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Saving Thai Airways

Tim Newton

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Saving Thai Airways | The Thaiger
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PHOTO: The pleasant smile and wai won’t fill aircraft seats anymore

Whilst it’s always a generally pleasant experience flying Thai Airways, the airline, in a business sense, is a basket case racking up nearly a decade of losses, first under the Yingluck Shinawatra Government and then the military government of the NCPO.

Most people in aviation circles agree on the main challenges for the national carrier.

• Entrenched nepotism and cronyism
• Top heavy management
• Contracts for older staff which do not reflect aviation business realities in 2019
• Uncompetitive pricing

So do what QANTAS did in Australia in 2003.

QANTAS was Australia’s legacy airline which had similar long-standing contracts and Union issues that made it difficult for the national carrier to compete in the modern aviation business. It battled for decades with the staff, all on cushy contracts, and the Unions were resistant to change as well.

So they started JetStar, a completely separate company headquartered in Melbourne, but under the wider QANTAS banner. It would take over the ‘leisure’ routes and compete as a low-cost carrier. As QANTAS slowly moved routes over to its cheaper subsidiary the parent airline had a much better argument to pay-out the older, uncompetitive contracts and lay-off the ‘old pot boilers’.

JetStar was not a glamorous airline and lacked the reputation and brand-love of the ‘flying kangaroo’ but, as a business strategy, was a winner for QANTAS and gave them options to modernise the national airline business. The CEO, Alan Joyce, came through Aer Lingus in Ireland then the failing Ansett Airlines in Australia to completely turn Australia’s national carrier upside-down. The strategy worked.

The model has been repeated by other national airlines.

Thai Airways sort of tried the same strategy with Thai Smile in 2012. The offshoot of the parent Thai Airways International, would fly leisure routes for the national carrier but it was still owned entirely by Thai Airways and wasn’t set up as a separate entity so was subject to much of the same ‘handbrakes’ that was holding back Thai Airways from competition in the modern aviation market.

Brand Thai Airways is starting to look a bit tired. The Thai smile, orchids, pleasant staff wai-ing to the camera is all a bit naff when most customers in 2019 are looking for a safe, efficient, on-time airline, at a competitive price. Let’s face it, the seating is much the same, give or take, in just about any plane now. Unless you have the deeper pockets and can afford to sit closer to the front of the plane, you’re in cattle class whether you’re on Thai Airways, Air Asia or RyanAir. A Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 is much the same aeroplane no matter who is flying it.

So what does Thai Airways have to offer customers these days that they won’t get on the many alternatives airlines flying on the same routes? Nice uniforms? A Thai stir-fry included in your airfare? (I’m battling to think of anything else…)

At the same time their website , whilst much improved in the past 12 months, is still a bit ‘clumsy’ compared to other airlines’, the fleet is starting to look a bit ‘tired’, the eight years of loss after loss is starting to noticeably weigh on the airline’s staff, and in many cases the airfares are simply too expensive.

Unless you’re a huge Thai Airways fanboy or fangirl, there are fewer reasons every year to keep flying Thailand’s national airline.

Thailand’s surging tourist industry, which despite a few blips this year will continue to grow, has provided a huge opportunity for Thai Airways to thrive and grow. Instead the airline’s management have squandered an enormous opportunity. Whilst calling for patience as they make (almost zero) changes, many other airlines have jumped into their flying space with newer aircraft, better promotions, cheaper flights and a better business plan.

If Thai Airways was a private company they would have been out of business a decade ago. Instead they keep coming back to the Thai government with their hat out for contributions to bail them out of quarter after quarter of losses.

The airline’s main backer, the Thai government, provides a massive disincentive for the airline to clean up the internal mess and modernise. Where’s the urgency to make the necessary changes when the government will always end up bailing them out? The airline has simply weaponised ‘saving face’ – the national carrier simply CAN’T fail.

But maybe the view of Thai Airways as a potential profitable business is old-fashioned and the costs to the Thai taxpayer should be seen as an ‘investment’ into the country’s growing tourist industry. Middle Eastern airlines are operated in this way where they make massive losses but provide excellent service on modern aircraft dragging tourists through and to their airports and destinations.

