In late February, passengers lined up at Nok Air’s check-in counters, waiting desperately to board their flights. The sight was no surprise, even though none of the passengers were expecting problems.
Nok Air’s troubles began on Valentine’s Day when pilots went on strike, leaving thousands of passengers stranded. The debacle was the result of a number of growing issues that are threatening small regional airlines in Thailand.
It wasn’t just pressure to comply with international aviation standards and internal conflicts caused by restructuring that led to Nok Air’s troubles. The carrier was also dealing with a shortage of staff as the regional aviation industry continues to grow at a rapid pace.
While millions of tourists travel through Thai airports each year, the country only produces, at most, 400 new pilots each year. In late February, hundreds of passengers were stranded once again after 17 of its pilots resigned on Valentine’s Day.
Nok Air has taken action against those pilots that went on strike on Valentine’s Day, but that action has not put an end to the conflict.
The conflict comes at a terrible time for the Thai aviation industry, which is being scrutinized by civil aviation agencies across the globe. The UN’s ICAO (International Civil Aviation Authority) downgraded Thailand last year and gave it the red flag for missing its deadline to resolve safety issues.
The strike at Nok Air was allegedly the result of the airline trying to boost its aviation management auditing to be in line with the European Aviation Safety Agency’s standards. The incident has exposed a number of issues that the whole of Thailand’s aviation industry is facing from a shortage of pilots to the pressure of boosting standards to be in line with international aviation standards.
But the disastrous results of the strike could have been avoided if pilots and management had communicated with each other more effectively. Rather than walking off without any explanation, the pilots should have explained to passengers that they intended to go on strike before February 14.
The management at Nok Air should have also had a better plan in place for such a situation. Rather than giving passengers the help they needed, management allowed hundreds to be left stranded and completely in the dark about what was going on. Those in charge were very slow to give any passengers instructions or assistance.
Unless the airline devises a more effective and clearer plan of action, Nok Air is unlikely to win back the trust and confidence of passengers anytime soon.
Above all else, the Nok Air strike revealed a fundamental issue that is plaguing the airline industry: lack of pilots. Pilots at Nok Air claim they are overworked and underpaid.
Nok Air did state that it offered higher salaries of over 400,000 baht per month to attract pilots from major airlines. But higher salaries will not solve the problem. Simply put, there are not enough pilots in the industry as a whole to meet the industry’s demands.
Boosting the number of pilots Thailand produces each year will require direction and support from both the industry and the government.