MIAMI — Asian ultra low cost carrier (ULCC) AirAsia X will enter the US market in November 2015, launching nonstop service between Osaka, Japan and Honolulu with four weekly flights. The route will be served by an Airbus A330-300 aircraft, seating 377 passengers (including 12 premium economy seats).
The new route will technically be a continuation of AirAsia X’s existing nonstop service between its home base of Kuala Lampur, Malaysia and Osaka’s Kansai International Airport. AirAsia X also serves Osaka from Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport via subsidiary Thai AirAsia X.
At first glance, this route would appear to be doomed for failure. Despite its low cost and long haul ambitions, AirAsia X has really only been able to sustain itself as a high volume shuttler of passengers within the Australasia region to date; it appears as merely a widebody low cost carrier (WLCC?) if you will. Their only attempt(s) at flying to Europe–London Stansted and Paris Orly–crashed and burned (admittedly in part due to the suboptimal aircraft choice of the Airbus A340-300). Now, its single destination outside of that region today is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which has massive base of visiting family and relatives (VFR) and business travel due to Kuala Lampur’s status as a major Islamic nation and an Islamic banking center.
Hawaii has no such ties. The entire nonstop international market between the United States in 2011 was 286 passengers per day each way (PDEW), which is just barely enough to fill 76% of the seats in one Airbus A330-300. Even with some growth since 2011 (though Malaysia has lagged behind Asian peers), the market still doesn’t encompass more than 325 PDEW. And Hawaii is a tiny sliver of that, less than 5%. With a nonstop service you could at least point to some market stimulation, but for a direct flight, the normal stimulation factor of 50-150% doesn’t apply.
The reality is that this flight has nothing to do with Malaysia, nothing at all. Rather, it will sink or swim based on AirAsia X’s ability to inject itself into the massive Osaka-Hawaii market. In 2011, the Osaka-Honolulu was at 596 PDEW, more than twice the size of the entire US-Malaysia market. And remember that 2011 was a down year in Japan due to the Fukushima disaster. International traffic and airport traffic from Japan declined by 10-15% across the board, so you’re actually talking about a market that’s close to 700 PDEW.
Indeed this new flight is tied heavily to the relaunch of AirAsia Japan, which is expected to launch in Summer 2015 with a base at Nagoya. After the previous iteration of AirAsia Japan, a joint venture with All Nippon Airways, fell apart, AirAsia decided to give the Japan market another crack, this time partnering up with online travel agency Rakuten, which will hold an 18% stake in the new LCC. With the AirAsia brand set to relaunch and a partnership with one of the biggest sellers of vacation packages in Japan, entering the high volume tourist market between Hawaii and Japan is a natural strategic extension. It will allow the brand to build relevance with vacationing consumers who can then be expected to choose AirAsia Japan for their more frequent domestic trips.
Still AirAsia X will face heavy competition, with nonstop service on the route offered by Hawaiian Airlines, Japan Airlines, and Delta Air Lines who fly the A330-200, 777-200ER, and 747-400 respectively. AirAsia X has a much lower cost base than these three carriers, so fares in the market are probably going to come down (though they weren’t exorbitantly high to begin with).
The Hawaii-Japan market is mostly Japan point-of-sale, so in a scenario where all four airlines try to compete for a market that cannot be enormously stimulated by AirAsia X’s low fares, Hawaiian is most likely to lose out. Delta and Japan Airlines have legacy brand positioning and awareness in the Japan market (though Delta’s is diluted because much of that belonged to Northwest) while AirAsia X can be fed by one of the key distributors of travel packages to Hawaii (which are a large share of the total air travel market). In fact, moving forward, Rakuten probably has an incentive to put fewer and fewer passengers onto the other three airlines.
AirAsia will certainly be able to fill the A330-300, the question is whether it can do so profitably. The dynamics of the market are right, and at 3,577 nautical miles, its still a short enough market that AirAsia X might be able to make just enough on volume to survive. Regardless, congratulations to AirAsia X on finally entering the
Malaysia Japan – US market.