Thousands of travelers stranded in Bangkok are struggling to go out of the country. But what remains strange is the inefficiency of Thailand’s civil aviation authorities.
First, it remains a mystery to understand how the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was able to seize both Bangkok airports and succeed to immobilize aircraft on the apron. As if security in restricted areas at both airports was not fully assured.
Previous blockades in August 2008 at Phuket, Krabi and Hat Yai airports where protesters seized also airport terminals did not obviously serve as a lesson to the Airports Authority of Thailand and Thailand’s Civil Aviation bureau.
Secondly, it took another three days to the civil aviation authority and Thailand’s ministry of transport to find a solution by opening other airports to scheduled airlines. First flights took off on Friday from military airport in U-Tapao, a mere 200 km from Bangkok, in the vicinity of Pattaya. Some flights from Cathay Pacific, AirAsia, Lufthansa have already been assured out of the tiny U Tapao terminal building with hotels in Bangkok setting up check-in facilities to avoid congestion at the airport. U-Tapao used to be the US main military basis during the Vietnam war. Its 3,500 m runway can accommodate any aircraft and its apron can welcome up to 24 large aircraft.
But U Tapao is not the only one in a reasonable distance to Bangkok. So far, other airports at Nakhon Ratchasima (180 km east of Bangkok- runway of 2,100 m and four Boeing 737 aircraft stands), Khon Kaen (400 km from Bangkok, runway of 3,050 m; 3 aircraft stands for ATR and Boeing 737) or Surat Thani (550 km southeast of Bangkok; runway of 3,000 m and parking for 7 aircraft including Airbus A300). These airports could take some regional flights out of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Vietnam or Hong Kong. So far, no airline has explored this opportunity.
From Sunday, more flights started to be programmed from and to U-Tapao including 31 flights from Thai Airways, AirAsia, Austrian Airlines, Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines have programmed some flights to U-Tapao. Other carriers such as Air France/KLM or Lufthansa prefer to land now in Phuket and Philippine Airlines repatriate Filipinos out of Chiang Mai. The government has begun to move stranded passengers. A daily allowance of Bht 2,000 is given to foreign visitors for their accommodation and food and transfers organized to non-occupied airports.
Some 300,000 foreign travelers could now be blocked for another 10 days, until the situation comes back to normal. Most pessimistic tourism experts estimate yet that tourism will decline this year from 14.5 million to 13 million and could sink to a total of six or seven million foreign tourists next year.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday on December 5 could be the opportunity to finally find an issue to the kingdom’s most serious crisis in decades.