The Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) has insisted that the return of flight slots by Chinese airlines is a routine practice and should not be interpreted as flight cancellations.
CAAT director-general Sutthipong Kongpool said on Tuesday that the return of slots allocated to airlines was in line with CAAT regulations, and it is customary for airlines to give back extra flight slots.
Mr Sutthipong clarified that it is not only Chinese airlines but also carriers from other countries that return excess slots allocated to them.
His comments were aimed at dispelling reports that suggested Chinese airlines had returned more than 40% of flight slots.
He explained that during the finalisation of the winter flight schedule, each airline is required to submit their flight slots in accordance with the regulations set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). These regulations stipulate that cancellations must be made at least seven days before flights are confirmed. If flight slots are not finalised, it indicates the airline's intention to fly. Failure to fly would result in disqualification, according to the CAAT chief.
The issue is simply the relinquishment of flight slots, he added.
The CAAT had earlier allocated 21,923 flights slots from December this year to January next year. Of them, 13,278 flights were scheduled to operate.
In December, 10,939 flights were planned at six airports operated by the Airports of Thailand (AOT). However, due to returned slots, the number of flights has been reduced to 5,858, he said.
In January, a total of 10,984 flight slots were allocated, but 7,420 flights would operate due to the return of slots.
"I assure that flight cancellations and the return of flight slots are different. The return of slots by airlines is normal," said Mr Sutthipong. "Airlines initially request slots to secure their rights, but various factors, such as the slower-than-expected growth of Chinese tourism, economic challenges in China and global competition for aircraft repair services during the Covid-19 pandemic, have led to the return of slots."
In addition, a shortage of aviation personnel, coupled with market growth falling short of expectations, led to airlines returning their flight slots, and this is a normal occurrence and has no negative implications, he insisted.
As a result of returned slots, airlines from other countries, particularly in Europe and Scandinavia, have shown interest in acquiring additional flight slots for direct flights to Thailand. New markets, such as those from Kazakhstan and Russia, have also emerged, he added.
According to Mr Sutthipong, Chinese tourist arrivals at the AOT’s six airports in fiscal year 2023 (October 2022 to September 2023) were the highest at 5.33 million, surpassing arrivals from other countries. Passengers from India claimed the second spot with 3.26 million, trailed by those from South Korea (3.07 million), Malaysia (2.21 million), and Russia (2.2 million).
AoT president Kerati Kijmanawat said on Tuesday that despite Chinese airlines returning over 8,000 flight slots, the upward trend in Chinese tourist numbers persisted. In fiscal year 2023, Chinese tourists accounted for 12.9% of international tourist arrivals, and it is anticipated that in fiscal year 2024, this figure will increase to 15-16%.
Mr Kerati assured that the return of flight slots by Chinese airlines would not affect the number of passenger arrivals during this winter season.
He defended the AoT’s move to increase passenger service charges at the country's six international airports by 30 baht, saying the fees have not been adjusted for over 17 years.
The six airport are Suvarnabhumi, Don Mueang, Chiang Mai, Mae Fah Luang, Phuket and Hat Yai.
The AoT will raise the charge from 700 baht to 730 baht per person for international departures and from 100 baht to 130 baht for domestic departures starting April 1 next year.
He admitted the passenger service charge adjustment would increase the AoT’s revenue by 3 billion baht.
The organisation has invested in increasing facilities to provide services to passengers at the six airports and required continuous investment of about 16 billion baht over the next 20 years, he said.