Thai Lion Air plans new routes, jets

Budget carrier Thai Lion Air (TLA) is revitalising its expansion plan, previously stalled by political turmoil in the first half of this year, thanks to the improved travel outlook after the military coup.

Indonesia’s Lion airline group, the parent of TLA, is finalising plans for new routes and more aircraft to regain growth momentum for its subsidiary.

TLA is soon expected to announce more than five new routes, both trunk and secondary, and the addition of Boeing 737-900ER jets and ATR 72-600 turboprops to its fleet, an industry source said.

The revived expansion appears geared towards the last quarter, when a strong rebound in demand is expected, partly seasonal. TLA expects the Thai air travel market will fully recover early next year with double-digit growth.

The network expansion will be carried out in two stages: new international and domestic routes through its Don Mueang airport base in Bangkok, to be served by jets; and from Hat Yai airport, its other base, operating turboprop aircraft.

TLA operates four Boeing 737-900ER jets on three routes from Don Mueang to Chiang Mai, Hat Yai and Jakarta, with about 30 flights per day.

It also offers about 30 flights a week from Hat Yai to Medan, Surat Thani and Hua Hin with an ATR 72-600 turboprop.

Thailand’s travel outlook improved markedly after the May 22 coup.

TLA predicts travel demand resuming for local and foreign flyers as foreign governments ease travel advisories, the source said.

In March, TLA began to ration its services following a plunge in foreign passenger traffic caused by the civil unrest.

The no-frills carrier, which took to the skies on Dec 4, reduced its international trunk services and focused on domestic flights, where demand was more stable.

Its two main international routes — Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok-Jakarta — saw their frequency slashed in response to weak demand despite heavily discounted fares.

The Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur service was subsequently suspended as Lion Group decided to have Malindo Air, a Malaysian carrier 49% owned by Lion and 51% by Malaysia’s National Aerospace and Defence Industries, take over the route starting on April 24 as part of the rejig.

As part of the same drive in April, TLA commenced its first secondary routes using a 70-seat ATR-72 600 turboprop from Hat Yai to four destinations including Medan and Kuala Lumpur.

Despite the drop in demand, TLA has managed an average cabin factor of about 80%, the source said.

Late last year TLA said it would have 10 B737-900ERs in service by year-end, as it was expanding to challenge Thai AirAsia.

TLA’s fleet of the US-made narrow-body jets will grow by an average of 10 a year, reaching 50 in its fifth year.