Fly high at low cost
In the flying game, they are the new airlines that dare to roar, providing a glimmer of hope of cheaper air transport to millions. But is it a formula that will last? NEELAM MATHEWS looks at the change in the skies.
© AIR ASIA SDN BHD
Perhaps the latest dotcom, and a boon for passengers.
LOW-cost flying. The theory is simple enough. Sell the tickets at low prices and more people will fly, even if they're herded into an all-economy aircraft cabin, without as much a packet of peanuts to munch or a glass of water to drink.
But who cares? Not the teeming thousands of ex-first class rail travellers who now jostle each other to grab unnumbered window and aisle seats having paid 30 per cent less than regular airline fares.
The managing director of India's first low-cost carrier Air Deccan (www.airdeccan.net) Captain Gopinath says: "It hit me like a ton of bricks. This country has a population of a billion, but only 15 million air passengers. May be the time is right. If one billion people can fly, and we get a miniscule percent of the market, imagine how big that will be? It's not an impossible dream."
To make his dream come true, there are strict rules to be followed, not difficult for the disciplined ex-military person. Gopinath is crystal clear about his policy.
"Despite many people telling us that water should be given free, we did not. If we did, there would be a lot of wastage with those not wanting it asking for it. And that costs money."
There are many pennies to be saved in cutting costs on paper tickets, no frequent flyer programmes, bookings on internet, having a quick 20-minute turnaround for every flight, multi-skilling by staff, fewer cabin crew and of course payment for all extras including excess baggage and snacks in-flight.
While some low-cost carriers offer nothing on board and others do, low fares appeal not only to the first-time traveller on his first air holiday, but also to the business class passenger. Virgin Blue's delectable commercials focus on service relevant to any market "If only you got Virgin Blue's service everywhere." (www.virginblue.com.au).
What travel agents will not reveal, for fear of losing their commissions is that low cost travel is simple and easy to book and a great savings option. For instance a flight from Chennai to Kuala Lumpur on a regular carrier (Air India www.airindia.com, Indian Airlines http://indian-airlines.nic.in, or Malaysia Airlines www.malaysiaairlines.com) can then be connected to any point in Malaysia at half the cost on Air Asia (www.airasia.com) by booking in advance.
Travelling to Bangkok from Chennai (Thai www.thaiair.com, or Indian Airlines) and then onto to Chiang Mai or any other point in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore or Macau (and soon Bali), one could use a combination of low-cost airlines and end up saving more than just a few pennies. The opportunities and savings are tremendous. This incidentally should be the practice when travelling to Europe where discount airlines like Ryan Air (www.ryanair.com) and EasyJet www.easyjet.com (and in the United States, SouthWest www.southwest.com, and ATA www.ata.com) offer fares that would make a Visit USA (VUSA) fare (purchased in India) blush. (Ryan Air recently faced an enquiry after flying from Givona in Spain to London's Stansted airport with passengers seated in the aircraft's toilets.)
YANNICK DELAMERRE/FRENCH FROG AIRSLIDES
... the claws are out in Asian aviation.
The guru of the low-cost movement in Asia is the dynamic Tony Fernandes of part Goan, part Malay-Portuguese descent, setting the trend by cutting costs that contribute to rock bottom fares that Air Asia, his airline, is able to offer. Now everybody can fly, says Fernandes, a former music industry heavyweight.
Air Asia has bases in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru (near Singapore) and Bangkok. Fares are of great value, starting from around $7 on domestic routes and $10 on international routes. In July, Singapore's first budget airline, Valuair (www.valuair.com), began flying the popular Singapore-Hong Kong route at a promotional rate of $174 for return tickets.
Offers are now being clubbed with hotel packages easily making the middle class look forward to two holidays a year. Air Asia's tour packages from Bangkok to Penang start from $70 per person and to Kuala Lumpur at $97, and include two-night accommodation, taxes, and return airfare. A honeymoon package for $260 each to Phuket valid upto end September, is inclusive of return airfares, four-night stay, buffet breakfast, a welcome herbal drink, a bouquet of red roses and 1 lb of Honeymoon Cake.
Fernandes has said he plans to fly to India and China once government clearances come through. According to spokesperson Bernard Francis, the first destination from Kuala Lumpur to India is likely to be Chennai to cater to the large segment of visiting friends and relatives. Chennaites can expect to make more journeys abroad at half or less the price of traditional carriers.
"Most of the time you can get really good rates. In fact, it's cheaper sometimes than bus tickets from Penang to Kuala Lumpur," confirms a Malaysian travel agent.
Decide and `click'
The secret is by-passing agents who charge a commission on air tickets and booking on the internet.
Just log onto the website of any low-cost carrier, decide on the date of travel and click. The sites are secure and credit cards protected. And the earlier you book, the cheaper fare you get. Only about 30 per cent of seats are sold at the lowest advertised price. Fares increase as the aircraft fills up, especially on very popular routes, so passengers need to buy early to get the dirt-cheap fares. However, if one is not sure about the date of journey it might prove useful to check the cancellation policy of the carrier.
Air Deccan is soon planning to start flights between Mumbai and Delhi and will offer 25 per cent of the seats at Rs. 500 and scaling up the price of the remaining seats, by less than 10 per cent of the existing economy airfare of Rs. 6,445 and very close to the Rs. 421 second-class Delhi-Mumbai railway ticket.
Low-cost airlines are swooping in on Asia. Singapore Airlines is the latest big player with its Tiger Airways (www.tigerairways.com). Australia's national carrier Qantas (www.qantas.com) will also be launching a low-cost subsidiary from Singapore. Thai has also set up its own low-cost airline, Nok Air (www.nokair.co.th), that will run a series of flights on domestic routes to Chiang Mai, Hat Yai in the south and Udon Thani in the northeast.
Fares are being pushed down in Asia. Indonesia's Lion Air (www.lionair.co.id), for instance, offers a one-way ticket from Singapore to Jakarta at $49, compared to $313 on a full-service carrier. In Australia, a flight on Virgin Blue costs around A$855 from Melbourne to Perth, compared to A$1,340 on Qantas.
"We are a bus, but hopefully a very comfortable one. One of our competitors referred to us a value based airline we like that label ... ," says Virgin Blue spokesperson David Huttner, who recently said Virgin Blue was looking at China or India to start a low-cost operation.
Meanwhile more startups in India are expected with as many as 12 having applied for licenses in India. ``This is going to be a big movement,'' says Kapil Kaul, vice-president of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation.
Air India's plans
Not to be left behind, national carrier Air India has announced its plans for a new low-cost airline, "Air India Express", that will operate to West Asia and South-East Asia from a base in South India, most likely Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala.
"Low cost should be the dream of all (airline) managements. Strangely, it's being viewed as a new concept, which goes to show how high cost the airline industry has been," says a candid
Air India chairman and managing director Vasudevan Thulasidas.
CHANGE is in the air as airline passengers can soon expect to get an ordinary printout on a plain sheet of paper giving their flight details instead of a paper ticket in a snazzy airline envelope.
Over 98 per cent of airlines have committed to e-ticketing by the end of 2007. It's as simple as this:
An e-ticket can be printed out on one's home PC once ticket details are supplied by the airline website or travel agent.
Details of the electronic ticket are safely stored on the airline booking system. So there's no worry if you lose the sheet of paper.
Upon arrival at the airport passengers can proceed directly to check-in or use the self service check in machines, where available.
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