Airport needs long-term fix

September 12, 2009 by  
Filed under Local News & Event

It is encouraging that the Airports of Thailand Plc has shown willingness to put its money where its mouth is.

The war it is waging on unlicensed taxi drivers, tour guides, touts and other shady operators at Suvarnabhumi Airport was originally expected to last a month. Instead, it is now entering its seventh week after netting over 1,200 illegal drivers and tour guides and exceeding the time frame allotted for similar crackdowns in the past.

Now the airport authorities have set aside another 15 million baht to finance continued efforts by police, security personnel, Land Transport Department officials and airport staff who say they will work around the clock until the clean-up is complete. Clearly they are serious about this, but the key question of what happens when funds do eventually run out and the crackdown tapers off remains unanswered. If recent history is any guide, the unlicensed black-plate taxis and illegal tour guides will return as soon as the pressure is off. That is what happened in 2007 when police mounted a 15-day blitz against them. On their return the gangs even blockaded the airport for several hours in a show of force. This demonstrates how essential it is that a campaign be sustained for as long as it takes to eradicate the problem, even if it means a dedicated task force has to be established to patrol the airport for years, or even throughout its lifetime if it becomes necessary. For this reason the proposal to set up an independent police station within the airport grounds is an extreme step but a welcome one. Short-term measures will not solve this problem. The debacle a couple of years ago was entirely predictable given the misguided optimism displayed by police that the unlicensed black-plate taxis, ticket brokers and illegal tour guides could all be driven out for good in such a short space of time. After all, decades had been devoted, with little success, to attempts to eliminate similar problems at the old international terminal at Don Mueang, but these efforts were constantly thwarted by “men in uniform” and other influential figures. First-time tourists and businessmen, tired after a long flight and confronted with unfamiliar surroundings and a strange currency, are an exposed target and not difficult to cheat, fleece or overcharge. Since first impressions are the ones that stick in the mind, such despicable activity gives an appalling image of the country they are visiting. Airport gangs do not care about this, nor do they care whether the tourist family they have just exploited ever comes back. That is why they must be stopped before they do any further damage. If a 1,000-baht fine is an insufficient deterrent then increase it substantially and start impounding illegal vehicles, towing them away if necessary. Keep up the pressure and tighten security. With all the new cameras being installed, it should not be difficult to keep tabs on touts or baggage handlers acting suspiciously, and direct a security team to investigate. Other airports have had similar problems and overcome them, with perhaps Manila being the most recent example. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is a driving force behind the move to clean up the airport and has made tourism promotion an important policy goal. If, despite all these measures, precautions and expenditure, those preying on tourists return and appear to be operating with impunity, then the airport management itself must come under scrutiny on suspicion of collusion. If that happens, the prime minister has the authority to do what is necessary. He has already made it clear he has the resolve.

Published: 12/09/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
Bangkok Post

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