Thai Life

Up in the air: DCA woes continue

PHUKET: Fallout from the miserable results of the recent audit of Thailand’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is having direct effects both on Phuket’s tourism and general aviation industries.

Well-publicized action to ban any new Thai flights imposed by the governments of Japan, South Korea and China have already affected several Thai charter airlines who had planned to bring thousands of passengers to Phuket for the Songkran holidays.

Some 10,000 pre-booked passengers from Korea who planned trips to Thailand aboard three
affected charter carriers would suffer from flight cancellations in April, DCA Director General Somchai Piputwat disclosed to the state run ThaiPBS network following failed talks with their Korean counterparts early this month.

While the bans are most crippling to low-budget airlines and charter operators, it also includes a ban on any changes in aircraft used on existing scheduled flight routes, which could affect scheduled carriers in the long run.

The ICAO audit found that the DCA met just 21 of 100 operational and safety requirements under review, prompting them to issue a global alert over “significant safety concerns” on Thai carriers on March 20.

Aviation officials in all three countries, as well as Singapore, have reportedly begun to carry out careful inspections of Thai-flagged planes landing at airports in their country. Thai aviation industry analysts fear safety concerns could spread internationally, resulting in similar “pre-emptive” bans by aviation regulators in even larger markets, including the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its counterpart in the European Union, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

LOCAL REACTION

Pat James, who heads the Phuket Aviation Club (PAC) based at Phuket Airpark in Pa Khlok, said the results of the ICAO’s audit came as little surprise among industry analysts who have witnessed the Thai commercial aviation industry’s huge expansion in recent years – with no commensurate expansion in DCA’s oversight capabilities.

The ICAO audit revealed ‘discrepancies’ in the DCA’s accountability in their policing of rules and regulations, as well as in the issuance of certificates, both to recreational flyers seeking Thai air operators licences (AOLs) as well as the additional and more stringent air operators certificates (AOCs) required by scheduled commercial carriers, Mr James explained.

“All of these certificates have come into question and are under a black cloud right now. The lack of personnel at the DCA itself, lack of enforcement bodies within the agency and the lack of clear, open regulations has hampered actions within the agency,” he said.

However, Mr James agreed with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s decision not to place blame on the DCA itself. The agency has had numerous requests for additional funding and other forms of support rejected by politicians from successive administrations dating back many years. This has forced it to continue to operate in much the same way it did some 20 or even 30 years ago, he said.

GROUNDED

The DCA disruption is having a “hard, hard” impact on the general [recreational] aviation as well, he explained.

“It is filtering down to all the smaller aircraft also, because now rather than continuing to go by policies that gradually went into effect over the last 10 years, the DCA is reverting back to strict adherence to aviation law,” he said.

Some of the regulations now being enforced date back almost 50 years, he said.

Key among them is renewed enforcement of a law requiring applicants for a pilot’s licence to be listed as the owner, either fully or in part, of an aircraft already registered in the Kingdom.

“This has resulted in the closure of flight schools. Now you are not allowed to fly any aircraft unless your name is listed on the five-year permit. That is just one of many changes that have come about through this reversion to the rule, compared with what we were allowed to do over the last ten years,” he said.

“Thailand is pretty much closing the door on student aviation activities, except for the bigger schools that train future commercial airline pilots. But for people who want to take their family out flying or enjoy other forms of recreational flying, that has pretty much come to a stop,” he said.

The stoppage had a huge effect on “bread-and-butter” operations at Phuket AirPark, grounding most of the small aircraft based there and forcing the Phuket Aviation Club, or PAC, to cancel a series of scheduled air show activities, the next of which had been scheduled to take place in May.

Mr James said he hoped the sweeping changes needed at the DCA, including re-staffing and promulgation of new regulations affecting general aviation industry, would take place in time for the AirPark to resume business as normal – and host more fun events like the PAC’s recent Fly’N and Airshow – by the start of the next high season.

These activities are a way of getting people interested in flying, signing up for flight school, and so on. Such activities will obviously need to be postponed indefinitely, until new regulations are put in place, he said.

While an overhaul and upgrade of the DCA is long overdue and could yield positive results in the long term, short-term prospects for the general aviation industry nationwide are somewhat gloomy as the monsoon season looms.

“We have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. We are optimistic that there is light at the end of the
tunnel, but we just do not know how long that tunnel might be,” he concluded.

EFFECT ON TOURISM

Well-known tourism industry analyst Bill Barnett of the C9 Hotelworks consultancy told Up In The Air that the effects of the flight ban will have “an even greater impact” on Thai outbound tourism than on the inbound markets.

“Thais have been increasingly lured to Japan and Korea, due to [the waiver] of visa requirements and packaged tours via charter flights,” he said.

Thais wanting to visit the two countries are now issued permits-to-stay on arrival of 15 days for Japan and 90 days for South Korea.

“Meanwhile, Phuket in recent years has seen a diminishing of both its inbound Korean and Japanese market segments. While the Korean honeymoon trade is still a mainstay of the island’s hotel
industry, this remains intact by means of direct scheduled flights to the island,” Mr Barnett noted.

“But the broader issue is more about Thailand’s reputation and branding internationally. Given
that, I believe the government’s strong stance on reforming the DCA is the correct response
under the circumstances.”

For updates from the author follow @Phuketsub on Twitter.

— Stephen Michael Fein

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