Thailand vows to overhaul aviation regulatory system

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha's will use the immense power given to him by invoking Article 44 of the interim charter to address substandard Department of Civil Aviation procedures that may lead to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) downgrading its rating.

Prayut, who will have sweeping powers under Article 44 as the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said the department would be promptly made the adhere to the ICAO's standards after the regulatory system was neglected by previous governments.

He said the ICAO had audited the Department of Civil Aviation for years and had found the country had about 300,000 flights a year regulated by just 12 officers.

But he said the number of flights had increased to 600,000 annually, but there were still only 12 officers.

When he asked the department's director general what had happened, he said he was told the department had proposed to restructure its organisation, amend its laws and increase its manpower and budget, but the process did not happen because of ignorance.

Prayut said he would use Article 44 in a creative way to get the job done faster.

A committee would be set up to solve this problem and that would be a faster method than using a traditional process, which would have required Cabinet and National Legislation Assembly approval.

The government is scrambling to find urgent solutions to solve the problem, promising to overhaul the substandard regulatory system within two to eight months.

At a press conference yesterday, Transport Minister ACM Prajin Juntong said that it was Prayut who wanted the issue solved within that timeframe.

The Civil Aviation Department, which is in charge of airline licensing, will be overhauled as its limited capacity cannot cope with air traffic growth, Prajin said.

Short-term measures include keeping foreign countries that Thai airlines fly to updated on the ongoing process to address the International Civil Aviation Organisation's |safety concerns.

"The department is substandard due to a |limited number of officers, while the number of airlines has increased five-fold in the past 10 years from 12 to 61," Prajin said, adding that only 41 were in operation and the rest inactive.

He said another urgent task was the need for the department to hire more staff such as aviation experts and that would include foreigners.

He said the department having a digital database was in sight while all airlines including national carrier Thai Airways International may need to be recertified.

"Once we able to enhance our capabilities and meet the requirement of ICAO standards, we will recertify all airlines operating in and out the Kingdom," he said.

The Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) placing a ban on the new flight services of four Thai airlines that were certified by the department last month served as a wake-up call to highlight the chronic problem.

At least three more airlines, Asia Atlantic, Jet Asia, and Thai AirAsia X, will be affected if the issue is not resolved promptly as they plan to add more flights to Japan in May and September for a combined total of approximately 180 flights.

NokScoot, which was waiting approval to commence a new charter service to Japan, has reportedly halted the plan because of the ban.

South Korea is reportedly considering follow ing Japan's lead, after the ICAO flagged significant concerns about Thailand's aviation safety on March 20. The UN agency did not announce the concerns publicly but informed relevant countries last week.

In another blow, China has banned Asia Atlantic, NokScoot and Thai AirAsia X from launching new services in the country.

ICAO flagged the significant safety concerns following the department's sluggish response to dealing with issues in eight areas that the body first recommended it tackle back in 2005.

They include personnel licensing and training, airworthiness assessment and certification, accident investigation and airline operations oversight, according to a report by Watson Farley and Williams, an international law firm with a commercial transport practice.

Japan's decision to ban flights also affects special summer services for Thai Airways International, just at a time when scores of Thais were planming to travel to Japan over Songkran.

According to Prajin, airlines will be called to a meeting today to discuss the issue. He said a short-term measure the airlines may need engage is charting flights from other airlines.

An ad-hoc team has been set up to explain the situation to embassies and global airlines. After Japan, the next countries to be briefed will be China, Germany and Australia.

The next step will be the establishment of a committee to be chaired by Prajin.

The committee will be tasked with updating the ICAO on the measures used to tackle the eight areas of concerns every two weeks, as well as updating the prime minister once a week.