Opinion: Should Taxpayers Bail Thai Airways Again?

A screencap of a video produced by Thai Airways showing its staff dancing and expressing solidarity during the coronavirus pandemic.

At a time when the public debates whether to rescue Thai Airways from its 200 billion baht debt or let it go bust, I have a confession to make about the airline.

My love for the color palette of deep violet, golden poppy, magenta and fuchsia was born from decades of seeing these exotic hues on Thai Airways International planes, and their seats and logos.

At its peak, the 60-year-old airline was a national pride. Its exotic color combinations, resplendent silk dresses of its air hostesses, impeccable services, and savory Thai cuisine served with stainless steel cutlery spoke volumes about Thailand. It was simply among the world’s best.

But today, Thai Airways is seen as a source of national embarrassment and never-ending sinkhole of taxpayer money.

Rumors have it this week that the airline is ready to file for bankruptcy. It’s also asking for a 50 billion baht bailout package. And that’s just the initial sum – the total sum for the rehabilitation plan is expected to reach least 130 billion baht.

Should taxpayers shoulder that burden? This is not a question of pride or no pride, but how the government should spend our money at the time Thailand is facing a grave economic prospect due to the coronavirus.

Not every Thai takes pride in Thai Airways because it is pricey compared to other airlines, even other foreign ones, and many Thais could not always afford to fly on one of the TG flights in the first place. The prohibitive price also led some to view the airline as more of a pride of the middle class and the elite.

Above: a 1997 Thai Airways ad boasting its award-winning punctuality.

It’s an airline where prim flight attendants can be intimidating to passengers from the working class. It’s a turf where politicians and those in power feed, while ordinary people are left to clean up the mess.

Last year saw Thai Airways running a loss of 12 billion baht. In 2018 it lost 11 billion baht and 2 billion baht in 2017. Perhaps the only aspect where it can now truly be called a national carrier is that all of us taxpayers will likely have to reach our pockets for the losses incurred by the airline.

In short, Thai Airways is now a shadow of its own past glories. Its economy class now serves foods with plastic forks and knives, and even the choice of alcohol has been downgraded over the years. Fresh orchids pinned on you upon your embarkation is anything but a distant memory for most passengers.

This may sound petty, but remember people pay months-worth of salaries for these tickets.

It also failed to be competitive when aviation is full of low-cost rivals, its management is bloated and ineffective, its business model a failure, its legacy far from ‘smooth as silk’.

A promotional image for Thai Airways.

Even if one is generous enough to say the government should bail out Thai Airways, there is no guarantee how long it will take before the airlines will come back begging for more taxpayers’ money.

This is why it’s imperative that any attempt to bail the airline must be sound, transparent, and accountable to the public.

Thai Airways must bite the bullet and reform. It must remember that, unlike public bus operators in the cities, there are other private alternatives ready to fill up most of its flight routes.

On Wednesday, a Thai-language newspaper ran its frontpage headline with the news that the airline is ready to file for bankruptcy. Yet on the same page, Thai Airways’ advertisement urged us to “keep flying” with the fleet.

If only things were that simple. We cannot keep paying for Thai Airways as long as they can’t give us a credible solution to its woes.