CHIANG RAI, 24 June 2019: Thai AirAsia’s direct flight between Singapore and Chiang Rai doesn’t look like a survivor.
Launched earlier this year with very little fuss or fanfare, the Singapore- Chiang Rai route was one of four direct services that hub out of this far north town. The others were flying to Kuala Lumpur, Macau and Phuket.
Apparently, Kuala Lumpur is about to disappear any day now to be replaced by a flight to Shenzhen in China.
But it’s the Chiang Rai-Singapore direct route that fired my imagination. What could be better than a short three-hour flight from Chiang Rai to the world’s best airport Changi?
Apart from the THBB4,000 to THB6,000 return fare when compared with the connecting flight route via Bangkok (roundtrip fare THB12,000) you save half a day in travel time.
The three weekly direct flights depart Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday at 0700 and get you to Changi’s top class Terminal 4 by 1100 sharp. The alternative is an all-day trek, hours of downtown in Bangkok’s overcrowded Don Mueang and if you are lucky you are in Singapore by 1900, having lost an entire working day.
So why on average are there only 50 to 60 passengers on board the 180-seat Airbus on the six flights that I have taken on this route so far?
It’s a question that puzzled me. I asked the flight attendants. “Is this the best your sales department can do and what about the millions of Big members where are they?
They nodded their heads. “We like this route,” they told me. “We hope the airline keeps it going. You could see why they liked it. The vacant seats turned the experience into a premium class flight The surplus space invites you to stretch out and order a snack.
Unfortunately, there’s a slim chance of this flight surviving. I checked the booking status and come 29 October the direct flight from Chiang Rai disappears completely without an explanation.
But just why is AirAsia finding it an uphill battle to fill seats either out of Singapore or Chiang Rai?
One obvious reason was the health-threatening smog that covered Chiang Rai for two months earlier this year. I am surprised the airline’s financial controller didn’t ask for a refund on landing fees. Or perhaps they did?
The rainy season followed although, in reality, the land remains just as parched of rain as it was back in March. The rains will probably not kick in until around August. But if you live in Singapore it rains every day and if you play golf you are on and off the greens every time the siren warns you there is a threat of a lightning strike.
But there could be more serious commercial reasons for the flight’s unhealthy sales.
One hospitality and tourism academic said the airline has lost touch. “It’s too big for its boots and probably doesn’t care when a flight dives commercially.”
Others say the airline relies too much on its ‘Big’ loyalty members and social media to promote new routes. Switching to old-fashioned sales calls to travel agents is quite unthinkable.
I did notice that when I turned the conversation to direct flights between Singapore and Chiang Rai I never actually met anyone who knew about them.
“You’re having me on,” I told a friend. “You mean you don’t know you can fly direct from Chiang Rai to Singapore where within two hours you have a great choice of flights to places like Bali or Australia?”
“Nope,” came the reply and the same response was registered in Singapore. My taxi driver spoke Thai fluently. He visits Phuket, Bangkok and Pattaya for long weekends. I suspect he has a mistress in Bangkok. He had never heard of Chiang Rai.
“Where did you say you live, Chiang Mai and you can fly direct to Singapore,” he asked me as we drove out of the airport.
I checked out and discovered that even PR savvy Changi Airport fails to recognise the new direct air link from Singapore to Chiang Rai. It usually lists new air links every month with its statistics on passenger traffic. I suppose reporting the new links underscores the fact that Changi is the region’s most connected airport. Had it forgotten the new service to Chiang Rai?
I didn’t see a single bus back ad or digital signage on Orchard Road and not a word from travel agency promotions and no hot deals in the newspapers on or offline. I half expected to see images of Chiang Rai’s ‘White’ temple to be plastered on the sides of a Singapore bus, or the MRT, courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Singapore office and AirAsia.
It was almost like the new route didn’t exist.
This could be very disconcerting if you happen to run a boutique hotel in Chiang Rai and you desperately need international travellers to stay for your business to survive year-round. You might expect more from the TAT offices?
But in all fairness, I haven’t seen any AirAsia promotions at either end of this new route.
To its credit, TAT’s office in Chiang Rai does host dozens of travel agency fam trips from around the Asia Pacific but very few from Singapore. Most of the fam trips involve travel agents who have to make connecting flights in Bangkok to reach Chiang Rai. It complicates tour planning. Just select the travel agents who can fly direct to Chiang Rai from their hometowns. Then they will see the potential for short-break tours.
Travel content focusing on food, golf and self-drive holidays, Chiang Rai would grab the attention of Singaporeans.
AirAsia throws away 100 empty seats a flight at present surely a deal could be struck with TAT?
It begs the question where is the route marketing? We should be witnessing a joint partnership here between Changi Airport, the airline, the two offices of TAT and Mae Fah Luang Airport to ensure this route survives. Instead, we are witnessing the impotency of free Facebook campaigns that deliver likes and nothing else.
Also, the problem could be that the TAT office in Chiang Rai is falling between two policy chairs. Does the office exist to promote domestic tourism, or is its brief to kick-start international tourism to Chiang Rai?
Obviously, national TV soap operas, game shows and TV cooking classes drive domestic tourism to secondary destinations not a chain of domestic tourism offices.
Take a look at the tourism data that suggests domestic tourism to Chiang Rai dwarfs international tourist visits with a 95% market share. So why does the TAT mission statement for its office in Chiang Rai concentrate on promoting domestic travel when the glaring shortfall is the lack of international visitors?
If the Singapore-Chiang Rai direct flight closes due to a lack of support will it be seen as a golden opportunity lost and blamed on neglect? How much of the blame will fall at the doors of the TAT offices in Singapore and Chiang Rai? How accountable are the executives who run those shops or does the buck stop with the marketers of AsiaAsia?
They still have time to make amends and throw their weight behind AirAsia to make this route work, although the airline needs also to make a commitment to keep flying through 2020. At present, the cut off date appears to be the end of October.
Consider creating a team of travel promoters led by inspired leaders who focus their attention exclusively on specific nonstop routes that can generate visitors directly to a city’s doorstep. If not the province will continue to rely on day-trippers from Chiang Mai and that is meal ticket money so marginal in value it is hardly worth the bother.