Air Transport World

The Thai that binds.(Profile)

Thai Airways International's advertisements always have promised passengers a "smooth as silk" ride and the airline often has delivered. But for the carrier itself, the flightpath has been more like dodging the severe thunderstorms for which Bangkok is famous. A major cause of the turbulence has been government meddling combined with a lack of understanding by the bureaucrats of the critical role Thai plays in the development of the tourism industry.

Moreover, lack of stability at the top of the carrier has impacted long-term planning and hampered innovation, particularly in the area of passenger service--for which Thai once was legendary. Matters came to a head in May 2001 when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra publicly criticized the airline's inflight product. That outburst and problems with the pilots led to the resignation of President Bhisit Kuslasayanon and the entire airline board the following September.

The revolving door continued when the new chairman, Virabongsa Ramangkura, who was appointed in October 2001, officially resigned on May 23, 2002, one day before current President Kanok Abhiradee took over with a mandate to reinvent the airline, lift sagging morale and make its business processes more transparent. Although Kanok lacked a background in the airline industry, he brought experience in a wide range of activities including financing, multimedia, automotive and medical.

His appointment coincided with a realization at the highest levels of government that while other Asian countries' economies were fueled by export-driven manufacturing, Thailand's depended heavily on tourism. Analysts had warned that Thai Airways was the weakest link in any move to bolster the nation's tourism industry. Since last November's sale of new and existing shares in the airline, however, the government's stake has fallen from 93% to 67.2% with public stockholders having 31.9% and employees the remainder. This gives hope that the government will adopt a more hands-off attitude to management of the carrier.

Politicians already have recognized that previous administrations neglected the national flag carrier, letting it slip behind its competitors in the all-important area of inflight product, with many aircraft lacking personal entertainment systems even in business class. …

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