Soaring ambition

By: Philippe Beco - Posted on: March 22, 2011 | Business

After years of spearheading the Cambodian operations, Thai Airways’ Narinthorn Purnagupta is to pilot the airline’s Vietnamese operations

As he gets ready to leave for new pastures Narinthorn Purnagupta is light hearted. He will pass the baton to a successor who, he is happy to say, will inherit a profitable Bangkok-Phnom Penh route.

The general manager of the Cambodian Thai Airways office landed in the Kingdom in early 2006. “Those were the best years. At the time and until mid-2008 tourism from Korea and Japan was booming and the country’s economy was growing at a rapid pace,” he recalls.

Then came the financial crisis. Purnagupta reckons the passenger demand fell, but he now looks at the future with confidence again as the Thai carrier holds a strong market position in a country of good prospects.

“The Cambodian market is quite sensitive, especially the traffic to Thailand,” says Purnagupta, who is keeping a close eye on territorial tensions between the two neighbours. He is acutely aware of the negative impact the conflict could have on business between and within Thailand and Cambodia.  “However, even during the toughest financial crisis moments, many long-haul clients kept on flying to Cambodia via Thailand. Suvarnabhumi International Airport provides a nice getaway to the seasoned travellers who know Thailand already well.”

With a master’s degree in economy from Brooklyn’s Long Island University, Purnagupta has other reasons to be optimistic about the fundamentals of Cambodia’s development.

“The population is more and more educated, investors are coming, people are getting wealthier and they love to travel. Provided we succeed in revising our Air Traffic Agreement with the authorities, I believe we would start with a third weekly flight between Bangkok and Phnom Penh as soon as business volume enables it,” he explains.

Thai Airways carries a diversified mix of clients to Cambodia from diplomats to businessmen and, of course, tourists.

“Tourism is one of the four main business pillars of Cambodia – it provides a hard currency the country needs. We are ready to take risks but it takes two hands to clap,” Purngupta says, suggesting the Ministry of Tourism could draft a better plan to encourage investment in the country’s nascent industry.

He doesn’t appear concerned by Air France’s network expansion to Cambodia. Yet he sees the growing presence of Gulf airlines – and their low fares – in the region a potential threat. He is quick to add that as fuel-laden long-haul aircrafts demand high -tandard catering capabilities and long runways from its receiving airports, a stopover in Bangkok for flights travelling between Laos and Cambodia and the Middle East is likely. If this proves true, Gulf airlines will lose their competitive edge on possible Europe-Phnom Penh routes.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is of course central to Thai Airways’ development strategy. “Regional airports may be competitors in the long term, but for the time being I think Bangkok is safe from harm. The airport has high technology standards and all the land it needs to further extend, so we can easily double our capacity in three to four years. We want to promote it as the best gateway to Indochina.” The extension of the airport is to be completed in 2015, bringing the current capacity of 45 million passenger arrivals per year up to 60 million.

Purnagupta’s next stop is Ho Chi Minh City, from where he will also look after the airline’s Hanoi bureau. As the new general manager for Vietnam, he believes he will spend a substantial part of his time talking to the country’s authorities – nuturing a professional, and mutally beneficial, working relationship.

His assignment is to reinforce Thai Airway’s footprint in the country, establishing a stronger link between the local market and the Star Alliance network, which brings together 27 airways including Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and United Airlines to name but a few.

“It’s a bigger market than Cambodia, but Vietnam Airlines’ position is very strong,” Purnagupta says. He shouldn’t have difficulties in keeping himself busy. In its latest study just released last month, The International Air Transport Association expects Vietnam to be the third-fastest market in the world for international passenger traffic by 2014.