Now Thai Airways is asking for the Thai government to bankroll the purchase of new aircraft for its fleet. That the Thai Government seems in no rush to write out any more cheques to Thai Airways is a good indication that some hard decisions now need to be made.

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Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2012. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for nearly 40 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program, presented 3,900 radio news bulletins in Thailand alone, hosted 450 daily TV news programs, produced 1,800 videos, TV commercials and documentaries and is now the General Manager and writer for The Thaiger. He's reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue.

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Business

Will Pattaya bar customers want ID tracing and bar girls with masks and gloves?

The Thaiger

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Will Pattaya bar customers want ID tracing and bar girls with masks and gloves? | The Thaiger
PHOTO: The Pattaya News

OPINION

Why do people travel to Pattaya? If it’s for the legendary bar scene, they’re going to be in for a surprise if proposed Covid-era measures are adopted. Likely it’s not going to be the ‘Pattaya’ they were expecting, or had been accustomed to in the past.

Social distancing (surely a phrase to be added to dictionaries from this year), limiting customers inside a bar, and bar workers with face masks and gloves, are just some of the proposed ideas for bars and nightclubs in the party town when they are finally allowed to re-open.

Understandably owners of the popular bars are desperate to lift up the shutters and entice the customers back into their familiar domain of expensive drinks, loud music and attractive hostesses. The large band of young female employees are also eager to welcome back the tourists. But the ‘new look’ bar and club scene may not be a turn on for the city’s expat crowd or future tourists.

In the suggested proposals, customers could also be asked to submit ID prior to entering a venue in case the information is needed for contact tracing in future. Screening checkpoints could also be set up at the entrances to popular haunts like Walking Street and Soi 6.

A meeting to discuss possible transition guidelines was held last Sunday at the Hollywood Club attended by representatives of Pattaya’s bar and nightclub scene, and officials from City Hall and the local police.

The meeting also discussed the possibilities of waiving various taxes and licensee fees. The issue of intransigent landlords who are still demanding full rent payments, was also discussed.

The seaside resort is facing a wipe-out scenario until some safe means of opening bars and clubs can be found. But that’s only the start of the recovery. At this stage there are no tourists and any early opening would only serve the city’s expat community or a trickle of domestic visitors.

The Thai government have closed all international airports for incoming passengers until at least the end of May and, beyond that, have not disclosed the conditions whereby they’d be willing to allow foreigners to return. Many of the Pattaya’s feeder markets for tourists are still in the midst of their own pandemic responses and are banning citizens from travel. Australians, for example, are being told it is unlikely to the government will allow international travel for the rest of this year. Airlines, meanwhile, remain largely grounded with their business models in tatters and many of the smaller, low-cost airlines facing closure.

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Coronavirus Thailand

54 Covid-19 deaths compared to 26,000 road deaths

The Thaiger

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54 Covid-19 deaths compared to 26,000 road deaths | The Thaiger

OPINION

by Brian Hull, long-term expat

From time-to-time The Thaiger adds some different perspectives from guest posts. Expat Brian Hull gave us permission to repost his social media rant about the road deaths in Thailand, comparing them with the death toll from the Covid-19 outbreak.

Thailand, with a population of 67 million, has done a good job to date in keeping Covid-19 deaths to just 54. This begs the question of why nothing serious is ever done to tackle the annual road carnage of 26,000 deaths, which gives Thailand the distinction of being in the top six of the worst countries in the world.

Every accident is a tragedy but the biggest tragedy of all is that most of these could be prevented with proper police control.

I don’t know where the buck stops in the Thai bureaucratic blame game but it should be obvious to even a blind man where it starts – with the traffic police who are noted by their absence from the roads.

During six years of living in Thailand, not once have I seen a motor bike cop or police car stop anybody for anything. Their activities are confined to roadside checks for motorbike helmets and drivers’ licenses. While it is laudable, it does not require trained policemen to perform this function, it could be done by retired school teachers or librarians, and does nothing whatsoever to reduce road accidents.

For years, I have expressed my frustration, and fumed about Thailand not having proper road rules but to my surprise, when I did a test for a Thai Driver’s License, I discovered that sensible traffic regulations, similar to those in the West, are in place. The problem is that they are not enforced.

