A story is currently shaking off Thai Airways International. It was revealed last week that two passengers on a Zurich-Bangkok flight had to downgrade themselves from First to Business class to let two off-duty pilots to take their seats. Pilots of the flight were refusing to start flying as long as their colleagues’ demand had not been satisfied.
It could sound like a joke if this story did not affect a prestigious Asian carrier, which reputation has been built on a culture of service echoing in its home country Thailand. Thai Airways International is the Kingdom national carrier but the behaviour of its personal is turning increasingly into a national embarrassment.
On October 11, a flight from the airline linking Zurich to Bangkok took off with two hours delay; Nothing to do with fog over Zurich or a technical issue. The two pilots in the cockpit refused to take off as long as two of their pilot colleagues -off-duty on that day- did not get two seats in first class. The problem? First Class was already filled up with passengers who refused first to bow to the pressure set by pilots. Finally, two passengers agreed to go to the business class section leaving their seats to the powerful off-duty pilots.
To be or not to be in First Class
Lack of good luck for the two pilots, the passengers who gave their seat were Thai upper class personalities. One immediately told the story on facebook while the other one logged an official complaint against the airline! On facebook, the customer indicated that “from what happened, I was surprised by the actions of deadhead pilots and on-duty pilots. They should provide service for passengers. Instead, they did it for themselves without taking into mind the feelings of passengers. It was as if the passengers were held hostage to their demands.” Their social status gave immediately exposure…
The unfortunate story generated headlines on social media and newspapers with such an outcry from the public that Thai Airways International newly chosen president had to step in and make a public apology. This represented a very embarrassing move for an Asian.
“I express sorrow and apologise to all passengers affected by the unprofessional action that caused the delay. And I apologise to the passengers who were directly affected by the seat changes. I take responsibility for the incident,” Sumeth Damrongchaitham said, adding that an investigation and sanctions would be immediately launched into the incident.
Thai Airways pilots’ labour union tried to justify the source of the incident. Another aircraft had to be sent to Zurich due to a technical failure of the usual aircraft. The aircraft sent to Zurich however did not have enough First Class seats to accommodate the unlucky pilots…
According to company regulations, the airline should reserve some first-class seats for pilots aimed at allowing them to have enough rest hours based on aviation safety standards. Except that pilots in that case were OFF-DUTY. And to refuse to go to business class shows also that the airline’s own pilots have very little respect for the quality of the product in this class of service!
Thai labour union president Damrong Waiyakanee said on Monday that the case has severely affected the airline’s image and criticised the off-duty pilots. Mr Waiyakanee added that the plane has a room for pilots to sleep but they did not want to use it.
How long can Thai Airways employees live in Fairyland?
This is not such an unusual story for Thai Airways International where there is an deeply rooted culture of nepotism. You wonder why for example staff flying to prestigious destinations such as London, Los Angeles, Paris or Sydney are generally so old? Well, this is not only because of their experience but also because of their seniority. Their status gives them the privilege of choosing their flying destination. Many of the staff comes indeed from wealthy Thai families where to be served is more in line with their usual lifestyle than to serve the others. On many long-haul flights, flight attendants tend to disappear once meal service is done. Looking on social media, any can see a lot of complaints about staff attitude.
The same seems to apply to pilots with their unbelievable expectations. Thai management needs to finally teach staff to understand that competition is rough in air transport and the habit of looking at passengers as an annoying element of their work is certainly detrimental to the airline. Thai Airways International quality has been now down for more than a decade compared to its counterparts in Asia. Twenty years ago, the carrier was considered one of the finest airlines around the world.
The government itself could actually push for changes by pushing for a more open competition. Such as for example allowing Thai companies or public services to choose the best price for the best quality. A private outbound travel agent was explaining once that he was not allowed to choose another airline than Thai for official business trips except if the fare was at least 30% cheaper than the one offered by Thailand national carrier. This kind of discriminating business practice should be lifted to ensure that all airlines win passengers for pricing but also quality.
It is probably time for Thai Airways management to look seriously at all the issues plaguing the airline from ageing staff to retraining both pilots and flying personal to provide the best to their customers. The slogan of Sumeth Damrongchaitham presidency is to nurture a “Customer is King” culture inside the airline. This incident is maybe the right opportunity to shake up an outdated complacency of personal that “we-are-the-best-because-we-are-Thai-Airways.”
The President of Thai Airways labour union seemed during his meeting with local media to acknowledge the necessity for a change. “Thai Airways should use this case as an opportunity to push for structural reforms. It should downsize some of its departments and increase efficiency [… However,] Thai Airways pilots are not more privileged than pilots of other airlines,” Dumrong explained. Half an apology? Probably for Thai Airways, this is already a major step forward!