Is budget long haul but a pipe dream?

Courtesy PA

Courtesy PA


Only days after announcing plans to launch transatlantic flights in five years, Ryanair retracted its position, abandoning the plans. In a statement, it said it “has not considered or approved any transatlantic project and does not intend to do so.” This ran contrary to the earlier announced approval by its board to mount budget flights between various European and US cities. Why the sudden turnaround?

The budget long haul challenge continues to entice entrepreneurs who dare go where others fear to tread. We hark back to the days when Sir Freddie Laker pioneered the low-cost model and Laker Airways took to the sky in 1977 flying between London Gatwick and New York’s JFK Airport. It went bankrupt in 1982.

Others have tried and failed. Most notable among them, Oasis Hong Kong Airlines that operated scheduled non-stop services from Hong Kong to both London Gatwick and Vancouver International Airport. Voted “World’s Leading New Airline” at the Annual Travel Awards 2007, Oasis folded its wings a year later, ending a three-year run. It went down the same path as Canada’s Harmony Airways which started services within North America in 2001, then mounted a service to Manchester in UK and announced plans to expand into Asia. It collapsed in 2007, a lesson that might have come too late for Oasis.

AirAsia X, which is an offshoot of Asia’s largest budget carrier AirAsia, commenced services in 2007, flying from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to the Gold Coast in Australia. It was a tactical move to build up Australian traffic feed into its subsequent services to London and Paris. Three years seem to be as long as such services could last. In 2012 AirAsia X withdrew its services to both European destinations, along with others including Delhi, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi, Tianjin (China) and Christchurch. It cited high fuel prices and taxes, and a weak market. But AirAsia X is keeping the dream alive with plans to reintroduce services to London and Paris, and adding other new destinations such as Sapporo in Japan. As recent as the end of last year, AirAsia chairman Tony Fernandes announced that “reopening of KL-London is definitely on the card.”

Courtesy Norwegian Air Shuttle

Courtesy Norwegian Air Shuttle

The latest foray into that arena is Oslo-based Norwegian Air Shuttle, which began services in 2013 to the US and Bangkok in Thailand. It has plans to also fly to Hong Kong and India. The airline, which has been profitable before flying long-haul, is reporting losses and blamed it on the costs of expansion and disputes with US regulators and competitors who aren’t too welcoming of its intrusion.

Yet the temptation to prove that the budget long haul formula can work is irresistible to many a visionary, to whom we must give credit for their derring-do. In a price sensitive market, it should work but it seems not for the long haul as the short haul. It is widely accepted that beyond four hours, at most five, passengers have different needs and their demands begin to change inversely to cost. For one thing they are likely to carry more bags and could do with some pampering to break the monotony of the journey. Harmony Airways boasted low-cost with full service, and Oasis Airlines too tweaked the Spartan low-cost model to include some element of that. But running an extremely lean outfit in an unpredictable environment of volatile fuel prices, uncertain travel demand, potential flight delays and cancellations, and unforeseen natural disruptions among other things, is a big challenge.

There are other factors such as aircraft utilization with quick turnrounds, fleet support in the event of delays and cancellations, and competition. Legacy airlines can no longer afford to ignore budget carriers as niche players outside their turf for the short haul, as they spawn offshoots to check the competition. Air France-KLM and Lufthansa introduced Transavia and Germanwings respectively to compete with the likes of Ryanair and easyJet. Australian flag Qantas carrier has its Jetstar brand. Even Singapore Airlines reputed for premium service is adding yet another budget carrier, Scoot, to its fold, the new carrier literally sharing the same arena with older sibling Tigerair although it is pitched as a medium-range operator. So if the competition heats up, you bet the big boys will flex their muscles.

It is so tempting for an airline such as Ryanair as it succeeds and grows to look for new opportunities. That it did not work for others in the past does not necessarily dictate the formula cannot work for Ryanair, which has succeeded in the short haul where many others too had failed. Others such as AirAsia and Norwegian Shuttle which have gone ahead are still testing the ground. Apparently Ryanair is treading carefully as it has been seven years since it first expressed the desire to cross the big pond in 2008. In the earlier announcement before it changed its mind, it said, quite rightly so, it would be “dependent on attaining viable long-haul aircraft”. Consider how when the oil price soars, budget carriers are the hardest hit. It will take another four to five years in Ryanair’s estimate for such an aircraft to emerge. The airline’s spokesman revealed that it was talking to plane manufacturers. So, again, the question: why the turnabout?

Is the answer close to what easyJet chief Carolyn McColl said about sticking to what it does best? Ms McColl reportedly told the BBC: “We have no intention to do long haul because we think it’s a different kind of business.” It would be too high a risk to change its short-haul strategy. But Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary is known for suggesting game-changing ideas, as revolutionary as “standing room only” flights and charging for the use of the aircraft loo, and for setting trends in the industry such as charging for printing a boarding pass at the airport, so we wait to be surprised.

Interestingly, a new “ultra low cost” concept is rearing its head. While an airline such as Qatar Airways is demonstrating that there is almost no limit to dressing up a premium product with its latest offering of a private cabin furnished like a hotel suite, a new airline in Canada, Jetlines, has big plans to offer rock-bottom airfares said to be below 40 per cent what rivals Air Canada and WestJet are charging. Jetlines chief David Solloway said the airline is ready to take to the sky. He cited Ryanair, easyJet and Allegiant Air as models. “The model of buying a seat and a seatbelt and only paying for goods and services each passenger may choose individually,” he said, “is known all over the world and is the fastest growing segment in the airline industry.”

Apparently some five million Canadians cross borders to board flights out of neighbouring US airports because of ultra low fares offered by US airlines such as Allegiant Air. Mr Solloway hopes to stem the outflow by offering not only very low fares but also the convenience of flying from the home base. The question is: How low can you go? So much for nomenclature. The only thing certain about Mr Solloway’s proposal is that Jetlines will be much cheaper than other Canadian carriers. He probably already knows that the leaner the model, the stricter is the demand on discipline and efficiency. And the best bet for survival is flying into secondary airports rather than the main hubs, though this is somewhat tricky considering customer preferences. You fly where customers want to go. Apparently Mr Solloway has done his homework. He said: “If you’re asking the question whether Canada could have a third airline, the answer is no. But if you ask whether Canada can support an ultra low-cost, low fare airline, the answer is overwhelmingly yes.”

While US carriers are trying to stop the thrust of Norwegian Air Shuttle, the same question may be asked of the budget long haul: Is there a market, if not ready but potential, for the business? There has to be something out there for the many enterprising founders since Freddie Laker to wager their millions. Yet as they came and went all too soon, something seemed to be missing in the formula. Or is the budget long haul but a pipe dream?

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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