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The first of four queues for departing tourists comes outside Phuket airport

Airport Flight Jams Taint Phuket Tourism's Future

Sunday, February 20, 2011
News Analysis

PHUKET airport delays are rapidly becoming the biggest barrier to development of tourism on Phuket.

Delays in reaching the Immigration counter on flying in, delays in reaching Immigration flying out - and worst of all, delays in even getting inside the airport building - are putting off people who might otherwise return to Phuket some day.

Phuketwan put the airport to the test this week, and marked it a complete failure. This reporter arrived at the airport at 8.20am for a Singapore-bound flight that was due to take off at 9.50am.

There was a long queue snaking back from the airport entrance, with more people constantly joining the queue. And this is a queue before getting in the airport door.

There were three more queues to come on the inside. Time to actually get into the airport: 10 minutes.

Fortunately once on the departure concourse, the baggage check-in queue is relatively short and negotiated in a few minutes. Access to the Immigration hall is gained at 8.40am - and then comes the full horror.

Inside the Immigration hall, queues at every one of the 20 counters stretch back at least 30 deep.

Precious minutes tick by, with passengers hoping that the checks will suddenly accelerate. But no. We wait, and wait, and wait, shuffling slowly forward.

A group of Chinese passengers make light of the delay by playing games with their children. Others are not so sanguine.

One passenger from the rear of the queue walks forward and asks the Immigration officer at the end of our line one question, then another, and another. All this is wasting the time for everyone in the queue, all of us equally anxious to catch flights.

We edge forward, slowly. A couple and three young children come forward to ask their one big question. They want to jump the queue. The woman smiles at the Chinese in the queue and says in English: ''We're tourists, we're tourists.''

You don't say. The Immigration officer waves them back.

I am three from the front when an AirAsia staffer comes out, calling for passengers on the flight to Singapore. I am saved. We go to the fast-track counter.

Now there is only one queue left to negotiate, the queue at the security scanner for the departure lounge. It's another stressful wait.

I make the bus to the plane with minutes to spare.

Ninety minutes spent negotiating an exit from Phuket for a flight to Singapore that is over in 100 minutes . . . yet at Changi Airport, access is a breeze. The biggest queue is for a taxi outside the airport, and that is an easy wait. It's the same on the flight back.

Moving through Changi Immigration is literally a stroll, interrupted by a two-minute check. Arriving back at Phuket, and it's an ugly scene all over again.

Phuket coped with seven million arrivals and departures in 2010, yet how many of those people were unhappy at delays either coming or going through Phuket airport?

How many were put off ever returning to Phuket? Perhaps a million - one in every seven?

There is no way the airport staff can be blamed for this failure of strategic planning. Immigration officers, pressured and sometimes harassed by understandably impatient passengers, must be as stressed at times as their customers.

The expansion of Phuket airport has been announced and a contractor should be appointed some time soon. Yet unless there is some clever temporary extension of the Phuket airport facilities, hundreds of thousands of tourists are likely to feel inconvenienced before the new terminal opens in 2014.

As it happens, it's not just Phuket airport that is experiencing daily jams. Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport was listed as the 24th best airport in the world in 2010, but it has now slipped back to No. 45. The reason?

Queues at Immigration.

The world's best airports, where you can bet there is virtually no waiting or a strategy to handle high-traffic periods: Inchon, Changhi, Hong Kong.

For the sake of Thailand's tourism industry, let's hope Phuket airport becomes a no-waiting zone sometime soon.
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Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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Exactly as you say, I have to go through the same boring routine twice a month, often taking longer than the flight to/from Changi. Roll on low season.

Posted by Pete on February 21, 2011 08:12

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Great article, hitting the nail on the head. If Phuket wants to attract high end tourists, having to wait an hour or two to clear customs will not cut it. Starting your holiday out stressed and then leaving on the same note does not make an enjoyable experience. It seems to be getting worse every year so let's hope the tourist authority or airport can move quickly on this.

Posted by Bronson on February 21, 2011 08:23

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If you want to compare apple and apple, then compare Changi Airport with Bangkok Suvannabhumi. Phuket should be fairly compared with Bali or Samui.

Posted by Anonymous on February 21, 2011 08:26

Editor Comment:

We mention Suvarnabhumi because it's also run by AoT, also in Thailand, and also experiencing Immigration holdups. Changi sets a good example to both Thai airports. There is no need for comparisons, only efficiency.

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Keep up the good work Phuket Wan. This is exactly the sort of reporting that needs international coverage to help shame AoT into doing something about this appalling situation.

Posted by Mike Boyd on February 21, 2011 12:29

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Ed surely to promote efficiency you need a comparison. That is, find out what works and implement it.

The real easy solution is for Thai Officials to ask the Singapore Officials how they operate such an efficient service, and as you rightly pointed out, Singapore's Changi Airport is a breeze.

Posted by Graham on February 21, 2011 13:28

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When I arrived in Phuket at night, I was lucky as it was obvious our plane was the only recent arrival for Immigration to deal with. However, as my economy seat was at the rear of the plane, and the last to disembark, I had to wait at the very end of the queue.

The wait at Immigration was at least 40 minutes. I was pretty frustrated at the end of the experience.

When I departed a week later, there were no delays, at any stage. It was as fast as departing from my home airport in Sydney, Australia.

The airport needs a complete overhaul. The look and feel of the airport is obsolete and appears to be very 1980s. For some strange reason, while moving through the airport on departure, all the passengers had to catch a bizarre small vertical lift.

Posted by Stephen on February 21, 2011 23:51

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I can totally relate to this article
I had 30 mins to my flight after spending the last 30 mins queuing to clear immigration. Approached a ground staff for help, instead of helping, she shouted at me and told me they could have offloaded my baggage. I'm sorry, I thought I was in the land of smiles. After that earful, instead of assisting us, we went back to where we were queuing until 15 mins before the flight. She finally let my friends and I clear at the Diplomats counter. We literally had to run to our gate and boarded the plane on the dot.

Posted by Anonymous on February 22, 2011 18:31

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Yes we visited Thailand in Febuary. The whole experience does not make it easy to want to rush back.Immigration and security is well over the top. You are checked in london, get off plane in Bangkok- liquids taken off you- why?? I have walked a mile to immigration carrying a child at six in the morning. That took over an hour to get through with only 2 officers working and yet there must have been five interantionl flights arrive at the same time. Next time for me is changi and get the train far less stressful. Phuket airport cant cope with the massive influx of people and nor can the whole island in my opinion. I went there in 1989 as a backpacker and what an awful change, time for a whole rethink on tourism to Thailand/Phuket would make more sense. Thailand is a wonderful place please dont let it loose any more of its soul.

Posted by adrian williams on June 6, 2011 17:53

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Bangkok airport is just as bad, if not worse ! arriving on the 1st Dec last, it took me 45 minutes to get through immigration. The officer took 10 mins per person, turning passports up and down . Everyone was tired after a12 hr flight, children crying, old people suffering. Leaving the country was the same. Disgusting service .

Posted by elizabeth on June 6, 2011 19:32


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