Cloudy skies ahead for cash-strapped DCA
special report: Regulator has undermined faith in Thai airlines
Questions must be raised as to why the Thai Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) has been left cash-strapped and understaffed for so long.
The DCA is instrumental in regulating the Thai aviation industry, and its current state has damaged people's confidence in Thai airlines.
It is well known that past governments and transport ministers paid little attention to the regulator, preferring to focus on substantial projects which used more of the budget.
The UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) issued a warning about the ailing DCA a decade ago, but little progress has been made since.
The key mission of the ICAO is to assess the aviation safety of its members and report any flaws it discovers.
In January, staff from the ICAO's Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP) were sent to inspect the DCA and reported significant safety concerns.
The ICAO was concerned about the DCA's process of granting air operator certification (AOC) and issuing operation specifications.
The AOC is the approval granted by a national aviation authority to an aircraft operator to allow it to use aircraft for commercial purposes.
The ICAO found the DCA had a shortage of technical officers and many had not undergone sufficient training.
It also found problems with hazardous goods transportation certification.
Following the audit, the ICAO demanded the DCA work out a plan to fix its problems and send it to the organisation by March 2.
However, the DCA's one-year action plan was shot down by the ICAO, who insisted the plan must be wrapped up within eight months.
The regulator has to adjust the plan and send it back to the ICAO for consideration by May 30.
After the dismissal of the DCA's plan, the ICAO informed its members about the DCA's problems.
The move prompted the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) to notify the DCA on March 24 that it will not allow Thai-registered airlines to increase their flights, or change routes to Japan. The move prompted Korea and China to follow suit.
Many airline operators insisted the DCA's problems stem from the process of granting flight approval or licences to new airlines.
They said the DCA failed to meet standards when issuing licences. Staff did not have the necessary qualifications issued by the ICAO, they said.
The DCA has been accused of issuing licences without adhering to the guidelines and of offering preferential treatment to certain operators.
The regulator also shows evidence of "brain drain". Although funds have been obtained to train new staff, many of the new employees leave the DCA for private firms once they finish paying back their scholarships.
Chaisak Angkasuwan, former deputy permanent-secretary for transport and a former chief of the DCA, conceded the organisation's workforce shortage has been going on for a long time.
Despite the aviation industry booming in recent years, the numbers of DCA employees is the same, he said.
The number of Thailand-registered airlines has soared from only 12 a decade ago to 64 now.
Proposals have been made to separate the unit responsible for issuing licences in an effort to boost work flow and increase staff numbers and their wages.
But policy-makers have not taken them further.
"When the number of staff stays the same, despite the soaring numbers of airplanes and pilots, the problem is hard to solve," Mr Chaisak said.
Although the JCAB is set to sign a memorandum of understanding with the DCA today, granting a reprieve from its ban until next month, this does not mean the problem has been defused.
Other countries, including Australia and Britain, are keeping a close eye on the issue.
The Federal Aviation Administration — the US aviation authority — also announced an audit into the quality of Thai airlines and urged the DCA to prepare for it.
Although the problem has dragged on for a long time, this crisis could be a good opportunity for this government to carry out a major overhaul of the aviation industry.
- Department of Civil Aviation (DCA)