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A Decade Ago: Airline safety no April fools joke

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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A Decade Ago: Airline safety no April fools joke | The Thaiger
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PHUKET: The April 1, 2006 edition of the Phuket Gazette was no joking matter, as the European Commission (EC) blacklisted the now-defunct Phuket Airlines due to safety concerns. However, even as the Gazette went to press a decade ago, the company had applied to launch another airline, to be called Holiday Airplanes.

Phuket is no stranger to horrific airline crashes, only a year and half after Phuket Airlines was blacklisted, One-Two-Go flight OG269 crashed during landing, killing 89 of the 130 people on board. That company wasn’t added to the EC blacklist until April 8, 2009 – you can only imagine what Phuket Airlines was up to, to find themselves banned from the airspace of the European Union and Switzerland.

Then again, we don’t have to imagine.

The airline began to have problems with its safety image in 2005, when passengers aboard one of its Boeing 727s bound for London forced a takeoff to be aborted after seeing fuel pouring from a wing tank after a refueling stop in the United Arab Emirates.

A few days later, another flight was abandoned after it had to turn back to London with a hydraulics problem. The company tried to switch to an Amsterdam route, but authorities barred a flight from taking off there after it was discovered that the emergency lighting inside the plane was not working properly. The saga continued when a small aircraft skidded off the end of the runway at Tak Airport in northern Thailand – only one passenger was injured.

If the looming threat of an EC ban of flights from Thailand doesn’t seem to just be coming from the annals of history, that’s because the EC and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) are currently working with Thai authorities to improve safety standards.

The Commission and EASA will closely monitor future developments, and if the protection of air passengers against safety risks so requires, the Commission could then propose to include one or more air carriers from Thailand in the Air Safety List, said the EC in a statement in December.

Though Thailand airlines narrowly escaped being added to the blacklist in December, they had already been downgraded by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates United States air safety, to category 2. Prior to this, the International Civil Aviation Organization placed the airlines under ‘special measures’, which prompted Japan and South Korea to block new flights from the Kingdom.

Clearly, despite the golden opportunity of having an April 1 issue date, the Gazette a decade ago – and now – did not see aviation safety as a laughing matter.

Regardless of the ban on Phuket Airlines in Europe, the importance of the European market was still enormous for Phuket. So, the ‘Inside Story’ a decade ago dived into the International Tourism Bourse (ITB) in Berlin.

Tourism business people from Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi returned from Berlin optimistic about the prospects for the 2006-2007 high season, having received positive feedback during the ITB 2006.

Though the European market pipeline has been constricted to the point that it only produces a trickle of what it once did, having been replaced by a strong Russian market (until the bottom dropped out on Russian ruble) and now the Chinese market, the Tourism Authority of Thailand continues to attend the ITB – pushing the wonders of the Andaman region to Europe.

These wonders – deserted beaches in Krabi and Phang Nga, the island speckled Gulf of Phang Nga and the Phuket infrastructure that makes all of these places easily accessible – will continue to draw people from around the world to the region. Now, whether or not they arrive in Thailand on a Thai airline is a different matter altogether.

— Isaac Stone Simonelli

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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

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Phuket

Phuket officials visit Kamala restaurant after customer charged 6,750 baht

Maya Taylor

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Phuket officials visit Kamala restaurant after customer charged 6,750 baht | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Facebook/ Lalita Chaiyasit

A seafood restaurant in Kamala, a west coast town in Phuket, has received strong criticism on social media after trying to charge a customer 6,750 baht for a takeaway meal. 3,000 baht of the bill was a “cooking fee”. Lalita Chaiyasit took to social media to vent her disbelief after receiving the bill. She says she was on holiday with her family in Phuket and wanted to order some food for delivery to their hotel. At the recommendation of their tour guide, she chose the Nanork Restaurant in Kamala, sending the tour guide to pick up the food.

A report in Thai Residents quotes Chaiyasit’s post, in which she says she received a bill for 6,750 baht, including 2,500 baht for a garlic squid dish and 850 baht for a spicy pork dish. To add insult to injury, she says the food tasted terrible. After complaining, the restaurant initially discounted the bill to 5,750 baht and eventually to 4,900 baht, of which Chaiyasit paid 4,000 baht. Netizens were up in arms upon reading her post, with many saying such establishments are the reason some tourists view Phuket as a rip-off destination.

Phuket officials visit Kamala restaurant after customer charged 6,750 baht | News by The Thaiger

The original bill and subsequent discounted bills – PHOTO: Facebook/ Lalita Chaiyasit

The eatery has now been visited by local government officials and officers from the Phuket Tourist Police following Chaiyasit’s complaint. For its part, the restaurant says the tour guide said the order was for 10 people, adding that it included 2 kilograms of squid and pork. Restaurant manager Sitthep Pricha says that after Chaiyasit complained about the price, he asked an employee to discount it, but then had to discount it further. He says the 3,000 baht cooking fee was for ingredients the customer had supplied herself, including 4 kilograms of fish and 4 lobsters.

