Airlines eye international expansions

The International Civil Aviation Organization has announced the removal of the red flag that hindered Thai-registered airlines from expanding routes. SOMCHAI POOMLARD

Thai-registered airlines are reactivating their stalled international expansion plans now that the UN aviation watchdog has confirmed it is removing Thailand’s red flag over safety concerns.

At least three airlines affected by the restrictions imposed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said they will take all steps required to launch services to certain countries that have been strictly observing the ICAO’s restrictions.

Senior executives of Thai AirAsia X (TAAX), Thai Lion Air (TLA) and NokScoot told the Bangkok Post yesterday the removal of ICAO’s red flag will finally set in motion plans to operate new routes and use different aircraft types on flights to Japan and South Korea.

These airlines expect to establish regular service to these targeted countries in the first half of next year, pending business plans and regulatory approval.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who personally received the confirmation yesterday from Arun Mishra, Asia and Pacific director of the ICAO, hailed the move as a historic event for Thailand.

Aviation leaders described the move as the dawn of a new era, liberalising the industry and regaining global credentials that were badly tarnished by the red flag status, which lumped Thailand with some of the world’s least developed states.

The ICAO website announced the removal of the red flag against Thailand on Saturday, following an ICAO field audit on Sept 20-27 of the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) and subsequent evaluation in ICAO’s Montreal head office.

Early in 2015, ICAO discovered 572 flaws in its examination of the former Department of Civil Aviation’s (DCA) safety standards, with 33 classified as significant safety concerns (SSCs) that were critical enough to warrant a red flag in June of that year.

CAAT was founded with a new structure to assume the responsibilities previously held by the DCA and comply with ICAO guidelines.

ICAO had said that SSC status does not necessarily indicate a particular safety deficiency in air navigation service providers, airlines, aircraft or aerodromes, but indicates the state is not providing sufficient safety oversight to ensure effective implementation of applicable ICAO standards.

Gen Prayut told reporters that his government had “systematically and concretely” solved long-standing problems concerning aviation safety standards.

Airlines executives and government officials all said the red flag removal is a positive development and one that is in the best interests of Thailand, the tourism sector and Thai travellers.

Aviation legal specialist Alan Polivnick said: “The removal of the red flag means that restrictions on Thai-registered carrier operations, apart from those which relate to the US, have been lifted.”

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which downgraded Thailand to Category II status after ICAO placed the red flag on Thailand, has yet to reappoint Thailand to Category I.

CAAT officials yesterday said they will initiate the process to have the FAA audit Thai aviation standards in the first quarter of next year. They believe CAAT will now be able to convince FAA to upgrade its Thai status.

Mr Polivnick, who is a partner in Watson Farley & Williams Thailand, noted that the FAA rating is independent of the ICAO position.

However, until the FAA awards Thailand with Category I status, restrictions on operations to the US and with US carriers will remain in force, he added.

Practically, the FAA status is not pertinent as there are no Thai-registered airlines serving the US.

The ICAO decision will also mean less stringent inspection procedures for Thai aircraft at European Union airports.

TAAX chief executive Nadda Buranasiri said the red flag removal means that the long-haul low-cost carrier can implement a significant expansion.

The airline will add at least three new Airbus A330-300 wide-body jets to its six-aircraft fleet, introducing more North Asian routes and debuting flights to Europe and Australia.

He said: “TAAX remains eager to resume its short-lived regular service to Sapporo, which operated briefly in mid-2015.”

TAAX hopes to reactivate the Bangkok-Sapporo service by year-end, operating with a daily frequency, said Mr Nadda.

Other new destinations could only happen in the second quarter of next year, pending permits and sales activities, he added.

TLA chief executive Aswin Yangkirativorn, chief executive of TLA said: “TLA will proceed at full throttle for its expansion to Japan and South Korea.”

A spokesperson at NokScoot said the LCC will move forward on its planned expansions, especially to Japan and South Korea.

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