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6 Jan, 2003

Thai Aviation Department Rebuts Claims of Air Traffic Decline

After listening silently for more than a year to complaints about the decline in airline frequencies to Thailand, the Aviation Department has struck back, releasing figures which show exactly the opposite.

In the current winter season 2002/2003, Thailand is being served by 79 foreign airlines operating a total of 670 weekly scheduled international flights, up from 75 airlines operating 618 flights in winter 2001/2002. In addition, 476 weekly international flights are being operated by Thai Airways International and 78 by Bangkok Airways.

Furthermore, an Aviation Department spokesperson said, permission has been given to 20 airlines operating 752 charter flights with a total seat capacity of 205,914 this winter.

This is up from last winter’s charter flight schedule which, mainly as a result of the slump that followed the 9/11 attacks, had only 12 airlines operating a total of 696 frequencies and a seat capacity of 178,812.

Another 1,577 extra scheduled flights were operated by airlines all through 2002, mainly to serve peak demand periods like the Chinese New Year holiday rush in February 2002.

Said the spokesperson, “We have been reading news reports quoting senior officials of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the private sector complaining about declining airline frequencies.

“While that may true for only some long-haul sectors, the bottom-line is that total frequencies to Thailand have increased markedly, and are continuing to increase.”

She added, “It appears that when all those who complain don’t meet the targets, they look for someone to blame, but when they meet their targets, they say it was their own effort that produced results.”

Indeed, a detailed analysis of the voluminous aviation figures released by the department confirmed the evolution taking place in overall visitor arrivals to Thailand — visitors from long-haul markets like North America and Europe are gradually weakening in favour of major increases in arrivals from intra-Asian destinations.

Of the 79 foreign airlines serving all points in Thailand, the figures show that 53 are from within the Asia/Australia region, a significant increase over 40 airlines from the same region that were serving Thailand in winter 1995/96. By contrast, the number of European scheduled airlines serving Thailand has declined from 23 to 19 in the same period.

The aviation spokesperson said the department had responded to past complaints about allegedly restrictive aviation practices by liberalising the traffic rights regimes to the maximum possible extent under the bilateral air agreements.

The airlines then decide which aircraft they want to deploy on each particular route. “Filling those aircraft is not our responsibility,” she said. “That’s the job of the airlines themselves, the TAT and the private sector.”

She noted that the aviation world generally is in turmoil with carriers facing bankruptcies and cutting back on services due to costs, lack of profitability, security concerns, decline in business and cargo traffic, etc.

With nearly 90% of visitors to Thailand coming by air, the figures show a clear correlation between the mix of visitor arrivals and the number of flight frequencies from the generating markets.

For example, China is now one of the fastest growing markets, primarily because airlines are flying 113 services a week to Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai from Chinese points. These include eight Chinese airlines: Air China, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Northern, China Southern, China Southwest, China Yunnan and Xiamen Airlines.

The Russian market is also on the rise thanks to scheduled flights and charters to U-tapao. Similarly, other intra-Asian markets that generate thousands of visitor arrivals also directly correspond to the number of flights; e.g., Japan (90 flights a week), Korea (59 flights), Taiwan (129 flights), Singapore (126 flights) and Hong Kong (87 flights).

However, one major Thai goal meeting limited success is that of attracting more international flights to upcountry international airports. At the moment, Phuket, is being served by 106 direct international flights a week by 15 airlines, including 34 services by THAI Airways from points like Perth, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Taipei and Singapore.

Chiang Mai, by contrast, has only five airlines with 26 direct international services a week. Haad Yai, the other international airport, has no foreign airlines flying; the only international point to which it is presently linked is Singapore with a daily THAI Airways service.

However, other Thai destinations are emerging, with Silk Air flying four direct services from Singapore to Krabi, and Bangkok Airways operating a daily service from Singapore to Samui. Bangkok Airways has also linked its new airport in Sukhothai to Luang Prabang in Laos with a daily service.

Growing links with regional destinations are cementing Thailand’s role as a regional hub — there are 99 flights a week between Thai and Cambodian cities, and 59 flights a week to Vietnamese cities.

Contacts are also growing with the emerging Central Asian Republics. Thailand gets five direct weekly flights from Uzbekistan, four from Turkmenistan, and two from Kazakhstan.

The message from the Aviation Department is that the days of blaming air-traffic agreement constraints and flight frequencies as being responsible for slumping arrivals are gone.

Both market-forces and market-economics are changing rapidly, with security concerns, visa policies, lower purchasing power and changing consumer lifestyle preferences having a bigger influence on where people travel.

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