A true avi­a­tion pi­o­neer

From for­ays into duty- free shop­ping to building its own air­ports, Put­tipong Prasart­thong- Osoth and Bangkok Air­ways have al­ways known how to stay one step ahead.

Bangkok Post - - BUSINESS - By Suchat Sri­tama

angkok Air­ways, the coun­try’s first pri­vately owned do­mes­tic air­line, was started with the vi­sion it would be the lead­ing air­line in Asia. Put­tipong Prasart­thong- Osoth, pres­i­dent of the air­line, is ded­i­cated to the twin pil­lars of safe delivery of pas­sen­gers with ex­cep­tional ser­vice, and max­imis­ing share­holder re­turn.

This vi­sion helped the air­line over­come dif­fi­cul­ties and still pro­vides the bedrock as Mr Put­tipong works to push its busi­nesses for­ward.

“All op­er­a­tors need to build their own strength and unique char­ac­ter if they want to stay in busi­ness,” he says.

“I took over as pres­i­dent in 2008, suc­ceed­ing my fa­ther. He still gives me ad­vice as the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. My bosses are the board of direc­tors and the CEO.”

As the old­est son of Prasert Prasart­tong- Osoth, the air­line’s founder and owner, Mr Put­tipong con­trols Bangkok Air­ways Plc to­gether with af­fil­i­ated busi­nesses in­clud­ing three air­ports — Sa­mui in the Gulf of Thai­land, Sukhothai in the North, and Trat on the east coast — as well as Bangkok Flight Ser­vices, a pas­sen­ger and ground ser­vices provider at Su­varn­ab­humi air­port, and Bangkok Cater­ing, an air caterer.

Bangkok Air­ways re­cently ac­quired a new busi­ness unit called More Than Free to op­er­ate a full range of duty-free busi­ness, in­clud­ing the ac­qui­si­tion of small op­er­a­tors that have man­aged shops at U-tapao, Sa­mui, Su­rat Thani and Luang Pra­bang air­ports.

The ven­ture into duty- free busi­ness is to cap­i­talise on the growth of travel and tourism.

“We may need to join with world-class op­er­a­tors to gain busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Mr Put­tipong.

More than 3,000 peo­ple work at Bangkok Air­ways group, of which some 2,000 are in­volved di­rectly with avi­a­tion such as air­crew, tech­ni­cians and pi­lots.

50YEARS OF SER­VICE

This year the air­line is cel­e­brat­ing its 50th an­niver­sary.

“Through­out our five-decade jour­ney, it was ex­cit­ing the whole way. We even­tu­ally made it here and now we feel like we can be our­selves,” he says.

The story of Bangkok Air­ways started in 1968 when Dr Prasert, a for­mer sur­geon, estab­lished an air­line named Sa­hakol Air as a de­part­ment in his own com­pany called Krungthep Sa­hakol. The air­line op­er­ated as a char­ter flight ser­vice based on mar­ket de­mand.

In 1984, the air­line sep­a­rated to be­come its own com­pany and has been op­er­at­ing as Bangkok Air­ways since.

In 1986, Bangkok Air­ways com­menced op­er­a­tion of sched­uled flight ser­vices, fly­ing from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, Surin and Krabi, us­ing an 18-seat Ban­deirante EMB 110 air­craft.

“We are among the first pri­vate air­lines to re­ceive per­mis­sion from the gov­ern­ment to of­fer pas­sen­ger ser­vice,” says Mr Put­tipong.

It was not com­mon at that time for pri­vate firms to run air­lines as peo­ple be­lieved such ser­vices should be owned and op­er­ated by only state-run air­lines.

“We were con­fi­dent we could make it, though the gov­ern­ment did not al­low us to fly du­pli­cate routes op­er­ated by the na­tional air­line,” he says.

Since then, the air­line has tried to of­fer dif­fer­ent ser­vices to change cus­tomers’ per­cep­tion of air travel.

SA­MUI AIR­PORT KEY

Bangkok Air­ways used clever tac­tics to en­sure its sur­vival, such as de­cid­ing to build its own air­port in Koh Sa­mui in 1984, which helped trans­form the is­land to an in­ter­na­tional tourist des­ti­na­tion. Op­er­a­tions at Sa­mui air­port started when it was granted per­mis­sion to op­er­ate flights be­tween Bangkok and Sa­mui in 1989, with a 37-seat DASH 8-100 air­craft.

“The gov­ern­ment granted li­cences to the pri­vate sec­tor, but it did not have an open sky pol­icy yet so we had to find land on the is­land for the air­port,” says Mr Put­tipong.

The air­line also be­gan to fly over­seas dur­ing that time, open­ing its first sales of­fice in Paris. The new sales dis­tri­bu­tion brought in many cus­tomers not only from France but also all over Europe.

Sa­mui routes con­trib­ute 50% of pas­sen­ger rev­enue, with 30% from re­gional routes and 20% from do­mes­tic routes.

Later, the air­line be­gan to op­er­ate do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional routes, linking Bangkok with ma­jor her­itage tourism sites such as Siem Reap in Cam­bo­dia, Luang Pra­bang in Laos, and China’s Xi’an, Guilin, Jinghong and Chi­ang Rung.

