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Fri, February 9, 2007 : Last updated 20:04 pm (Thai local time)

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Home > Politics > Doubts over Quick decision on airport by 'Old Ginger'

Doubts over Quick decision on airport by 'Old Ginger'

Too many questions left unanswered about reopening of Don Muang in 45 days

Moving slowly and with senior members, the Surayud government earned the tag "Old Ginger". Going by its nickname, many were convinced that it would be toothless. But four months have passed and now it is showing that ginger, regardless of age, can be spicy hot, particularly when the issue involves Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi airports.

The Cabinet's resolution on February 6 to reopen Don Muang amazed many with how quickly the government could act.

The decision came amid the slow pace of the Assets Examination Committee in taking action against ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his associates for alleged corruption and his government's mishandling of several domestic issues, particularly the violence in the South.

However, the quick decision was announced without any supporting plans, indicating a possibility that it had a hidden agenda.

After first announcing the plan to reopen Don Muang for domestic flights only, the government then decided to open it for international flights as well.

Don Muang will need duty-free and commercial shops to serve travellers, as well as ground services and transport services. To provide all these, Airports of Thailand (AOT) needs to tender contracts, and it is questionable whether the bidding for these can be wrapped up in the 45 days set for Don Muang's reopening.

AOT has no details of which airlines will be allowed to return to Don Muang and how it will operate two airports simultaneously. Making matters worse, an executive of the company said on Wednesday that if Suvarnabhumi were to be partially closed for repairs, it would be capable of handling only 40 flights an hour. Then, some flights would be compelled to move to Don Muang.

Still, all changes entail a cost, let alone the costs of AOT in preparing Don Muang for reopening.

AOT is scheduled to submit its detailed plan to the Transport Ministry next week, but it is not sure if the plan will address all these issues.

While the preparation plan for Don Muang remains murky, what is more unclear is how the government will handle Suvarnabhumi Airport.

To date, the government still lets government agencies issue conflicting reports on the problems at the airport. Worst of all was the comment from Bannavit Kengrien, chairman of the National Legislative Assembly's committee inspecting problems at Suvarnabhumi, that the airport should be shut down entirely to allow runway repairs.

Amid all these pessimistic views about Suvarnabhumi, Surayud remained silent. The matter was left to Transport Minister Theera Haocharoen, while the premier went on a tour to lecture on the definition of a sufficiency economy.

However, Theera, a Navy officer, cannot be considered an expert on aviation. In fact, he created part of the confusion at the start. It took him over two months after taking office to visit Suvarnabhumi and see the problems with his own eyes.

A committee was formed to handle the damage. But rather than appointing someone from a neutral institution to convince the public that the damage was genuine - not a ploy to sabotage Thaksin's credibility - Theera named Tortrakul Yomnak as the committee chairman.

It is well known that Tortrakul is very much in the anti-Thaksin camp. Tortrakul himself was among the first to complain about the damage at the airport. If Tortrakul's information was reliable, then there was no need to waste the public's time by forming a committee. The question is whether Tortrakul's information can be substantiated. We should find out today, when he is scheduled to reveal his committee's findings.

It will also be interesting to see what the government does once the findings are released. Certainly, a detailed repair schedule is necessary, outlining the effect on airlines and the transportation of passengers and cargo.

Would it be too much to also ask the government for estimates of how much this will affect our economy?

It would also be beneficial to assign AOT to interview airlines, passengers and others involved for their reactions.

The hardest question of all is: if the repairs are to take a year, what will then happen to Don Muang? The government has so far refrained from commenting on whether its reopening will be permanent or temporary, but it seems so permanent.

All this points in one direction: the government was so hasty in making the decision to reopen Don Muang that many are becoming convinced that it is under pressure from the military to smoothen benefit-sharing between the Royal Thai Army and the Royal Thai Air Force.

It looks certain that the ginger will remain hot - even after the dissolution of the Council for National Security.

Sadly, the government has not settled the Suvarnabhumi scandals so as to revive Thailand's tarnished image, and it further compromised the country's bid to become an aviation hub by pulling open the doors to Don Muang.

Achara Deboonme

The Nation

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