EASA panic storm in a teacup
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EASA panic storm in a teacup

Nod for THAI, MJets on Europe flights

THAI aircraft are parked at Suvarnabhumi airport. THAI and MJets have received EU approval to continue flying to Europe. WICHAN CHAROENKIATPAKUL
THAI aircraft are parked at Suvarnabhumi airport. THAI and MJets have received EU approval to continue flying to Europe. WICHAN CHAROENKIATPAKUL

Thai authorities' panic and a media frenzy over a much-awaited EU announcement appeared to have been blown out of proportion.

Contrary to general expectations, the European Commission (EC) did not put a blanket downgrade over Thai aviation sector or any particular Thai-registered carriers, which would have meant their flights to Europe would either be restricted or even banned.

In fact, the EC's Air Safety List update of airlines around the world that are subject to an operating ban or restrictions within the European airspace has nothing to do with any revision of how the EU perceives the country's civil aviation authority. The authority has already been red-flagged by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and downgraded by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In the case of Thailand, the announcement was strictly about whether the EC would allow two Thai-registered operators -- flag carrier Thai Airways International (THAI) and private jet charter operator MJets -- to continue flying to Europe, according to people involved in the matters. They are the only Thai carriers with flights to Europe.

MJets confirmed Thursday that it had received EU approval to continue its charter flights to the continent.

THAI also won similar EC nod and made the announcement to that effect Thursday night in Bangkok.

The two carriers had for some time sought so-called "third country operators" (TCO) licences, a requirement for non-European operators under revised EU aviation rules.

The EU approval underscores the fact that the whole Thai aviation industry is not going to be penalised indiscriminately for the third time by another leading global aviation agency.

A European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) auditing team was in Bangkok last month to check whether THAI and MJets were eligible for the TOC permits. It was not here to conduct any more audits over the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT), a statutory body replacing the now-defunct Department of Civil Aviation as part of the restructuring of the country's civil aviation authority as advised by ICAO.

MJets executive chairman Jaiyavat Navaraj told the Bangkok Post Thursday that the EASA, part of the EU, was satisfied with the audit, with only two "insignificant'' points needing correction.

The agency advised MJets to correct those points, the nature of whose were not disclosed, by Jan 7 next year. But the company is prepared to finish the correction well ahead of the set time frame so it will obtain the TCO certificate soon, he said.

In the meantime, MJets has been allowed to continue its private jet charter flights.

"There seemed to be widespread confusion or speculation about the nature of [the EU's] announcement, which was feared to add insult to injury," said Louis Moser, chairman of the Airline Operators Committee (AOC), a body representing 86 international airlines and 26 aviation service providers in Thailand.

"Let's be clear, the EASA team's mission was here to audit MJets and THAI, not the civil aviation authorities," Mr Moser told the Bangkok Post.

The agency did not announce its own assessment of Thailand's aviation safety ratings as the ICAO has already done so and that is consistent with the EU's assessment.

"Most leading global aviation safety agencies honour the ICAO's verdicts and most likely do not see any need to release their versions,'' said an aviation industry expert who asked to remain anonymous.

The EC's updated Air Safety List is based largely on ICAO's audit findings.

The FAA is an exception as, consistent with the US government policy, it sees the need to make its own rulings on anything concerned with American interests. But its recent audit of the Thai civil aviation authority largely followed the same checklist used by the ICAO.

The EC statement last night said no air carriers from Thailand were added to the Air Safety List at this time.

However, together with the EASA, it is willing to continue to work with the Thai authorities to enhance aviation safety in the country. They will closely monitor future developments and, if the protection of air passengers against safety risks so requires, the Commission could propose to include one or more Thai carriers on the Air Safety List.

The updated EU Air Safety List – which will be published on 11 December – includes all airlines, totalling 228, certified in 20 states.

The essence of ICAO's red-flagging and the FAA's downgrade to "category II" is largely similar, meaning that Thai-registered airlines are not allowed to open new routes, increase flight frequencies to countries or change aircraft types already deployed on current services.

But the application of the ICAO's verdict depends on judgements by individual countries.

So far only a handful of countries -- including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and, to a limited extent, China -- have enforced ICAO restrictions on Thai-registered airlines' flights to their air space.

With no Thai airlines on the EC blacklist, the situation of Thailand's aviation is not worsening and probably faces no more fallout from the international aviation communities, said Mr Moser, the AOC chairman.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, EASA executive director Patrick Ky said the agency was encouraged by the Thai government's determination to resolve problems involving the country's aviation industry.

On Monday, EASA signed a cooperation arrangement on aviation safety with CAAT.

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