With domestic and international airfares soaring this summer, Australians can at least look forward to cheaper flights to Thailand thanks to the return of a second low-cost carrier on the route.
Thai AirAsia X’s first non-stop Melbourne-Bangkok flight took off from Melbourne Airport on Thursday afternoon, the airline’s first Australian route since before the outbreak. The budget carrier’s first flight on its new Sydney-Bangkok route will take off on Friday.
The airline, a joint venture between Malaysia’s AirAsia X and Thailand’s AirAsia, started selling the routes in August and said its first flight from Bangkok to Melbourne arrived with 80 per cent of seats occupied. The return journey is fully booked.
Thai AirAsia X will operate Airbus A330 aircraft on two routes with a total of 377 seats, including 12 premium lie-flat seats.
The airline flies three times a week from Melbourne on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and four times a week from Sydney on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Although the budget carrier originally launched its first Australian route, a Brisbane-Bangkok flight, in 2019, it was short-lived due to the pandemic. However, according to Thai AirAsia X CEO Tassapon Bijleveld, COVID-19 proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“We’ve always wanted to go to cities with heavy traffic, Melbourne and Sydney of course. But before COVID, all the (airport landing) slots were full and the airport was congested – we couldn’t get in.
“Thanks to COVID, these are golden times for us.”
Bijleveld said the airline aimed to increase the Sydney and Melbourne frequency to once a day in the near future, with a possible return to Brisbane and the addition of Perth.
The airline has not encountered any of the staffing issues some other airlines have experienced in resuming service because employees have been working during the pandemic, he said.
“If you fire a pilot or engineer, when you come back, you have to train them again, which can take six to eight months,” he said. “So we hit ‘pause’ and when COVID goes away we hit ‘play’. That’s why we can come back faster than any other airline”
Thailand began reopening to tourists late last year and has steadily regained its welcome to Australians, with figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing the country was the sixth most visited country by Australians in September, behind New Zealand, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, United States and Fiji.
However, travel to Australia remains well below pre-pandemic levels, with 25,000-30,000 tourists per month in recent months, compared with 40,000-50,000 in 2019.
Thai AirAsia X will compete directly with Jetstar on the Bangkok direct route, along with full-service Thai Airways and Qantas (Sydney to Bangkok, but not Melbourne).
But Bijleveld said passengers should not expect deep discounts on the route due to competition, at least in the short term.
“If we can fill the plane with a small margin, it will be enough,” he said. “Fares will be reasonable. Even in peak season, we don’t charge high fares.
“I haven’t seen a competitor coming, but if there is, we have room to fight. But let’s not fight because everyone is hurting because of COVID.”
Average fares from Melbourne and Sydney to Bangkok jumped 72 per cent and 68 per cent respectively in December compared with July this year, according to travel search engine Kayak. Flights from Melbourne to Bangkok cost an average of $1,643 in December, while flights from Sydney to Bangkok cost an average of $1,895.
The author traveled to Bangkok as a guest of AirAsia.