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AoT caves to furious travellers

Airport agency to add immigration counters

Airports of Thailand (AoT) has vowed to expedite efforts to solve overcrowding at Don Mueang airport after it received a torrent of abuse from irate netizens over the weekend, and said it would add eight additional immigration counters by next month.

"The number of immigration counters at the departure zone will be increased to 11 to accommodate passengers in line with the airport's third-phase development plan," said Wg Cdr Suthirawat Suwanawat, general manager of the airport.

The pledge was given after passengers took to social media to vent their anger and frustration over the long queues that occurred from late Friday night until early Saturday morning. Many claimed they had to endure waits of nearly five hours to have their passports stamped.

AoT president Nitinai Sirisamatthakarn said Monday the company is waiting for the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) to approve its design plan to accommodate the extra arrival counters. The plan is likely to be approved late this month, he said.

Work will be carried out next month to add the eight counters, which will almost double the passenger-handling capacity from 1,000 people per hour to 1,800 people, he said.

He urged Thai passengers to use automated passport control (APC) machines for their immigration check-in to ensure quick passage and ease overcrowding. Few Thais use the four machines now installed, he noted.

Nitinai: Wants Thais to use auto check-in

Referring to the chaos that erupted on Friday night, Wg Cdr Suthirawat blamed an unusually large number of delayed flights.

He said the facility was scheduled to deal with 21 scheduled flights from 11pm to 3am but that an additional nine flights -- which had been delayed -- landed just before 11pm.

On top of this, another three delayed flights -- two from Singapore and one from Hong Kong -- landed shortly after 11pm, along with a charter flight from China, taking the total number of flights during the four-hour window to 34, he said.

Wg Cdr Suthirawat said the immigration bureau plans to recruit 48 more officers to work at the counters.

Meanwhile, five more luggage-scanning machines will be installed next month. Ten were installed last month taking the current total to 14, he said.

Checking-in at the airport currently takes 45-60 minutes but this will hopefully improve, he added.

The airport also aims to seek funds to re-develop a building that previously served domestic flights, he said, adding that a contractor will be hired to deal with this next year. The re-development work is due to be completed in 2020.

But even with all the planned changes, the airport would not be able to handle the number of passengers it saw on Friday night, the general manager said.

He said Don Mueang's two terminals were designed to handle up to 39 million passengers a year but the airport dealt with 31 million passengers from Oct 1 last year to Aug 3.

As a result, immigration officers at both Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports are incredibly overworked, according to a post on social media by somebody claiming to be an immigration officer at Suvarnabhumi that has since gone viral.

He claimed that 42 immigration officers were working each shift back in 2013 but that this number has since been truncated to 23 despite the fact that tourist arrivals have spiked. They now have to work up to 16 hours a day but receive overtime pay, he said.

Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, minister of tourism and sports, said the new immigration counter recruits are already receiving job training.

"The new staff will be trained not only in foreign languages but also to hone their skills in judging whether arrivals should be admitted to the kingdom," she said.

The ministry has also asked Aeronautical Radio of Thailand and the Department of Airports to improve their air-traffic management to avoid overcrowding in the skies at both gateway airports.

Ms Kobkarn suggested the Foreign Ministry, Defence Ministry, Immigration Bureau, tourist police and AoT should work together to improve the workflow at the airports' immigration counters.

In Thailand, all foreign visitors and Thai citizens must fill in an immigration form when arriving and leaving the country.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha previously ordered related agencies to look into whether this could be cancelled to shorten queues.

"The Foreign Ministry is working on an e-visa system. If implemented this should help reduce passenger congestion," Ms Kobkarn said.

The ministry is also asking airlines to operate flights to other airports such as U-tapao in Rayong province, where visitors can easily link with Pattaya city and other towns on the eastern coast, and to Nakorn Ratchasima in the Northeast.

This is not the first time customers have complained about overcrowding and long waits at Don Mueang airport.

Social media posts over the weekend also saw some furious passengers complain about having trouble breathing because of poor ventilation near the immigration counters.

One Twitter post by a foreign woman described the airport as "the pit of hell". Another female visitor reportedly required medical attention.

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