ARRIVING at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport in June, 1959, I failed to notice three aircraft parked alongside the runway. Even if I had seen them, they would have meant little to me, given my heightened state of excitement at being in Thailand to start work in one of the world’s most exotic countries. Only later, were those three super-constellation aeroplanes to have a major impact on my life.
With a population of about 1.5 million and fewer than 100,000 tourists a year, most of the major roads were bordered by klongs covered by water lilies and lotus plants, and the limited number of motor vehicles competed for road space with samlor bicycles and pedestrians. Most of the buildings did not exceed three storeys, and the horizons were studded with the gleaming spires of Buddhist temples.
In November of 1959, my agency was approached by a Danish gentleman who enquired if we would like to pitch for the advertising of a brand new international airline. I was currently looking after a number of airline accounts, including Cathay Pacific, BOAC and Air India, so it fell to me to coordinate the proposal for the launch advertising of Thai Airways International, leading up to its inaugural flights on 1 May, 1960. Our pitch against other advertising agencies was successful, and I embarked on a life-changing experience.
After the Second World War, Siamese Airways Company (SAC) was established in 1947 by the Ministry of Communications, and operated a variety of aircraft types, initially to cities in Thailand’s North, North East and South. In 1948, services were extended to Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong and Calcutta.
In 1948, POAS started regular flights from Bangkok to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei, Tokyo, Penang and Singapore. A third airline was launched in 1948 called Trans Asiatic Airline (Siam) Company, but after operating a limited number of charter flights to neighbouring countries it ceased operations in 1950.
Following its launch in 1947, SAC enjoyed healthy growth on both its domestic and international routes, while POAS reduced its services to just Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. To avoid duplication and unnecessary competition, the Thai government decided in 1951 to buy all the shares in POAS and amalgamate the two airlines to create Thai Airways Company Ltd (TAC).
On its domestic services, TAC continued to enjoy increasing business, but stiff competition on the international routes caused the airline to suffer losses for the first nine years of its existence.
Various measures were introduced to help the situation, including the purchase of three Super Constellation aircraft in 1957, and an unsuccessful collaboration with Pan American Airways for three years commencing in March, 1956.
In early 1959, Hans Eric Hansen, the General Sales Manager of Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), was on a business tour of Southeast Asia when he observed the three Super Constellation aircraft parked at Don Muang Airport. Intrigued to discover what they were doing there, he arranged a courtesy call to the General Manager of TAC, Lt. Commander Prasong Suchiva. From their discussions emerged a plan to create a new international airline for Thailand, in which the Thai government would hold 70% of the shares, while SAS would hold 30% and provide administration, operations, traffic and sales, passenger service and handling for an initial period of 15 years.
The Thai government in 1959 was led by Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who on seizing power in 1957, went on to initiate a number of policies to promote Thai culture and to support business interests, including the creation of the Ministry of Development. His policy to promote interest in Thailand led to the establishment of the Tourist Organisation of Thailand (TOT) in 1959, which later became the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
The agreement to create a new international airline for Thailand offered benefits to both parties. For the Thai Government, the reputation of SAS as an experienced international airline was an important factor. For SAS, involvement in a new airline would allow it to extend its reach beyond Bangkok and Tokyo, into the rapidly developing countries of Asia and Australasia, areas which had previously not been available. The three Super Constellation aircraft could also be sold to Guest Aerovias Mexico, with whom SAS also had a joint venture, with operations on its Central Atlantic routes. To replace these, SAS would provide three leased Douglas DC-6B aircraft as the new airline’s initial fleet.
On 24 August, 1959 the agreement was signed in Bangkok to create Thai Airways International Ltd (THAI). The nine-member board consisted of six Thais and three Scandinavians, with the agreement to run for fifteen years, during the latter part of which, the SAS shares would gradually be taken over at par value by TAC. An additional agreement was signed on 31 March, 1960 under which SAS agreed to provide THAI with various services including training and forward planning. During this period SAS would be responsible for any operational losses, while profits would be shared on a proportional basis
At Cathay Advertising, we received a briefing from Chris Hundrup, the new THAI Sales Director, to create launch advertising to appear not only in the Thailand media, but also in the nine countries to which Thai International would operate scheduled services. Co-ordinating the advertising and design of a variety of print materials was John Henriksen, a member of the SAS advertising department in Stockholm, who was scheduled to return to Scandinavia following the inaugural flights on 1 May, 1960.
The six-month period during which we created THAI’s launch advertising was extremely hectic, as we had to start from scratch, without any existing cabin service or aircraft exterior photos. Fortunately, SAS had flown in one of their top photographers to help create believable inflight service images, using a DC-6B cabin mock-up, which the airline constructed on the grounds of Assumption Convent School. This mock-up was also used to train the initial batch of young female and male stewards in all aspects of inflight service.
