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Local airlines to face headwinds

Passengers board a Bassaka Air flight parked on the tarmac of Siem Reap International Airport last year.
Passengers board a Bassaka Air flight parked on the tarmac of Siem Reap International Airport last year. Scott Howes

Local airlines to face headwinds

Cambodian airlines trying to grow and capture a slice of the more promising Chinese market will face stern competition from more-established international carriers, while new startups could struggle to gain a foothold in the Kingdom’s relatively small market, according to new research by the Centre for Aviation (CAPA).

All four of Cambodia’s local airlines – Cambodia Angkor Air, Sky Angkor Airlines, Cambodia Bayon Airlines and Bassaka Air – have made China a focus of their international expansion. However, the airlines lack the scale and resources to compete with the 10 foreign carriers that already provide air connectivity between the Kingdom and China, the Australia-based aviation research and consulting firm said in a report released yesterday.

“Cambodia may not be able to support more than four local airlines over the long term,” it said. “The four existing airlines, none of which operate more than seven aircraft, lack the scale to compete effectively with foreign airlines, and the proposed start-ups will face similar challenges if they succeed at launching services.”

The four Cambodian carriers have a combined fleet size of 17 aircrafts, according to CAPA research. Bayon is expected to add two A320s this year, adding to its fleet of two MA60 turboprops, while Bassaka is planning to secure a third A320 and add more flights to China.

Additionally, newcomer JC International plans on operating two A320s this year, with Lan Mei Airlines expected to begin operations by the end of the year. Both airlines are owned by Chinese investors and expected to launch services to China.

Air passenger traffic between Cambodia and China has experienced double-digit growth since 2009 and currently accounts for about 20 percent of Cambodia’s international scheduled seats. Some of the fiercest competition on these routes is expected to come from Chinese airlines plying these routes.

“Chinese airlines have the scale and distribution network in China to outmuscle small foreign competitors. They also have the flexibility to redeploy aircraft in other markets, should China-Cambodia demand slow,” the CAPA report said.

Brendan Sobie, chief analyst at CAPA, said despite the impressive growth in recent years of Cambodia’s aviation market, which chalked up around 400,000 annual domestic passengers and 7 million international passengers last year, local carriers could struggle with commercial viability.

“Cambodia has a very limited domestic market, while its other international markets are not growing nearly as fast as China and are extremely competitive,” he said.

Local airlines serving international destinations must compete with over 10 foreign low-cost carriers and more than 15 established Asian flag carriers that serve Cambodian airports. The top competitors include Vietnam Airlines, Bangkok Airways, Thai AirAsia and China Southern Airlines, which together operate nearly 50,000 weekly seats.

“Foreign airlines offer connections beyond their hubs, and have a huge competitive advantage over any Cambodian airline,” he added.

Steve Kim, chief commercial officer for Cambodia operations of Small Planet Airlines, a Lithuanian-based carrier that is seeking government approval this year to fly from Cambodia to China and Korea, said fierce competition from established foreign carriers was unavoidable. However, he said Cambodian airlines could carve out a niche during the high tourist season.

“Cambodian airlines can rely on charter flights for maybe three or four months a year during the winter months to capture passengers from China,” he said. “This is something they could do well with because they lack the scheduled flights and have no infrastructure and there is less risk.”

Nevertheless, with two new Cambodian airlines scheduled to launch this year, he said that the government needed to give incentives to help keep the market buoyant.

“Charter flights are not a solution, because what do you do for the rest of the year?” he asked. “The only solution is if the government works with carriers to lower operating costs and encourage low season promotions.”

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