Airport strike ends, back to normal

THAI flights earlier delayed over pay protest

A strike by about 400 Thai Airways ground staff at Suvarnabhumi airport that disrupted dozens of flights Saturday, including several international ones, has already ended.

Waits of an hour or more were common at the baggage carousels on Saturday at Suvarnabhumi as strikers forced delays in strikes and ground services. (Photo by Pattarachai Peechapanich)

The protesters said Saturday night they would prolong their industrial action until their demands over an increased bonus and a larger pay rise are met.

Shortly before midnight, THAI president Sorajak Kasemsuvan said the airline had agreed to raise staff salaries by 4-7.5%. Negotiations continued over the bonus, and it appeared the Transport Ministry and THAI executives had dug in their heels on the issue.

However, around 00.20am Sunday,  Jaemsri Sukchoterat, the THAI labour union chairwoman who led the strike, said finally the board of director and the staff reached mutual agreement, which the staff will get the maximum of 7.5% salary increase while the bonus payment will be based on the performance of THAI. The board will put up the result of the company’s operation publicly and explain to the staff about the operation.

However, the labour union has maintained their position of not accepting THAI chairman Ampon Kittiampon so it is up to Mr Ampon to make a decision.

The strike, which started on Friday afternoon at the country's main airport, was joined by hundreds of THAI staff members who are fighting for a two-month bonus and a 7.5 per cent pay rise instead of a one-month bonus and a salary hike of four per cent offered by the THAI board.

The protesters gathered outside THAI's ground operations centre Saturday.

Their work stoppage caused delays of 15-20 minutes of at least 30 THAI flights, both domestic and international, were affected.

At least 20 flights are expected to be affected Sunday if the problem is unresolved, said Vilaiwan Nadvilai, director of Suvarnabhumi airport.

She said the service mainly affected was luggage handling as drivers of trucks transporting luggage and related staff stopped working.

Staff from Don Mueang airport were brought in to assist in moving luggage, as were members of the air force. However, only the workers from Don Mueang were able to drive vehicles at Suvarnabhumi, as the air force members did not hold the required licences.

"I have waited for an hour now [at the luggage claim]. It's never happened to me before. It's getting tiring, why doesn't anyone tell us what's happening," said Mutanakul Somsak, 26, a passenger flying to Kunming, China.

Other airport staff tried to calm the irate passengers with soft drinks, but could not tell them what was causing the delay.

Transport Minister Chadchat Sittipunt said Saturday he had ordered airline president Sorajak Kasemsuvan to promptly deal with the protest to avoid upsetting passengers and tarnishing the country's reputation.

He also asked the airline to investigate staff who had abandoned their duties. They could face drastic action, he said.

"It's the duty of the airline's board to consider awarding a pay rise or a bonus.

All sides should meet to hold talks on those issues," the minister said.

"I don't want the protest to inconvenience the public. The airline executives must consider whether the move by protesting staffers violates the law or the airline's regulations."

Action must be taken against offending staff members, Mr Chadchat said.

The Transport Ministry had a clear policy that any protest related to public services must not cause trouble to customers, he said.

"This is a serious problem that is not only damaging the airline but also the country's image," Mr Chadchat said.

"They are only considering their own personal benefit and not the company's."

Ms Jaemsri said the protest would continue until the board bows to the workers' demands.

No airline executives had met the union during the day, according to an airline source.

Ms Jaemsri said the strike was causing flight delays but the staff were not breaking company regulations because they had stopped work while doing overtime.

Board chairman Ampon Kitti-ampon Saturday defended the one-month bonus as a suitable amount.

He said the airline's profit is split three ways. Portions are set aside for staff bonuses, dividends for shareholders and company investments.

This year's staff bonus exceeds one billion baht.

He said next week he would meet the staff to explain. The board has yet to consider the protesters' demands.

However, it would meet on Tuesday to discuss a solution.