I think a basic road rule that applies in nearly all developed countries, including Thailand, is that a vehicle (whether car or motorbike) cannot pass another vehicle that is travelling in the same lane. So, all those motorbikes and scooters that are passing cars on either side of them, and snaking in and out of traffic, are breaking the law and creating mayhem.

This, and drink driving or speeding, are the major causes of accidents. If the police were to crack down on just this one rule there is no doubt in my mind that traffic accidents would be reduced by well over 50%.

At 10pm one night last year, with nothing better to do, I counted 250 traffic transgressions in the space of 15 minutes that were worthy of a fine. Any country in the world would have a traffic accident rate as dismal as Thailand’s if they did not have active police control, from the top down.

If senior Government officials are not capable of effectively managing their police force, or are just too lethargic and unmotivated, then they should be replaced, and if appropriate, face charges of Criminal Negligence.

What do you think of Brian’s thoughts? Comment on our Facebook page.

54 Covid-19 deaths compared to 26,000 road deaths

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Environment

Thailand’s wildlife is thriving in shutdown, but maybe not for long

The Thaiger

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Thailand’s wildlife is thriving in shutdown, but maybe not for long | The Thaiger

by Ben Schaye

There have been a lot of viral news stories going around Thailand the last few weeks about the way wildlife is rebounding while humans are all hunkered down at home under Covid-19 lockdown. Dugongs (sea cows) have been seen frolicking off the coast of Trang, a pod of false killer whales appeared near Koh Lanta, and endangered leatherback sea turtles have been laying eggs on beaches in numbers not seen in years.

There is a serious threat toward wildlife looming though, and this drop in tourism can create its own problems for animals. While it’s great that the pressures of mass tourism have eased up on these creatures, if people don’t have work and income, that pressure will be replaced by poaching and unsustainable hunting.

Thailand is a solidly middle-income, developing country. Extreme poverty is low, and hunger is close to non-existent, or at least they were when times were good. Now with much of the economy shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, millions of people are out of work and facing difficult times. If this goes on much longer, it’s not a question of if, but when some of those people will turn toward poaching, illegal hunting, and fishing with cyanide or even dynamite.

While high profile stories of poachers and land encroachers are often in the news in Thailand, the country actually does a lot to protect its marine and land-based ecosystems. In the last few years, popular islands and beaches such as Maya Bay have been closed indefinitely, while areas like the Similan and Surin Islands are closed for half the year to allow ecosystems to recover from humans.

Thailand’s national parks also offer habitat protection to thousands of species including thousands of wild elephants whose populations have finally stabilized after decades of decline.

All of this may be under threat from the effects of the economic shutdown. While marine and national parks have yet to see layoffs or budget cuts, that could change as budgets are strained across all government sectors. These parks and reserves typically have money flowing in each day from admission fees but have been closed now for around a month and counting. Any staff cuts would make it easier for poachers to sneak in and out of these areas, while pay cuts could tempt rangers to accept bribes, or become poachers themselves.

Unlike many other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand has mostly done away with unsustainable fishing practices such as dynamite fishing or using cyanide to poison waters and kill fish. These practices that were once widespread have become quite rare due to a combination of strong enforcement and better education, but a cratering economy might threaten these gains. Desperation may lead people back into such unsustainable methods, and few things cause as much desperation as not having enough food to feed your family.

The solution to this problem needs to address the short and the long term. For now, Thailand needs to provide a way for its citizens to meet their basic needs. They also need to ensure that wildlife protection officials are still on the job and still being paid to patrol and keep poachers out.

In the longer term, there are lessons to be learned from the way wildlife is thriving right now while tourism is practically non-existent. More beaches and islands may need to be closed off, at least for temporary periods of time. There may also be value in closing off open areas of the ocean to boat traffic so that wildlife can gather there undisturbed.

There is a constant give and take between sustainability and economic development. Tourism is a crucial part of the Thai economy, and closing off too many areas will inevitably hurt locals and the broader industry. However, not doing enough will mortgage the future and ultimately be even more painful. Let’s hope the government can get this right. For now, we all need to come together to help out our neighbors and our communities. Meanwhile, let’s hope the animals enjoy their own little holiday in Thailand away from the stresses of ordinary life.

Ben has a blog at It’s Better In Thailand

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