Garuda Indonesia poised to expand

IT came so timely that following the opening of the new Terminal 3 at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and its declared ambition to rival Singapore Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport in attracting international traffic, Indonesian carriers have been cleared to resume flights to the United States after an absence of nine years.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is satisfied that Indonesia is complying with International Civil Aviation Civil Organization (ICAO) safety standards. Formal final approval from Department of Transport (DOT) and FAA is expected soon.

Indonesia has been plagued by a number of air mishaps involving home-based airlines Lion Air, Mandala Airlines and Garuda, particularly in the years before 2007 when the US imposed a ban on its operations on its soil. More recently in 2014, Indonesia AirAsia crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.

The US lift of the ban came after the European Union had lifted its ban on three other Indonesia airlines – Lion Air, Batik Air and Citilink – in June this year.

Garuda AFP

With the US and Europe open, Garuda for one, if not the other Indonesian carriers as yet, is poised to expand. The Indonesian flag carrier has launched direct services to London (Gatwick) and is planning to launch services to New York (JFK) and Los Angeles next year. And if the Sytrax survey for the last two years (2014 and 2015) is anything to go by for its success, the airline was ranked among the world`s top ten airlines which include other Asian airlines namely Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and EVA Air.

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Is ASEAN Open Skies a myth?

LESS than a year to its full implementation, the ASEAN Open Skies remains an uncertainty. First mooted some 20 years ago, it has been a long time coming. While there was some open discussion in its early days, all seems somewhat quiet of late. Is it likely to be postponed? Or is it after all a myth?

The issue really hinges on how ready the ten-nation association are collectively. Even deeper than that, how prepared are they to overcome the hurdles, real or perceived, that stand in the way of full implementation. Unlike the European Union, ASEAN is by definition an “association” and not a common government with binding law enforcement obligations. The bloc is made up of a disparate string of nations that are vastly different in their stages of economic development. How they weigh the opportunities that such a common policy could bring against possible losses at home would determine their readiness for participation. Some nations may still prefer the seeming protection of local businesses accorded by bilateral exchanges. This was already tacit when at the outset, the various nations agreed on “the importance of the development of Competitive Air Services Policy which may be a gradual step towards an Open Sky Policy in ASEAN.”

Yet the good news is that against the uncertainty, the skies are already becoming more liberal as a number of airlines have stepped up expansion plans across the region. The battle for dominance has begun.

ASEAN nations

Courtesy The Bangkok Post

Courtesy The Bangkok Post

Indonesia is the largest nation in the association, occupying a land mass made up of more than 13,000 islands that is almost 75% the total area of the other nine nations put together. It is also the most populous with 250 million people, followed by the Philippines (98,000,000) and Vietnam (90,000,000). While ASEAN has a combined population of over 600 million – which speaks a lot about its huge market potential – expectedly the focus is likely to be Indonesia. But Indonesia, hampered by slow infrastructural enhancement and the past poor safety records of its carriers, fears the loss of domestic markets to better endowed foreign competitors. In May 2010, Indonesia declared it was not ready to fully open its skies and would limit access to only five airports, namely Jakarta, Surabaya, Bali, Medan and Makassar. Other ports would be subject to bilateral agreements and foreign carriers would not be permitted to ply domestic routes.

So it is with the less developed nations of Myanmar, Laos, Kampuchea and Vietnam even as they seek more foreign investments and ways to boost their exports. Accessibility to the landlocked outback of these nations could open up opportunities for growth, as noted at a meeting of ASEAN transport ministers in 1996 that the association aimed “to promote interconnectivity and interoperability of national networks and access thereto taking particular account of the need to link islands, land locked, and peripheral regions with the national and global economies.” The question really is how ready they are to embrace this objective to see to its implementation.