SOURCE: Thai Residents

Phuket officials visit Kamala restaurant after customer charged 6,750 baht | News by The Thaiger

PHOTO: Facebook/ Lalita Chaiyasit

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Tourism

Phuket’s Lard Yai Sunday night market springs back to life

The Thaiger

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Phuket’s Lard Yai Sunday night market springs back to life | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Lard Yai springs back to life - Phuket People's Voice

The Lard Yai Sunday night walking street along Thalang Road Old Phuket Town has reopened to the delight of vendors, locals and a few expats. It has been closed for 3 months after lockdowns were applied to community markets.

New Provincial Governor Narong Woonchiew says he welcomes people back to the popular market.

“The province and the private sector have worked hard to make sure Lardyai walking street is safe and complies with social distancing practices to regain tourists’ confidence.”

Lard Yai, a fairly recent addition to Phuket’s vibrant market scene (about 4 years ago), became an instant success in amongst Thalang Road’s famous renovated historic Sino Portuguese shop houses. It attracted a healthy mixture of the local Phuket Town community, expats and visitors who appreciated the authenticity and unique nature of the market. There’s always a feast of music, great local food and trinkets, always evolving. The shops lining the streets are also joining in.

The Phuket governor says the browsing and walking areas have been made larger to allow crowds to adhere to social distancing during this Covid era. Vendors were invited to attend special instructional lectures before the market re-opened educating them about making the market safe.

“The activity was funded by Phuket Municipality’s Health Insurance Fund and aimed to promote the new normal in tourism to revive the province’s economy, which has been severely affected by the outbreak.”

Phuket Mayor Somjai Suwansupphana says the Lard Yai shopping district is more than 100 years old and covers the stretch along Thalang, Yaowarat, Krabi, Deebuk and Phuket roads.

“Surrounded by historic buildings with traditional Thai architecture, Lardyai was designated a Fine Arts Conservation Zone by the government back in 1992 and received the Asean Sustainable Tourism Award in 2018,” s

The Lard Yai walking street is now open every Sunday from 4pm to 10pm. Get to Phuket Town and ask the locals – they all know where it is. (Come by motorbike or taxi, you won’t find a place to park your car without a walk)

Phuket's Lard Yai Sunday night market springs back to life | News by The ThaigerPhuket's Lard Yai Sunday night market springs back to life | News by The Thaiger

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Opinion

Two years ago – remembering Phuket’s Phoenix boat tragedy

The Thaiger

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Two years ago – remembering Phuket’s Phoenix boat tragedy | The Thaiger

“There were 13 children that died in this disaster. Many were later found dead, floating face down, not far from their deceased parents.”

On an otherwise ordinary afternoon, two tour boats, Phoenix and Serenata, were heading back to Phuket after a half day tour of snorkelling near Koh Racha. The weather forecast was for seasonal monsoonal SW winds and waves, about the usual for that time of the year.

But there was also a weather warning for a storm later in the afternoon of July 5, 2018. For whatever reasons the captains of the two vessels started heading back to Phuket despite the warnings or perhaps in full ignorance of them. Even a look to the SW horizon would have indicated some poor weather was on the way.

Two years ago - remembering Phuket's Phoenix boat tragedy | News by The Thaiger

The tour boat Phoenix, as it appeared in promotional websites

Zheng Lancheng had travelled from China with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and 18 month old granddaughter for a trip to the tropical southern Thai island. Phoenix was carrying 101 passengers – 89 tourists, all but 2 were Chinese, 11 crew and a tour guide.

As the boats were off Koh Hei, south west of Phuket, a storm front, now looming large as it approached (a radar screenshot had even been posted by The Thaiger about 30 minutes before the tragedy), reached the two boats whipping up waves. The height of the waves was reported to be up to 5 metres by the Captain of Phoenix (but were more likely around 3 metres).

A boat of the size of Phoenix, in capable hands, should have handled the conditions, whilst uncomfortable for the passengers, with relative ease.

But Phoenix wasn’t just a standard purpose-built 29 metre diving boat. It had some major design and construction flaws which would contribute to the death toll on the day. Loose concrete blocks had been placed into the boats bilge to provide ballast and stability. These concrete blocks would shift as the boat started capsizing and make a bad situation worse. The boat had one watertight door, it should have had four. And the windows, smashing when the water hit them, were not marine-grade glass.

More about the boat’s shortcomings HERE.

