By Khettiya Jittapong and Manunphattr Dhanananphorn
BANGKOK (Reuters) - China has joined South Korea and Japan in stopping Thai airlines from flying charters and new routes because of safety concerns highlighted by an international audit, Thai officials said on Monday.
The move will come as a blow to Thai carriers that have just started recovering after a poor 2014 when political protests slashed the number of tourists visiting Thailand.
The halt is disrupting the peak travel season around the Thai new year in April. About 100 charter flights to Japan alone have been canceled and some 30,000 tickets either refunded or modified, the director general of Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) Somchai Piputwat told reporters on Monday.
Budget carriers have been worst hit though national carrier Thai Airways International, which is in the midst of a major restructuring, has also been prevented from expanding because of the halt, Thai officials said.
One aviation source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters that significant safety concerns had been uncovered during an audit of Thailand's civil aviation authority by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.
The source said the ICAO's concerns revolved around the issue of operator certificates to carriers by the Thai authority. While the ICAO cannot "downgrade" states, its audits identify concerns that could lead countries to take steps such as banning flights.
"The audit revealed some safety concerns, primarily relating to air operator certification procedures," ICAO spokesman Anthony Philbin said in an email, adding that Thailand had submitted a plan to the ICAO to correct the issues identified.
Thai Transport Minister Air Chief Marshall Prajin Juntong told reporters on Monday that Thailand had struggled for a decade to comply with ICAO standards.
Prajin said while the ICAO has not made the results of the audit public, aviation authorities in some countries had taken pre-emptive steps to stop Thai carriers from flying new routes.
Authorities in China have rejected plans by budget carrier Orient Thai Airlines and charter flight operator Sky View to operate more flights to the country, the DCA's Somchai said.
South Korea has rejected plans by charter airline Asia Atlantic Airlines to start new flights, he said. Japan had already made a similar move, according to reports in Thai media.
Other airlines affected by the ban are Thai Airways International and long-haul, low-cost carrier Thai AirAsiaX.
"It's a domino effect," Prajin said, adding that the ministry hoped the issue would be resolved within eight months.
Thai Airways declined to comment. Nok Airlines chief executive said the impact on NokScoot, its joint venture with Singapore Airlines subsidiary, would be limited.
Voradech Hanprasert, deputy permanent secretary at the Transport Ministry, said the ICAO findings had no impact on existing flights.
Still, Thailand is concerned the results could lead the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to put Thailand on its watch list, Voradech said.
An ICAO rep from one Asia Pacific country said on Monday he felt Thailand would rectify the concerns raised in the audit.
"A state like Thailand will definitely take measures to address these issues," he said. "I think they need time."
(Additional reporting by Allison Lampert in MONTREAL; writing by Simon Webb; editing by David Clarke)