Thai Lion to pounce on U-tapao airport

A Thai Lion Air Boeing 737-900ER sits at Don Mueang airport. The low-cost carrier under Indonesia’s Lion Group seeks to challenge Thai AirAsia at U-tapao airport in Rayong.

Thai Lion Air (TLA) appears to be chasing arch rival Thai AirAsia (TAA) for emerging business out of U-tapao airport in Rayong.

No-frills TLA, part of Indonesia’s Lion Group, has resolved to launch flights from the navy-run airfield, which was used by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1975.

The low-cost carrier (LCC) has confirmed its intentions with the U-tapao Airport Authority (UAA) and has established a visual presence: a ticket office at the airport’s new passenger terminal, which is scheduled to open in August.

U-tapao would be new ground for TLA’s strategy to compete head-on “wherever” TAA, Thailand’s biggest LCC, has a foothold, according to executives of both airlines.

TAA pioneered low-cost flights out of U-tapao with sister carrier Malaysia AirAsia making its debut in July 2015 with non-stop services from Kuala Lumpur.

TAA has boosted its presence at U-tapao with the opening of seven more routes, propelling traffic volume to levels never seen in the history of the airport built by the US more than 50 years ago.

Some 80% of the 710,000 passengers who passed through U-tapao last year were carried by AirAsia, according to the UAA.

TLA insiders have said the airline is still finalising a plan for U-tapao that is likely to begin in June or July.

The plan zeroes in on two options: a connection with China or the launch of domestic region-to-region services.

Under consideration is the possibility of linking U-tapao with three Chinese cities that TLA currently serves from its Don Mueang hub: Chengdu, Chongqing and Nanchang.

TAA has its own air links with two destinations on the Chinese mainland, Nanchang and Nanning, from U-tapao.

One possibility is for TLA to start China services from U-tapao on a charter basis and develop the traffic before switching to scheduled flights.

TLA appears to be intensifying its China strategy this year, with at least two routes looming large on the radar.

The cities of Jiangsu and Kunming are likely to be TLA’s next destinations from Don Mueang, as the airline anticipates demand from secondary Chinese cities for travel to Thailand, one of China’s top foreign destinations.

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