Email This  Print This 


NEW AIRPORT Twenty smooth flights, but . . .

BackJul 30, 2006

By The Nation

Doubts remain over readiness to cope with heavy traffic by Sept 28

Despite the smooth landings and take-offs of the first domestic commercial flights at Suvarnabhumi Airport yesterday, critics and airline executives remain sceptical about its readiness to handle heavy traffic when it opens for full operation in September.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a grouping of 250 international airlines, protested that the opening date - September 28 - had been arrived at by a one-sided decision made by Airports of Thailand Plc (AOT). IATA says it has never been consulted about the date.

"Conducting test flights is a normal process for [a] new airport opening," said Albert Tjoeng, IATA manager of corporate communications, in a telephone interview from Singapore after the completion of yesterday's test fights.

"Test flights only exhibit the integrity of the procedures. It does not say anything about the airport's readiness to handle heavy traffic.

"And it is equally important that AOT engages all stakeholders, including airlines, in consultations to set a mutually agreed go or no-go decision for the opening date of the airport," Tjoeng said.

"There have been no consultations to set a mutually agreed date," he said.

Suvarnabhumi handled about 20 domestic flights yesterday, but when it is fully open more than 500 domestic and international flights are expected to fly in and out of it daily.

Democrat Party executive Kiati Sithiamorn, who has monitored the airport's construction, yesterday voiced concerns about its readiness.

The only way to prepare the airport to handle problems that may occur during peak times is through detailed and comprehensive testing, he said.

"A few test flights today mean so little when it comes to evaluating the airport's readiness," Kiati said.

"The only purpose this fanfare event served was a public-relations exercise for political purposes.

"This is very worrying, when marketing is used to cover problems that may affect the safety of people," he added.

Somchai Sawasdeepon, general manager of Suvarnabhumi Airport, said all new airports risked system break downs, especially the information technology (IT) system that links all facets of the facility, but Suvarnabhumi had prepared several measures for a back-up system.

"We have two more months to test and work out things in detail," Somchai added. "But today [yesterday's test flights] is testimony that our officials are working in full spirit. We will have a meeting on Monday to evaluate the results of the test."

Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) on Wednesday issued an interim aerodrome certificate to the AOT stating that the physical structure of the airport was satisfactory. However, a senior DCA official told The Nation that the AOT should spend much more time testing the airport's readiness, especially the IT system that links the entire operational system.

"Hong Kong airport comprehensively tested their system for an entire year, but still ran into problems when it opened [in 1998]," said the official, who asked not to be named.

"Suvarnabhumi just started testing the system for a few months. I think we need to spend a much longer time to carry out the tests. We should open the airport when it is really ready," the official said.

When the new Hong Kong International Airport opened for commercial operation in 1998 it encountered failures in both its cargo and gate systems. Perishable goods expired and the image of the airport was tarnished.

The new Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which opened the same year, faced problems in its baggage-handling system.

IATA described the mistakes as "a costly and embarrassing experience for Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur".

After the problematic opening of the airports in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, Tjoeng said IATA developed a "New Airport Checklist" as a comprehensive guide detailing which systems and procedures should be verified prior to an airport's opening.

"We were hoping that the AOT could use the checklist as the basis for frank and open discussions to update the airlines on the readiness of Suvarnabhumi," Tjoeng said.

"We have not had enough such discussions yet."

Nantiya Tangwisutijit

The Nation