CHALLENGE OF LCAS

The big­gest challenge for Mr Put­tipong hap­pened about a decade ago when low-cost air­lines (LCAs) emerged. Their pop­u­lar­ity has changed the favoured trans­port mode for Thais from land travel to air.

LCAs gave Thais more at­trac­tive pric­ing op­tions com­bined with slick mar­ket­ing.

Within a short pe­riod, LCAs grabbed a large mar­ket share, not only from Bangkok Air­ways but ev­ery player in the mar­ket. This forced the air­line to ad­just and con­sider what it re­ally needed to do.

“We thought about it for a while and fi­nally re­alised there must still be some de­mand for full-ser­vice car­ri­ers. We de­ter­mined our new di­rec­tion,” he says.

The air­line de­cided to re­po­si­tion it­self as “Asia’s Bou­tique Air­line”, com­mit­ting to full ser­vice, with a bou­tique air­port and lounge, great connectivity, and on-board ser­vices.

“The only task dur­ing re­brand­ing was telling pas­sen­gers we are dif­fer­ent from other air­lines,” says Mr Put­tipong.

Dur­ing 2008, the air­line faced an­other challenge as the global eco­nomic cri­sis hap­pened just days af­ter he took over as pres­i­dent.

Dur­ing the cri­sis, fuel prices rose from US$40 per bar­rel to $150, in­creas­ing op­er­at­ing costs by 30-40%. That hike forced the air­line to cut its route net­work by 50%, in­clud­ing routes to China, Ja­pan and some do­mes­tic routes.

More­over, it had to post­pone air­craft delivery and of­fer staff early re­tire­ment pack­ages.

The sil­ver lin­ing to the cri­sis and baht de­pre­ci­a­tion was it en­cour­aged a mass of for­eign tourists to visit Thai­land be­cause the trip was much cheaper.

“With travel in Thai­land much cheaper than pre­vi­ous years, tourism re­bounded re­mark­ably as for­eign­ers flocked to the coun­try for va­ca­tion. Thai­land be­came one of the most vis­ited coun­tries in the world,” he says.

The global cri­sis put Bangkok Air­ways’ ledger in the red from 2007, not re­turn­ing to the black un­til 2010.

The ups and downs have given Mr Put­tipong valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence. One ma­jor les­son the air­line learned from the cri­sis is busi­nesses need al­liances.

Since the cri­sis, the air­line has worked with other air­lines, both do­mes­tic and over­seas, to tally 26 air­line al­liances cur­rently, among the high­est count in the world.

The al­liances help Bangkok Air­ways main­tain mar­kets even if it does not have any op­er­a­tions in those coun­tries.

“The air­line has faced many ob­sta­cles, but amid cri­sis, we can find op­por­tu­nity,” he says.

As of June 2018, Bangkok Air­ways op­er­ates to 15 destinations across South Asia, North Asia and South­east Asia, and 12 destinations in the do­mes­tic mar­ket.

There are 39 air­craft in the fleet, sched­uled to in­crease to 43 in 2020. New jets will al­low the air­line to in­crease ca­pac­ity.

“I give all the suc­cess to my team as they have helped the com­pany to drive busi­ness for­ward in many ways. They brought in many new cus­tomers dur­ing the cri­sis,” says Mr Put­tipong.

He be­lieves the tourism in­dus­try will con­tinue to grow be­cause of Thai­land’s unique ser­vices and kind­ness as well as a range of at­trac­tions from cul­ture to na­ture, lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ences and global events.

The cost of travel also re­mains about 50% lower than some cities such Sin­ga­pore or Yan­gon.

He says his man­age­ment style re­flects his be­lief that the most im­por­tant part of the busi­ness is staff.

“Qual­ity em­ploy­ees re­flect our suc­cess. If pas­sen­gers are im­pressed with our ser­vice, they will re­turn to use our air­line and stay with us for a long time,” says Mr Put­tipong.

“My work­ing phi­los­o­phy is to make ev­ery day bet­ter. I am ded­i­cated to the best cus­tomer ser­vice and mak­ing peo­ple feel good. I also like to know ev­ery sin­gle de­tail be­cause it will help me make the best de­ci­sion.”

While ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy is needed for an air­line, he be­lieves ser­vice is about peo­ple and their mind­set.

I give all the suc­cess to my team as they have helped the com­pany to drive busi­ness for­ward in many ways. PUT­TIPONG PRASART­THONG-OSOTH BANGKOK AIR­WAYS PRES­I­DENT

PHOTO: PORNPROM SATRABHAYA

Bangkok Air­ways pres­i­dent Put­tipong Prasart­tong-Osoth has learned the im­por­tance of air­line al­liances.

Mr Put­tipong sits be­side his fa­ther, Prasert Prasart­tong-Osoth, a for­mer sur­geon and founder of the air­line, who also owns the hos­pi­tal chains of Bangkok Dusit Med­i­cal Ser­vices.

A Bangkok Air­ways jet sits ready on the apron at Sa­mui air­port.

Mr Put­tipong and staff on the air­line’s first trad­ing day, Nov 3, 2014.

A Bangkok Air­ways flight at­ten­dant takes or­ders.

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