At the other end of the spectrum is Singapore, which is the smallest of the nations but the most advanced economically and most ready to go full hog with the implementation of the ASEAN Open Skies policy. After all, Singapore has been a pioneer in advocating liberal skies on the global stage. A concern among its ASEAN neighbours may be that of how they perceive Singapore carriers as benefitting from an enlarged Asean hinterland. It works both ways. Foreign carriers, particularly short-haul operators with limited capacity and resources, will benefit from Changi Airport’s hub connections to tap into other markets in the region. Besides its strategic geographical position, Changi offers excellent infrastructure and has appeal aplenty for transits,

Middle-of-the-road Malaysia and Thailand seem less passionate about the push. Brunei Darussalam, which has the smallest population, appears quite comfortable the way it is for now. However, the Philippines with a similar geography as Indonesia could benefit from more liberal connections.

Which airlines will rule the ASEAN skies?

The region’s growth is likely to be led by budget carriers. With the focus on Indonesia, its home-based carriers are not sitting by idly. Flag carrier Garuda Indonesia is acquiring smaller 100-seat planes more suited to the shorter runways of secondary airports, which will be largely served by its budget subsidiary Citilink. Asked how Garuda was gearing up for the ASEAN Open Skies, Garuda president and chief executive Emirsyah Satar said: “The ASEAN Open Skies Agreement will open up the Indonesian market to carriers from other ASEAN member countries, but our position is very strong in Indonesia and we are prepared for the competition. Our network’s aggressive international expansion and continual developments and service improvements will also prepare us for competing in a more liberal environment.” (Interview: Emirysah Satar, president & chief executive, Garuda Indonesia, 4 September 2013) He projected that Citilink would carry 19 million passengers by 2015 and there were plans to add international routes to several destinations in Southeast Asia. Garuda is also developing a new hub in Bintan, which is a hop away from Changi Airport.

Courtesy Lion Group/Picture by Rudy Hari Purnomo

Courtesy Lion Group/Picture by Rudy Hari Purnomo

Compatriot Lion Air, which is Indonesia’s second largest airline, is also expanding its fleet and gearing up its regional subsidiary Wings Air to service smaller airports. Lion Air has long expressed its intention to hub through Changi although it has also announced plans to develop Batam as an alternative transit hub to the congested Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta for both domestic and international flights. Lion Air president Rusdi Kirana said: “The distance is actually shorter if you transit in Batam rather than flying south to Jakarta to transit. The shorter flying time makes flying more convenient for passengers and it means aircraft burn less fuel, leading to significant cost savings.” From Batam, which, like Bintan, is a stone’s throw away from Changi, Lion Air hopes to fly to destinations such as Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Jeddah, New Delhi and Mumbai.

It is to be seen how the plans of Garuda and Lion Air to develop Bintan and Batam respectively will impact on Changi, which is likely to see higher growth as Singapore becomes an attractive destination in itself and as a desirable feed port for international and regional traffic. In introducing a direct non-stop service from Jakarta to London in May this year, Mr Satar has hoped that Indonesian travellers would fly Garuda instead of routing their travel out of another airport such as Changi.

Other smaller carriers are expected to go for a bigger slice of the growing pie and new carriers launched to serve secondary airports.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Not to be left out of the race, AirAsia and Tigerair made early moves to establish their presence in the huge Indonesian market. Until a full open skies policy is in place, joint ventures are the expedient way to gaining a foothold. Indonesia AirAsia, which is 49% owned by AirAsia, operates beyond Indonesia to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Phuket and Ho Chi Minh City. AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes’ ambition is to dot the region with the AirAsia brand. The Malaysian budget carrier has also set up joint ventures in Thailand and the Philippines. This means AirAsia, which is headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, and its joint-venture airlines are serving destinations in all the ten Asean countries, as summed up by Mr Fernandes: “Think we are done in Asean.” But liberalization offers more than just opportunities within Asean; AirAsia is well positioned to connect its passengers beyond to destinations in Australia, Japan, Korea, China, India and the Middle East.

Responding to AirAsia’s thrust into Indonesia, Lion Air teamed up with Malaysia’s National Aerospace and Defence Industries to launch Malindo Airways for services from Kuala Lumpur across Asean and to China, India and Japan, a move that Mr Fernandes had rebuffed as no match for AirAsia’s strong brand and positioning as Asia’s largest budget carrier. So far Lion Air appears to be one with the biggest plans, which include an airline leasing company to be situated in Singapore, a new full-service airline Batik Air which was launched in May last year and which plans to fly to Singapore as its first international destination sometime this year, and a premium charter under the Space Jet brand.

