Thailand passport control crisis prompts widespread criticism
Airport queues of up to five hours, negligent authorities scorched by all media
BANGKOK — Social media posts by enraged travelers went viral after a huge crowd of passengers clogged the immigration desks at Don Mueang International Airport, Bangkok’s second airport which serves as a hub for low-cost carriers.
The human snarl on the evening of Aug. 4 was partly caused by a string of delayed flights that all landed around the same time. Some passengers did not get through arrival formalities for five hours.
The public row that followed forced the Immigration Bureau to increase staffing at the airport to 100 from 42 on the night in question, and to place ads for 300 new immigration police officers to increase staffing at airports nationwide.
State-owned Airports of Thailand (AoT) has promised to set up 14 new counters at Don Mueang for a total of 39 by the end of the month. In the meantime, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered the Royal Thai Air Force to help with passenger handling.
The problem is far from new, and much of the criticism hinges on the push to boost tourist numbers without upgrading the necessary manpower and infrastructure.
Part of the immigration documentation — the TM6 arrival/departure cards that everybody fills in — is due to be relaunched Oct. 1. This should simplify and speed up processing, Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda said on Friday.
Critics dispute this, saying the new form has more items to fill in than the old one — including email addresses, purpose of visit, occupation, proposed length of stay. Some have proposed the card be scrapped since sufficient information can be scanned from passports, but the Ministry of Tourism and Sports insists the extra data is needed for research and marketing.
The Immigration Bureau has proposed exempting Thai nationals altogether, but that will require amending immigration laws.
“The government should analyze where the actual problem is coming from, not just add counters and staff,” said Dusit Sirisombat, program director of aviation business management at Rangsit University. He said the new TM6 cards will do little to help congestion, and more focus on improving airport infrastructure is needed.
Thailand’s airports are already handling more passengers than they were built for, and expansions have not been carried out on schedule. Suvarnabhumi International Airport, the country’s largest airport, was designed for 45 million passengers annually, but receives 55 million. A long-planned doubling of its capacity is many years overdue.
The problem is unlikely to go away while tourist numbers carry on rising. Mastercard ranked Bangkok as the No. 1 city for arrivals in its Global Destination Cities index in 2016, beating London. Overall international arrivals in 2016 reached a record high of 32.6 million — up over 8% year on year.
Tourism is one of the only bright spots in the Thai economy, which has suffered from soft export demand and weak domestic consumption since the military seized power in May 2014.
AoT runs the country’s six top airports and has enjoyed strong earnings on the back of buoyant tourism, but has failed to invest adequately. On Tuesday, it announced net profit for April-June was 5.39 billion baht ($162.3 million), up 7.9% year on year on revenue of 13.50 billion baht — an increase of 7.4%. The number of total passengers meanwhile rose 8.4% in the same quarter due to the surge in low-cost airlines.
“The company can expect better profit in the coming quarters as Chinese tourists are coming back,” said Suwat Wattanapornprom, an analyst at Asia Plus Securities. Chinese tourist arrivals dropped sharply last year when Thai authorities moved on illegal Chinese tour operators.
Suwat said expansion worth 194.16 billion baht at six airports until 2028 should ease capacity problems.