Firefly eyes more flights between Singapore and Malaysia in bid to recapture market share

Firefly eyes more flights between Singapore and Malaysia in bid to recapture market share

Firefly is aiming to connect Singapore with more destinations in Malaysia as the turboprop airline works to expand flights from Seletar Airport. Gwyneth Teo reports.

SINGAPORE: Firefly is aiming to connect Singapore with more destinations in Malaysia as the turboprop airline works to expand flights from Seletar Airport.

The Malaysian budget carrier currently serves only the Singapore-Subang route from Seletar Airport, operating six flights daily. 

Speaking at a media briefing on Thursday (May 23), Firefly chief executive Philip See said that “the immediate scope for expansion” is to secondary cities, citing Ipoh and Kuantan as examples.

Firefly previously operated to those two cities, but it had to suspend its flights to Singapore last December after failing to get approval from Malaysia's aviation regulator to move its operations from Changi Airport to Seletar Airport. 

Before the suspension, Firefly had offered 20 flights daily between Singapore and the Malaysian cities of Subang, Ipoh and Kuantan.

READ: Malaysian carrier Firefly resumes flights to Singapore as first plane lands at Seletar Airport

The flights would have to be mounted in the morning due to the largely leisure-focused demographics of passengers, Mr See explained. 

BUILDING AWARENESS

Mr See said that Firefly is treating Seletar as an entirely new route, despite having operated previously to Changi. As such, its main focus is on building awareness about Seletar.

“They (travel agents in Malaysia) still don't know about Seletar. They think it's an old military airport. Although there's been a lot of coverage, when you actually speak to customers, there's still a question mark. ‘Is this operational? Is it feasible? Is it really convenient?’ And so there is going to be some work to develop it,” he added.

Mr See also noted that when an airline launches a new route, it will typically have a two-year “gestational period” for it to stablise and see returns. For route re-launches, an airline would usually have a three to four month period to prepare.

In the case of Subang-Seletar, however, Mr See said that Firefly had only two weeks to prepare for it.

For these reasons, passenger loads were initially at 30 per cent on this route. But Mr See said Firefly is now seeing an average of 3 per cent to 4 per cent increment a week. At present, its Subang-Seletar passenger loads are between “high 40s and low 50s (per cent)”.

The aim is for the figure to hit between 65 per cent and 70 per cent by the fourth quarter of this year, said Mr See, similar what was seen what it operated to Changi. 

Firefly CEO Interview
Firefly chief executive officer Philip See speaking at a media briefing on May 23, 2019. (Photo: Aaron Chong)

“The work really is to re-engage high-frequency travelers and say: ‘Hey, try us again. You used to love us. The experience is even better (now) because you don’t need to take a bus (from the tarmac to the arrival hall at Changi Airport). You just need to walk (to the arrival hall at Seletar Airport).”

A unit of Malaysian Airlines, Firefly is also open to launching more flights out of Seletar, but Mr See said it it would have to see loads stablise “at least for the first three months”.

SUSPENSION HAD AFFECTED FIREFLY

The CEO also acknowledged that Firefly was commercially affected during the suspension of services to Singapore.

While he declined to provide specific financial figures, Mr See said that the carrier’s service “really affected close (to) 20 to 25 per cent of its production”.

He clarified that this refers to capacity, of which up to a quarter of all seats were Singapore-bound. 

Mr See said that Firefly’s employees could see that business was slowing down.

“When I became a CEO in January and I started doing town halls with the operations guys, morale was low,"  he told reporters. "They saw aircraft parked there (at Subang Airport). And they were wondering: ‘Where is the business?’"

Mr See also explained that key to an airline’s ability to thrive was how much it could “sweat its assets” or how long its aircraft are flying.

He noted that the ATR turboprop aircraft, which Firefly operates, would typically have a ulitisation rate of 8.5 hours a day. However, during the suspension, that figure dropped to between six and 6.5 hours daily.

NO PLANS FOR GPS UPGRADES ON AIRCRAFT YET

Mr See also said that Firefly has no plans yet on whether it would install GPS equipment on its aircraft for GPS-based procedures that would replace the Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures that Singapore withdrew last month.

READ: Singapore, Malaysia to develop GPS-based instrument approach procedures for Seletar Airport to replace ILS

He explained that due to “moving parts” within Firefly as well as its parent Malaysia Airlines, he will “have some clarity (by) Q4 this year”.

He added that there is a team within the company that is looking into the matter, and that plans will be made “in parallel” to discussions between the Singapore and Malaysian governments.

Source: CNA/ac(gs)

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