Sometimes life takes you on an unexpected journey, be it metaphorical or literal. Such is the case for Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth, president of Bangkok Airways, which calls itself Asia’s boutique airline. Never imagining that one day he would become a commercial pilot flying large passenger jets for his family’s own airline, the eldest son of Dr Prasert and Vanli originally studied at the Faculty of Commerce and Accountancy at Chulalongkorn University.
“When I first went to university Bangkok Airways didn’t exist. We did have a small chartering and air-taxi company in Samui called Sahakol Air, which was established in 1968. When I went up to university I thought having a business-related degree would be useful to the family in some way. Actually, when I was a young child I played with toy cars, trains and planes like any other small boy, but I don’t ever recall thinking that I’d like to be a pilot some day,” Puttipong says.
It was while he was furthering his studies in Bangkok that his parents expanded Sahakol Air to become a nascent airline. “I was still at university when we received permission to fly scheduled passenger flights in 1986. Once I had my degree I joined the company in 1989 as a member of the ground staff at our wholly owned operations site of Samui Airport. That was the year we rebranded to become Bangkok Airways. The business was still very modest at that stage with very few flights compared to now. The planes we flew then were small turbo-prop aircraft and flight operations were very limited—only three flights a week between Bangkok and Samui. We have come a long way since. Today we employ over 2,000 people servicing a fleet of 38 modern aircraft, including the Airbus A320, and we fly domestic and international routes to 23 destinations.”
Looking back, Puttipong says that he joined the airline business at just the right time with boutique and emerging low-cost alternatives to the more expensive flag carriers becoming increasingly popular with a burgeoning middle- and working-class demographic ever more keen to indulge a taste of frequent air travel. “The airline industry was becoming very dynamic then and it was a great time to learn. There were no flight schools or institutes so one had to gain experience on the ground, so to speak,” he says with a chuckle.
“Once you start working in this sector, you want to be able to learn about all the things related to the airline. While I was part of the ground crew on the flight operations side, I had to help plan for each aircraft’s trip and needed to understand what the pilots required in order to prepare them thoroughly. It was this proximity to the flight deck that made me think about becoming a pilot. I wanted to know what pilots did, the regulations that they had to follow and even how they thought.”
Learning to fly in Thailand in the early 1990s presented its own challenges. “Back then you really only had three choices—training at the Civil Aviation Training Centre at Hua Hin, a placement with a big airline, which was a very hard thing to secure, or you joined the Air Force,” Puttipong explains. With the latter two options not viable he headed to Hua Hin and after a year of intensive flight instruction he received first his private pilot’s license and then his commercial pilot’s license.
“A commercial pilot’s license has rating categories stipulating the aircraft type the pilot is qualified to fly. Moving up ratings to bigger and more sophisticated aircraft requires certain flight hours logged at the previous [lower] rating—so I returned to the company for specialised training on the specific types of aircraft flown by Bangkok Airways. During that period there were lots of exams and hours spent both in flight simulators and in the air to get my ratings up.”
Once he was fully qualified on the company’s aircraft, Puttipong settled into life as a regular commercial airline pilot, amassing thousands of hours in the air over the next few years as Bangkok Airways added new routes, destinations and aircraft types to its business. Then, in 2008, he took over the running of the business and took the company public.
Today he still finds time to fly. “I put myself on the monthly flight schedule but the truth is I only fly around two days per month. I do miss it but business demands come first now. The nice thing about flying is the feeling of accomplishment when you complete a flight. That never goes away. You have a simple goal to get your aircraft and passengers from A to B as safely and efficiently as possible. With office work I tend to experience endless rounds of meetings over issues that seem to go on and on. Believe me, captaining a plane is much more fun than chairing a business meeting,” he laughs.
We live in a rapidly changing world in which the digital era is giving rise to new approaches to business and the travel industry is no exception. This is not lost on Puttipong who says, “One of our biggest challenges going forward is how to manage the business so that we keep pace with the digital world. Today people can access flight prices and schedules and make bookings with a few touches of the screen in their hands. We are committed to the development of applications and online access to cater to our customers’ demands, which is why it is gratifying for Bangkok Airways to be recognised by UK-based airline and airports review and ranking website Skytrax. We have won several Skytrax awards in recent years, including World’s Best Regional Airline and Best Regional Airline in Asia in 2017.”
Given Puttipong’s multiple roles at Bangkok Airways, how does he switch off? It comes as no surprise that the father of six says he likes to unwind by flying. “As a passenger though,” he smiles. “When time allows, my wife Dennapa and I—and our children—like to travel. We usually take domestic vacations but occasionally we go abroad. The journeys give me a good opportunity to see what other airlines are doing.”
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