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Asian airlines still wary of BIMP-EAGA routes


Looking out the oval-shaped window of the Garuda turbo-prop aircraft flying from Davao City to the little Indonesian city of Manado on the island of northern Sulawesi, the 40 plus Davao traders on a business mission, saw nothing else but coconut trees everywhere as the plane descended for a smooth landing.

This was several years ago when the chambers of commerce of the two sister cities agreed to exchange business missions in a maiden effort to promote trade and investments in the East ASEAN Growth Area (EAGA) region. Coming in to land at the Manado international airport, I remember thinking we seemed to be returning back to Davao airport because of all the coconut trees we saw all around us.

“The coconut trees we see in Manado are the same coconut trees we see in Davao!” says Avelino Zapanta, chief executive officer of SEA Air, who isn’t so sure that another attempt by airline companies in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (BIMP) to set up routes between each other, will ever work.

“We’ve done this before and it didn’t work! It didn’t last long. We’re the same poles all repelling each other. We all look the same, that's why we don't want to visit each other!” Zapanta told reporters at a press conference recently at the Marco Polo Hotel during the Air Access Forum organized by the tourism and airline sectors of the four neighboring countries.

“These routes aren’t sustainable. The airlines are all losing money. There’s simply no traffic between these four countries,” says Carmelo Arcilla, executive director of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) when asked if it was worth investing in routes linking Davao to Manado, Brunei to Zamboanga, Sarawak to Palawan, etc.

Although Cebu Pacific sees a “huge potential” for air travel within the East Asian region, it was still flip-flopping whether or not to plunge in right after the AAF Conference in Davao.

“We’re still figuring out whether or not its worth all the risks and high fuel costs of flying these routes,” says Alexander Lao, Vice President for commercial planning at Cebu Pacific. “It really depends on the size of the market -- will there be enough passengers to fill our seats?”
Although the Philippine Airlines (PAL) has no immediate plans to open routes in the region, it is still optimistic that the East Asian region air travel market can be developed thru sustained promotions of EAGA tour and travel destinations by all the four countries.

“Yes, we’re still very optimistic about the growth of air travel market in this region in the next five years,” Richard Miller, PAL chief aviation adviser told the Philippines News Agency, stressing that business prospects still look good if all the four countries share in the cost of promoting travel within the region.

This was also echoed by Capt Mohd Nawawi Bin Awang, managing director of Malaysian Airlines System, who cited the “huge potential” of air linkages between the four countries in EAGA if they could only get together and come up with one common marketing plan to promote and sell the region as one to the global tourism market.

“Let’s promote this region to the world! Foreign tourists love to come to Asia and see our exotic islands, enjoy our beaches, try our kind of food, meet our friendly people -- we have so much to offer to tourists coming from China, America, Europe,” Awang told reporters at the press conference.

We’re still wondering if Awang and Miller can see eye to eye with Lao and Zapanta, considering these pairs can’t agree on the business prospects of BIMP-EAGA -- both pairs are optimists and pessimists about the region.

From our vantage point, these two groups of airline execs seemed to be looking at the same horizon, but with different kinds of lenses -- one is using a narrow, telescopic lens seeing a closer but limited vision, while the other is using a wide lens seeing a wider panoramic vision.

Whether or not this new attempt by airlines to tap the BIMP-EAGA travel market will finally work this time, still remains to be seen.

by Aurelio A. Pena

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