An outdated and impractical rule requiring Thai-based carriers and air service providers to have the bulk, if not all, of their cockpit staff made up of Thai nationals is driving airlines up the wall.
Thai pilots such as Capt Anusak Palawasu (left) and co-pilot Chananporn Rosjan, Miss Thailand Universe 2005, in a Thai AirAsia A320 cockpit, are becoming harder to find.
Carriers like Orient Thai Airlines have been penalised by the Civil Aviation Department ordinance, which carries a maximum fine of 500,000 baht for each offence and can lead to route applications "not being considered".
While Thai carriers want to comply with the regulation, they have trouble finding Thai pilots qualified to operate some types of commercial aircraft, be they big jetliners, private jets or helicopters, industry executives say.
Even if there are Thai nationals fit to fly the commoner types of aircraft such as the B747 jumbo jet or the short-haul A320, their availability to Thai operators is growing scarce as rising numbers migrate to greener pastures abroad, especially to cash-rich Middle East airlines.
There is also a tight supply of veteran Thai pilots, so much so that carriers in Thailand are outbidding themselves to attract cockpit personnel, giving rise to accusations of "stealing".
Furthermore, Thailand has failed to quickly churn out enough civil pilots with reasonable flying experience to meet demand spurred by the ongoing growth of old players and the rise of new entrants, according to industry executives who asked to remain anonymous.
There is no question that Thai carriers prefer hiring Thai pilots over foreign ones due to cost considerations.
A foreign pilot for a commercial airline costs 30% more than his Thai counterpart. A non-Thai pilot specialising in less-common types of aircraft such as the private Gulfstream V may make three times as much.
In fact, Thai air service providers are focused on getting pilots with strong track records regardless of nationality as part of an effort to boost flight safety.
The airlines say they are looking for pilots with captain rank (having clocked some 5,000 flight hours) and co-pilots with three years of flight experience.
Orient Thai, which operates scheduled domestic flights and regional charter operations, has lost 25 Thai pilots over four years, with only five remaining in a pool dominated by 60-70 foreign pilots, said one airline industry source.
Orient Thai has been fined three times by the Civil Aviation Department in recent years for non-compliance with the stipulated share of Thai pilots in the manpower pool.
As part of Thailand's age-old policy reserving certain professions for Thai nationals, the department requires Thai airlines to increase the number of Thai pilots progressively at a set percentage or face penalties.
A start-up airline is immune from such regulations in the first two years of operation. But in the third year, 20% of cockpit staff must be Thai nationals, and the number must rise in subsequent years.
Industry executives say Thailand is the only country in the world with such restrictions on the use of foreign pilots for commercial air service.
Several carriers aired their grievances at a recent meeting with senior Transport Ministry officials, who pledged to look into the issue but made no promises, executives said.
Meanwhile, the airlines say they have no choice but to continue using foreign pilots _ and suffer the penalties _ in order to keep their planes in the air.
About the author
- Writer: Boonsong Kositchotethana
Position: Deputy Editor Business