Nearly four years after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration stripped Thailand of its Category 1 safety rating, the Southeast Asian country has accelerated efforts to address a variety of oversight and other shortcomings in a bid to restore its former standing with the FAA. Regaining Category 1 status would allow Thai-registered airlines to launch new routes to the U.S. and participate in codeshare agreements with U.S.-based carriers.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT), the FAA conducted an International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) technical review from February 11 to 15 to assess the country’s ability to comply with safety standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The FAA contingent, led by team leader Benjamin Garrido and four team members, identified 26 safety issues. The Thai authorities did not elaborate on the findings but said they have already begun addressing many of the shortcomings.
While Thai officials express optimism that the country can regain Category 1 status after its next inspection, numerous audits in recent years have raised a number of problems, particularly concerning regulatory oversight, the award of new air operator certificates (AOC), pilot qualifications, and a shortage of qualified staff. In June 2015, ICAO flagged the country with a Significant Safety Concern (SSC) label for failing to maintain international standards. Two months later, the FAA downgraded Thailand to Category 2 over similar concerns.
ICAO lifted the red flag against Thailand in 2017, paving the way for Thai carriers to expand their international networks; however, the FAA downgrade remains in place. Since then, the CAAT has devised a series of aviation master plans and made several revisions to its procedures for granting AOCs.
Even if Thailand successfully regains Category 1 status, the highly competitive U.S.-Southeast Asia market presents its own set of challenges for Thai carriers given the distance, cost, and weak demand for direct air travel between the two countries. If Thai carriers do initiate service beyond codeshare agreements, they will need to compete against carriers such Philippine Airlines, which offers nonstop flights to five destinations, and Singapore Airlines, which flies nonstop to four U.S. destinations. Garuda Indonesia and Vietnam Airlines have also signaled interest in launching flights to the U.S.
While national carrier Thai Airways has indicated a desire to resume U.S. service, it has struggled to overcome challenging market conditions over the years, resulting in significant financial losses. Meanwhile, Bangkok Airways continues to focus on expanding into niche, secondary destinations in Southeast Asia. The rest of Thailand’s carriers fall into the no-frills, budget category.