Future of direct flight in doubt?

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CHIANG RAI, 7 February 2019: Family, resident in Singapore, popped over for a holiday during Chinese New Year, thanks to Thai AirAsia’s super fares on a brand new direct flight to Chiang Rai.

A one-way fare was on offer at a remarkable THB1,500 per person, before add-on fees for loading luggage, requesting a red seat, an inflight meal, taxes and fees. That’s a bargain.

It compares favourably with a one-way, two-sector fare of THB6,000 with a change of plane in Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport using what the airline calls its check-thru service. It allows you to transit in Bangkok while your luggage loads to the final destination.

The typical roundtrip fare, between Singapore and Chiang Rai, was around THB12,000, or THB3,000 per sector (two flights each way with a layover in Bangkok).  

Now the direct Singapore-Chiang Rai flight cuts the travel cost at least in half to about the same as a night in a four-star resort on Chiang Rai’s riverbank (THB3,200 a night).

Another saving is the trip time and the elimination of chaos especially if you have young children in tow who are likely to dramatically add to transit agony in an overcrowded Bangkok airport. Instead of an all-day marathon, the direct flight turns the trip into a comfortable three-hour and 20-minute transfer.

Despite what airlines tell us about seamless connections nothing comes close to a nonstop flight experience that eliminates the transit airport pain point.

There are three direct flights a week from Singapore to Chiang Rai on a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday opening up far north Thailand for short break trips for Singapore residents especially during long weekends, or the mid-week Chinese New Year, that created an extended 2 to 10 February holiday option. An estimated 1 million Singapore residents travelled by airline during the holiday.

As soon as the family arrived back in Singapore, they were checking AirAsia flights to bag a bargain for the Christmas break. They were about to be disappointed. This direct flight could be a flash in the pan.

AirAsia fans recognise the advantage of checking and booking flights early, but they will hit a massive obstacle when they try to book roundtrip fares for a Singapore to Chiang Rai direct flight during the Christmas holiday month. The booking engine displays the ‘layover’ fares that require a change of plane in Bangkok. It’s like the direct flight was never existed.

If a booking for direct flights had been available, they would have purchased five adult fare tickets for the Christmas week.  Obviously, the airline is losing out on early bird bookers. It might be due to a technical hitch in the booking engine. Or perhaps the airline has primed the system to drop the flight on the eve of the peak season with the stock response “due to slow response the flight has been discontinued?”

A high ranking Thai AirAsia executive visited Chiang Rai, two weeks ago, to tell us of the wonderful benefits that the four new routes from Macau, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Phuket would bring to Chiang Rai’s economy.  But not a single mention that the direct flights might fizzle out in November, unbookable for the army of AirAsia fans who like to track down early bird fares when planning to explore new destinations.

When I asked the airline executive for an explanation she was clearly not amused. It disturbed the ambience of a ‘commercial’ narrative geared to promoting the airline’s “sustainable” image without a single reference to practical matters such as the airline’s timeframe and commitment to the four new routes.

You have to wonder why the airline launched these new services at a time when Chiang Rai was heading for its low season that lasts more than six months.  Low doesn’t quite describe the dive business takes after the high season ends in early March.

A smarter move might have seen the airline launch the four new routes, 1 November, in order to generate maximum momentum and build enough awareness to see the service survive through the low season.

Instead travellers looking ahead are discovering the flights are not bookable in November. They will move on to destinations that are bookable for the peak season December. Cutting off the booking capability in late October sends a very negative message to Singaporean travellers.

In an email response, AirAsia waffled on about changes in timetables, the changeover from summer to winter timetables and the availability of time slots.  This is all great technical stuff that frankly fails to impress anyone who is keen to sort out festive season bookings early.

For example the booking engine for the direct Phuket-Chiang Rai routes flags the message “unavailable” after 1 November. Clearly this indicates the flight ceases to exist just when Chiang Rai’s peaks season kicks in.

Both the routes out of Macau and Kuala Lumpur show bookings can made for flights in November. In one instance the system showed a direct flight could be booked from Macau to Chiang Rai in March 2020. So the timetable changeover from summer to winter worked smoothly for those two destinations but not Singapore?  That leaves Singapore’s direct flight out of the loop and possibly destined to be discontinued, Surely by now the airline could have fixed timetable or booking engine glitches to activated the year-end festive season seat sales? I wouldn’t count on it.

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