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Thai Airways loses president as it combats coronavirus crisis

Eventual successor inherits difficult reform task as loss-making carrier

Thai Airways personnel disinfect the cabin of an aircraft to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- Flag carrier Thai Airways International has lost its captain as it tries to weather turbulence caused by the new coronavirus.

The airline company's board approved President Sumeth Damrongchaitham's resignation at an extraordinary meeting Thursday. The resignation is effective April 11. No reason was given.

The COVID-19 outbreak has brought further financial pain to the carrier. On March 2, the state-owned airline said it ended 2019 with a net loss of 12 billion baht ($383 million), the third straight year in the red.

The airline cut operations due to the virus during this year's first quarter, which is typically the most profitable three months for Thai Airways due to the Lunar New Year holiday. Flights to China were suspended for safety reasons. Flights to Japan, Singapore and South Korea were reduced due to a large drop in demand.

"We have to talk about survival, not performance," Sumeth said at a news conference reporting the results.

To regain profitability, Sumeth's executive team has been working on reforms that include improving operational efficiency. These include expediting the acquisition of 38 aircraft, for more effective fleet management.

The airline previously said the reforms would bring sustainable profitability by 2022, but the coronavirus outbreak is forcing it to revise the plan.

The revision likely will be left to Sumeth's replacement, who is yet to be chosen. Before Sumeth took the position in September 2018, the seat had been vacant since Charamporn Jotikasthira retired in February 2017.

The successor will need to battle with shrinking capital as well. Shareholder equity totaled 11.7 billion baht as of Dec. 31, down 42.5% from a year earlier. Equity has declined 84.5% since the end of 2010, when the airline last raised capital.

Thai Airways shares traded at 3.68 baht on Thursday, a historic low. Under Sumeth's leadership, the share price dropped by over 70%.

Thai Airways is not the only carrier in Southeast Asia with leadership changes. Garuda Indonesia appointed technology expert Irfan Setiaputra as its new CEO in January, two months after its former chief was sacked over smuggling allegations.

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