By Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo
Special to BusinessMirror, Oct. 12, 2006
FLAG carrier Asian Spirit will be offering a faster service to Caticlan, the gateway to Boracay in November, and is aggressively expanding its reach in Asia and Micronesia.
In an interview, Jack Po, executive vice president of Asian Spirit, told the BusinessMirror that the jet service to Caticlan will add three more daily flights to the airline’s current 16 and will only take 25 minutes from Manila.
The carrier will be using a British Aerospace 146-100, normally an 80-seater, but reconfigured to 60 seats to enable it to take off and land in the short Caticlan runway.
BAE executives were in town last week to test the reconfigured jet. “The test flight was successful and went without any hitches,” said Po.
The 25-minute service will top its rival Southeast Asian Airlines (Seair), which currently offers a 35-minute flight to the Aklan seaport. Seair uses a 32-passenger Dornier 328 turboprop for its Manila-Caticlan flights.
Flushed by the success of the test flights, Po also announced plans to fly to Macau; a new route to Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) from Koror, Palau; and a flight between Cebu and Koror.
He said the air service to Macau, to be offered in mid-December, is a tie-up with budget carrier, Viva Macau. The flight will use Viva Macau’s planes, either its 181-seater Boeing 767-200 or 245-seater B767-300.
“The service will initially be four times a week, and will depart from Clark,” Po said. The departures/arrivals in Clark ensure no direct competition with Air Macau, which is currently flying the Macau-Manila route, with a code-sharing agreement with Philippine Airlines.
Founded in 2004 by former Cathay Pacific general manager for international affairs Andrew Pyne, Viva Macau will also start offering services in November between Macau and Jakarta, Indonesia, and to Male, in Maldives. The carrier also hopes to offer flights to the Middle East and Europe.
Viva Macau has an existing international licensing agreement with Air Macau, the territory’s flag carrier, allowing it to fly the latter’s international destinations, like the Philippines, but using other arrival/departure points.
Asian Spirit is also planning to fly from Koror in Palau to Pohnpei next year, a route presently served by Continental Air Micronesia three times a week. According to the Continental web site, Pohnpeians transit through another FSM state, Chuuk, and Guam, and then change aircraft for the flight to Palau, making the trip long and circuitous.
Another route is through Honolulu and Guam before landing in Koror. There are two stops in between Pohnpei and Honolulu at Kosrae, FSM and Kwajalein, Marshall Islands.
An obstacle to the planned service however, is the lack of a refueling facility between Koror and Pohnpei. Ideally, a fuel stop has to be made in the island of Yap, but oil giant Mobil had already closed its refueling facility.
Asian Spirit plans to use its British Aerospace 146-100, an 80-seater plane, for the route. “With a refueling facility, we can use our jet and connect to Yap and even to Chuuk,” said Po.
If the refueling facility is not opened, he said Asian Spirit would have to buy “a long-haul aircraft” to service the said route. He expressed confidence that another plane could be purchased by the airline using “internally generated funds.” Talks are ongoing between the Pohnpei government and Mobil executives to reopen the refueling stop.
Micronesia is famous for its diverse marine resources making it an attractive area for scuba divers and game fishers. Po said the Koror-Pohnpei could “open the gateway to Yap” and other Micronesia states, which have a lot of tourism potentials. “It’s part of [our] plan to expand into Micronesia,” he said.
Aside from the tourism potentials in Micronesia, Asian Spirit also wants to cater to Filipinos who are working and leaving in the Micronesia states. With the airline’s existing route between Koror and Davao City, it will be easier for Filipinos to connect to Manila or other provinces using the flag carrier’s other routes.
Before Asian Spirit can fly the Palau-Pohnpei route though, a bilateral air-service agreement has to be forged first between the Philippines and Pohnpeian government. In lieu of that, the Philippine flag carrier can use the flying rights of Palau Micronesia Air (PM Air) to service the said route. PM Air is the general service agent of Asian Spirit in Koror and holds flying rights to Micronesia, Japan and Australia.
In an e-mail to BusinessMirror, Surangel Samuel Whipps Jr., whose family coowns PM Air said: “PM Air has rights to fly to the FSM [Federated States of Micronesia] and would like to cooperate with Asian Spirit in expanding its route to the rest of Micronesia.”
According to data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency, 393 Filipinos were deployed in FSM (Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap) in 2005, 10.48 percent lower than the 439 deployed the previous year. The data includes new hires and rehired land-based personnel.
Asian Spirit is also finalizing plans for a Koror to Cebu City route, which aims to target Europeans who are going to Palau. The service will also cater to OFWs in Palau who want to come home, and also to Palauans who can fly to other international destinations using Cebu as a jump-off point.
“There is a bigger market in Cebu and it has better international connections,” said Po.
Several domestic Philippine carriers are now aggressively pushing their expansion in the international arena, competing with pioneering flag carrier, Philippine Airlines. The budget carriers hope to boost their sluggish incomes with revenues from international routes. Domestic revenues have tapered off due to the rising cost of aviation gas.
Many of these local carriers, such as Asian Spirit, Cebu Pacific and Seair, offer no-frills, inexpensive travel between several points in the Philippines and key Asian destinations such as Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Xiamen in China, Macau and Palau.