BANGKOK -- Thailand is rushing to prevent a possible global ban on new flights from the country after the Southeast Asian tourist hub failed a United Nations aviation safety audit.
The country's airline industry was branded a "significant safety concern" in an alert issued to governments on March 20 by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency. Thailand is understood to have failed all but 11 of 100 points in the audit, according to regional industry analysts.
Thailand's failing of the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program review prompted Japan, South Korea and, as some unconfirmed reports have suggested, China, to stop allowing new charter and scheduled flights from the country. The bans came just ahead of the peak travel season around the Songkran, or Thai New Year, holiday in mid-April.
About 400 additional flights carrying more than 150,000 passengers are expected to fly to and from Northeast Asia during the festive period.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority of Australia has increased "ramp inspections" of Thai Airways planes. "These inspections look at the condition of aircraft as well as flight and aircraft documentation," a spokesman told the Nikkei Asian Review. Aviation authorities in the European Union and Singapore also began inspecting aircraft registered in Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported on April 2.
Brendan Sobie, a Singapore-based analyst at CAPA Consulting, a civil aviation consultancy, said: "The rules for regulators in Japan and South Korea are very strict, meaning immediate bans on new flights for Japan and new carriers [serving] South Korea."
The moves came days before Thailand's military-led government lifted martial law on April 1. As the damaging implications of the situation became clear, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha vowed to invoke controversial and unlimited powers available to him under section 44 of the interim constitution to shore up the aviation industry.
The aim is to swiftly improve safety and revamp the Department of Civil Aviation, Prayuth said in a speech on April 3. "Normally, the whole process would be expected to take up to one and a half years," he said. "Under Article 44, the process can be shortened to three months."
The airline sector is essential for tourism, which accounts for 10% of gross domestic product. Thailand's skies are the busiest in Southeast Asia in terms of aircraft traffic.
Results kept secret
ICAO concerns about Thailand's aviation regulation began with its last audit in 2005, but the latest results were kept secret for a month as the country's DCA drew up proposals to address the issues raised by the U.N. agency.
On March 2, the U.N. agency rejected an initial proposal under which the DCA would have taken two years to ease the problems, which include internal conflicts and excessive issuance of air operator certificates.
Many of these certificates were issued to "paper" airlines that have never flown an aircraft. Commercial aircraft cannot be operated without them.
Following the breakdown of talks, the ICAO shared its audit results with countries receiving flights operated by Thai airlines, leading to the restrictions.
In South Korea, transport authorities are still reeling from a ferry disaster in April 2014 that claimed 304 lives, and are dealing with the Thai issue "by the book," an airline executive said on condition of anonymity.
At least seven airlines have been hit by the bans: they include Thai Airways; Bangkok Airways, the country's No. 2 carrier; Thai AirAsia X, a subsidiary of Malaysia-based AirAsia, the region's leading budget carrier; NokScoot, a joint venture between the budget offshoots of Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines; small Thailand-based scheduled and charter carriers Jet Asia Airways and Orient Thai Airlines; as well as charter operator Asia Atlantic Airlines.
Growing regional concerns
The latest turmoil to hit Thailand's airline sector comes amid concerns about the safety of rapidly expanding discount carriers.
There have been several fatal accidents involving Asian airlines over the past 13 months, including the crashes of AirAsia flight QZ8501 from Indonesia, TransAsia Airways Flight 235 in Taipei, and Malaysia Airlines flights MH370 and MH17.
Most worrying for Thailand is the specter of a full audit by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which would pinpoint carriers operating services to American cities, including code-sharing arrangements with U.S. airlines, and could lead to EU bans too.