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US aviation body downgrades Thailand over safety issues

[BANGKOK] The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday downgraded Thailand's safety ratings after its civil aviation body failed to tackle flaws in its commercial aviation standards.

Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) was taken to a category 2 from 1 because it "did not comply" with its standards, the FAA said in a statement. That means Thai airlines are prevented from launching or expanding services to the United States, either directly or as code-share partners.

Although none of the kingdom's airlines currently fly to the United States, the lower safety rating could hurt the image of a country with a thriving tourism industry and a long-established commercial air travel sector that handles scores of domestic and international routes.

Bangkok is a regional airline hub that has forecast some 30 million tourist arrivals this year. In July it was given 65 days by the FAA to take make improvements over what the it said were critical omissions in safety standards.

Prior to the announcement, a DCA source told Reuters the FAA's inspections detected "some three or four" unresolved issues and the DCA "cannot meet the deadline." The FAA did not specify where Thailand had failed, but said its category 2 rating would apply to an aviation authority that"is deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping, or inspection procedures".

It follows a series of red flags and concerns that have put Thailand's air safety standards under the microscope this year.

The Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Authority, a division of the United Nations, downgraded the kingdom to category 2 from category 1 in June. Its January audit found Thailand had a shortage of technical officers and certification problems in transporting hazardous goods.

South Korea, Japan and China had previously stopped Thai-based airlines from flying charters and new routes over safety worries that emerged in an international audit. Those restrictions have since been relaxed.

Thailand had been given time to take corrective measures over what the FAA said were critical omissions in its safety standards.

Patee Sarasin, chairman of low-cost carrier Nok Airlines told Reuters the FAA decision would hurt the local industry's reputation and may also lead to countries like South Korea or Japan limiting flights and routes by Thai operators.

Flag carrier Thai Airways, however, said its business would not be affected. "There is no commercial or customer impact as THAI had already ceased operations to its only US destination of Los Angeles," its president, Charamporn Jotikasthira, said in a statement.