PAL's Mumbai dilemma

No more slots from Bangkok

February 28, 2010

Manila - Flag carrier Philippine Airlines wants to resume its flights to Mumbai, India's largest City. But the airline intends to use Southeast Asia's biggest airport, Bangkok, to make its Indian extension a profitable endeavor. It was a strategy it employed in 1946 on its way to Middle East and Europe.

The carrier stopped flying Bangkok-Mumbai in 1956. As the Manila-Bangkok-Mumbai route becomes a lucrative business again for the airline with the influx of Indian tourists flying to Manila, Cebu and Bohol, PAL wants to have Suvarnabhumi airport as their gateway too.

“We want to fly back to Mumbai in India, but the problem is the landing rights,” PAL president Jaime Bautista said at Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines (EJAP) meeting held recently at the Filipinas Heritage in Makati.

Apparently, the problem is not the fifth freedom rights to which PAL already had limited entitlements as what Mr. Bautista wants to point out but the right to carry more is already closed.

"Transporting more passengers out of Suvarnabhumi airport to the Indian subcontinent is the problem" says a CAB official.

CAB Executive Director Carmilo Arcilla said that all the flight entitlements from Bangkok to Mumbai are already taken by other operators because PAL never bothered to exercise it since 2006.

"Thai authorities are not preventing PAL from flying out of Bangkok to India or Pakistan. They have fifth freedom rights along the routes applied. The problem is the slots are all taken up " says the official, referring to Bangkok-Mumbai route.

"You just can't say we have the rights to fly there. Because in reality you need to have a share of the seat entitlements awarded by the Indian government and service it. Since PAL isn't using its share it was given to others" he adds.

He further said that it would have been a different story if PAL would fly direct as they are entitled to fly the biggest 747 everyday if they wanted to, unlike Bangkok where they have to share it with others.

"There are currently four airlines servicing Mumbai and Bangkok route. One of them is Cathay Pacific. If all the seat entitlements are already taken by these airlines, there is no way PAL can use any, except the renegotiation of the ASA between Thailand and India. The good thing is they expired last January so we can negotiate with the Thai's for additional seats in our favor. Perhaps the only thorny issue there is the consent of other airlines if they are willing to agree together with the reciprocal right of Indian carriers, particularly Jet Airways which is very interested to fly here" says Arcilla.

Bautista on his part has said that currently, the ideal aircraft for the Indian market is the Airbus A320 but can't fly the range straight without weight penalty. The A330-300 on the other hand is capable of flying to Mumbai but is too big at this stage. They are also in short supply of medium ranged airliner to service the route except the possible tags from Bangkok. The only other viable option for the A330/340 is for it to stop in Thailand and carry passengers from Mumbai to Bangkok other than those going to Manila.

“The problem we have is the yields because of economic crisis.The route would be costly if PAL would not be able to book passengers from Bangkok. We need to carry more passengers there to make it work" said Bautista.

“There is definitely demand there,” he said. “Hopefully, we can fly there within the year.”

Meanwhile, Bautista is very optimistic in the growth of domestic travel market. “We will be relaunching our low cost subsidiary in March to better compete with budget carriers. Their growth would be higher than our growth because there are people who would always look for a budget flight. In terms of number of passengers, there is still room for growth,” he added. PAL Express is already operating on code share with Air Philippines.

With respect to the company's retrenchment plans, Bautista said that they are still in talks with the PAL Employees Association regarding its decision to outsource workers. “What is important is that we continue to communicate and understand each other’s situation,” he said.

PALEA recently filed a notice of strike against PAL. The government is currently hearing both positions in the NCMB (National Conciliation and Mediation Board) in the hope of bringing them to a mutually acceptable compromise./JE

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