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Without a buyer, Thai Air's A340 fleet will stay grounded

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Thai Airways International Pcl will continue to ground 10 Airbus A340s it hasn't been able to sell because flying the four-engine planes isn't worth it, even after fuel prices plunged more than 40 per cent in the past year.

[BANGKOK] Thai Airways International Pcl will continue to ground 10 Airbus A340s it hasn't been able to sell because flying the four-engine planes isn't worth it, even after fuel prices plunged more than 40 per cent in the past year.

"The fuel consumption is so uneconomical," President Charamporn Jotikasthira said in an interview in Bangkok Thursday.

"All new planes now have two engines that can fly as long as the four engines, with much better fuel efficiency."

Besides trying to offload the planes, which were used previously for long-haul destinations such as Frankfurt, the money-losing airline has cut routes and sold assets to bolster its balance sheet and operations.

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Thai Air also aims to increase the portion of revenue from bookings on its own website to 30 per cent in the next few years, from 16 per cent now, Mr Charamporn said.

"We still have a lot of unfilled seats, and need urgent action to spur demand for advance bookings," Mr Charamporn said at his office.

"Promotions for bookings on our website are key to the company's future, because our current system is so inferior to other competitors."

Online Bookings

The airline plans to introduce a new system in the second half of the year to make it easier and faster to book online, Mr Charamporn said. It's also in the process of selling its holdings in three domestic hotels, including publicly traded Royal Orchid Hotel Thailand Pcl.

Shares of state-controlled Thai Air have fallen 11 per cent this year through Thursday, compared with a 15 per cent drop for the Bloomberg Asia Pacific Airlines Index.

The stock, which declined 37 per cent last year, was down 1.2 per cent to 8.20 baht as of 12:23 pm in Bangkok, poised for its lowest close since Dec 24.

"A swift sale of aircraft will offer much-needed funds for Thai Air to repay loans or make investments," Siam Tiyanont, an analyst at Phillip Securities (Thailand) Pcl in Bangkok, said by phone on Friday.

"Its goal for increased online sales is probably too ambitious, because a previous attempt delivered very slow results."

Thai Air relies heavily on agents and tour companies for ticket bookings, making it harder for the airline to expand sales on its own website compared with budget carriers, Mr Siam said.

Annual Losses

The airline has hedged 40 per cent of its 2016 fuel needs at a price that is "not bad", with the remaining 60 per cent based on spot prices, Mr Charamporn said.

Thai Air has reported losses since 2013 in the face of increased competition from budget and Middle East carriers. An economic slowdown in China and Europe, the airline's major markets, may renew concern about demand for full-service flights from business travelers, Mr Charamporn said.

The carrier posted a loss of 18 billion baht (S$707 million) in the first nine months of 2015, compared to a deficit of 9.2 billion baht in the same period a year earlier.

The airline aims to raise its passenger load factor to more than 80 per cent this year to boost earnings, Mr Charamporn said. It filled an average 73 per cent of available seats last year, up from 69 per cent in 2014, according to a Jan 19 statement.

Thai Air plans to sell about 6 billion baht of bonds this year to repay maturing debt, chief financial officer Narongchai Wongthanavimok said in the same interview.

The company completed a revaluation of its assets in the fourth quarter, helping reduce its debt-to-equity ratio to single digits, from about 14 in the third quarter, he said.

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