New airline president Sorajak Kasemsuvan was given a rude call from workers at Thai Airways International on the weekend. He and his executives faced strikes and rolling walkouts by ground staff at Suvarnabhumi airport.
The workers claimed they were underpaid, in salary and bonuses. The airline executives claimed there was no legitimate complaint. The unpleasant and overriding fact is the airline mishandled the entire problem.
Arguably, no one was as wrong as Transport Minister Chadchat Sittipunt. While passengers fumed, and planes were delayed, Mr Chadchat claimed THAI workers were "damaging the airline but also the country's image". This was the wrong statement, made at the wrong time. If the minister had strong evidence the flight delays and baggage chaos were entirely the fault of airline workers, he failed to present it. In any case, it was hardly the time to defiantly begin finger-pointing.
Mr Chadchat was inadvertently correct about one point. The Suvarnabhumi problems reflect poorly upon the country, especially Thai Airways International, Suvarnabhumi airport and the government. Bangkok International Airport has been a serial offender against dependable air travel for the past year. While Mr Chadchat has been minister and deputy minister, Suvarnabhumi has had blackouts, communications outages, baggage problems and highly publicised smuggling busts.
The minister and allied executives at THAI were quick off the mark to blame the latest ill-service at Suvarnabhumi on the airline's union. They were correct that sit-down labour action by THAI workers caused slowdowns that rippled into flight delays and long lines at the baggage carousels. Workers took advantage, and used travellers in their labour action _ give us a pay rise or the slowdown continues. But the minister, officials and airline executives, starting with Mr Sorajak, need to examine their own roles more critically.
First and most importantly, the demands for a modest pay rise did not suddenly and surprisingly come out of the blue last Friday, when the labour action began. It was quickly clear the airline has not talked in good faith to the unions. Even on Saturday night, after a second day of airport disturbances, airline spokesmen were clear in their statements to the media and public _ no pay rise, no increased bonus. Hours later, they backed down.
No doubt the THAI labour union put airline executives over a barrel with the sudden strike action. But the biggest failure was by THAI executives and the board of directors. Their shock at the rolling walkouts on Friday and Saturday said clearly they had no idea that their own workers were so angry over pay and perks.
THAI has long been known as a workplace where morale among workers is almost as low as its pay scale among top world airlines. The reputation of THAI among foreign and domestic travellers has sunk steadily for two decades.
Mr Sorajak was brought in from MCOT Pcl just three months ago to head THAI after a mild scandal involving the last office-holder. His promise was to make the airline profitable again. That is an excellent goal. He must take a close look at how he intends to achieve it, after workers make it clear they also want to be part of the success.