Indonesia’s new airline Super Air Jet bets on millennials and post-coronavirus travel bounce
- The low cost carrier, which is expected to launch around the middle of the year, will compete with Indonesia AirAsia and Citilink
- Despite reportedly being backed by Lion Air co-founder Rusdi Kirana, it is dissociating itself from the country’s biggest airline
It is the first new airline to launch in 10 years in Southeast Asia’s largest economy, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.
But first, it is making clear that it has no links to the country’s largest airline in terms of passenger numbers, Lion Air. This even though one of the new carrier’s shareholders is reportedly Rusdi Kirana, co-founder of Lion Air Group and Indonesia’s former ambassador to Malaysia. Super Air Jet’s CEO Ari Azhari is also a former general manager at Lion Air Group.
On Monday, a Lion Air spokesperson told Indonesian media that the new airline was not part of the group. Rusdi and his brother Kusnan, who are Indonesian-Chinese, started Lion Air in 1999 to offer no-frills, low-cost travel to price-conscious Indonesians.
Last year, Lion Air and its sister company, full-service Batik Air, were the biggest local carriers, with a market share of 35.3 per cent and 17.3 per cent respectively, according to the Transport Ministry. Flag carrier Garuda Indonesia and its low-cost subsidiary Citilink sat at fourth and third place, with 13 and 15.3 per cent respectively.
The move to dissociate Super Air Jet from Lion Air does not seem related to reputation issues.
While Indonesia has made vast improvements in airline safety, it has still been dogged by high-profile accidents, including the Lion Air flight 610 crash in 2018 and Sriwijaya Air flight 182 crash earlier this year. The Lion Air tragedy was later blamed on design flaws in Boeing’s 737 MAX jet, as well as a raft of pilot and mechanical errors. Boeing has reportedly settled most of the wrongful death claims.
Instead, keeping Super Air Jet independent has more to do with financial reasons.
The Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted privately-run Lion Air, which at one point was seeking to go public. Last year, it announced it would lay off 9 per cent of its workforce and that it risked losing up to 2.5 trillion rupiah (US$173 million) per month as air travel nosedived.
The airline has been flying up to 226 times a day, down from 1,400 daily flights in pre-pandemic. In March this year, only 2.64 million travelled domestically, compared to 6 million in March 2019, and there were only 40,000 international passengers flying in and out of Indonesia.
Brendan Sobie, a Singapore-based independent aviation analyst, said Super Air Jet would not be exposed to Lion Air Group’s financial risks. “At the same time they would be able to leverage the benefits of the Lion family’s group of companies as they will be using maintenance services from the existing provider within the group, Batam Aero Technic.
“With a cost base that will be lower than its existing airlines and with a product that is targeting a segment of the market that is mainly being catered to by rival Citilink, Super Air Jet can be used by the Lion family to further expand its already leading share of Indonesia’s domestic market,” Sobie said.
Jakarta-based aviation expert and consultant Gerry Soejatman said Super Air Jet would compete with Indonesia AirAsia, a local subsidiary of Malaysia-based LCC AirAsia, and Citilink.
“I think it is hard for Lion Air to change their brand, from its current low-cost traditional airline to low-cost but trendy airline, so the company thinks it’s better to start a new airline,” Soejatman said, pointing out that when Lion Air tried to make passengers pay for baggage, it got a negative reaction.
In comparison, Citilink has been able to offer flexible options for business travellers who prefer to fly on the cheap but are willing to pay for better seats, more legroom, and other services, he said.
Super Air Jet CEO Ari on Monday said the airline was “optimistic” about the opportunities in the country’s domestic air sector, and that the airline would focus on the domestic market before expanding internationally.
Industry watchers agree that Indonesia’s domestic air travel market looks promising, despite the setbacks caused by the pandemic.
“Indonesia is one of the largest markets in the world. Before Covid-19, it was the sixth-largest domestic market in the world. The projections are, for the long term, for Indonesia to continue to rise in the global rankings and in terms of number of air passengers,” Sobie said.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) projected Indonesia’s air passenger market will be the world’s fourth-largest by 2039, while the sector is forecast to contribute US$76.7 billion to the country’s GDP by 2037.
Sobie said there was also market talk that launching Super Air Jet was a defensive move by Lion Air founders and their family to prevent other start-ups from muscling into the space.
Super Air Jet’s initial plan would be to start with 10 eight-year old aircraft coming off lease at IndiGo, an Indian low cost carrier, with the airline likely to launch around the middle of the year, Sobie said. CEO Ari said the airline would fly Airbus A320-200 jets but did not give specific details.
The current lull in the industry could be beneficial for Super Air Jet as it can tinker with its operations and services, according to Soejatman.
“As air travel is slowing, they have time on their side to do trial and error. If air travel is busy they have to hit it from the start otherwise they’ll lose it,” he said.
This period could also be used by the company to gauge public opinion on its livery and name.
“If there is one bad thing about this airline it is the name, but the brand can be replaced,” Soejatman said. Batik Air was initially named Space Jet before it got its licence, he added.
“Uniforms can also be tweaked according to the design of your company. At this time, I don’t know whether the employees are trying to resemble Ghostbusters, parkour athletes, or mechanics. But it’s still very early days so we will have to wait and see where the company’s direction is headed,” he added.
Soejatman said it was hard to tell when Indonesian air travel would rebound. The country of 270 million has vaccinated over 12.8 million people but restrictions remain in place.
“People are wary. If we can have continuous decline in domestic cases I think at the end of the year the sector can recover up to 90 per cent,” Soejatman said.
“Maybe in 2022 we can recover entirely but it all depends on the number of coronavirus cases.”