A rough landing

The media treatment of the Don Mueang immigration mess made it seem like a new and unexpected event. As in Casablanca, officials were shocked -- shocked -- to find gambolling in the arrivals hall.

Even infrequent flyers know better. No lines, no control, hours to get to passport control is normal at both Bangkok airports.

This is not remarkable. New malls open without traffic controls. New skytrain lines open without connections. Every government, including super-efficient Section 44-enhanced top-down governments of green shirts, calls for more and more and more foreigners to come on down without bigger airport arrival halls. Airports are built and opened without so much as a railroad link to get there.

The general prime minister, who seemed genuinely not to know what all the fools were fussing about, commented that people make it out of the airport on average in around five minutes.

There were two interpretations of that. The first was that everyone with four stars, sure. The second was that why, after waiting four hours in an immigration "line" (quotes badly needed), does it then take five minutes more to put an arrival stamp in a passport? Either way, thank goodness David Bowie didn't live to hear it.

The Thursday after the Friday fracas at Don Mueang, an English-language daily's front-page photo showed the mob waiting for immigration at Suvarnabhumi airport. The photographer couldn't see an immigration counter, it was so far away. Not to mention possibly unattended.

Whether at Suvarnabhumi, above, Phuket or Don Mueang airport, the view from the back of a long line is predictable, and simply the result of poor (or no) planning. (Photo provided)

In the past, airport lines have been mentioned. This time they got savaged. Common words on social media: Nightmare. National disgrace. #unprofessional. Bad management/planning.

Bangkok resident "Andrew Pickup" waited four hours for his son to emerge into the breaking dawn and wrote for an airport-review forum that the cock-up "will definitely put people off travelling through Don Mueang and probably from travelling to Thailand as well". K Patterson of Germany, in the same forum: "Don Mueang immigration is a total mess unworthy of an international airport." And that was two days before the Thursday night-Friday morning action of Arrivals Lines From Hell.

The immigration police aren't wrong about the numbers, just about the issue and their huge part in causing it.

On Friday night and early Saturday last week, Don Mueang received 36 flights, of which nine were delayed and landed in the key, unfortunate time of 10pm to midnight. (These are real numbers from the official Don Mueang logs, including details of each flight.)

There's no doubt this caused a passenger surge for the arrivals hall. Contrast the situation exactly 24 hours later, when 22 international flights landed in the same timeframe, and just four were delayed. Instead of four to five hours, passengers reported they waited 30 to 60 minutes to get their five minutes of fame before a stamp-bearing immigration policeman.

It seems then, from the logs, eyewitnesses and the press conferences of the Immigration Bureau, that the problem is both simple and unique. The simple part is there are not enough bums on immigration counter stools. The unique part is that the problem would be solved by Immigration Bureau manpower.

The stuff from Airports of Thailand about increasing the number of counters is make-work and budget-spending, meaningless frass. The Ministry of Tourism's stuff about training immigration officers in three languages is sound and fury, signifying busywork.

As always, the best part was the obnubilation. Nothing is anyone's fault.

The general prime minister told them months ago to shape up. The Immigration Bureau chief -- Pol Lt Gen Goodguysin Badguysout -- was proceeding with a plan he wrote months ago to recruit 300 more bums to fit into immigration counter seats. The AoT's head of Don Mueang airport had plans months ago to knock out a wall and shut down a couple of sales kiosks and add eight immigration counters. Or was it eight? Something like that.

To put it another way: You can't pin this on me.

Regrettably, the self-protection measures of the minister of sports and tourism got lost, like some child in the Don Mueang arrivals hall. Ms Kobkorn's best-of-show claim that there was already a training session under way for new immigration officers appeared entirely inconsistent with the truth.

None of the extremely important people involved seemed aware of their dual claims, that the airports are running quite efficiently and therefore they are seriously crafting solutions.

Promoting tourism and building airports aren't solutions, they are problems. The solution is the surgical task of killing the disease of airport jams while saving the lives of tourism and the nation's image.


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