BANGKOK (Reuters) - Restarting Bangkok’s $4 billion Suvarnabhumi airport will take at least a week from the end of the current sit-in by protesters because of security and IT system checks, its general manager said on Monday.
Anti-government protesters have ignored a police order to end their blockade of Bangkok’s main airport, which entered its seventh day Monday.
“Normally, checking the IT systems takes one week. We have to check, recheck, check, recheck,” Serirat Prasutanond told Reuters, adding that the delay would probably be even longer as some of complex’s massive computers might need repair.
“I think some systems are damaged,” he said, but declined to give further details.
The closure of the 125,000 passenger-a-day airport by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement has stranded thousands of foreigners and is threatening Thailand’s tourism- and export-driven economy with billions of dollars of damage.
With the army refusing to get involved and police reluctant to use force against the 3,000 protesters, many of whom are women and who include children and babies, attention is on a court decision this week that is likely to dissolve the ruling party.
Even if the dissolution, expected on Tuesday or Wednesday, is enough to convince the PAD to pack its bags, Serirat’s timeline suggests the airport will be closed until at least December 11, eating into the key Christmas tourist season.
It is also likely to be factor in Thailand’s decision whether or not to postpone an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit scheduled for December 13-17, even though the venue has already been shifted to the northern city of Chiang Mai.
“We’re coming up to the busy season for the tourism, but even if the airport is up and running any time soon, it’s hard to imagine that you’re going to see significant inflows of tourists,” Nick Bibby of Barclays Capital in Singapore said.
Once Airports of Thailand has done all its checks, the Department of Civil Aviation and the airlines themselves have to do their own system verification before normal operations can resume, Serirat said.
It is not known how long those third-party checks will take.
The tourist misery is being compounded by the PAD’s parallel occupation of Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, which served as the capital’s main air hub until Suvarnabhumi’s opening in September 2006 and is still important as a domestic hub.
Serirat did not say how long it would take to reopen Don Muang.
Some international flights are now departing via U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era military airfield 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok.
With just one baggage scanner and a flight schedule hand-written on a white chalk board, it is a poor substitute for Suvarnabhumi, and its tiny check-in hall, built for 14 flights a day, is bursting at the seams.
The other options for travelers trying to get out of the country are via Chiang Mai, about 700 km (430 miles) to the north of Bangkok, or Phuket, 900 km (560 miles) to the south, or driving overland to Cambodia to get flights out of Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.
Editing by David Fox and Valerie Lee