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7 Aug, 2006

Bangkok Airport Chief Blasts IATA Spokesman

The row over landing charges at Suvarnabhumi airport turned personal last week with the Airports of Thailand (AOT) President accusing the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Corporate Communications Director for Asia of making “biased” statements in view of his former connections to Singapore Changi airport.

However, even as airlines sought to put pressure on Bangkok airport, they found themselves facing similar pressure from the global travel agents, with the Universal Federation of Travel Agents Associations backing efforts for a worldwide probe into how airlines levy fuel surcharges.

The AOT issued a statement last week in response to reported comments by IATA’s regional spokesman Albert Tjoeng that the test runs on 22 July had “only tested a part of the entire integrated airport systems” whereas what was required for full commercial operations to begin was “robust comprehensive testing and trials to ensure that various systems are working 100 percent and are seamlessly integrated.”

AOT President Chotisak Asapaviriya indicated that such advice was hardly necessary from IATA. He said AOT “is fully aware of its responsibility” and will be able to “resolve the remaining small problems before the target opening date late September this year.”

“The points raised by Mr. Tjoeng, ex-PR manager of Singapore’s Changi Airport, are rather biased because he seemed to have a certain agenda in mind when making them,” Mr Chotisak said.

He reiterated that AOT has “had many discussions with IATA on the landing fee” which was justified by the “greater conveniences and much better infrastructure” as well as the “significant savings on fuel expenses because of the shorter take-off and landing waiting times than at Don Muang Airport.”

“Even though Suvarnabhumi Airport’s fee will be 15% higher than Don Muang, it is still lower than the rate” at Singapore and Hong Kong Airports, and that its “much better geographical location regionally” ensured “easy and faster connections worldwide.”

“While Mr Tjoeng made these critical comments, which have circulated worldwide, he did not praise the success of the inaugural test flights in any way,” Mr Chotisak said. “Mr. Tjoeng e-mailed his comments to international media and related aviation organizations immediately after the test flights showing his intention to discredit our airport.”

He said he wondered “if these biased comments are linked to the stiff regional aviation competition with several major airports vying to be the region’s number one aviation hub. Mr. Tjoeng’s career background, having worked in a senior position at Singapore’s Changi Airport, casts doubt on his neutrality.”

Calling on local and international media to ensure fair coverage of Airport’s upcoming opening, he urged them to “bear in mind that AOT would be putting itself at risk if the opening is bungled and therefore would take the greatest care to ensure a smooth launch.”

Mr Tjoeng himself indicated that the criticism was unwarranted, noting that airlines were seeking to address costs across the board, especially in relation to runaway oil prices.

He quoted IATA Director General Giovanni Bisignani as saying in a recent speech that aviation fuel bills had become unacceptable.

“Refinery margins increased from US$6 to US$16 in a few short years. Increased refinery margins put US$14 billion directly into oil company pockets. And what did the airlines get for it? The same process and the same product.”

In another development, the Universal Federation of Travel agents Association piled on the pressure on the airlines to account for the way they pass on the higher fuel costs to consumers in the form of surcharges.

An UFTAA statement said its member travel agencies “welcome the global investigation by US Justice Department and UK Office of Fair Trading on the alleged cartel activity which involves pricing of passenger air transportation including fuel surcharges.”

“The present investigation only includes the trans-Atlantic traffic between USA and UK, but it should be widened in order to give a correct picture,” the statement said.

“Travel agents are well aware that fuel costs, due to hedging, are affecting airlines differently and question the similarity in level and timing of fuel surcharges. The various taxes and charges added to a basic air fare is making it increasingly difficult for the consumer to get a correct and transparent picture of the real cost for the transportation.”

Asked to comment on this, Mr Tjoeng said, “IATA is not involved in the establishment of fuel surcharges (passenger or cargo). We cannot comment on the ongoing investigation.

“Those surcharges are set by individual airlines in respect of extra-ordinary situations under local government regulation. IATA has consistently advised its members that these surcharges must be determined by each airline in the unilateral exercise of its individual business judgment.”

Thailand’s Board of Airlines Representative chairman Brian Sinclair-Thompson added, “Currently fuel surcharges are accounting for no more than 60% of the real increased cost in the fuel itself.”

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