Concern mounts at Thai airport security lapses

BANGKOK Thu Dec 4, 2008 4:32am EST

BANGKOK Dec 4 (Reuters) - As Thai authorities race to get Suvarnabhumi airport ready for full international operations, airline officials and diplomats fear major security concerns are being overlooked.

They say the ease with which a rag-tag group of anti-government protesters took over Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports last week exposed fundamental security problems that need to be addressed.

But with the tourist-dependent Thai economy haemorrhaging revenue as a result of the airport closures, stakeholders feel they are being pressured into restarting operations.

On Thursday, Bangkok-based ambassadors of some of Thailand's most important allies and trading partners issued a joint statement saying they were "seriously concerned" at the vulnerability to outside assaults of Suvarnabhumi and the mostly domestic Don Muang airports.

"(We) urge the government of Thailand to take all necessary measures to improve the protection and security of all Thai airports," said the statement, signed by Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the United States.

Airline representatives in Thailand contacted by Reuters were highly critical of the response to the airport blockades, how the emergency was dealt with and efforts to restart operations.

None was willing to be identified. "We have to work here," said one.

"We are under enormous pressure to open -- from the airport authorities, from stuck passengers, from shareholders, from the tourist industry ...," said one airline official.

"But our genuine security concerns are being ignored."

Chief among those concerns are the security lapses that allowed a supposedly state-of-the-art, $4 billion airport, opened just two years ago, to be overrun in minutes by a few hundred protesters, even if some were armed with clubs and metal rods.

SECURITY MELTED AWAY

Airport security initially held back the protesters a few hundred metres (yards) from the terminal, but when pressed, they melted away.

Suvarnabhumi is a key regional hub handling hundreds of flights a day and over 150,000 passengers. Within minutes the airport was overrun and passengers watched -- some shocked, some initially bemused -- as the yellow-clad protesters coursed through the terminal.

"What if they were armed terrorists? What if this was India?" one airline official asked, referring to the attacks a day later by just 10 Islamic gunmen in Mumbai that killed 171 people.

Some Thailand watchers justified the lack of response as being typical of the country's delicate domestic political situation. The authorities couldn't, or wouldn't, use force against the protesters because of their perceived support from parts of the royal family.

Airport general manager Serirat Prasutanond, touring Suvarnabhumi on Wednesday after the protesters finally abandoned their siege, told Reuters: "They did no damage. They love Thailand."

But such apparently flippant dismissals of security lapses only enrage those who insist on more professionalism.

"It is a joke," said one Singapore-based industry consultant. "If that happened here or in Kuala Lumpur, the protesters would have been shot. Whoever was responsible for security, they would have been shot next."

Airports of Thailand (AOT.BK) officials say Suvarnabhumi will be fully operational by Friday afternoon after the massive, sprawling facility has been thoroughly "sanitised" by security experts.

But operators say it will take a lot more to convince them that security is as good as it should be.

"In the next few weeks we (foreign operators) are going to be getting together and making a stand," one industry insider said. "Things absolutely have to change."

"This situation cannot go on. If a major event takes place now, we will never be able to say we didn't see it coming, that we couldn't prepare." (Editing by Alan Raybould)

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