Not Everyone Can Fly

10,000 is the amount you have to spend to make a return trip to Chittagong.
14,000 for  Cox’s Bazaar. Yet it took me not a paisa more than
9,000 to make a return trip to Kuala Lumpur. Ask me how?

To answer this question, we have to turn to the magnificent 70’s. When despite the Cold War’s Russian roulette, a gentleman called Freddie Laker coined the infamous “Sky Train” service between London and New York. Laker Airways, which eventually failed… had started an era in air travel which would shape a large portion of what we see as the “airline industry” today. Low-cost aka. budget aka. no-frills airlines, are in simple words, airlines that sell tickets at considerably lower fares. Although too simple to address, this cost-saving is actually achieved though a very streamlined, effective and no-bullshit model. Over the years, airline behemoths like Southwest in 70’s, Ryanair in 80’s, Easyjet in 90’s and last but not least Air Asia in 00’s have started out with this no-frills model, sustained the global downturns and have survived to be winners at the end. In fact Southwest today is one of the largest airlines in the world, and also one that sustained the least (-) growth during the post-9/11 recession. I wonder why?

I am not a widely travelled person as many of you who are reading this could and would be. But I do know a bit of history and adding to that a few jargon from the business school, a few years learning the consumer traits… I do at time get an insight or two, right. Today’s dissection will not be about the low-cost air travel model, that’s for the travel gurus and airline pundits to solve. But what I want to bring to light, is the successful and almost unimaginable revival of a dead-concept in the hands of a magician, who goes by the name of Tony Fernandez. Unless you haven’t figured it out yet (gosh! this article is so not for you, then)… I am talking about the latest and the bestest airline that flies to Dhaka, Air Asia…

1 Ringgit (Tk. 23) is how much he paid for taking over an ailing low-cost carrier by the name of Air Asia.  Although the token money was nothing more than a formality, he took over the debts of a dying airline with nothing but his exceptional management skills and a trusted bunch of investors (through Tune Group). He gave up his career as a Regional Boss at Warner Music, invested his life’s savings into this unknown Tune Group and left the rest to his proven track record of turning things around. And this was all in 2001…

As 2002 drew the dawn of a new day in his own life and the life of his newest venture, Air Asia… It was nothing short of miraculous, when the airline posted profits within a year of its takeover. Some say marriages are made in heaven, acquisitions in hell; but this acquisition was simply too good to be true. And after nearly 10 years of doing business by selling a single class of seats, in a single type of aircraft (initially Boeing 737 and now Airbus A320), with no on-board meals, no refunds and exceptional turnaround times… Air Asia proudly boasts a fleet of 103 aircrafts (with 121 in orders) flying to over 60 destinations around the globe.

Their model was pretty straight-cut to begin with – keep journey times less than 4hrs , which enables them to have seats that don’t recline, serve no complimentary meals and of course charge for everything from a reserved seat to extra baggage (well as opposed to a general airline, Air Asia offers 15kg of baggage per head) to even having some extra leg room (yes, they call it HOT SEAT :p). The aircrafts are maintained by some really efficient crew who have a turnaround time that can compete with a Formula 1 pit-stop any day (no wonder, Air Asia sponsors Scuderia Ferrari) and because they are all of a single type, having spare parts in dire times is never a worry anyway.

Ironically even after the arrival of this messiah (who has literally let everyone fly), the local scene hasn’t changed much till today. United still flies return trips to Chittagong for no less than 11,000 and with almost equally shitty seats, they charge 24000 to KL as opposed to Air Asia’s meager 17000 (at max on a peak period). Air Asia lets you pre-book tickets… not just any advance, but literally years in advance… Whereas for a traditional career out of Dhaka, web ticketing is a hieroglyphic and advance ticketing a myth. In the past decade, Bangladesh has seen the rise of a few private carriers (namely GMG, United and most recently Regent), demise of some other private carriers (Royal Bengal, Parabat, Best) and the continued disgrace of the flag carrier (Biman).

When the whole world is busy benchmarking them against the low-cost operators, Bangladeshi airlines’ are busy fighting their own battle… staying in the green to stay in flight! Albeit we have one of the most discouraging air travel frameworks in Bangladesh – high cost of aviation fuel, non-competitive airport charges and subsidized flag carrier; the opportunities were always there. The moment Bangladesh government opened our skies for a short duration in 2007, airlines like Air Asia jumped into this opportunity. Foreseeing the ever-increasing spending habits of the growing middle-class and a lifelong “wanderlust” nature of us, Bangladeshis… Air Asia did what local airlines couldn’t do in ages (probably could never have done, either).

They brought down flying to a “reasonable level”!!! By reasonable, I don’t refer to the (throw away price) TkTk. 17,0000 I will be paying to fly off to KL once more in a few days via Air Asia. These folks from Malaysia, have not only made air travel an affordable mean of getting around (well ironically, only to KL and onwards for now) but also introduced us to a concept unseen, unheard and untried.

End of the day, all that we have learnt and tried to achieve is nothing but follow their suit by lowering airfares (when promotional fares meant 1 Ringgit for a KL-SG flight, we replicated it as 10-15% off on an already overpriced ticket of DHK-BKK flight), sticking to Cold War-era gas-guzzler aircraft (the De Havilland Dash 8s and even older MD-80s are nothing short of 10 to 20 years old as they are bought) and eventually getting themselves F*CKED (bankrupt) in the process (case in reference, GMG).

People say, men in the army have their brains in their knees; strangely it seems… so do the pilots and aviation aristocracies!!!

And thus we remorsefully realize… NOT EVERYONE CAN FLY!!!


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