Mr. Zheng and his family didn’t know what was going on. The boat was ‘shaking’ and passengers, although remaining silent, were ‘clearly frightened’. Suddenly the boat started lurching and tipping over. People started screaming. Most were still below decks because of the rain. Few were wearing life vests or bouyancy vests. Mr. Zheng, above decks with his family, held on to his wife but her knee had been injured. Suddenly he was in the water. Eventually many of the survivors would be found to be wearing non-compliant bouyancy vests.

He later told police there was no warning, no advice from crew beyond ‘Get out’.

Other witness reports say that the Thai crew and Captain, all saved on the day, were the first to get off the boat leaving more than half the passengers below decks and many other floundering around in the water.

Mr. Zheng struggled onto one of the life rafts, dragged in by other bewildered passengers. By this stage the boat had sunk.

“There were no words between any of us in the rubber boat. All of us were stunned. We could only hear the sounds of the sea.”

Mr Zheng said if they had known there would be a big rubber boat floating around after their boat sank, they might have first put on life vests and jumped in the vicinity to be saved.

“However, we knew nothing about it. No one gave us any warnings or guidance.”

There were 13 children that died in this disaster. Many were later found dead, floating face down, not far from their deceased parents. In total, 47 people died as a result of the Phoenix sinking.

The other boat, Serenata, had also sunk off Koh Mai Thon but its 42 passengers were all rescued.

In the days following there were countless missteps and mishandling by Thai officials and politicians. Among them the Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan pushing the blame onto the boat’s ‘real’ owners saying the situation was just “Chinese killing Chinese”, alluding to the early revelation that the boat was really owned and funded by Chinese who merely had a Thai ‘shelf’ company to comply with the law.

“Some Chinese use Thai nominees to bring Chinese tourists in. They did not heed warnings, which is why this incident happened. This needs to be remedied,” Prawit said.

But what warnings? The boat had been ticked off, approved and registered by Thai Authorities. Clearly unsuitable for its designed purposes, the vessel had been able to conduct tours with paying customers – all under the watch of Thai marine officials. For all the finger pointing and shifting of blame, the cause of the deaths lay fairly and squarely at the feet of the Thai authorities, the Thai Captain and Thai crew who had it within their entire control to avoid the loss of life.

Then, the final insult, as the Thai Government tries to auction off the wreck of Phoenix saying they needed to pay for the storage fees at the Rasada shipyard where the broken relic still sits.

Read our editorial about the auction HERE.

Two years later and the fallout can be properly measured. Probably the most obvious is the drop in Chinese tourism (which was already languishing before the coronavirus pandemic stated). Chinese social media savaged the handling of the entire Phoenix ‘situation’ and was candid in recommending that Chinese tourists avoid Phuket and Thailand in the future. And that, in part, has happened.

Phuket’s Chinese tourist flow dropped dramatically, up to 30-50% year on year (based on hotel bookings, tour bookings and airport arrivals). There was also a drop in Chinese patronage for the rest of Thailand although the Thai government stepped up measures to keep the numbers rolling on, including the waiver of the visa-on-arrival fee and special ‘Chinese only’ immigration queues.

From a media point of view, Phuket largely ‘dodged a bullet’ as the world’s media was focused on the ongoing drama at Tham Luang Caves, luckily with a much happier ending (the rescue of the 13 young men from the caves in Chiang Rai). The Phoenix boat tragedy was not as widely reported as it would have been normally.

But Phuket’s reputation had been wounded. The stench of the unnecessary 47 deaths has tarnished the island’s ‘tropical playground’ sales point and will hang over the island for years, especially in the minds of Chinese visitors.

Last year the Phuket Governor said there would be no memorial for the 47 lost lives “because no one wants one”. He also told The Phuket News last year that the Chinese government and Chinese tourists now had more confidence in the safety of tourism in Phuket because the number of Chinese tourists travelling to Phuket has increased steadily after the incident (but never reached anywhere near the same popularity).

His misinformed comment, unchallenged by Thai reporters, bore no resemblance to the facts or explained hotel occupancies in Phuket sitting at record lows and the absence of the earlier throngs of Chinese travellers pre-Phoenix disaster.

Tow years later, the weather in Phuket is fine, with moderate winds, cloudy skies and a temperature of 31 – a perfect day for a tour off Phuket’s coast to one of the many, many islands (except there are very few boats running at the moment).

Now Phuket faces an existential threat to its tourist business – a tiny virus that has shut down the island’s tourism almost completely – that will be even more complex to survive than the Phoenix boat disaster. But the island has survived numerous hits in the past and, somehow, is able to rebuild following the disruptions.

Two years after that fateful day off the south east coast of the island Phuket is a very quiet place indeed.

Two years ago - remembering Phuket's Phoenix boat tragedy | News by The Thaiger

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