The newly created THAI flight kitchen at Don Muang Airport was called on to create mouth-watering and photogenic meals, to illustrate THAI’s unique brand of inflight hospitality.
While we were focusing on the advertising launch, SAS was heavily involved in the training of flight crew and ground staff. In December, 1959, twelve Thai pilots flew to Stockholm where they familiarised themselves with the operation of the DC-6B aircraft, which they would be jointly piloting with their SAS counterparts.
The first group of cabin attendants were also recruited, consisting of 24 females and 12 males. Interest in these positions ran high in Bangkok, and the number of applicants far exceeded the available vacancies. Qualifications for the successful applicants were extremely demanding, both in terms of language skills and education. Following their initial training in the DC-6B mock-up, the cabin attendants joined SAS flights to observe and work with experienced crews.
In April, 1960, a pre-inaugural meeting was held at the Erawan Hotel headed by Hans Eric Hansen and attended by the new department heads and SAS managers from overseas. I presented our approved plans for the launch advertising which was already starting to appear in the media in Thailand and at the scheduled destinations. The crew uniforms, and the symbol for the new airline which consisted of a stylised Thai dancer, were designed by HSH Prince Kraisingh Vudhijaya with the letters THAI utilising a similar lettering style to SAS.
On 1 May, 1960, HM Queen Sirikit presided over the inaugural ceremonies at Don Muang, and presented plaques for each of the three DC-6B aircraft, which had been named by HM King Bhumibol and blessed by the Acting Supreme Patriarch.
Watched by a large crowd of dignitaries, the first Thai International flight took off at exactly 12 noon bound for Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo, with 60 passengers and piloted by the Chief Captain of THAI, Captain Hedall Hansen, and Captain Brom na Thalang, the Senior Thai Captain. On the same day, flights were also launched to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Rangoon and Calcutta. The following week services were introduced to Phnom Penh and Saigon, and later that year to Manila and Jakarta.
The head office for the new airline was located at 1101 New Road, almost opposite Bangkok’s General Post Office. While the building was undergoing major renovation, the THAI staff were temporarily housed at the offices of the East Asiatic Company on Oriental Avenue, which was the location of the SAS office in Bangkok. On the completion of the building, which featured a ticket office at street level, the staff moved into the new space which was stylishly fitted out with Scandinavian modern furniture and tastefully decorated.
Staff at THAI initially numbered 378, of which 55 were Scandinavians. Headed by the President Lt. Commander Prasong Suchiva, Hans Erik Hansen was appointed Executive Manager, with Chris Hundrup, Sales Manager and Deputy Marketing Manager, and Rune Damstrom, Finance Manager.
Each manager was understudied by a Thai assistant, and as an illustration of the effectiveness of this policy, three of these Thai nationals eventually served as President of the airline.
Following the inaugural flights I was approached by Chris Hundrup with an offer to become the first Advertising Manager of Thai International and I joined the airline in this capacity on 1 September, 1960. My task was to set up a full service department to handle all THAI’s creative, production and media requirements. Together with the Online Managers, we also appointed local advertising agents to handle our centrally-produced ad campaigns.
During its first year of operation, THAI’s DC-6Bs carried more than 83,000 passengers, and the airline quickly earned a reputation for outstanding inflight service. In May 1962 THAI leased a four-engine Convair Coronado Jet, seating 99 passengers, and this was replaced two years later in January 1964 with a fleet of five Caravelle jets. The introduction of the Caravelles changed the fortunes of THAI, which during the first four years’ operation had failed to show a profit. However, at the end of 1965 THAI registered its first operating profit of 3.9 million baht.
The move to profitability was partly due to the growing reputation of THAI as an attractive regional carrier, and the efficient operation of the Caravelle fleet, but also to a number of cost-cutting moves initiated by the SAS management in Stockholm. In 1962, Hans Erik Hansen returned to SAS, and was replaced by Henry Jensen as General Manager.
Jensen, a no-nonsense character, swiftly moved to reduce costs including a reduction in the number of Scandinavians, who were replaced by their Thai deputies. Chris Hundrup was replaced by Neils Lumholdt as Director of Marketing, and Thamnoon Wanglee replaced Rune Damstrom as Finance Director.
Neils Lumholdt was a visionary who, over the next 18 years, made a major contribution to the success of THAI. On the marketing front, he persuaded the travel industry leaders in Europe, the USA and Australia to visit Thailand and experience Royal Orchid Service. He also appointed a number of key sales managers in each region, who established close working relationships with the key travel operators.
It was Lumholdt’s initiative which saw the introduction of regular flights to exotic destinations like Bali and Kathmandu, which helped to raise the global awareness of THAI. In 1970, Lumholdt introduced the Royal Orchid Holidays programme which proved highly popular and grew to offer more than 800 holiday packages in 33 countries.
