THAI Airways International(THAI) is hoping to resume flights to the United States later this year after previously suspending its 35-year-old route from Bangkok to Los Angeles in October of 2015. THAI suspended its service to the US last year in line with its cost cutting and restructuring plan following years of losses. Then, in December of 2015, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) downgraded Thailand’s safety rating from Category 1 to Category 2, which prohibits any carriers from Thailand from operating new flight routes to the US. As such, the timing of THAI’s move to resume flights to the US depends proving to US regulators that its safety standards are adequate. To that end, THAI has launched a “Safety Beyond Compliance” project to boost safety standards in Thailand’s aviation industry in order to hasten the approval process. THAI has also purchased two new Boeing 787-9 aircraft to help ensure that its aircraft meet the FAA’s Category 1 standard.
Thanks to increasing demand, Thailand’s national flag carrier aims to resume flights to the US by late 2016 or early 2017. The flights to the US would be non-stop, thereby giving THAI an advantage over its local competitors, as they all make at least one stop on their routes to the US. It is also reported that THAI’s new hub in the US would most likely be San Francisco, rather than Los Angeles where it previously flew. California is the top destination for Thai visitors to the US, and a new non-stop flight connection could boost the numbers even higher. Likewise, Thailand is also the top destination for US visitors in the ASEAN region, with almost 867,520 US tourists visiting Thailand in 2012. US tourism in Thailand contributes significant to Thailand’s economy, as tourism accounts for about 10% of the country’s GDP. Politically, Thailand is also America’s oldest treaty partner in Asia, dating back to 1833, and has since renewed its alliance with the US by signing the Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-US Defense Alliance in 2012.
THAI’s hope to gain FAA approval is certainly difficult but not unprecedented. In August 2016, the FAA upgraded Indonesia’s air safety rating back to Category 1. Previously, Indonesian carriers were banned from flying to the US after the FAA downgraded their safety rating in 2007. Indonesia made efforts to improve its oversight system and won approval after a safety assessment in early 2016. The state-owned airline Garuda, with more planes and flight crews than other Indonesian airlines, will be the first to resume flights back to the US. The airline is expected to start direct flights to the US by early 2017, with a possible new service from Jakarta to New York or Los Angeles. Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy, with US companies directly investing $16 billion in the Indonesian energy, mining, and manufacturing sectors. In addition, more than 90,000Indonesia travelers chose US destinations in 2014, and that number is expected to grow to more than 137,000 by 2017.
Recent years have also seen increasing efforts from different US airlines to launch new non-stop flight routes connecting the US with the Asia-Pacific. In June 2016, United Airlines began a new non-stop flight between San Francisco and Singapore, which is currently the only direct routebetween the two countries until 2018, when Singapore Airlines will begin non-stop flights from both Los Angeles and New York. In addition, United Airlines has been operating direct flights to Auckland and Hangzhou from San Francisco since July 2016. Today, 20 cities in the U.S have direct flights to 23 different cities in Asia, a significant expansion since 2014.
Sin Yan (Amy) Lau is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at American University.