THAI silk turning to sandpaper?

BANGKOK (AFP): Thai Airways (a.k.a THAI) is re-launching the quest for a leader who can get the airline to shrug off its rapidly deteriorating image and revalidate its claims of running “smooth as silk”. THAI’s reputation used to be one of the best in Asia. But analysts and passengers are starting to see the airline fall apart. And Thailand’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who opined last year that his nation’s airline “sucks”, wants a new president named by the end of this month. The airline is turning into a symbol of the problems confronting the prime minister as he struggles with his own flagging popularity. Thai Airways is plagued by an estimated two billion dollars in debt, deteriorating passenger service, government interference, boardroom chaos, labour unrest, and even bomb threats. Everything is pulling it off course from a partial privatization promised to the International Monetary Fund when it helped Thailand overcome the 1997 financial crisis. Three different boards have tried and failed to select a new president in the past year. Thaksin-appointed chairman Virabongsa Ramangkura called off the latest attempt on December 27 amid reports of infighting. Virabongsa warned in November that Thai Airways could collapse within three years unless its management and working style changed. According to Andrew Maule, an aviation analyst in Bangkok with ABN Amro, THAI, with a debt-equity ratio over 10, is now in danger of “going broke”. “It is time for a serious management shake-up,” says Maule. “There was renewed hope when the latest Thai government took power that…things would start to happen, [and] they would bring in proper managers. “The people who are there today do not know how it should be run. It is a combination of politicians, government bureaucracy, and labour-management [strife] which would scupper any enterprise.” THAI was a founder member of the Star Alliance of airlines, and other members, such as Lufthansa, were reportedly interested in taking a key stake. Aviation industry officials said, however, that interest is waning because of the government interference. And THAI’s “service has been in long-term decline,” notes Maule. “The people part has been forgotten. Frankly, it needs a major upgrade.” Singapore businessman David Wong, a regular traveller on the highly competitive short-haul flights in Southeast Asia, agrees. “There have been times when we have been told that flights were delayed to wait for a [Thai government] minister or a military officer,” he noted in disgust.

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