Saturday, July 21, 2007

A less direct route in store from Bangkok to KK


AT ABOUT 100m above ground, the battle for domination for the armrest between seat 12b and 12c in the Thai AirAsia flight from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu began just after take off.

The man who unceasingly picked his nose seized control when he plunked his left elbow on the armrest that separated us. I felt constricted sitting on the leather seat of 12b, as my right hand did not have enough elbowroom. As much as I wanted to elbow that man out of Boeing 737, I needed him, however.

And I was happy to learn that the flight was 98% full. On Aug 22, last year, my heart plummeted when I read in The Nation that Thai AirAsia planned to drop its three-times-a-week flight between Bangkok and Kota Kinabalu due to low demand.

The route has a soft spot in my heart because AirAsia is the only airline that has a direct flight between the two destinations. And if the budget carrier cancelled the 170-minute flight, it would cost me more money and time to fly from Bangkok, where I am based, to the arms of my loved ones in Sabah, which is my home state.

For example, I would have to travel 125 minutes from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur and then take a 150-minute flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu. And that does not even include transit time in the Low Cost Carrier Terminal at KL International Airport.

But thanks to passengers such as the one seated on 12c, my direct route home was not dropped.

“We continued the flight because of large demand for the route,” explained Thai AirAsia CEO Tassapon Bijleveld in a quick interview in Bangkok during the Thai budget airline’s third anniversary celebration in November last year.

On Oct 21, 2004, Thai AirAsia launched the route. One of the reasons for introducing the route was because the airline wanted to tap into the 35 million tourists who visited Thailand.

“After visiting Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket, tourists want to visit an alternative place and we think that Sabah, with its mountain-high to ocean-deep attractions, is one of the places they would want to go,” said Tassapon.

One of the challenges, he said, of getting his countrymen to fly to Kota Kinabalu was that “Sabah was unknown to most Thais.”

Then, in May, Thai AirAsia dropped the route. And the Malaysian-owned budget airline, AirAsia, took over. Although AirAsia’s scheduling was not convenient (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday compared with Thai AirAsia’s Tuesday, Friday and Sunday which allowed a quick weekend break to Sabah for me), I was relived that there was still a direct flight between my workplace and my hometown.

A loyal passenger who was equally relieved was Wiphawee Baosathorn, a 25-year-old Thai who is married to a Sabahan. She flies between the two cities once in three months.

Previously, returning to her hometown in Songkla, Thailand was an expensive and once-in-two-years journey. Now she pays about RM400 to RM500 for a return ticket compared with about RM1,400. The direct flight has also allowed Wiphawee to afford a business buying clothes and shoes in Bangkok and selling them in Labuan.

At Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, Carol Raymond, who was clutching several shopping bags, was in jovial mood although her return flight to her hometown, Kota Kinabalu, was delayed for two hours.

The 24-year-old make up artist did not mind the delay as the flight connected her with her two passions – “shopping in cheap Bangkok and Thai food.”

“If not for this flight, I can’t afford to visit Bangkok so often,” she told me last year.

Whenever I boarded the flight that was usually 60% full, I wished for more loyal passengers like Carol and Wiphawee as I was fearful AirAsia would cancel the route.

Unofficially, an AirAsia personnel told me the cancellation was due to unfavourable load factor. After July 31, the route from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu will be less direct.

(Published in The Star on July 21, 2007)