Charter Flights, Private Jets Ferry Stranded Travellers from Thailand

BANGKOK ~ Charter flights ferried home more frustrated tourists from Thailand and the wealthy escaped on private jets as the end of an airport siege on Wednesday raised hopes for thousands of stranded travellers.

Carriers gradually resumed international and domestic flights to and from Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi international airport after protesters ended their blockade, with full operations expected Thursday, officials said.

Airlines had laid on extra planes to rescue nationals from among an estimated 350,000 tourists stranded after the protest against the government of Somchai Wongsawat shut down Suvarnabhumi airport.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said on Wednesday that Australian carriers had taken more than 1,000 people home from Phuket over the past 72 hours, and warned travellers to think twice before visiting the country.

“We’re still in very close contact with Qantas to see whether there’s an ongoing need for extra and special flights,” Smith said, shortly before the anti-government protesters ended their eight-day siege.

Vudhibhandhu Vichairatana, chairman of the board of Airports of Thailand, said that full operations would resume at Suvarnabhumi on Thursday.

Flights had been landing at the U-Tapao naval base southeast of Bangkok, which has been standing in as the main exit point for travellers, some of whom have also been escaping from Chiang Mai in the north.

In Japan, All Nippon Airways said it would operate one last flight on Wednesday from U-Tapao while Japan Airlines said it would operate two flights on Thursday.

The Australian government was asking citizens “to seriously consider the need to travel to Thailand,” the foreign minister told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“That’s as a consequence of the difficulties that we still have so far as the Bangkok airports are concerned, but also because of the increasing uncertainty in the political situation in Bangkok.”

Hong Kong’s government drew criticism, meanwhile, after revealing that flights chartered to pick up stranded visitors in Thailand returned mostly empty, newspapers reported.

Four government-chartered flights had been sent since Monday, but only 190 passengers registered for the first three, which offered about 700 seats for Hong Kong residents, Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee reportedly said.

Sri Lanka operated special flights to U-Tapao and evacuated all its 378 nationals stranded in the country, acting foreign minister Hussein Bhaila said Wednesday.

France, Spain, China, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam have also sent special flights over recent days to evacuate desperate citizens.

As most grumbling holidaymakers wait frustrated in hotels, charter airline companies have seen their bookings soar as wealthy tourists and business travellers chose simply to slip out by private jet from U-Tapao.

“Since the closing of the airports, travellers are seeking out our service, despite the premium costs,” said Sukit Kaewamorn, marketing manager at air charter company Siam Land Flying.

“Many of those passengers come to us because they have few choices. They want to catch any flights just to take them out of Thailand.”

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