Hong Hyun Jin didn’t care what airline she flew as long as it was cheap. A spate of plane crashes across Asia in the past year changed all that.
“I am now scared of flying,” said the 42-year-old office worker in Seoul. “Me and my friends are planning a holiday in Phuket, Thailand, but I am picky what airline we should fly.”
Nervous flyers like Hong are the latest problem for Thailand, whose pristine beaches and exotic nightclubs helped it jump into the top 10 tourism destinations in the world. That success is at risk because the safety of its skies has been questioned, a growing problem across Asia as air travel soars.
Thailand’s air safety has come under scrutiny this year after a United Nations watchdog raised questions about procedures for certifying airlines. That prompted Japan and South Korea to slap restrictions on some flights from the country, which depends on tourism for 10 percent of its gross domestic product. The country has 28 registered airlines, the government says.
Thailand’s troubles are symptomatic of the rising challenges throughout Asia, where a surge in the number of planes and airlines is threating to overwhelm the infrastructure designed to keep fliers safe. Four airline crashes in which more than 700 people died made 2014 one of the worst years for Asian aviation, including a mystery crash where no debris was found.
“Due to the rapid expansion of the industry, some countries may not have been able to cope well with the development in terms of catching up with safety,” said Shukor Yusof, founder of Singapore-based consultant Endau Analytics. “There are many, many areas that need to be improved.”
Visitors to Thailand increased 19 percent in 2013 to 26.5 million, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. It’s the second-most popular destination in Asia, after China.
In a January audit, the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization raised questions about Thailand’s safety procedures that prompted Japan to restrict some Thai airlines’ operations. ICAO wouldn’t spell out details beyond saying there were concerns, primarily relating to air-operator certification procedures.
So far a major fallout has been averted. South Korea’s Transport Ministry banned Thai charter flights, but left scheduled services intact. Japan, which initially barred Thai carriers from adding or changing flights, will allow charters in April and May and will weigh progress after that.
Thailand has shared its action plans with ICAO, the agency’s spokesman Anthony Philbin said.
“We need to regain other nations’ trust,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said in a televised speech April 3. ICAO “is giving Thailand three months to overhaul the system, but I want it fixed within the next 30 days.”
Equipment will be upgraded, the number of aviation officials will be quadrupled and Thai carriers’ licenses will be reviewed in the new plan.
“The aviation safety risk will not only affect the airlines but also the number of tourist arrivals to Thailand,” said Jintana Mekintharanggur, director of equity investment at Manulife Asset Management Co. in Thailand.
Thailand is still in compliance with FAA regulations, according to the agency’s website.
Thailand has allowed too many start-ups in recent years while not expanding its resources, said CAPA Centre for Aviation, an independent consultant. There are more than 40 licensed airlines in Thailand and 20 more are in the process of setting up, said Brendan Sobie, a CAPA analyst.
One airline already suffering is budget carrier NokScoot. It planned to begin flights to South Korea this year, but withdrew its application April 7 and halted ticket sales.
About 9,000 of the 20,000 tickets the airline sold need to be refunded, said Chief Executive Patee Sarasin.
“The current problem in the Thai aviation industry is very serious,” Patee said.