Samat Phum-on, director of the national carrier's Crisis Management and Operations Centre, said earlier in the day that some ground staff had walked off the job.

But the disruptions were only slight and no flights were cancelled.

Late Saturday night THAI executives were believed to be trying to negotiate with the union leaders to end the strike.

Not ready for take-off: About 300 Thai Airways International staff gather at the airline's ground operations centre at Suvarnabhumi airport Saturday to demand a pay increase and higher bonuses. (Photo by Pattarachai Peechapanich)


EARLIER REPORT:

By Online Reporters

A continuing strike by ground staff over pay and bonuses on Saturday delayed several flights by Thai Airways International at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.

The strike began on Friday in protest against the THAI board's decision to pay a 2012 bonus of just one month's salary and to limit salary increases to 4 per cent..

Strikers take a break outside the THAI Ground Operations Centre at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Saturday. The union wants staff bonuses doubled to two months' pay and pay raises of up to 7.5%, compared with 4% approved by the board.(Photo: Pattarachai Preechapanich)

A THAI spokesman said that around 400 ground staff were involved in the strike, resulting in delays of 15-20 minutes for at least 30 flights.

Baggage check-in was slow as only contract staff were available. However, no flights had been cancelled, he said.

THAI labour union president Jaemsri Sukchoterat insisted on Saturday that the ground staff would continue their strike until THAI chairman Ampon Kittiampon complied with their demands. If he did not, she said, he must be dismissed.

The union wants a two-month bonus and a maximum salary increase of 7.5%, noting that the airline was highly profitable in 2012.

Luggage check-in was slower than usual on Saturday because only contract staff remained on duty after unionised ground staff walked out. (Photo: Pattarachai Preechapanich)

The strikers did not want to talk with Mr Ampon but want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step in to settle the dispute, Mrs Jaemsri said late Saturday afternoon.

Mr Ampon said earlier that the one-month bonus payments as approved would amount to about one billion baht out of the airline's 2012 net profit.

Mrs Jaemsri maintained that the higher bonus and salary increase would cost only 500 million baht, the same amount as in 2010 when THAI earned 7 billion baht in net profit.

"Most THAI employees want the dismissal of Mr Ampon as the board chairman," she said. "They also reject any talks with him as it is now too late. We tried to arrange the talks but were rejected."

She threatened that if Mr Ampon were not dismissed, no flights would be allowed to take off from Suvarnabhumi Airport.

THAI president Sorajak Kasemsuvan said on Friday that net profit for 2012 was expected to exceed its estimate by 700 million baht. He declined to elaborate pending a report to the Stock Exchange of Thailand later this month.

In the first nine months of 2012, THAI earned a net profit of 3.86 billion baht, compared with a net loss of 4.8 billion in the same period in 2100.

Transport Minister Chatchart Sithipan on Saturday that he had ordered Mr Sorajak to immediately hold talks with the striking ground staff.

Mr Chatchart warned that if the strike affected passengers and flights at the airport, stringent penalties would be imposed against the strikers.

Mr Ampon said THAI intended to divide its profits into three parts. The first part will be for paying bonuses to staff, estimated at one billion baht.

A second part of the profit will be reserved for dividends to shareholders, and the third will be for business expansion, he added.

Mr Sorajak cautioned on Friday that the airline had to be careful with currency management this year given the rapid appreciation of the baht in recent months. The national carrier earns about 70% of its revenue in foreign currencies, mainly dollars.

He said the healthy results in 2012 reflected a high cabin factor of 76.6%, the highest in five years, helped by a worldwide marketing drive. The airline's revenue target this year was 223 billion baht, representing 11% growth, he added.

Airports of Thailand, meanwhile, said on Saturday said the main cause of flight delays was not the strike, but bad weather overseas.

Passengers planning to travel can get flight updates by calling THAI at 02-356-1111.

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Writer: AMORNRAT MAHITTHIROOK and SOONYA VANICHKORN