SEPANG, Malaysia — Malaysia’s fast-growing long-haul budget airline AirAsia X plans to extend its low-cost service to Japan, possibly by the second half of this year.
AirAsia X Chief Executive Officer Azran Osman Rani said six Japanese cabin crew members are already undergoing training at AirAsia Academy in Sepang, where the AirAsia group has its headquarters.
AirAsia X, launched in January 2007, is an affiliate of AirAsia, Southeast Asia’s pioneer short-haul budget carrier, sharing common shareholders including founder and group CEO Tony Fernandes.
Extending the success of its short-haul operation to long-haul flights is no mean feat, but as Azran proudly pointed out, AirAsia X has grown from a fleet of just three aircraft flying to four destinations last January to eight planes serving nine destinations now.
According to Azran, the Japanese travel market has been a key focus for AirAsia X, but the airline has been facing regulatory hurdles, which it appears to be clearing.
Azran said the question now is “more a commercial decision” over which airport in the Tokyo area is best for the airline.
Apart from Tokyo, AirAsia X has plans to fly to two other destinations here — either Fukuoka or Osaka in western Japan, and Sapporo.
In serving the Tokyo market, Azran said the airline hopes to fly to Haneda instead of Narita, but the decision lies with the Malaysian government.
“They (the Japanese government) have given an allocation for Haneda to Malaysia, but the Malaysian government has not decided which airline will get the rights to Haneda. We have applied. We think we should get it because Malaysia Airlines is already flying to Narita,” Azran said, referring to the state-owned full-service carrier.
The yet-to-open Ibaraki airport, farther than Narita from central Tokyo, is the last option.
“The bottom line is, we don’t want to be the guinea pig. We will closely study whether Tokyo residents will accept using Ibaraki,” Azran said.
AirAsia X is apparently undaunted by the slew of bad news about Japan’s stagnant economy and its ailing aviation industry, as the airline appears to enjoy challenging industry norms.
While the world’s aviation business has been focusing on the growing markets in China and India, Azran believes the travel market in Japan, despite its economic malaise amid an aging and stagnant population, has yet to be fully tapped.
“When I look at Japan, I see, yes, the population may not be growing, but it is still a big market. It has a population of 120 million to 130 million. Out of that, if you take the young people in the age group of 16 to 40, in absolute numbers, the market is quite big,” he said.
And Azran wants to revolutionize how Japanese travel — no more traveling in groups, or buying tickets from travel agencies, or as Azran put it, “follow the flag” type of travelers.
He wants young Japanese to regard overseas travel as a popular culture, like in Southeast Asia where a quick weekend getaway to Bangkok, Singapore or Bali has become the norm due to the availability of cheap flights.
“This has not taken off in Japan because (travel) is still very expensive. . . . If I can offer promotional prices cheaper than your cost of a taxi ride from Tokyo to Narita, then people would say ‘oh, yes! ¥10,000 to Kuala Lumpur, that would be very exciting.’ So that’s the opportunity we see,” he said.
Azran believes AirAsia X can really offer ¥10,000 promotional flights from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, as the airline is touted as the “world’s lowest unit-cost airline operator.”
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