At first sight, Bangkok's new airport looks impressive enough. To the thousands of tourists who land here every day, the modern glass and steel terminal building, shimmering in the heat, appears every bit the symbol of modern Thailand it was intended to be.
Look closer, though, and you'll see the workers racing to fill the numerous cracks that have appeared on the runways and taxiways just four months after it was opened and hailed as the Pride of Thailand. It's now impossible to use 11 of 51 air bridges, and the Thai government said this week that at least some flights will be shifted back to the old airport, while the runways are patched up.
Last weekend Thai aviation authorities refused to extend an international safety certificate for the problem-plagued facility. The airport's general manager said it had yet to set up a safety committee because they were "too busy resolving other problems."
Fast becoming a fiasco
And those problems are enormous, ranging from a leaking roof and pipes to not enough toilets and a tiny, congested arrival area. The airport, called Subarnabhumi (Golden Land), is already running close to capacity. Engineers are trying to figure out whether the runway cracks are minor or reflect a more serious structural problem that might threaten safety and result in the temporary closure of the airport.
Worried airlines have been told not to land on damaged parts of the runway. Last week flights were disrupted – some diverted to U-Tapao, the former Vietnam War airfield, while emergency repairs were carried out. Pilots have complained to local newspapers about their safety fears.
The $3.7 billion airport was supposed to turn Thailand into a regional aviation hub, but is fast becoming a fiasco. The shoddy workmanship is being blamed on massive graft. The new military-installed government says its construction was riddled with corruption; one investigator claims it's hard to find a contract that wasn't improperly negotiated.
That neatly allows blame to be placed at the feet of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who embraced the project and pushed for it to open early in the face of opposition from airlines who complained last year that the airport wasn't ready.
In fact, plans for the airport go back four decades, as do warnings that its location, 13 miles from the city, on a piece of marshland once known as "cobra swamp," wasn't wise. There've been accusations of graft ever since its inception.
The current government's decision to come clean on all these problems appears to be part political, since it is struggling to build a corruption case against Thaksin, and massive corruption was one of the reasons cited for his removal in the coup last September. .
That said, the problems are very real. Some 45 million people – many of them tourists – fly in and out of Bangkok every year. Travelers seem certain to face disruption in the months ahead, and they – and the airlines – are looking for urgent assurances about safety at Suvarnabhumi.