses and investments are cost efficient.

Productivity improvements, lack of wasteful investment and optimal procurement policies are important to keep costs to a minimum: "Airlines should not be burdened with additional costs due to poor planning, compensation issues, repair costs arising from defects at the airport, duplicated services as a result of operating two airports, and the other mistakes of AOT," he added.

Iata is also opposed to AOT's suggestion of a noise charge on passengers and airlines. Airlines and their passengers cannot be made responsible for measures aimed at alleviating noise when they have had little or no influence on the location of airports or on the land-use policies in the vicinity of an airport.

The charge would increase the cost of operations without addressing the core issue, he noted, suggesting instead that AOT fund any compensation from its own finances.

Icao's balanced approach should also be adopted by having an effective land-use policy, reducing noise at source, and implementing noise-abatement air-traffic-control procedures, he said.

Tjoeng also commented on the use of two airports, saying Iata continued to advocate a single airport as the preferred long-term solution if Bangkok was to be a strong aviation hub in the region. "Having two airports splits the passengers, airlines and AOT's resources and leads to lower cost-efficiency and inconvenience for passengers."

Hence AOT should urgently inject additional capacity at Suvarnabhumi by building either a mid-field terminal or a low-cost terminal. If the decision is to operate two airports, then it is critical that there be a level playing field for all airlines. "All carriers should be given the choice of where they wish to operate from. Airport charges should be transparent and accurately allocated, and there should not be any cross-subsidisation between the two airports."

Brian Sinclair Thompson of the Board of Airline Representatives at Thailand said newly opened airports generally had many problems.

Yet he noted that Suvarnabhumi Airport's capacity was already full, so that airline operators were urging the government to develop a third terminal in order to meet higher demand.

"The airlines want to see further investment at the airport next year when the new government is established," said Thomson, adding that AOT itself needed to solve internal problems, especially the search for a new leader.

Thomson also said Bangkok should have a single airport, Suvarnabhumi, and must attract users with low charges.

"AOT is focusing on increasing revenue, unlike many busy airports such as London's Heathrow, which receives charges worth 15 per cent of total revenue," he said.

Yongyut Lujintanon, Cathay Pacific sales and marketing manager for Thailand and Burma, said the overall operation had improved, particularly in infrastructure, while people working at the airport were now familiar with the new place.

The airport's vision of being an aviation hub was still unclear, he said, though in spite of poor policy, many airlines were waiting to broaden their network or add flights into Thailand.

Suchat Sritama

The Nation

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