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Pleasure’s In The Waiting

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 For those of you who have flown to Koh Samui from Bangkok, what I am writing about may sound like old hat but I am impressed by what Bangkok Airways has done and is continuing to do to this unique airport on this charming island.

 
Bangkok Airways is the largest private airline in Thailand with a fleet of 17 aircraft servicing eight domestic and eight international destinations.  In 1989, the airline built and began to operate what has to be one of the world’s most beautiful and ‘chilled out’ airports. Initially, the passenger terminal could handle only about 4,000 passengers a day. But the expansion in 2008 costing 500 million baht has increased the airport’s handling capacity to 16,000 a day.
 
For several years, Bangkok Airways was one of the few airlines flying to and from the island (there were a handful of international flights from Malaysia by low-cost carrier Firefly and Selangor-based Berjaya Air). With  limited international flights, the Samui airport is mostly classified as a domestic airport. Typically, Bangkok Airways carries about 600,000 passengers a year through this airport. But after the expansion, Thai Airways International also flies in and out of Samui airport. Now, Bangkok Airways is exploring the possibility of making the airport a second international air hub, after Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, in the next one or two years. The airline would launch more direct international flights for medium-haul routes. In addition to scheduled flights to Hong Kong and Singapore, there are plans to offer direct flights to Dubai, Shanghai, Bali and Kuala Lumpur.   
 
Besides its ownership structure, what is also unique about the airport is the resort-like atmosphere that the open air architecture lends to the facility. There is no glass and chrome, no intimidating pillars and no visual clutter such as mammoth hoardings that airports typically have. The whole structure is made with local Thai materials, and blends in perfectly with the pace and tone of the island. 
 
There seem to be no crowds (despite lines for check in) and sound levels are amazingly low. Flight announcements seem to flow in consonance with the place. One has to struggle to spot the security equipment or personnel.
 
The open-air terminals and waiting areas offer free tea, coffee, snacks and Internet connectivity, which probably cost the airline very little but create a huge amount of goodwill. It is always a pleasant surprise to draw out your wallet, and then be told that whatever you are consuming is free.
 
Walking from one terminal to the other is also an experience. One walks on a street that is lined with pretty shops and tiny cafes. There are small artificial waterways and little bridges. On the vast, green lawns I spotted people lounging around in the sun. There is a children’s play area, so one never feels a delay. In fact, the airport is probably the only one where one does not mind any delay — it is worth spending an hour or two there, soaking in the atmosphere that seems to be in constant touch with nature. You are transported to the aircraft in a cheery open air vehicle slightly larger than a golf cart.
 
The point is that there could well be some lessons here for Indian policy makers. India, too, has been toying with ways to modernise its smaller airports, with limited success so far. The ministry of aviation has been keen to modernise at least 35-odd non-metro airports and has been trying to rope the private sector in. The plan, which it took up with great fervour in 2007, has petered out after the downturn in 2008. 
 
What is also impressive about the Samui airport is that Thailand seems to have managed with very little effort and very little cost to the exchequer. By permitting the airline to build and run the facility, the country has managed to get a spanking new, clean, well-run, modern airport on the island at very little cost to the state. The headache of operating the facility and ensuring its viability is not theirs either. Further, as with any airport, there are related economic activities that offer employment and other benefits to the local population.
 
There could, however, be one or two downsides to the model. The monopoly has ensured that flying to Samui is more expensive than flying to most other places within Thailand over similar distances. In fact, a lot of the tourist traffic typically flies to Surat Thani, and then takes the boat across to the island. So, the airport may be losing some amount of traffic due to the high fares charged by Bangkok Airways. Yet, those who are pressed for time and can afford to fly do so. It seems a small price to pay for a fabulous public facility that you won’t forget in a hurry.
 
anjulibhargava at gmail dot com
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-02-2010)