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Thailand reopens main airport after protests

Dancers, drummers and apologetic tourism officials greeted travelers Friday at the official reopening of Thailand's main international airport, which was shut down for a week by anti-government protesters.
Thailand Political Unrest Airports
Kristina and Thomas Davidsson of Alm, Sweden, are greeted during Suvarnabhumi airport's reopening ceremonies on Friday, in Bangkok, Thailand. David Longstreath / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dancers, drummers and apologetic tourism officials greeted travelers Friday at the official reopening of Thailand's main international airport, which was shut down for a week by anti-government protesters.

Still, there was more turmoil for weary tourists who found that Suvarnabhumi International Airport was operating at only about 50 percent capacity and scores of flights had been canceled.

For many, it was the continuation of a confusing and tiring ordeal that began Nov. 25 when the first of Bangkok's two airports was forced to close by anti-government group seeking the ouster of the prime minister.

The closure that ended Wednesday stranded more than 300,000 visitors, caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights and dealt a heavy blow to the country's tourism-dependent economy. Bangkok's domestic Don Muang airport, which also had been closed, reopened Thursday.

"There is a nice atmosphere and food here, but if you go down to the last counter you will see a lot of long faces because of all the canceled flights," said Nadine Woytal, a 27-year-old television reporter from Germany who found that her Thai Airways flight to Munich had been canceled. "It hasn't been fun the past few days."

Touring the departure area, Transport Minister Santi Prompat, said "Suvarnabhumi is 100% ready" and that all airport systems "were back to normal."

Serirat Prasutanont, acting director of Airports of Thailand, said 547 flights were scheduled to arrive and depart Friday at Suvarnabhumi. Most of those were Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways and budget carrier Thai Air Asia flights. Singapore and Emirates also resumed flights.

"Many foreign airlines are still not ready to land," Serirat said. "They need some time to adjust their flight schedules."

Antoine Six, a 25-year-old ski instructor from Areches-Beaufort, France, said he and two friends had just learned their Gulf Air flight had been canceled and the ticket counter was unstaffed.

"I'm pretty unhappy and sad," Six said as he drank from a half-empty bottle of vodka.

VIP treatment
Travelers, however, were treated like VIPs when they entered Suvarnabhumi on Friday, greeted by traditional Thai dancers and smiling flight attendants offering gifts of flower bracelets and miniature Thai masks. The sounds of traditional Thai music wafted through the terminal, and tables of cakes, croissants and coffee were everywhere.

Some travelers even got a personal apology from airport officials and Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Phornsiri Manoharn.

"I hope you enjoyed your time in Thailand and I am certain there won't be a thing like this again," Phornsiri told two Swedish tourists before flying off to France for a luxury tourism convention. "Thailand will be the land of smiles and hospitality as usual."

Plenty of other departing travelers took the latest chaos in stride, saying they appreciated the hospitality of Thais and how they went out of their way to apologize for the disruptions.

"It's a very comfortable prison to be in. We are sad to go home," said Dick Eyre, a 64-year-old retired engineer from Liphook, England, who had been stranded with his wife since Nov. 27.

"If this would have been done at Heathrow, it would have been much less friendly," Eyre said. "There wouldn't have been dancers and the free drinks."

Airport plagued by problems
The shutdown is the latest mishap to hit the $3.8 billion, pet project of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It opened in 2006 and was built to serve as a regional hub.

It has been plagued by a host of problems including cracks in taxiways, allegations of corruption in the construction and concerns over lax security that allowed protesters to easily overrun it.

Diplomats from the European Union and six governments including the United States said they remained "seriously concerned" that the airport remained "vulnerable to outside assaults."

"We urge the government of Thailand to take all necessary measures to improve the protection and security of all Thai airports, so as to avoid the recurrence of a similar seizure in the future," they said in a statement.

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