Buoyed by rising demand on routes to and from the Middle East, Southeast Asian low-cost carriers are beefing up their route maps in a bid to compete with established full-service carriers and cash in on growing travel activity of tourists, workers and pilgrims.
The Southeast Asian budget carrier with the most destinations in the Middle East is currently the Philippines’ Cebu Pacific which in June this year added a twice-weekly Manila-Doha flight as its fourth Middle East route in addition to Kuwait City, Riyadh and Dubai, saying that the lowest year-round ticket prices available on the Doha route start at around $200 (one way), approximately 60% lower than other airlines.
Cebu Pacific is also the only airline that offers a direct connection between Kuwait City and Manila, as Kuwait Airlines on that route has a one-hour stopover in Bangkok. The airline recently said it wants to step up the number of flights to Qatar — which has the third largest Filipino community in the Gulf — to three or four weekly flights and eventually to daily flights. Cebu Pacific is also the first and only Philippine carrier to serve Qatar as Philippine Airlines does not include Doha in its route map. The only drawback for Cebu Pacific in its Middle East expansion was when it suspended its Manila-Dammam twice-weekly flights in March this year due to unsatisfactory passenger load.
A low-cost carrier planning to include the Middle East in its flight schedule is Singapore-based Scoot, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. According to Scoot’s CEO Campbell Wilson, the carrier will launch six to eight new destinations in the coming months, has plans to double seat capacity over the next 12 months and is on schedule to complete its 11-strong Boeing 787 fleet by next year’s first quarter and increase staff by 30% to 1,000, including new pilots and cabin crew.
Wilson did not specifically name new destinations in the Middle East, but they could probably be Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha, observers assume.
Indonesia’s Lion Air expanded its services to Saudi Arabia earlier this year and increased its Jakarta-Jeddah direct flights from twice weekly to five a week on its Boeing 747-400 aircraft which can carry more than 500 passengers.
“The flight frequency increase is a consequence of a high average load factor, around 80%, since we launched the service last year, and there is still a big potential market to develop on this route,” said Lion Air Managing Director Edward Sirait. Reportedly, Lion Air is also working on getting landing permits from Saudi authorities for Madinah to serve more Indonesian pilgrims. Competition for Lion Air arouse when Indonesia Air Asia X launched its Jakarta-Jeddah flight on July 1 this year, adding another haj flight to the existing Kuala Lumpur-Jeddah route of Air Asia X, the long-haul subsidiary of Southeast Asia’s largest discount airline Air Asia.
Meanwhile, troubled Malaysia Airlines said it will reduce capacity between Kuala Lumpur and Middle East destinations by 25%. The carrier, which is currently in a massive restructuring phase, has already limited presence in the Middle East with services cut down to only Dubai and Jeddah. Dubai was suspended in early 2012 as part of the last restructuring but reinstated in 2013 and has so far survived the current restructuring initiative. Other destinations such as Dammam, Kuwait City, Beirut, Cairo and Manama have been terminated and replaced with code-share flights with Middle East partner airlines.