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10 Sep, 2001

PM urged to Reinstate Respected Thai Airways Chairman

If there is one thing that many in the Thai aviation and tourism industry agree on, it is that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra needs to reinstate Prof Chai-anan Samudvanij as chairman of THAI.

Having exorcised those widely seen to be the trouble-makers and political power-brokers, there is a strong support for the view that the Prime Minister needs to help Prof Chai-anan finish the work he set out to do, and for which he was winning many plaudits inspite of the blatant attempts to thwart him.

In terms of personal integrity and professional standing, Prof Chai-anan remains the most reputable chairman the airline has had. He quickly grasped the various problems in the airline and had only just embarked upon the long and winding road to get it back in good shape.

The blueprint that emerged after the recent high-level meeting in Hua Hin to revamp the airline had basically become Prof Chai-anan’s roadmap. The feeling in the aviation and tourism industry is that the Prime Minister needs to give Prof Chai-anan both another chance and a clearer channel to stay the course.

There are wider issues at stake. Mr Thaksin’s goal to generate 50,000 million baht more in tourism revenue earnings cannot be met if THAI stumbles. The airline not only brings in 40-45% of all visitor arrivals into Thailand and handles most of the cargo exports, especially of foreign exchange generating perishables like fruits and flowers.

Like the recent strike at Cathay Pacific or the problems at Sri Lankan Airlines, Philippine Airlines and Garuda Indonesia have shown, a problem-plagued national airline can floor both the tourism industry and a good chunk of the export business.

October will also mark the start of the six-month tourism high season. This year, the Thai tourism industry is on track to break the 10-million arrivals mark. The global economic downturn is going to be mean further competition for the tourist dollar and hence a greater need for high standards, punctuality and good products.

Next week, a major travel trade show is to be held in Bangkok with most buyers being flown in by THAI. The last thing Thailand needs is for their flights to be delayed by bomb-scares.

The government also needs to get the airline ready for further privatisation which should yield a major bonanza, but only if the shares are not at fire-sale prices that international investors would love to get. Indeed, the International Air Transport Association is convening today a major financial forum in Bangkok at which it will become clearer how much of a mess the regional airline industry is in these days.

The executive board that Deputy Transport and Communications Minister Pracha Maleenont set up, indirectly to undercut the authority and power of the main board, is understood to have been disbanded.

The appointment of Mr. Somchainuk Engtrakul, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, as Acting THAI’s President, has been greeted well. Airline managers in Thailand who have dealt with him in the past say they have found him a man they can do business with, primarily because he does not have a tainted reputation.

The next step is to bring in a qualified President. If an executive with no airline background is brought in, he is certainly going to need much help to fly through the global turbulence ahead. Executives say former President Bhisit Kuslasayanond can still be made good use of in his new advisory capacity to follow through on at least some of the channels of change.

The removal of Mr Pracha from overseeing THAI marks another blow to the years-long ambitions of Executive Vice President Prajak Jamrusmechoti to become THAI President. In the past few years, perhaps no other senior THAI executive has been moved around from one post to another after failing time after time to get the top job.

Mr Prajak has done stints as VP for special projects (an inactive position) and been transferred for brief periods to both the Cargo and Human Resources departments. He came very close to getting the job when he was Executive VP Commercial, effectively the Number Two management slot, under President Thamnoon Wanglee for several years.

Last year, however, he lost to Mr Bhisit by a unanimous vote of the then board of directors. He has reapplied in the current selection process.

With very little grasroots support from either the senior management or staff in THAI, Mr Prajak has focussed mainly on working the politicians, especially those in the Chart Pattana party and Transport and Communications Ministry rather than Finance.

Also a few years away from retirement, he is running out of time. Now that overseeing THAI has passed into the hands of Transport and Communications Minister Wan Mohammed Noor Matha, his chances are virtually nil, especially as the minister is known to be a good friend of Suthep Suebsantiwongse, Executive Vice President, Customer Service.

Mr Suthep enjoys much support among foreign airline industry executives to head THAI, also because of his untainted reputation. Indeed, the recent attempts to stir up trouble between the pilots and the unions are widely seen as part of a drive to discredit and embarrass Mr Suthep, and hurt his chances at being moved up.

However, for many THAI watchers, the good news is that times have changed. Currying favour with politicians and the military is becoming increasingly frowned upon, especially in a job that demands a high level of accountability, public scrutiny and respectability among both foreign and domestic constituents.

Members of the Star Alliance were stunned by the shake-up. Several senior alliance management members were in Bangkok last Thursday to plan a formal summit of alliance CEOs later this year. One of the plans was for a formal signing ceremony to cement THAI’s place in the alliance, and end ceaseless speculation about a possible pullout.

Though Rio de Janiero had been mulled as the venue for the CEOs meeting, a number of alliance CEOs had favoured holding it in Bangkok. Now that meeting is understood to have gone back to Rio.

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