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Wing Commander Wicha Nurnlop: a winner in a Mickey Mouse year

Phuketwan Person of the Year 2008 Award

Wednesday, January 7, 2009
THE DEATH of a much-loved princess marked 2008 in Thailand, along with the global financial crisis and the rise of renewed hope with Barack Obama. And, finally, a change of national government.

For the island, also sadly memorable were the deaths of 54 Burmese in a container truck bound for Phuket, plus the arrival in the region of two other groups of unwanted immigrants: Rohingya boat people and box jellyfish.

The story of the year, though, was an original one, a set of circumstances not previously encountered anywhere.

Why hadn't protesters ever invaded an airport before?

And when the People's Alliance for Democracy did it once, what led Thai authorities to think that it wouldn't happen again, on an even grander scale?

So it was that the Phuket airport standoff of late August became a ready-made template for the walk-in and sit-down at Bangkok's two largest airports a few months later.

Phuketwan's Person of the Year 2008 was at the centre of both those whirlwinds, first as besieged administrator and negotiator then as the organiser of rescue airlifts out of Thailand for thousands of trapped tourists.

For Wing Commander Wicha Nurnlop, the General Manager of Phuket International Airport, the year 2008 began on a positive note.

After a 2007 in which a One-Two-Go holiday flight crashed at the airport, killing 90 passengers and crew and injuring 40, he and other airport staff were entitled to think that 2008 would be a much better year.

By March, the figures for flights and passengers were so good that plans were being made to mark the arrival of the sixth millionth passenger as early as September.

And there was the fresh Airports of Thailand plan for a muti-billion baht enlargement of the airport, doubling its eventual capacity to 12.5 million people a year.

Overseeing that kind of growth should be a pleasure for any airport administrator, bringing a huge measure of satisfaction.

But it was not to be that easy. Along came the oil price rise, the world economic downturn . . . and in late-August, unexpectedly, the airport invasion and blockade.

Any sense of relief once that incident concluded would have been low-key as the airport struggled to return to normal, only to become the alternative escape route when Bangkok's international airport was seized.

These days, Wing Commander Wicha Nurnlop can enjoy a round of golf and contemplate what turned out to be quite a year.

With his military training and organisation skills, the wing commander understands the importance of strategy and tactics.

But he will be very happy in 2009 to settle for peace and planning for the future, not war.

''2008 was a Mickey Mouse year,'' the wing commander told Phuketwan. He is, it has to be said, a contained man, not given to overstatement.

''I am glad 2008 is over, to put it mildly,'' he added when we talked in his office at the airport.

Although air arrivals and departures on Phuket were tipped to drop by 30 percent compared to 2007, the peak season around Christmas-New Year actually produced an increase.

And so, immersed once again in planning for the airport's five billion baht expansion, he can chalk up 2008 alongside 2007 and move into 2009 with his usual positive outlook.

Always aware of what's happening in and around the airport and with a key connection to the island's economy, Wing Commander Wicha studied aviation management in Singapore.

A lot of energy and effort goes into encouraging airlines to consider Phuket as a destination.

While it is not something that we asked Wing Commander Wicha's opinion about, it's plain that Phuket emerged from the blockade crisis with a much better reputation than Bangkok and Thailand in general.

Generating room for increased capacity and attracting more direct flights to the island holiday destination will be the wing commander's key priorities in 2009.

It will definitely begin as a more down-to-earth year. For a start, the airport's car park seems to always be full and expansion is desperately needed now.

The wing commander's attention is needed on the economic front, too. A decrease in rents should help the retail outlets to recover from the setbacks of 2008.

Better backup and security for the airport's electrical system is also a priority.

''I try to work with everyone on the airport's team and listen to everybody when trying to resolve problems,'' he said. "I don't have all the answers."

Phuket's world of aviation and travel is bound to produce a few more interesting questions for the wing commander in 2009.

2008 Phuketwan Awards: Other Winners


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Readers Suggest Good Phuket Restaurants
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2007 Phuketwan Awards: The Winners


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2007 Innovation: Big Red is Green for Go
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2007 Restaurant: Phuketwan's Best of the Year
Phuket City is renown for good Thai food but the Restaurant of the Year for 2007 adds its own special touches and is consistent in quality as well as having a sense of culinary adventure.
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2007 Person: Phuketwan's Mr Ideas
Phuket's Person of the Year for 2007 is a dreamer and a schemer. He is driven to help people achieve a higher standard of performance across all aspects of island life.
Phuketwan's Man of the Year: Mr Ideas

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