On Wednesday, February 27, Pakistan closed its airspace as tensions with India rose to levels not felt in years after a suicide bombing in Kashmir. A few hours later Thai Airways, citing safety worries, canceled all flights to and from Europe, apparently because Pakistan was in the way of its normal flight paths.
I only learned about this on Thursday morning when I woke up to the news that thousands of people were stranded at Suvarnabhumi Airport, the main international airport serving Bangkok. Most flights from Bangkok to Europe depart after midnight, and although the cancellation notice went out on Wednesday afternoon, Thai Airways International (THAI) had clearly failed to notify its passengers, which made up around 4,000 of the 5,000 stranded.
Throughout the morning the airline neither said what it planned to do nor offered assistance to tired and angry passengers left in the lurch at the airport. All it did was tell them to wait.
Thai Airways was not the only casualty in the global airline industry – other airlines with routes between Europe and Southeast Asia were in the same plight. But oddly enough, none went so far as to ground flights across the board and grab headlines like THAI did. Most chose to fly around Pakistan as a quick fix. This roundabout way added extra flight time and cost more in fuel, but caused less disruption than what wholesale cancellation would have entailed. Only in certain cases were flights scrapped.
The alternative route adopted by these airlines took their planes further down south off the coast of Pakistan. The three major Middle Eastern carriers (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways), which normally plied this route, were now joined by Singapore Airlines, Finnair, British Airways, Aeroflot and Air India, according to flight tracking site Flightradar24, which also reported heavy traffic along this flight corridor.
In light of this, Thai Airways’ drastic measure to cancel en masse raised some serious eyebrows. Why didn’t THAI fly around Pakistan like others when it knew full well the hassle such cancellations would bring? Or was it done out of a genuine concern for passenger safety, in essence suggesting that other airlines were reckless?
One possible explanation is that THAI had indeed made attempts to reroute but did not succeed. With no other recourse, it had no choice but to cancel. The speediness with which THAI embraced mass cancellations as its first stab at the problem, however, paints a more damning picture – that of a timid leadership accustomed to taking the easy way out.
By Thursday afternoon Thai Airways announced it had resumed flights to and from Europe by detouring around northern Pakistan through China’s western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet – a good way off and over more dangerous terrain compared with the southern approach. Airspace over these areas, which China considers its underbelly, is generally off limits to civilian aircraft.
Thai Airways did not explain why it took so long to come up with a solution and why it ended up with a bypass that almost no one else used. I suspect that THAI’s difficulty in securing an alternative route was due to the absence of something that other airlines all seemed to possess: a contingency plan. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it turned out THAI couldn’t reroute south of Pakistan because it was slow to put in a proper request, and so by the time it did the lane was already full to capacity.
Fighting between India and Pakistan over Kashmir was bound to happen sooner or later given the region’s long history of armed conflict. Thai Airways’ obvious lack of preparation for this eventuality coupled with ineptitude turned what should have been a mere inconvenience into multi-day distress for its customers – the backlog of passengers would take well into Sunday to clear. Too bad not enough people question how much damage can really be attributed to force majeure and how much is simply owed to the carrier’s incompetence.