Not so lucky is Tigerair, whose partnership with Mandala Airlines Indonesia is teetering on the brink, as was its partnership with SEAir in Tigerair Philippines which has since been sold to Cebu Pacific Air. Its attempt to spread its wings across the region had met with a string of failures added to a blemished record of poor service. Its ambiguous relationship with sibling airlines within the Singapore Airlines (SIA) stable has not improved its fortune; today Tigerair and Scoot are competitors on some routes. Scoot, which is 100% owned by SIA, looks likely to overtake Tigerair in the game. It has partnered Nok Air to operate a domestic service in Thailand. Nok has hoped that this will be its vehicle for expansion overseas. Regional carrier SilkAir continues to fly in the shadow of parent SIA, which may have to continue to shore up the fortunes of its offshoots with feeder traffic from and into its long haul services.

Jetstar Asia, the only other airline based in Singapore that is not part of the SIA group, has proven to be a tough competitor. Parent Qantas has been actively promoting the Jetstar brand across Asia, having also set up joint ventures in Japan, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

Whether the Asean Open Skies is finally formalized or not, regional carriers have already started to prepare for the eventuality. The question as to whether it is a myth is no longer relevant. Clearly, the end-date is not as important as the progression towards it.

Garuda too wants to be close to Changi Airport

garudaSOON after Lion Air announced its decision to develop Batam as a transit hub for its flights, both domestic and international, complete with aircraft maintenance facilities, Garuda Indonesia followed up with its plan to develop a new hub in Bintan, which will also house a new maintenance centre. Both Indonesian islands are a hop away from Singapore and its Changi Airport.

Garuda president Emirsyah Satar said: “This new operation will help strengthen Garuda’s network development, with a potential to connect East Indonesia and West Indonesia, and become the meeting point for our international flights to Europe and the Far East.”

Is there something that more than meets the eye?

Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, is of course the major hub for both the airlines which are the largest in the country. But why the interest in developing hubs which are barely an hour ride by boat from Singapore? With Asean Open Skies set to be fully implemented by next year, it makes sense for Indonesian airlines to develop alternative ports to draw the traffic, particularly considering the island geography of the Indonesian land mass. For Garuda, Bintan will be its fourth so-called hub after Jakarta, Denpassar (Bali) and Makassar (Sulawesi).

Already Batam and Bintan are growing in popularity as an extended vacation options for visitors to Singapore.

The story may be more than about the rivalry between Garuda and Lion Air. Bet on it that the authorities at Changi Airport are watching from their tower, not that it is anything that they should be concerned about. For now, curious, they should be.

Comeback kid Garuda Indonesia is Asean’s rising star

garuda imageEveryone loves a comeback kid, and Garuda Indonesia is the newest comeback kid on the aviation block.

The Indonesian flag-carrier has come a long way from a speckled past to becoming the new star of Asean. It is no mean feat for an airline that in June 2007 was banned (along with all other Indonesian carriers) by the European Union (EU) from flying to its member countries over safety issues, and that for a good 50 years or so it has all but maintained a very low profile.

In fact, we hear more of rival Lion Air – Indonesia’s second largest airline after Garuda – and its grand plans to expand across Asia with record plane orders. In the 60s, Garuda flew beyond the region to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Rome and Prague in Europe, and to Honolulu and Los Angeles in the United States. Services to Amsterdam were resumed a year after the EU in 2009 lifted the ban, but services to the US had long ceased since 1997.

garuda image1 courtesy garuda
Image courtesy of Garuda Indonesia

In the 2013 Skytrax survey, Garuda Indonesia was listed among the world’s best 10 airlines. If that was not impressive enough, consider how it was also ranked fifth in the Asia category, behind Singapore Airlines (SIA), All Nippon Airways, Asiana Airlines and Cathay Pacific – ahead of some other presumably better known brands. There is more: Garuda was voted in the same survey as best economy class, and this is worthy of note considering that many top-rated airlines are reputed for their first and business class but not necessarily for economy which across the industry is increasingly becoming very much the same.

