Wiwat Piyawiroj has been with Thai Airways for 20 years but the last three in Japan have been the toughest he has had to endure. Rising oil prices, swine flu, the recession, volcanic ash and most recently, political turmoil in Bangkok have all tested the airline’s mettle.
Thai Airways celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Its smooth as silk image and alluring purple colors certainly give it a cool image that has helped it weather the storm.
Japan Today visits Piyawiroj at the airline’s offices in Hibiya to hear more.
Which countries have you worked in besides Japan?
I have worked in Malaysia, New Zealand, Italy and Johannesburg before coming here three years ago. I have to admit that the last three tough years have been the toughest in my experience with the airline. We had to survive the recession, swine flu and the unrest in Thailand.
How have you coped?
The load factor dropped last year, but this year, the figures are up. Japanese kept going to Thailand, even during the recent unrest, and that was a big surprise to me. April -– which was the height of the unrest -- is a peak season for outbound traffic from Thailand. So that offset any loss from the Japan market. Golden Week wasn’t that bad for the Japan-Thailand route. Now, the load factor is about 60-70% but we are expecting it to go up for the summer holidays, especially August.
Which cities in Japan does Thai Airways fly in and out of?
Narita, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Some flights are code-shared with ANA.
Are you planning to expand?
Yes, from the end of October, we will add a new flight from Haneda to Bangkok. From Nagoya, we currently have a daily service, and we are going to increase it to 10 flights a week. We will also resume daily flights from Fukuoka. So we are positive from the winter season onward.
What about to Phuket?
At the moment, we have two direct flights a week from Narita. From Aug 1, there will be four.
How are you marketing the airline in Japan?
Our marketing strategy is that we don’t want to be seen as just a regional airline, but a network airline. So our strategy is to sell destinations beyond Thailand. For example, last year, we started promoting Oslo as a destination because we are the only Asian carrier with a direct daily flight from Bangkok to Oslo. In June, we relaunched a direct flight to Johannesburg from Bangkok. Because Thailand is such a popular destination, we work closely with the tourism authority which has offices in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka – cities that we service.
Later this month, we will do a mega-familiarization trip for travel agents and media, 500 in total, from everywhere in the world. Fifty will come from Japan. They will visit Bangkok and Phuket.
Which segments of the Japanese market and strong and which are weaker?
The tourism market is steady, but the biggest potential is the corporate market, and one in which we are doing very well. This is because business between Japan and Thailand is growing. On the other hand, the senior market, frankly speaking, is not so strong. I think there is a need for more supporting facilities to enable a longer stay in Thailand. The senior market is certainly very competitive among Asian countries.
What do you think is the image of Thai Airways in Japan?
Our hospitality is our strong point. There is also a very serene feeling associated with us.
Do you advertise much in Japan?
We used to do big billboards and posters with Japanese celebrities, but not this year. We do some traditional print advertising but we are starting to focus on online ads and social communities. We want to increase Internet bookings, which are currently around 10%.
Many passengers complain about fuel surcharges. What is your policy?
We get a lot of feedback from customers who feel they are being ripped off when they see a fare advertised, and then have to pay extra for the fuel surcharge. However, from the winter season, we are going to do something very different. Under our new fare policy, the advertised fare will include the fuel surcharge.
How do you think the new Haneda service will be received?
Very well, I’m sure. It will be once a day, starting Oct 31. The plan is for the flight to leave Haneda 12:20 a.m., so you can take it after work. The return flight will arrive 10:30 at night, which leaves plenty of time to catch trains into Tokyo.
Is there still a demand for first class?
Yes, there is, but not so much on the Japan-Thailand route because it is only a 7-hour flight. The demand is still there on our long-haul flights. In May, Thai Airways’ first class lounge in Bangkok got the top ranking from Sky Tracks.
Is Thai Airways a popular airline for Japanese women applying for jobs?
Yes. We get about 2,000 applications from women wanting to work as cabin crew. We have two per flight. We never have to advertise in a big way. It is announced on our website and they all apply and come in dressed up, practically all alike and almost all with the same hairstyle. We hire about once every three years.
I assume you travel a lot. Which class do you sit in?
I travel in all classes. Whenever I travel, I talk to passengers and staff at the check-in counter. On board, I always identify myself because I want to hear feedback from cabin crew and passengers, if I can. I also travel on other airlines because it is important to see what they are doing.
Who designs your cabin crew’s uniforms?
For awhile, we used famous French designer Pierre Balmain, but the latest look was done by a Thai designer.
What areas do you tend to be hands on and what areas do you tend to delegate?
For my first two years, my focus was on growing sales and revenue, as well as marketing. This year, 90% of my time has been on administration. We have 60 staff here.
How do you relax when you are not working?
I like to drink beer and go bike riding.
For more information on special air fare promotions, visit www.thaiair.co.jp© Japan Today