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5 Apr, 2004

SAS Shifts Departure Control Centre to Bangkok

Since March 2002, about 250 Scandinavian Airlines flights worldwide have been taking off only after being cleared by young Thai load control supervisors manning a sophisticated computer centre on the 8th floor of the Glas Haus building, Sukhumvit Road.

Just one door away, another group of Thais are processing thousands of letters which come in monthly from members of the SAS frequent flyer programme EuroBonus about updating their mileage records.

Once a shareholder in Thai Airways and flying to Thailand since 1949, SAS moved its Global Central Departure Control Centre (CDC) from Helsinki, London and New York to Bangkok as of March 2002, making it the first airline to have such a centre in Thailand.

The success of the CDC prompted SAS to relocate from Sveg, Sweden, the Retro-Registration Department (Retro) of EuroBonus, its frequent flyer programme, in August 2003.

A total of 56 Thai graduates, some holding master’s degrees, were hired by SAS and trained in record time to take over labour-intensive and technically-detailed jobs that can be equally well done in Bangkok at about a 10th of the cost in Europe and North America.

Forty of them are at the sophisticated CDC which clears the departures of roughly 250 out of SAS 1,100 flights world-wide. They are responsible for coordination of passenger, baggage, cargo and fuel loads on SAS aircraft as well as calculating weight and balance at the time of departure.

The figures are fed into computers from any point in the world outside Scandinavia where SAS aircraft are departing and then checked at the CDC to ensure a correct weight and balance, a vital contributor to safety and punctuality. If everything is in order, the final load-sheet is dispatched electronically by the CDC Centre to a printer in the cockpit of SAS aircraft.

The CDC operates 24 hours a day. The staff are a mix of new graduates and people with some airline experience, many taken from the King Mongkut Institute of Technology. All have undergone a basic training of 90 days, followed by several months of on-the-job training.

Said SAS Manager Thailand and Indochina Axel Blom, “The training to become a fully licensed load control supervisor in SAS takes up to two years under normal circumstances.”

In turn, the Retro is manned by 16 Thais who handle roughly 65-70 EuroBonus letters per day per employee, or about 9,000-15,000 letters per month.

Their job is to update the mileage points for FFP who did not register at the time when they flew, either because they forgot or there was some technical glitch. When the members receive their mileage status and notice the lapse, they write in to get it fixed.

Mr. Blom says that while the vast majority of claims are legitimate, the staff have to be trained to specifically look out for fraud. Initially, there was a backlog of upto six weeks, but that has now been more than halved to about two weeks.

Most of the letters are in Swedish, Danish or Norwegian which need to be translated, and SAS is now trying to encourage its EuroBonus members to write in English in order to save translation costs.

Eighty percent of the staff are women, aged 24-30, with two-year contracts and earning between 12,000 to 20,000 baht a month. Both jobs at the CDC and Retro require a significant degree of routine, high-concentration, high-stress work with three nine-hour shifts followed by a break of two or three days.

Mr Blom says the airline deliberately chose people who had the right attitude but no experience and no ‘excess baggage’ from previous airline-related jobs.

He says SAS recognises that over time, the job will become uninteresting and that most of them will move on within three to four years. “There will be opportunities for them within the company, but if they choose to go elsewhere, the experience will certainly take them a long way, perhaps to managerial status in 10-15 years.

A long-time resident of Thailand, Mr Blom says he has been very impressed with the quality of graduates being turned out by Thai educational institutions which are shifting away from learning-by-rote to a more independent thinking process.

He says that if Thailand is to really become an aviation hub, there will be a need for more specialised aviation studies. “Many of Thailand’s aviation old-guard who have retired from THAI Airways International over the years can play an important role in imparting their knowledge and experience to future generations, especially as the industry becomes increasingly complex and subject to forces outside its control,” says Mr Blom.

He says there will be no shortage of opportunities for aviation specialists as airlines seek ways to reduce costs in troubled times as well as “places anywhere in the world where we can do business in the most efficient way.”

Indeed, SAS is planning to spin off the Retro as a separate business unit and market the service to other high-cost airlines. He says one is about to sign up but declined to give any names pending an official announcement.

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