Surely the Indonesian flag carrier must be doing something right. Mr Emirsyah Satar, president and CEO whom I had the privilege to interview, attributed Garuda Indonesia’s success to a strategic 5-year transformation programme known as Qantum Leap implemented in 2009, the same year that the EU lifted its ban on the airline. The makeover gives Garuda a fresh corporate identity complete with new livery, a name change to Garuda Indonesia in full instead of merely Garuda, and new crew uniform. Embedded in the “Garuda Indonesia Experience” that it offers – typified by the warm hospitality inherent in the Indonesian culture at every point of customer contact – is the drive to improve customer’s perception.

emrisyah satar
Image courtesy of Garuda Indonesia

Mr Satar said: “Service experience is what sets us apart.” He added, “We want passengers to experience the warmth of the Indonesian hospitality whenever they fly with us. Before, we were lacking a distinct uniqueness and the idea behind the branding strategy in 2009 was to create a new culture for Garuda based on the traditions and values of Indonesia hospitality.”

What does the rise of the mythical bird to new heights mean to the competition in the region, particularly in the offing of the Asean Open Skies policy which is expected to be fully implemented in 2015?

First, regional carriers including SIA cannot afford to ignore the competition posed by Garuda Indonesia. Going forward, the airline is increasing not only its fleet but also capacity as it expands its network. It will offer more seats between Jakarta and Singapore, which is its largest destination outside Indonesia. Naturally, it can only mean that airlines currently operating the lucrative short route will have to fight harder to retain its market share or generate new demand, the latter case being good news for Changi Airport in terms of traffic growth.

Garuda Indonesia will also be introducing a direct service between Jakarta and London in February next year; the flight was originally scheduled for November this year but has been delayed because of limitations faced by Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. Mr Satar believed that Indonesia is a high growth market for the United Kingdom (UK), a market that is currently underserved. Considering the double-digit growth of traffic carried through other Asian hubs, Mr Satar was confident that Garuda Indonesia is in a dominant position to capture a good share of the market.

However, there is a less rosy flipside for other regional airlines and airports that have hitherto benefited from the connecting traffic of Indonesian travellers if more of them choose to fly direct from Jakarta instead. The impact may be softened by Garuda Indonesia’s scheduled landing at Gatwick instead of Heathrow, but it may all hinge upon how the airline packages its offer in light of the fluid global economy that has made cost a significant driver of consumer behaviour.

Second, product-wise Garuda Indonesia has made strides to match or be nearly as good as some of the best airlines in the industry. Mr Satar said: “It took us a lot of hard work and major restructuring over the last few years but we’re now finally back on track. Customers can continue looking forward to warm exceptional service, high safety standard and cutting-edge technology.” The airline boasts features that are no longer exclusive to its competitors such as comfortable ergonomic chairs, spacious leg room, flexible head rests, individual touch-screen LCDs equipped with Video-on-Demand (VOD) offering a range of movies, music, TV shows and games.

Third, Indonesia being the most populous member nation when Asean Open Skies kicks in should offer Garuda Indonesia home ground advantage. Mr Satar said the airline is in a strong position and ready for the competition. He dismissed Lion Air as a veritable competitor, insisting that Garuda Indonesia is a full-service carrier and “we’re not competing with the LCCs in the region”. Besides, the domestic market of 240 million people is large enough to admit more competition.

For the budget market, which looks set to grow with liberalization, Garuda Indonesia has its own budget subsidiary Citilink to compete with the like of Lion Air, AirAsia, Tigerair and Jetstar. The carrier has an ambitious growth plan to support a projected 19 million passengers by 2015, increase its fleet by another 75 planes to its current 26 by 2017, and operate beyond Indonesia to destinations in Southeast Asia in 2014 ahead of Asean Open Skies.

Garuda Indonesia will not be working alone, as it has decided to join the SkyTeam alliance, and the agreement will be officially formalized in March 2014. Is it any wonder why it has not opted to join Star Alliance of which SIA is a member or OneWorld of which Cathay Pacific is a member? It indicates the carrier’s serious intent to up the ante in competition with its regional rivals. It should be interesting to see how these other airlines react to Asean’s rising star.

You can read the full text of my interview with Mr Emirsyah Satar at http://www.aspireaviation.com.