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Downgrading of military’s aviation management sets off alarms

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on Thursday 18th June "red flagged" Thailand over major safety concerns within the country's aviation system due to its failure to reform the sector within 90 days, following an earlier warning in March. The ICAO is a United Nations agency tasked with overseeing the world’s management of air safety, air navigation capacity and efficiency, security, the economic development of air transport, and environmental protection. A repeat inspection will be undertaken in four months’ time.

Transport Minister Prajin Juntong admitted Friday 19th June that he had failed to put into place reforms. He also made the remarkable statement that there may have been some form of miscommunication between him and Deputy Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith, who had apparently told him that the ICAO would not publicize the result of its audit, as reported here. This implies not just a disturbing ignorance of how the ICAO works but also contempt for the system itself.

What Thailand’s Transport Ministry failed to put into place was sufficient systems to ensure safety standards via the Department of Civil Aviation's (DCA), responsible for supervising airline operators and operations. The main problem appears to have been a shortage of trained staff able to supervise and deal with applications by new airlines. Thus, the Ministry of Transport has admitted to being incapable of implementing a staff recruitment system to supervise safety.

According to The Nation, there are likely to be severe effects on the industry and economy: “Thai-registered airlines will likely face a loss of goodwill, higher operating costs and increasing competition from foreign carriers. In addition, Thai carriers can expect an increase in costs from higher aircraft lease rates, more stringent maintenance covenants, and surges in insurance premiums. The industry will likely see increased competition from foreign carriers that may launch new routes to capture under-served passengers travelling to and from Thailand. Thai carriers may also lose personnel to foreign counterparts looking to boost their own manpower.”

Responding to the red flag, Charamporn Jotikasthira, the president of the flag carrier, Thai Airways, issued the following statement: "A significant safety concern does not necessarily indicate a particular safety deficiency in the air navigation service providers, airlines (air operators), aircraft or aerodrome; but, rather, indicates that the State is not providing sufficient safety oversight to ensure the effective implementation of applicable ICAO Standards."

This statement lays the blame squarely on the military government, which has the powers of an absolute dictatorship and currently rules over all aspects of Thailand. As a result of a systemic inability to improve the aviation management system, at present, Korea, China and Japan have placed restrictions on new Thai flights, while Singapore, Australia and the EU have ordered enhanced inspections. Helpfully, the US Embassy in Bangkok has offered to mediate between the US civil aviation authority and Thailand.

Other than Thailand, only 12 other nations are red flagged by the ICAO - Angola, Botswana, Djibouti, Eritrea, Georgia, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Malawi, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Uruguay, as detailed here. Other than Nepal, Thailand is the only country in the region unable to comply with ICAO guidelines. Although snapshots are not as good as trends over time, it is interesting to compare Thailand to other countries in terms of their location, type of government, income inequality, level of freedom, level of press freedom, and Human Development index:

 

1 Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index (2014) 2 Gini coefficient (latest) 3 World Press Freedom Index – Reporters Without Borders (2015), with author’s own 5-point Likert scale Very good – Very bad 4 Human Development Index (latest) 5 Using medians or if not possible, modes. Click to see larger table

 

Looking at the average country, it is in Africa, has a hybrid regime which is a mixture of democracy and authoritarianism, has medium income inequality (though wealth inequality may present a different picture), is partly free and has average press freedom, and has a low level of development. Thailand is unusual in that it is not an African country, has a high level of human development, with low freedoms explicable by the country being ruled by diktat (Section 44 of the Interim Charter), therefore making it, according to the most up-to-date data, an authoritarian regime.

Given the fact even ASEAN’s low achievers, the Lao PDR and Myanmar, are able to run an aviation sector, the Thai military’s inability to implement a staff recruitment system within three months may, therefore, be due to the fact it has low freedoms and an authoritarian regime which mainly consists of the Thai military. Strikingly, Transport Minister Prajin Juntong’s mention of the ‘miscommunication’ may simply reveal a lack of capacity to manage complex human systems except when in crisis mode, when all the resources of the military are directed at a single issue, as with the recent case of human trafficking. It is all the more bizarre given Thailand’s reliance on the aviation sector to bring in tourism, as an inability to implement aviation regulatory safety standards must have a deterrent effect on Chinese mass tourism in 2015-2016, which is currently the only thing preventing an economic recession.

A lack of capacity in terms of qualified managers, combined with an authoritarian government system whereby bottom-up constructive criticism in senior management meetings is next to impossible - typical in many military bureaucracies even in developed countries - may explain why the Thai military has been unable to manage complex systems or implement systemic change in other areas, such as irrigation, crucial to agriculture and another sector key to the country’s economic and political wellbeing.

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