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Thailand's New International Airport Is Off to a Rocky Start

The taxiways are cracked, the terminal has leaks and some airlines even wonder whether it's safe to fly into Thailand's new international airport.

Bangkok's sleek and modern Suvarnabhumi Airport, which opened to great fanfare in September, was supposed to transform the Thai capital into Southeast Asia's leading air hub. To say it's had a rocky start would be an understatement.

Critics at home have derided the new airport as a national embarrassment and a monument to the alleged corruption of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, whose administration handed out most of the airport's building contracts, was ousted in a coup just days before Suvarnabhumi opened Sept. 28.

"There is so much bad news about this airport -- and so much that needs to be fixed," said Yodiam Teptaranon, a board member of Airports of Thailand, or AOT, the national airport authority. "Everything seems to be happening all at once. It makes everyone concerned."

Transport Minister Thira Haocharoen recommended on Monday that Bangkok's old and now shuttered Don Muang airport be reopened for domestic flights that do not connect to international routes. The reopening, which is expected to get Cabinet approval next week, would help ease congestion while repairs are made at Suvarnabhumi and could be permanent, he said.

All told, there are 61 glitches, problems and design flaws that need to be repaired at an estimated cost of 1.5 billion baht (US$45 million), according to a study conducted by the board of AOT, which hopes to fix the problems within six months and sees no need to close the airport during repairs.

The most urgent problem is cracks on the tarmac. Early last week, airport authorities said that more than 100 cracks were detected in taxiways leading to Suvarnabhumi's two runways. The cracks first emerged about two weeks after the airport opened and have spread to 25 separate locations, said Somchai Sawasdeepon, the airport's general manager.

As a result, planes are unable to use 11 out of 51 air bridges for boarding aircraft, causing inconvenience to passengers who are shuttled by bus to and from their planes.

Thira, the transport minister, admitted last week that "some airlines have concerns" about the airport's safety.

While authorities insist the problems at Suvarnabhumi pose no threat to safety, the timing couldn't be worse for Thailand. The country is struggling to buffer its tourism industry from a spate of recent bad publicity, including months of anti-government protests that culminated in the military coup and deadly bombings in Bangkok on New Year's Eve.

Suvarnabhumi is the gateway for millions of tourists who flock to Thailand every year for its white-sand beaches. So far, tour agencies say they've seen no fallout and officials report that despite last year's political instability Thailand recorded its highest number of tourists ever -- 13.8 million, up nearly 20 percent from 2005.

But cracks at the airport could be more of a turnoff.

"It will be terribly worrying for foreigners," Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Pornsiri Manoharn was recently quoted as saying by local media. "They could withdraw their travel plans immediately."

Other problems include a shortage of toilets for passengers, which drew initial outcries about dirty bathrooms and prompted authorities to earmark 40 million baht ($1.2 million) to build 200 new toilets throughout Suvarnabhumi, which bills itself as the world's biggest single terminal airport.

Bathrooms are also being redesigned for the handicapped, whose needs were widely overlooked across the airport, AOT's Yodiam said.

Problems with the baggage-handling system and computerized check-in services have led to lost luggage and long lines for passengers.

Signs in many areas are confusing or nonexistent. The air conditioning and revolving doors don't always work and over the weekend a pipe burst in an upper level bathroom, causing leaks that damaged luggage on a lower level.

Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation decided Friday to hold off on renewing the airport's international safety certificate, known as its Aerodrome Certificate, because needed repairs to taxiways were not yet finished. The airport can continue to operate without the license -- Bangkok's old Don Muang airport never had one -- but the announcement delivered yet another image blow.

Suvarnabhumi is no stranger to bad publicity, and some said it was doomed from the start. The airport was built on a wetlands, known as "Cobra Swamp," a name deemed by some to be inauspicious. Indeed, the cracks in taxiways are believed to stem from underground water seeping through the asphalt and cement.

The facility took more than 40 years to finish, after first being conceived in the 1960s, and was dogged by corruption allegations throughout its planning and building -- which finally picked up pace during the Thaksin administration.

The military-installed government that ousted Thaksin has opened several corruption investigations into the airport.

Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram said Suvarnabhumi could be seen as a metaphor for the widespread corruption of Thaksin's regime. The tycoon-turned-politician was widely accused of crafting policies to enrich himself and his cronies. "You're beginning to see the evidence of Thaksin's wrongdoing in this -- our mother of all airports," he told a gathering of foreign journalists Monday.

Newspapers columnists have filled their pages with renewed accusations that Thaksin rushed the airport through despite warnings that it wasn't ready for business.

Thaksin "wanted the new airport to become a hallmark of his government's success," Thanong Khanthong, a senior editor of The Nation newspaper, wrote in a recent column. "Now that Thaksin has gone, all the dirty tricks that occurred while the airport was built have become evident."