His vision also included persuading Chatrachai Bunya-Ananta to leave British Airways and join THAI, where he eventually became Vice-President of Marketing. In this position he skilfully managed to market the rapidly expanding THAI network and fleet of wide-body jet aircraft. In 1992, Chatrachai became the President of THAI followed in 1993 by Thamnoon Wanglee.
As the airline expanded its operations, the Scandinavian pilots were replaced by Thai nationals who received part of their training on a flight simulator at THAI’s Flight Training Centre. Captain Brom na Thalang was appointed Senior Captain and went on to become President in 1979. Captain Jothin Pamon-Montri, who had joined THAI in 1960 as a trainee pilot, became Vice-President Flight Operations, while Captain Udom Krisnampok headed Ground Operations and Captain Chusak Bhachaiyud became THAI’s Vice-President for Technical Services
The 1970s were a time of dramatic growth and profitability for THAI. The introduction of DC8-62 aircraft enabled THAI to commence services to Sydney in 1971, followed by flights to Copenhagen, Frankfurt and London in 1973. In 1974 the airline added Rome to its international network, and a year later Amsterdam, Paris and Athens came online. During this period, THAI opened a new expanded flight kitchen at Don Muang, providing more than 9,000 meals a day to 26 airlines. It also opened a brand new cargo terminal and flight training centre. In 1975 the original 15-year agreement with SAS was extended by two years to March, 1977, after which the key executive roles were assumed by Thai managerial staff.
After a period in Europe, where I assisted in the placement of THAI advertising, I returned in 1975 to work at the THAI Head Office in Bangkok as Marketing Development Manager. This move coincided with the introduction of a new corporate identity, designed by Walter Landor and Associates. The new THAI logo contained elements of a traditional flower and Thai architecture in a dynamic form, accompanied by a more stylised form of lettering. The corporate colours of purple, pink and gold summed up Thai-ness for many viewers.
In 1976 we appointed new advertising agents, and I initiated the slogan “Smooth as Silk,” which continues to be the airline’s main theme nearly 40 years later. We also changed the publishing arrangements for our inflight magazine “Sawasdee,” which I had launched as an internal newsletter in the 1960s.
To keep up with increasing passenger demand, THAI moved to a wide-body jet fleet in 1977, with the purchase of two Douglas DC-10s and 4 Airbus A300s. The introduction of the new corporate identity involved not just the repainting of aircraft and ground equipment, but the redesign and reprinting of thousands of other items. To ensure that this was correctly handled we produced a brand identity manual which gave strict guidelines for every item, including the writing of business letters.
THAI’s rapid growth and success was challenged in the 1970s by the emergence of Air Siam, an airline started by Prince Nicky Varanand, a former THAI pilot. Operating a leased Boeing 747 to Honolulu and an Airbus A300 service to Hong Kong, this was followed by the opening of a service to Los Angeles using a leased DC-10. The rivalry and confusion created by the two competing carriers fortunately came to an end, when Air Siam filed for bankruptcy in 1977.
The acquisition of two 371-seat Boeing 747-200s in 1979 moved THAI into the Jumbo Jet age. Initially utilised to offer non-stop flights to Europe in March 1980, these wide-body aircraft were used on flights to Seattle and Los Angeles. A third Boeing 747-200 was delivered in 1980. The introduction of the Jumbos provided our advertising agents with opportunities to link Thailand’s long history of working elephants with the new state-of-the-art aircraft, which resulted in the memorable “Jumbos are coming” campaign.
In 1982, I moved to Hong Kong to establish a new advertising agency and a publishing company. THAI management awarded us with the contract for the creation of their international advertising, and subsequently, the contract to produce Sawasdee magazine, which allowed me to continue with my long-established relationship with my former colleagues at Head Office. This arrangement continued until my retirement in 1992, which marked a 33-year period in which I had seen THAI grow from a fleet of 3 DC-6Bs with a combined seating capacity of 240 passengers to a fleet of mainly wide-body jets that carried 10 million passengers in a single year. In 1990, THAI celebrated one of its most profitable years, with a pre-tax profit of 6.75 billion baht.
Recent years have seen the growth of a large number of low-cost airlines which has brought new competitive pressures not only to THAI, but also to many of the long-established national carriers throughout the world. Fluctuating fuel costs have also introduced new pressures to threaten profitability. In order to successfully compete, airlines will need to become more efficient, with fewer staff, better use of equipment and more aggressive marketing techniques.
The history of THAI is one that demonstrates how working together, two cultures managed to create one of the world’s great aviation success stories. It is one that all those who were involved should be justly proud of.