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UN Agency Questions Thailand's Air Safety

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Thai Airways passenger planes park at the ramp of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport.
Thai Airways passenger planes park at the ramp of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport.

Update: China and Singapore have joined Japan and South Korea in restricting flights by Thailand's airlines.

The UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reported "significant safety concerns" with Thailand's air safety practices last week. The negative report may prevent some flights from coming out of the kingdom and forced Thailand's government to deal quickly with the results on Monday.

Responding to the ICAO's negative review, Japan and South Korea decided to block new charter and scheduled flights from Thailand. This means existing flights can still land in Japan and Korea. However, they cannot change their equipment or schedules.

Thailand is concern that other countries, including the United States, will take similar action. That action might come if the ICAO changes the rating of air safety in Thailand from Category 1 to Category 2. The ICAO's Category 1 rating means the country does obey ICAO standards. A Category 2 rating means the country does not follow ICAO standards for airline safety.

A U.S. government source - speaking off the record – said the ICAO report would probably cause the Federal Aviation Administration to review Thailand's flight safety practices. He said the ICAO review results were a serious warning signal for the FAA.

Thailand's government quickly met to review the report

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha met on Monday with Civil Aviation department Director-General Somchai Piputvat and officials of the Thai transport ministry to discuss the report.

The prime minister was the army chief when he overthrew Thailand's government in a military coup last May. He said he discussed the Japanese and South Korean bans on new flights with the leaders of both countries. The prime minister said they promised to further consider the problem.

Thailand Plane Blessing
Thailand Plane Blessing

Prime Minister Prayuth also said he would use powers under Section 44 of the interim constitution to fix the problems of Thailand's airlines. Section 44 allows the leader of the junta to issue any orders he thinks are needed without asking a judge or lawmakers for support.

"This is a national issue. The transport ministry will quickly solve the problem" because "dominos are starting to fall," transport Minister Prajin Juntong told reporters after the meeting.

Officials blame previous governments

Thailand's officials are blaming previous administrations for not paying attention to the problem. "The ICAO has warned us since 2005 about our aviation management and asked us to improve our systems," Prajin said.

On March 2, the civil aviation department gave the ICAO its plan for improving safety. It was reported that the ICAO rejected the plan because it proposed a two-year period to fix problems.

The ICAO's regional office in Bangkok said it could not comment on the report. It has not yet been made public. The office referred all questions to its headquarters in Montreal, Canada.

Some media reports Monday said that in the review by ICAO, Thailand passed only 21 out of 100 areas. This mean Thailand's overall score was lower than any other ASEAN nation.

Critics have said there are many reasons for the problems in Thailand's civil aviation sector. Among these are frequent changes of government and corruption.

ICAO concerns

Industry sources said the most serious concerns involve weaknesses in safety regulations for low-cost airline companies. These include permission to operate flights and to move dangerous goods.

On professional pilots' forums on the Internet, there have been comments about the ICAO safety warning. Some industry workers say that government inspectors took bribes. That is, they accepted cash and massages to sign off on paperwork.

One comment came from an employee of a "substandard" Thai charter airline. He quit when he heard that executives had decided to not purchase any more parts for maintenance. He refused to fly planes that were not fixed.

The effect of a lower FAA rating

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is an agency that oversees airline regulation for the United States. The FAA will probably carry out its own review of Thailand's air safety practices.

A lower rating by FAA for Thailand would mean, among other things, that Thai airlines could no longer have code share operations with U.S. airlines. With a code share operation, one airline can operate the planes while another airline sells tickets and markets the flights.

In addition to the kingdom's main airline, Thai Airways, the ICAO safety warning is also affecting low-cost carriers Thai Air Asia X, NokScoot and Asia Atlantic Airlines.

Travel industry officials in Thailand worry that people will get the idea that the country's airlines are now unsafe. That could hurt tourism. Tourism is very important to the Thai economy, because it employs millions of people. Over the past 18 months, tourism has decreased because of concerns about tourists' safety and political unrest.

Steve Herman wrote this story for VOA News. Dr. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

charter - adj. hired for temporary use

aviation - n. the business or practice of flying airplanes, helicopters, etc.

coup (coup d'etat) - n. a sudden attempt by a small group of people to take over the government usually through violence

junta - n. a military group controlling a government after taking control of it by force

interim - adj. used or accepted for a limited time; not permanent

sector - n. an area of an economy : a part of an economy that includes certain kinds of jobs

bribe - n. something valuable (such as money) that is given in order to get someone to do something

Now it's your turn. What do you think of the concerns over air safety? Do you have confidence in your country's airline safety practices?

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