Air safety row needs clarity

Air safety row needs clarity

In recent months, Thai people have learned a lot about a normally obscure and quiet United Nations agency. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has made the headlines repeatedly over  the matter of air safety.

Along the way, both the UN and the government apparatus have managed to make the issue more cloudy than clear. Travellers and tourists have concluded there is something a bit unsafe about airline travel to and from Thailand. Authorities owe the worried public a better explanation.

The bottom line for the public to understand is that the discussions and disputes with the ICAO are not about actual airline safety. No airline - Thai or foreign, active or pending - is directly involved.

The ICAO is not, in fact, a hands-on agency that examines airline safety. It is a UN agency that deals only with the government.

This is important. Flying is a popular form of transportation, constantly growing. It is vital that the public is able to trust the airlines and infrastructure. Many of the headlines about the current ICAO-government confrontation have created the impression that Thai airlines are somehow unsafe, or less safe than those from other countries. Again, this is a misunderstanding of the dispute, and of last week's appearance of a red flag beside the listing for Thailand on the ICAO website.

In a nutshell, the ICAO charged early this year that the government's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) had fallen down on its primary job of regulating airlines registered in Thailand. Specifically, the DCA was not properly inspecting the set-up of new airlines in the country. New airlines have been a feature of Thailand in the past few years, as both budget and charter companies have sprung up to serve massively increasing demand, particularly by Thai tourists.

The ICAO has named no airline in its investigation. This is actually part of the problem. Established and well-known Thai airlines, particularly state-owned and world famous Thai Airways International (THAI), is more victim than participant in the ICAO-Thailand dispute.

What the ICAO said last January (and this is a paraphrase) is that the government and the DCA were not properly supervising or inspecting the management, aircraft, maintenance plans and hiring of crews by new, mostly small charter and regional budget airlines.

This is a serious charge. Transport Minister Prajin Juntong deserves credit for not trying to wave aside the ICAO concern. He has taken responsibility for the glacial response and corrective measures by the DCA.

Last week, he fired the head of the agency, Somchai Phiphutthawat. He told the media that Mr Somchai worked too slowly, sent him off to a different position, and brought in the ministry's inspector-general, Parichart Khotcharat, as the new DCA chief. "She's got what it takes," he said.

One certainly hopes so. The DCA has clearly let down the country. Ms Parichart's task now is to put the agency on the fast track to meeting world standards of aviation regulators.

That said, the ICAO standards are also somewhat questionable. The red flag against Thailand could cause concern around the world about any airline registered in Thailand, including the flag carrier THAI.

If the ICAO were actually concerned about Thai regulations, it would name the airlines it believes have not been properly handled by the DCA.

It should also be noted that the ICAO itself is frequently criticised for shortcomings such as tardiness in installing location finders in planes that would have found missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 relatively swiftly.

The ICAO should be more specific about exactly why it is concerned about Thai airline regulation.

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