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Airport customers get short end of the noodle

Update: July, 17/2014 - 09:17
Thu Huong Le

The price of instant noodles sold at airports caught the attention of the National Assembly Standing Committee last Tuesday.

It was not surprising that food pricing management became a topic of discussion as the committee studied draft amendments to the Civil Aviation Law.

With social media offering an instant outlet for customers who can post receipts showing they were ripped off, over-priced food and beverages at the nation's major airports are bound to make the news.

What long-term good will come of these discussions remains to be seen, but we can welcome the first piece of good news: F&B prices inside the Tan Son Nhat Airport in HCM City are set to come down starting today, officials of the Southern Airports Authority announced on Monday following a meeting with vendors.

The vendors have also been requested to diversify their products, the officials said.

However overpricing in our airports is not a one-dimensional issue that can be dealt with simply by requesting sellers to lower their prices.

The NA should use instant noodles as a tipping point for discussing a legal framework for dealing with the "autonomous" status of many airport vendors.

The airport is both a physical and a mental gateway to the country. It reflects on the nation's economy, culture and people, especially in the impressions it creates in the minds of visitors. Being ripped off the moment you step into the airport of a new country is not fun, and a bad experience tends to linger in memory for a long time.

Already, we have had too many issues within the aviation industry cropping up of late, issues that can have more serious consequences than over-priced airport food – flight delays, near collisions on the runway, overloaded terminals, inadequate infrastructure and even flights that land in the wrong destination.

So, if we cannot solve the instant noodle issue after several years, what of the bigger stuff that is piling up on the plate, or filling up our bowl?

We cannot realistically hope that Vietnamese airports will match up to Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok or Changi in Singapore any time soon, but we can surely demand that something be done soon about something that has put the nation firmly on the world map – its cuisine.

Complaints about substandard airport food surfaced years ago. A bland noodle soup with two thin slices of beef can cost over 10 dollars and a bowl of instant noodles up to five of the greenback.

Representatives from some vendors at the Tan Son Nhat Airport have claimed they have to charge high prices to cover high rents and operational costs.

Is this claim legitimate?

There are various regulations and circulars from several agencies on airport services, but none of these apparently require vendors to detail how they come up with their prices.

There also seems to be no clarity on who is responsible for fining or otherwise punishing vendors if they do not sell food at previously registered prices.

Deputy NA Vice Chairperson Uong Chu Luu suggested that airport prices should be monitored by the transport ministry.

While the lack of an adequate legal framework is an issue, the Government should not be thinking about regulating food prices at airports. The market and customers can decide this. And for this to happen, we need a transparent, competitive bidding process.

We need to work out ways to allow more sellers to operate at airports so customers can have more choices. More competition can lead to higher quality and reasonable prices as we can see in Bangkok, where just two dollars can fetch a decent meal, because there are so many options.

An argument can be made that authorities should focus on more important things, like ensuring flights do not land at wrong destinations, but for how long can instant noodles be put on the backburner? — VNS


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