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23 Jul, 2001

New Thai Airways Chairman Seeks to Sweep Clean

Bit by bit, Thai Airways International chairman Prof Chai-anan Samudavanij is proceeding with a plan to make THAI what he calls a model example of how state enterprises can and should be restructured in a global economy.

It’s not easy, and he knows it. Chosen to head THAI because of his considerable experience in various social and economic development projects as well as his objective, neutral approach, he says he plans to focus more on changing the system rather than shuffling personalities.

Speaking at a seminar of aviation communicators last week, he told delegates that “while many of the questions and issues about Thailand’s tourism development are familiar, at least some of the answers and solutions may lie in different directions from where we may have looked in the past.”

In a subsequent private discussion, he admitted that while he is a total newcomer to the aviation and tourism business, and is wearing many other hats, he is learning fast. Backing him are the words of recognised leaders like former PM Anand Panyarachun who has been quoted as saying that one of the best decisions the Thaksin administration has made so far is appointing Prof Chai-anan as THAI chairman.

At the moment, Prof Chai-anan is promising to be his own man and remain unswayed by political pressures and ambitions. He said he recognises that while deputy transport minister Pracha Maleenont is himself a newcomer to politics and may have been perhaps a little too quick in trying to make changes, Mr Pracha is aware of the long-term issues.

Said one close associate familiar with Prof Chai-anan’s thinking, “He will not be forced into doing anything that he does not agree with and believes to be absolutely right for the airline, regardless of the pressure.”

One eyebrow-raising controversy is that over the hunt that has begun to select a new president, well before the September 2002 retirement of incumbent Bhisit Kuslasayanon. While Mr Bhisit is taking this in stride, inspite of the personal embarrassment it might be causing him, Prof Chai-anan claims that a major corporation like THAI needs to have at least a year’s lead time to find a successor.

Nevertheless, he says, “It’s not about Bhisit, it’s the system”. He said he is also well aware of the pressure to appoint ambitious politically well-connected people within the company to the presidency, but declines comment on how he plans to resist these pressures.

However, one option being considered is to split the company into three profit centres, each with its own chief executive, similar to other Star Alliance airlines which have many different corporate units.

One of his recent actions was to ask THAI staff that if they were given three wishes about the future of the airline, what would they be. The input he got was considerable outpouring of frustrations. Some wanted better career paths, others wanted less personal influence in making promotions, others wanted to see it privatised.

In his official comments at the seminar, Prof Chai-anan said THAI’s board and management have identified ten key areas to guide their work: Developing new products and services, increasing revenues and the number of passengers, reduction of costs, restructuring finance and management, implementing projects related to the new Suwannabhumi airport, developing e-business, increasing staff productivity and improving communications with staff.

As far as THAI’s future in the Star Alliance is concerned, the airline is no longer giving any sure-fire assurances that it will remain in the alliance nor whether it will pull out. Prof Chai-anan said, “Alliances among airlines, like those in other areas of public and private life, ebb and flow over time, and we shall remain very alert to the full costs and benefits of our membership in this and other similar groupings.”

Another key issue is the restructuring of the domestic routenet. Prof Chai-anan said there was an opportunity here for a meeting of minds between THAI’s desire to cut unprofitable routes and the need to help the domestic airlines grow by giving them opportunities to profitably operate feeder routes.

“THAI has tried to make clear that it is prepared to work with other Thai airlines to improve domestic air coverage throughout the country. At the same time, THAI will do its best to ensure that no place which currently has an air service will be deprived of that service in future.”

Mrs. Sunathee Isvarphornchai, the airline’s communications director, said Prof Chai-anan’s vision is manifesting itself in other areas. She has been given a green light to put together a strategic communications plan that will involve establishing an information centre databank and appointing an official company spokesperson, “which we have never had before.”

The professor said he also plans to boost the airline’s environmental performance, possibly by initiating an annual environmental audit report similar to that produced for several years by Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines.

In an unusual move, he also publicly told seminar delegates that if they have any private comments about THAI, they can email him at chairman@thai.com.

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