BANGKOK, 17 August 2017: Technically all the indicators, including media statements, suggest Thai Smile flies to Kota Kinabalu from its Suvarnabhumi airport home-base here in Bangkok.
It is even an option on the airline’s its website where travellers can select travel to three Malaysian destinations; Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kota Kinabalu the state capital of Sabah.
But that is where the travel experience ends; waiting for a web page to tell you “ups something is amiss.”
It is not exactly clear when the airline launched the four weekly flights to Kota Kinabalu, but the first timetable slot was identified back in March and the latest timetable updates warn that the airline is about to take the service offline for unspecified reasons.
A Thai Smile spokesperson responded to TTR Weekly questions, saying the Bangkok – Kota Kinabalu route would be “suspended due to aircraft rotation,” but they also cast doubt on the long-term future and viability of the service.
“We are expanding our network to other cities, so we need to rotate aircraft to destinations that have potential. In addition, the Kota-Kinabalu route is not so popular among our customers, so we will suspend the route and review the route plan again,” the spokesperson explained.
For all intents and purposes the suspension appears to be in place right now, ahead of the 1 September suspension date. The service is just not a bookable option.
According to independent timetable monitoring systems, Thai Smile gave advance notice that it would temporary suspend the service to Kota Kinabalu effective 1 September.
The service goes offline for eight weeks and reservation options will be inoperative until to 28 October. However, it was already impossible to book a seat on the four weekly flights mid-August through to the end of the month. Frequent attempts resulted in the online calendar freezing.
After three attempts to kick-start the booking process, you have to accept defeat and recognise this service is already grounded as far as website sales are concerned.
On paper, Thai Smile WE421 departs Bangkok at 0750 on Mondays and Fridays and at 1340 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Once the service resumes, 29 October, the airline will reduce frequency to just three weekly flights departing Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.
The airline’s A320 service to Kota Kinabalu was the only direct flight to Sabah, Malaysia, cutting travel time to three hours and 15 minutes. The closest other airlines came to that time was Malaysia Airlines with a travelling time of six hours and 35 minutes including a ground stop in Kuala Lumpur of two hours.
Sabah’s tourism authorities are keen to attract more international airlines prepared to offer services from gateways such as Bangkok. The incentives include deals on airport and landing charges and support for trade and consumer promotions.
But for Thai Smile to make a go of this route it will need the support of tour companies ready to combine a Thailand holiday with Sabah, one of ASEAN’s renowned nature and marine destinations.
Success would depend on the airline’s ability to win the confidence of tour operators, who can block book seats in advance to support a route launch. Chopping and changing the timetable and suspending flights erodes confidence.
Chinese tour groups are moving to Sabah via the Singapore and Kuala Lumpur gateways, but so far there is no evidence that Chinese tour operators use Bangkok as a gateway to Sabah. But as the China market continues to boom, tour operators will be clearly looking for new destinations to refresh consumer interest. Combining the contrasting attractions of Bangkok and Sabah could be the next trend and to make it happen tour operator will need a direct service to Kota Kinabalu. Whether Thai Smile can fill the missing link for tour operators, after 28 October, is another question to mull over.
(Report updated with Thai Smile comment, 1900 Thursday, 17 August. )