As it gears up to cash in on China's fast-growing out-bound travel demand, Thai AirAsia (TAA) faces a tough task in striking a balance between Chinese and non-Chinese passengers.
The no-frills carrier's flights between Bangkok and Chongqing (inaugurated on March 23) and Wuhan (Oct 19) are 80-90% filled with Chinese, underscoring an excessive reliance on passenger traffic for those nationals.
Such a heavy dependence makes Thailand's largest low-cost carrier (LCC) vulnerable to flying empty aircraft, especially when events such as the political unrest of recent years leads Beijing to issue an advisory against travel to Thailand.
"We don't want to become overly dependent on Chinese passengers," said Santisuk Klongchaiya, TAA's director of commercial operations.
"The airline is attempting to find a good combination of Chinese and non-Chinese passengers for future routes to mitigate risk."
Introduced on Nov 16, TAA's latest route from Bangkok to China _ to Xi'an, the historical and cultural city famous for its Terracotta Army _ seems to be a better bet, with 30-40% non-Chinese passengers including many Thais.
Mr Santisuk said that is because Xi'an is a much better known Chinese destination due to its historical and touristic value, unlike Chongqing and Wuhan, which have yet to make it onto the world's tourism itinerary.
A more balanced passenger mix will be a main consideration when Thailand's largest LCC next year adds new Chinese destinations to its network, which already covers seven destinations.
Aside from the three Chinese cities launched this year, TAA serves Guangzhou and Shenzhen along with the territories of Hong Kong and Macau from the Thai capital.
On its drawing board are Chinese cities with a flight range of up to four hours from Bangkok, the maximum capacity of TAA's Airbus 320 single-aisle jetliners with 180 seats.
The focus is on southern, western and central China.
Possibilities are Kunming and Chengdu along with Hunan, whose Zhangjiajie prefecture was used as a location for the filming of James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar, said Mr Santisuk.
A considerable part of the aircraft capacity from six more A320s TAA will take delivery of next year will be devoted to the Chinese route expansion.
The new aircraft will also serve TAA's expanding domestic network, which despite its limitations remains the airline's bread and butter.
Enhanced domestic frequencies will complement the growing China traffic, as Chinese tourists will also fly upcountry from Bangkok, said Mr Santisuk.
He said TAA now has 27 A320s in operation and will add four or five more annually over the next three or four years.
In the first eight months of this year, one-third of all TAA passengers were Chinese, while flights between Thailand and China recorded a high average load factor of 85%.
Tourism Authority of Thailand data show Chinese arrivals in the first nine months totalled 1.94 million, up by 39% year-on-year.
Expectations are for full-year Chinese arrivals to come in at 2.2 million, 10% more than targeted.
Mr Santisuk said Xi'an offers better dynamics for a more balanced passenger mix, and TAA may even add a second daily flight to there within the next six months.
"But before we do that, we must truly understand the market to determine whether it represents real growth," he said.
Meanwhile, Thai visitors to Xi'an last year formed only a small portion of the 1 million international arrivals at what is one of the four great ancient capitals of China.
Kang Lifeng, deputy director of the Xi'an Tourism Administration, said there were 26,000 arrivals from Thailand last year.
About the author
- Writer: Boonsong Kositchotethana
Position: Deputy Editor Business