Struggling national carrier Thai Airways International PCL is pinning hopes of a revival to its 1990s heyday on a new leadership team, jet purchases and improving its brand as tourism booms in the region.
But the new president and chairman taking the helm are political appointees without aviation experience and several executives told Reuters the airline needs to adjust to a market where the good times of having a near-monopoly at home are long over.
Challenges for the new team include cutting costs, managing a mixed fleet, coping with loss-making subsidiaries as well as healing long-time rifts between government-appointed management and airline veterans.
Thailand has been the beneficiary of a boom in tourist arrivals, particularly from China, but as foreign airlines like Qatar Airways and China Eastern Airlines Corp have rushed to add flights, Thai Airways has reported annual losses for four of the last five years.
“Thai Airways did not adapt quickly enough and competes in one of the world’s toughest industries,” former Thai Airways president Piyasvasti Amranand said.
The structure of state enterprises in Thailand slows decision-making because the carrier needs to seek approval from many agencies for decisions, he said.
Other national carriers in the region where the government takes an active role have had similar struggles; Malaysia Airlines has yet to return to profitability after two disasters in 2014 and Garuda Indonesia last week replaced its latest CEO after 17 months.
In contrast, Singapore Airlines Ltd, majority-owned by state investor Temasek, and government-controlled Air New Zealand Ltd, are run in a hands-off manner and are profitable.
On paper, prospects are good for Thai Airways. Air traffic is booming in Asia – the International Air Transport Association forecast profits of Asia-Pacific airlines to increase 8.4% from last year to $9bn in 2018.
Also, Thailand expects 37.5mn visitors this year, up 6% from 2017, most of whom arrive by air. But Thai Airways’ new president, Sumeth Damrongchaitham, who started the job this month after an 18-month search, has his work cut out.
The 53-year-old has to turn around the national carrier, which reported $93mn losses in its April-June quarter amid higher fuel prices. Thai Airways last posted a profit in the first quarter of 2018.
On an annual basis it posted a profit in 2016 and before that in 2012.
Sumeth’s previous experience has been in managing government property and in the music industry
The military-led Thai government, which owns 51% of the airline, has representation on the board and oversight of investment plans. Jothin Pamon-Montri, a former senior vice president at the airline, said the lack of aviation experience was not necessarily a problem, but Sumeth would need to work closely with career employees. “The president must consult management and listen to staff to solve problems and forget the outside advisers,” Jothin said.
Sumeth will be working with a new board chairman, Ekniti Nitithanprapas, who ran the State Enterprise Policy Office from 2015 to 2018, a government unit that oversees the airline. Ekniti, who took over in July, is seen as a capable bureaucrat but may have his plate full heading the government’s revenue department and as chairman of the state-owned Krung Thai Bank.
Sumeth and Ekniti declined interview requests. Thai Airways did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Sources close to Thai Airways said a pressing issue was what to do with loss-making subsidiary Thai Smile, which was set up in 2012 as a mid-range brand when Piyasvasti was president.
Piyasvasti, who was president from 2009 to 2012, brought the airline into profitability but was removed abruptly by the then democratically-elected government.
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