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15 Jul, 2002

Thai Airways Chief’s Apology to Travelling Public Leads to Head-Scratching

Last week’s unprecedented apology by Thai Airways President Kanok Abhiradee to representatives of upmarket clients who have taken their business elsewhere was not only the first of its kind in aviation history but has left some wondering whether the chief executives of other Thai state enterprises will follow suit.

Airline chief executives do not extend apologies to customers for service lapses; that is usually left to the complaints-handling department. Apologies from chief executives only come in the case of serious incidents like air-crashes, like the one offered by Deputy Chairman and CEO of Singapore Airlines Dr Cheong Choong Kong after the crash in Taipei in November 2000.

While Mr Kanok’s move is generally accepted to have been “a good gesture” and culturally kosher, just as it is in Japan, it has raised more questions about whether it was really necessary as a business strategy and, more importantly, about how much lost business it will actually bring back.

Interviewed the day after it was made, a number of Thai Airways executives said they were surprised by the language used in making the apology. They said instructions have gone out to their worldwide offices to crank up sales efforts and do everything possible to bring back lost business, but asked whether this is now supposed to include making an apology, too?

Indeed, this was perhaps the most serious question the event raised: Was this a limited apology only to specific Thailand-based customers of business and first class, or was it supposed to extend to economy-class passengers, shareholders, cargo companies, both in Thailand and abroad, who have also experienced service lapses and other failures to deliver on the sales and marketing promises?

“It puts offices around the world in an awkward situatoin,” said one Thai Airways executive. “Thailand generates only 20pc of the company’s sales. If an apology is made being to this segment, what about the remaining 80pc?”

Executives also queried in whose name precisely was Mr Kanok making the apology: The ministries of Finance, and Transport & Communications which respectively hold most of the Thai Airways shares, and administer the airline? The board of directors? Or the staff?

If it was in the name of the staff, one staffer questioned it. “We all work very hard to deliver results. But one reason why we have lost customers is because our product has fallen way behind that of our competitors like Singapore Airlines and Cathay.

“That has clearly made it difficult to sell our product. It is not our fault, but we know whose fault it is.”

He added, “I’m just not sure what is expected of us now. It’s okay for him to make the apology. He’s not the one who has to sit and listen to all the complaints the front-line staff get when things go wrong because we don’t have the authority to make decisions or don’t have the right tools or equipment.”

Executives noted that the apology was not accompanied by any simultaneous announcement of a campaign to upgrade the product or improve service. “It appealed to nationalism,” said one executive. “Sort of like the buy-Thai campaign. It might win some business but probably not much. People will wait and see whether there is a genuine improvement. If not, they will just go back to using whichever airline provides the best product, service and value, regardless of the flag.”

One executive said they now feared a deluge of letters from local associations, charities and other such social organisations for free tickets, upgrades and excess baggage allowances.

Within the travel industry at large, executives were not sure about whether to be amused or impressed. They did agree that they were surprised.

While one called it a “noble and well-meaning gesture,” another noted that no company can deliver 100pc perfect service, specially not in the travel and tourism industry where things can go wrong for all kinds of reasons, ranging from weather conditions to strikes to just plain bad management or poor training.

He agreed that it would have been far better had the airline unveiled a whiz-bang plan to overhaul its products and services, with a specific time-frame over which the plan would be achieved.

“There should have been more to it than just an apology,” he said. “Under (former president) Thamnoon Wanglee, Thai had this slogan about becoming the ‘First Choice Carrier.’ That was four years ago, and it’s nowhere near being the first choice carrier, except on the routes where it has a monopoly or faces competition of lesser quality.”

Said another senior industry executive, “Kanok has this advantage of being a personal friend of the Prime Minister. He is also enjoying a bit of a honeymoon among the staff because he is the first outsider to be appointed to the job and does not carry any political baggage from the past. There’s a lot he can do to lift spirits and boost morale. I’m just not sure making such a public apology was the way to do it.”

One executive said he was now waiting for an apology from the heads of the Airports Authority of Thailand, the Telephone Organisation, the Communications Authority and other state enterprises where service lapses are regular occurrences. “What about other government agencies responsible for protecting the environment or providing law and order?”

Having aroused much discussion on the industry cocktail party circuit last week, the move is clearly going to be studied in the country’s MBA programmes and analysed against the results it achieves, or doesn’t achieve.

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