Is the Ban Extension for Thailand’s Inbound Flights a Way to Buy Time for Thai Airways International?

Thailand, civil aviation, airlines, Thai Airways International, COVID19

On Saturday May 16, the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) decided to extend its ban on all inbound flights from May 31 until June 30. A decision which is difficult to understand as many countries in Asia emerge from the pandemics. The answer to this decision might be in the headquarters of Thai Airways International. 

There is something irrational in the announce done last Saturday by the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) by renewing the ban on international commercial flights into the kingdom until the end of next month. The official reason as reported by to local newspapers: to continue the fight against COVID-19, according to CAAT director-general Chula Sukmanop. “Prolonging the ban would give the authorities more time to fight Covid-19′” he explained to local journalists.

While such a decision can be easily understood in countries still in the midst of a virulent COVID pandemic such as Russia or the United States , the decision is difficult to explain for Thailand. The Kingdom is claiming to have recorded less than 25 new cases in a week and for a few days, it has not officially recorded any new death.

It seems however that the Civil Aviation forgets what the tourism and travel industry brings to Thailand. According to the latest data from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), an institution which represents both public institutions and the private sector, tourism in Thailand generated 19.7% of the country’s total GDP in 2019. Among the top 20 tourism countries around the world, Travel and tourism generated the highest share. Looking at employment, travel and tourism in Thailand had a share of 21.4% in 2019 (source: WTTC), translating into 8.5 million jobs.

The extension of the ban will then continue to deprive the Kingdom of an important source of jobs and revenues. While prudence is necessary in these times of health crisis, a step-by-step, progressive reopening should have been the right answer. Many countries in the region seem to have fully mastered the COVID-19 crisis: in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, they have been none or very few recorded cases for at least two weeks. Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong but also Australia and New Zealand could be the first of a list of countries where travel conditions could already be eased -including strict controls before departure from each country and once landed in Thailand.

The answer to the decision might be somewhere else and maybe at Thai Airways International. Thailand national carrier is close to collapse with the government ready to -once again-inject funds into the moribund carrier- THB54 billion equivalent to US$1.69 billion. The airline immobilized its fleet and does not fly a scheduled timetable, beside a few domestic routes.

However, on May 8, the airline already updated its timetable for summer 2020 to OAG, a consulting company which monitors and publishes all airlines’ timetables worldwide. And according to OAG timetable dated May 8, Thai Airways International is only planning to fly again internationally from July 1st, 2020.

The carrier would then relaunch frequencies on July 1st to Auckland, Beijing, Brisbane, Brussels, Copenhagen, Delhi, Frankfurt, Guangzhou, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Islamabad, Jakarta, Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, London, Manila, Melbourne, Munich, Osaka, Paris, Perth, Phnom Penh, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, Tokyo, Vientiane and Yangon. On July 2, TG would then add routes to Denpasar, Lahore, Nagoya and Zurich. Based on the announcement, TG obviously knew already about the date of the reopening of Thai skies in early May…

A question comes to the mind: is the CAAT deliberately blocking other international airlines to fly into Thailand before Thai Airways International is back to business? Did CAAT discuss prior to the decision with TG management? While it is natural for Thailand to look after the interest of its national carrier, the decision is actually not only affecting foreign national carriers but also all low cost carriers including powerful airlines such as the AirAsia group, which has largely contributed to the success of Thailand tourism by opening hundreds of destinations in the last decade. Above all, tourism seems to be sacrificed for the sake of protecting again Thai Airways International. In a time of economic crisis when millions of people are unemployed, what should then be the priority?