Sky-high airport food prices come under heavy scrutiny

Deputy Transport Minister Pailin Chuchottaworn checks the prices of food on display at Don Mueang airport. He said there are many food options for airport users to eat at the airport ranging in prices from 'normal' to high. (Photos by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

Facing a barrage of criticism for overpriced food at Thailand's various airports, authorities have started to take action to curb exorbitant prices being charged by outlets.

Several food choices and beverages at Don Mueang airport were found to be overpriced following Deputy Transport Minister Pailin Chuchottaworn's inspection on Friday.

After Mr Pailin visited Don Mueang, he admitted there was some truth to the criticism of high prices but insisted there were options available to travellers.

Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat earlier came under heavy criticism after he remarked on Wednesday evening that passengers who do not want to pay high prices for food should eat before arriving at the airport or wait to eat on flights.

The inflated food prices have also prompted the Office of the Ombudsman to begin a probe.

The office will begin inspections into airports regarding high food and beverage prices starting next month, acting Ombudsman chief Witthawat Rachatanan said.

He said Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi have been selling items at 40-50% higher than the market average.

His inspection came after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha earlier ordered relevant agencies to probe the issue after Japanese media criticised the high prices of dishes at the airport.

Airports of Thailand (AoT) authorities took Mr Pailin to various restaurants to inspect the prices of chain restaurants and other stalls, some of which were selling 330ml cans of tonic water for 50 baht per can. The regular price for the particular brand of tonic water is about 15 baht.

Noodles at one stall are sold at 200 baht or more per bowl.

Authorities also took Mr Pailin to a food court in the airport, which sells food for cheaper prices, averaging 60 baht per dish, and costing no more than about 100 baht.

"Although the prices at the food court can be considered higher than average, they are still priced within an affordable range," Mr Pailin said.

"The problem is much of the public do not know about these food courts, so I would urge the AoT to publicise where they are."

It has been observed that such food courts are not easy to find and can only be found in the airport's domestic terminals.

The first food court at Don Mueang airport is located on the ground floor of Domestic Terminal 1 while the other can be found on the second floor of Domestic Terminal 2, near the terminal's parking lot. Most passengers, however, would be busy checking in at the fourth floor.

There is no food court at the airport after checking in.

"The location of the food courts is unfortunate, considering the prized lots at the airports are all bought by the highest bidders," said Visit Balee, Don Mueang's deputy general manager of business support.

Mr Visit said each of Don Mueang's 244 shops currently operate under three- to five-year contracts, which specify they are allowed to mark up their prices by a maximum of 20% higher than the "market average". Suvarnabhumi is allowed to mark up its prices by 25%, he said.

Mr Visit said the average was derived from product prices in "luxury malls" as opposed to those found in regular mini-marts.

Passengers also complained about the location of the food courts.

A 24-year-old who identified herself only as Sripapa said she had not known about any food courts at Don Mueang that sell food at cheap prices.

"I would consider the food courts as an option had I known about them beforehand," she said.

"Although I am able to choose whether I want to buy a burger or something else at the airport, surely not every passenger can afford food at such high prices."

Panasaya Supa, a 42-year-old who works at a local organisation in Chiang Mai, said she found out about the food court in Terminal 2 by chance years ago, when her cousin had dropped her off at Don Mueang in the terminal's parking lot.

"The portions here [at the food court] are more justified, considering the prices," she said. "Several Chinese tourists, air hostesses and other airport staff seem to come here to eat, more so than actual passengers do.

Mr Pailin said the Transport Ministry is set to hold talks with AoT to establish a committee which will inspect food and beverage prices in airports.

The committee should be established to "ensure no businesses take advantage of customers by hiking fares without the AOT's knowledge". He added it must conduct inspections on a monthly basis.

Meanwhile former Democrat MP Charnchai Issarasenarak said on Friday he will seek legal action against the AoT board for a alleged "lack of transparency in its finances".

He claims the high prices of food at the airport are because the authority allows concessionaires to rent their areas to other operators to do businesses.

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