Malaysia-based low-cost carrier (LCC) AirAsia launched a direct flight between Kuala Lumpur and Sihanoukville last week, increasing the coastal Cambodian city’s visibility on the international tourism radar. The Post’s Cam McGrath spoke to Spencer Lee, commercial director for AirAsia Berhad, about the new flight and the commercial decisions behind launching the route.
How has the initial response been to the Kuala Lumpur-Sihanoukville flight?
We are pleased to share that our inaugural flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sihanoukville recorded a remarkable response of a 100 percent load factor as we have simulated it with our aggressive low fares. With this new route we look forward to develop and grow Sihanoukville to become a popular tourist destination, but more importantly, we also want to connect the people of Sihanoukville to Asean and further with our wide connectivity.
However, we have a lot more work to do as this unique destination is not well-known among Malaysians yet. We need to continue driving more awareness to this Asean treasure that is located under two hours by air from Kuala Lumpur. When we look at our previous route launches to places like Lombok, Banda Aceh and Trichy, these were relatively unexplored destinations, but they are now seeing travel demand based on our flight frequencies to these places.
What is at stake when an airline commits to launching a new scheduled flight?
It is important to sustain and grow the demand in both Kuala Lumpur and Sihanoukville to ensure sustenance for the route. This is where the support from all key industry players such as the airport authorities, tourism bodies, hoteliers and more comes into the picture to provide the infrastructure and assistance needed to grow the destination. With more hotels, activities and news available for travellers, these will help drive the tourism dollar further and create more job opportunities while keeping the route alive.
Does Sihanoukville’s small airport pose any particular challenges or limitations to airlines?
Our core operations always reflect what we believe in which is ‘Now everyone can fly’ and this should not be limited to the traction of a certain destination or the size of its airport. Being a truly Asean airline that flies to all 10 Asean countries including Cambodia, part of our efforts is to expand our extensive network to not just metro cities and booming capitals, but unique routes and hidden gems such as Sihanoukville as well.
What is more important is the support and assistance from the airport authorities to ensure the overall safety, smooth ground operations, facilities that are good and safe for passengers, and travellers’ travel experience from the moment they depart right up to their arrival is a comfortable one.
Many countries have established separate airports or terminals for LCCs. What is the advantage in this and do you think Cambodia should consider it?
Low-cost carriers operate on a different business model as compared to full-service carriers where cost plays the key factor in the overall operations. As a low-cost carrier, we focus on giving passengers the choice to only pay for services that they need or want from the array of offerings we have. That being said, a premium terminal or airport may offer services that a low-cost carrier might not necessarily require such as aerobridge which comes at high operating costs for low-cost carriers.
Of course, the less overhead cost for us means we can continue offering great fares to all passengers. However, it remains in the hands of the airport authorities and Ministry of Transport in Cambodia to decide on the direction that they seek and whether to separate airports and terminals for the different types of carriers.
How successful has AirAsia’s existing routes to Cambodia been and are any additional Cambodia routes under consideration?
We have been seeing a travel demand based on the increased tourist arrivals from the total passengers flown across our group for our Cambodia routes.
In light of this, we have recently added flight frequencies for some of our routes such as Kuala Lumpur-Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur-Siem Reap to support the demand. Our latest addition to Sihanoukville shows our commitment and confidence we have in this growing market.
At the moment, we are focusing on our existing routes including this new route as well as the recently-added flight frequencies. However, we are always on the look-out for opportunities to expand our services to more locations in Asean and Cambodia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity