Being innovative and forward-thinking is necessary in the aviation industry to stay on top of political, economic and natural crises. Mr. Suraphon Israngura na Ayuthya, executive vice president of commercial at Thai Airways, explains how an airline steeped in tradition remains ahead of the curve.
We have to focus on putting the right products into the right destinations
Your career at Thai Airways has been varied: You ran the crisis management department, you were managing director of the catering department, and now you’re executive vice president of commercial. Is it advantageous in the aviation industry to have experience in several departments?
At the management level, it doesn’t matter as much because you’re using your management skills and you have to know the product. However, I do believe that the more you know about the branches of the airline business, the better. As you move into higher positions, you can more easily understand what’s happening around you, the staffing and the culture.
Do you see the younger executives following in similar paths?
The younger generation is much different than from our years. They learn a lot by themselves and have the tools to gain skills on their own, and they are very competent in terms of education. But the one disadvantage is they easily jump to conclusions compared to old timers. Older people tend to think a lot more before making a decision.
Given your experience in crisis management, what is the airline’s role when there’s a crisis, such as political unrest in Thailand, that impacts tourism?
You have to prepare before the crisis happens. You have to set up the situation with “what if” scenarios in advance and get the information to build your strategy.
I’ve done that in the past, both with the Y2K crisis and with SARS. I can say it’s very tough for Thailand, specifically, because we are a leisure country. When something happens domestically, it has a huge impact.
Do you then partner with the tourism board to promote travel?
Yes, we do a lot of promotions, particularly this year because it’s Thai Airways’ 55th anniversary. Thailand and Thai Airways are cooperating much more than before, and tourism numbers have been very positive this year.
In terms of Thai Airways’ restructuring plan, where are you focusing your efforts?
We are in a reform process, which means we’re focusing on expenses and revenue. I don’t want to say that we’ve stopped this route or that one, but rather we’re focusing on the potentially high-yield markets and reducing capacity where needed. We have to focus on putting the right products into the right destinations. For us, high-yield markets are about 6 hours of flying, so we will focus on that range.
As a leisure country, about 70-80 percent of our revenue is from O&D, and we haven’t paid much attention to network sales. Now my direction is quite clear to increase network sales, which is part of our reform strategy.
As a company with 55 years of history, do you have to be innovative to compete in this industry?
When we talk about innovation, for me it’s not about the product, but the management style. We must have strong positioning on our direction as a legacy airline. We’re not a low-cost carrier, and we don’t want to compete with low-cost carriers, so we have to be very clear on our direction, both internally and to the passengers. For me, innovation is positioning what you want to be.
So along with innovation, is Thai Airways upholding its traditions and legacy of service?
Airlines are just like doorways to the country, and the strength of Thai Airways is the Thai culture. In my opinion, the airline has to represent the country. Just as when you step in the Royal Palace and you feel the Thai tradition and culture, I think the experience starts when you first step onto the aircraft.
For Thai Airways, our strengths are in our service and our brand, which is our best method for staying in business. In order to compete in terms of aircraft, we will receive the Airbus A350 XWB in 2016 and the Dreamliner 787-9 in 2017.
How are you responding to the rapid growth of tourism in Thailand?
Right now, Thai Airways is under reform, so we’re not talking about increasing capacity. After a year or two, those will be the growing times for Thai Airways again. But in general, we are going to get more and more traffic from the north — Japan and China — and from the India in the west, simply because the populations are so huge. We have to be very cautious on that and make sure that our infrastructure can support this inbound tourism in the next 10 to 15 years.