Thursday, July 18

Malindo Air: Good for competition in our skies

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THERE’S a new kid on the block – Malindo Air. I don’t know about you but I would certainly welcome another player in the Malaysian skies.

I’m rejoicing because of news that the new airline has chosen to fly the Kuching-Kuala Lumpur sector for its inaugural flight. I hope it continues to prioritise the East Malaysia-Kuala Lumpur sector.

Well, I rejoice in a selfish way perhaps – I’m a frequent flyer on the East Malaysia-Kuala Lumpur sector. More importantly however, we need competition in the aviation industry otherwise the travelling public will suffer in a monopoly of the skies.

I miss Firefly and its Kuching-Kota Kinabalu-Kuala Lumpur route. It became my favourite Malaysian airline as soon as it started its East Malaysia-Kuala Lumpur sector with two brand new Boeings.

That was some three years ago. I remember writing glowingly for Firefly in this column at that time too, so I will not repeat myself.

That Firefly had to discontinue its services on the sectors it was doing so well smacked of something that is just not right, if not fishy. In my suspicion, I can only point to an intense struggle in the corporate boardroom.

You may recall at that time the ‘shot-gun marriage’ between MAS and AirAsia but like most shot-gun marriages in the animal kingdom, a divorce was imminent. As MAS and AirAsia parted ways, Firefly was swallowed up along with the acrimonious divorce.

It was a loss to travellers in East Malaysia. To me, Firefly was the best alternative to Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. Since then, I’ve never flown Firefly although the airline is very active on the domestic routes within Peninsular Malaysia. Of late, it also started flying to Indonesia.

I’m glad that some of our elected representatives on the government side also saw the need for competition in our Malaysian skies. At least, it’s an indication that certain airlines are not being over-protected by the government.

Several months ago, Pasir Salak MP Datuk Tajuddin Abdul Rahman proposed in parliament that the government award another low-cost carrier licence to give some competition to AirAsia.

A national daily quoted Tajuddin as saying that he used to support AIrAsia but was now saddened by some of its business tactics.

A Sarawak NGO then concurred with Tajuddin’s negative statement about AirAsia, saying the airline has continued to come up with ‘ingenious’ plans to impose unfair charges on passengers.

Its leader cited the new RM10 counter check-in charge and the exorbitant baggage charges as examples of passengers’ grouses against AirAsia.

“AirAsia insists that passengers deal with the airline online. Those who want help from an AirAsia staff will have to pay a fee. AirAsia should know that there are still many Sabahans and Sarawakians who are not tech-savvy and are not used to dealing with a ‘faceless’ airline,” the argument went.

There was a suggestion that the new licence be given to the Sarawak and Sabah governments to jointly establish an airline to serve the interests of East Malaysians.

The NGO added that the new airline could also cater for the greater Borneo and Asean regions and that an airline owned by Sabah and Sarawak is long overdue.

Although Sabah and Sarawak did not get the new low cost carrier licence, we now hope that Malindo Air will be able to satisfy the needs and expectations of passengers in East Malaysia.

According to Malindo Air chief executive officer Chandran Ramamuthy, the airline will begin flying from March 20-30.

This is pretty fast for a new airline to take off as it was only a while ago that the government announced the establishment of Malindo Air. I think the interested parties must have worked on the plan for some years.

Malindo is a joint venture between Malaysia’s Nadi Sdn Bhd and Indonesia’s largest domestic carrier, Lion Air parent PT Lion Grup.

The name ‘Malindo’ came from the name of respective countries: Malaysia and Indonesia.

It has been reported that the entry of Malaysia’s AirAsia on the home turf of Lion Air has encourage the airline to enter Malaysia’s market with a subsidiary airline. AirAsia’s subsidiary Indonesia AirAsia, in partnership with its parent firm, bought Indonesian carrier Batavia Air to gain a foothold in the Indonesian market. The deal resulted in a turf war between Lion Air, Indonesia’s biggest low-cost carrier, and AirAsia.

Observers opined that Malindo’s entry would not only ramp up competition in the market, leaving consumers spoilt for choice, but also prepare Malaysia for the ensuing competition when Asean’s skies liberalise.

Much as all nations want to protect their skies and ensure the survival of their national or home-grown airlines, demands of their travelling citizens and global expectations only make an open-sky policy look sensible.

Even within the country itself, it does not work for the benefit of travellers if they are beholden to their own national carriers. The result is an oligopoly that gouges travellers and takes their business for granted.

Remember the days when we, Sarawakians, had only MAS to depend on. How often did we travel by air at that time? A return Kuching-Kuala Lumpur ticket cost about RM750. A wage-earner Sarawakian would probably fly once or twice a year.

Malindo Air is not totally Malaysian-owned. It has Indonesian interests. Supporting the new airline does not mean that we are less patriotic.

I am all for an efficient competitor in our skies that values its customers. It does not bother me whether Malindo has Indonesian or Singaporean interests as long as it does not hold me ransom with hidden costs and other unprofessional business tactics.

Yes, we need more competition to discipline our airlines and their bosses.

I wish Malindo Air every success. Let’s see some real cat fights over our Malaysian skies!

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