Thai Airways is in the spotlight once again, but for the wrong reasons. In what has now become a viral TikTok video, a user showed how cabin crew failed to collect meal trays from a seat as a flight from Singapore to Bangkok was about to land.
The video captured a cabin crew failing to clear the table despite repeated attempts by the passenger to get their attention. The tray was eventually cleared after the plane landed, a clear violation of safety and flying regulations.
Since then, the staff have been reprimanded and had their pay docked. However, the damage had been done.
This incident followed another episode of bad press in late December when two passengers had a brawl on a Thai Smile flight, a subsidiary airline.
Unfortunately, Thai Airways cannot afford any more blemishes as both the airline's reputation and finances have tanked.
In 2018, Skytrax, a UK-based air transport rating agency, ranked Thai Airways the 10th best airline overall in the world. It also won the honour of best airline catering in the economy class category that same year.
But four years later, Thai Airways has fallen from grace and barely scraped by into the top 50 by Skytrax (Thai Airways ranked 46 in 2022), following low-cost IndiGO, and chased by LATAM (ranked 47). It needs to be mentioned that Bangkok Airways, a private Thai-owned carrier, ranked 23.
Not all the ratings spell gloom for Thailand's national carrier. Thai Airways did retain some honour by securing the 4th spot for best airline crew and cabin staff in Asia. But its ability to retain even this title after the latest fiasco seems doubtful.
The airline's financial struggles are also no secret. Even before the Covid-era when travel demand plummeted, the airline was operating at a loss. Competition from low-cost airlines, operational inefficiencies, and an ageing fleet were all contributing factors which led to a drop in the airline's passenger traffic.
However, despite the evidence, the airline mostly ignored the root causes of its troubles until it was forced into bankruptcy protection in 2020 as the government moved in to save the national airline with a detailed rehabilitation plan.
As travel demand surges back, Thai Airways has been able to slash operational expenses as part of its rehabilitation plan, thanks to a focus on reorganising the business through 400 "transformation projects", according to a filing.
It has also bought three new Boeing 777-3000ERs that will serve long-haul routes and feature the latest in-flight entertainment, a positive move to become competitive again.
The airline is also considering merging Thai Smile with Thai Airways. This will bring both companies under a single management team, allowing for reduced fixed costs and expenses.
While these are all positive steps, the company must be more aggressive and open about its strategy on how it plans to become profitable again, and perhaps even a premier airline.
In a region where some of the world's best airlines have their hubs, such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Emirates, cutting operational expenses and buying new airplanes alone isn't enough.
There needs to be a focus on branding and service. Part of the reason why Singapore Airlines does so well is that despite the government owning a majority share, it is not involved in the management.
The airline has invested heavily in its image and service, especially in terms of quality meals and flights with convenient departure and arrival times. Emirates, meanwhile, is recognised for giving an amenity kit to every passenger, including those in economy, and its superb in-flight entertainment catalogue.
Meanwhile, Hong-Kong based Cathay Pacific is known for its world-class lounges and exceptional service both in the air and on the ground.
The common denominator of these airlines is that they've invested in state-of-the art aircraft and have a management that focuses on service and quality.
For Thai Airways to regain its former glory, its rehabilitation plan must go beyond the financial aspects. It must focus on how to appeal to and win back the modern-day flier who has an abundance of choices.
The golden age of Thai Airways is a distant past and at present the carrier is no longer the only airline servicing in-demand routes to Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, with options from both premier and low-cost alternatives.
Service, convenience in terms of flight routes, hospitality, comfort, professionalism, timing, where the plane de-boards passengers at an airport, and customer satisfaction are all details that need to be considered moving forward -- along with attractive pricing.