Thailand's junta chief vowed Wednesday to fix the kingdom's airline industry after the United States downgraded the country's air safety rating in an embarrassing blow to the tourist-reliant nation.
The Federal Aviation Administration in a statement late Tuesday said Thailand's civil aviation authority no longer met "minimum international standards", a decision that could hamper the operation of Thai airlines worldwide.
The ruling is a setback to the junta government of former army chief turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who seized power in a coup last year.
He has blamed successive civilian administrations for failing to tackle safety concerns over the last decade, a period of political turbulence marked by short-lived governments, debilitating street protests and two military coups.
"People in the whole country just kept fighting -- no one helped one another," he told reporters Wednesday.
"We have to see what we have to fix and improve."
Thailand is a major regional air transport hub while tourism -- one of the few bright spots in an otherwise flagging economy -- accounts for roughly 10 percent of GDP.
In March the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization reported "significant safety concerns" within Thailand's aviation sector.
At the same time China, Japan and South Korea temporarily stopped Thai-based airlines from flying charters or new routes due to safety concerns, although those restrictions have since been lifted.
The FAA conducted an audit earlier this year and gave Thailand 65 days to make improvements in areas of concern but the deadline was not met.
- Regulators take cue from FAA -
The FAA downgrade means Thai airlines will be banned from the United States while American airlines will not be able to begin new code-shares with their Thai counterparts.
That will have little direct effect immediately since no Thai airline currently flies to the United States.
However, other airline safety regulators, such as those in the European Union, often take their cue from FAA safety rulings, which could result in further downgrades or blacklisting that would have a direct impact.
The FAA statement did not specify why Thailand had been downgraded but said the move comes when there are "one or more" deficiencies with a country's civil aviation authority in areas such as "technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping, or inspection procedures".
Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said Thailand lacked qualified staff within the civil aviation authority at a time when the regional airline industry has seen huge expansion, particularly in low-cost carriers.
"We will quickly find more qualified and enough of the right personnel," he said, adding that the country's aviation laws dating back to 1954 "need to be improved".
Flagship Thai Airways shrugged off the downgrade.
In a statement its president Charamporn Jotikasthira said it would have "no commercial or customer impact" given Thai Airways had ceased its only US flight, to Los Angeles, in late October.
"Thai confirms its commitment to aviation safety standards, and assures all that Thai operates with the highest international aviation safety standards," the statement added.
Thailand, once a beacon of economic progress in Southeast Asia, is currently facing something of a compliance crisis.
The European Union is mulling whether to blacklist its vital fishing sector after years of failing to crack down on illegal practices, including the use of human trafficking victims and unregistered vessels.
The kingdom has also been put in the bottom category of Washington's annual list of countries that have failed to crack down on human trafficking.