ANALYSIS: Asian network carriers take different tack on LCCs

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While the low-cost carriers established by network airlines in Europe and North American a decade ago have largely by the wayside, carriers in the Asia Pacific seem to have adopted the approach with more encouraging results.

Over the last few years, carriers in the region including Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways International and Garuda Indonesia have all been promoting their links with low-cost carriers, both those that are partially and wholly-owned.

Even in Japan, a market which many had assumed would not embrace the low-cost carrier business model, both Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines now have affiliated low cost carriers.

ANA has been particularly aggressive and now has two low cost carriers - wholly-owned Peach Aviation and 51%-owned AirAsia Japan - within its portfolio.

Some of that success seems to have come from watching the experience that Qantas has had with its budget brand Jetstar.

The low-cost carrier launched in the domestic market in Australia in May 2004, and now in its ninth year has defied the sceptics to be a profitable, growing operation which is spreading across Asia.

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At the time of its launch there were a number of critics who argued that, given the experience of carriers such as Go, Buzz and Ted in Europe and North America, that the concept would not work. Furthermore, there was concern that it would negatively impact on Qantas over the long term.

Jetstar chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka says that Qantas looked long and hard at the failures of others when designing the business model for the low cost carrier.

"The big lesson from those unsuccessful attempts was the need for clear brand differentiation," she says. "Jetstar had to have a strong, distinct brand. And it had to build a new market, opening up travel opportunities for people who hadn't flown regularly before."

A key was ensuring that there was a strong amount of coordination between Jetstar and Qantas to prevent 'cannibalisation' of Qantas's premium traffic. This included having Jetstar replace Qantas completely on some routes, and managing departure times on others so as to keep them focused on leisure travellers.

Hrdlicka says that there was also a major investment in and careful management of the Jetstar brand to ensure that passengers did not simply view it as a 'Qantas-lite' operation, and that it could tap into a new market segment.

"There was a clear understanding among the Qantas board and management that two brands were needed to serve the Australian market effectively, and both Qantas and Jetstar were integral to this dual brand vision," she says.

"As a result, we avoided the brand and customer confusion that had hindered other airlines in setting up LCCs and laid solid foundations for Jetstar's subsequent success."

Avoiding such confusion is a similar theme among other carriers in the region. Thai Airways' president Sorajak Kasemsuvan said last year that he wants to ensure that budget carrier Nok Air, in which it has a 49% shareholding, will be aimed primarily at domestic travellers who otherwise would not fly.

Similarly, Singapore Airlines chief Goh Choon Phong told analysts last year that he was "not going to allow confusion" between the carrier's premium brands and low cost carriers Scoot and Tiger Airways, which are a major part of its future growth strategy.

Hrdlicka adds that Jetstar's success in the leisure market has allowed Qantas to "better focus on its own core market, namely the premium and business travel sector."

In a briefing note earlier this year, analysts at Citi Research in Hong Kong noted that in some cases, Asian carriers can use their low cost carriers can help to preserve the yield premiums of their parent carriers against independent competitors like Lion Air and AirAsia.

They cited Garuda Indonesia's approach to growing its low cost unit, Citilink, in the domestic market as an example.

"By using Citilink to keep LCC fares low and provide competition to other LCCs, Garuda will then be able to protect its own domestic premium profitability," they say.

Legacy-affiliated low-cost carriers in Asia have also succeeded by adopting the approach of AirAsia and Ryanair of using low fares to stimulate new demand from price-sensitive travellers, rather than poaching business traffic from their parent airlines.

Peach Aviation chief operating officer Luke Lovegrove, says this has approach allayed fears that the low-cost carrier would end up damaging ANA.

"There were concerns that there might be some cannibalisation, but what Peach has proven is that the low-cost carrier model works regardless of which country you're in," he says. "We've demonstrated that we're delivering a new set of passengers and a new growth segment for Japan."

In addition, some of those low-cost carriers are seen by their parent airlines as major drivers of growth across new markets.

Hrdlicka notes that the Jetstar brand has driven the Qantas group's exposure to the fast-growing travel market in Asia.

Only months after launching the brand in Australia, Qantas helped to launch 49%-owned, Singapore based Jetstar Asia. That was followed by the launch of Vietnam-based Jetstar Pacific in 2008 and Jetstar Japan last year, in which Japan Airlines holds a 33% stake.

Qantas is also gearing up to launch Jetstar Hong Kong later this year. The Australian carrier holds a 50% stake in the new carrier, with the other 50% owned by China Eastern Airlines.

"Over time we've established a model that combines the best of Jetstar Group's commercial and operational LCC expertise with the local expertise of our investment partners," says Hrdlicka. "We have set up strong local management teams and built good relationships with governments, regulators and the private sector."

Hrdlicka admits that it hasn't always been easy and there are times where "we have not always gotten it right."

Some of those challenges have included rocky relationships with its local partners. In 2009, Qantas's investment in Jetstar Asia was restructured to allow the exit of Temasek Holdings, which is the major shareholder in rival Singapore Airlines.

"However, we are very good at learning from our mistakes and quickly adjusting as a consequence," she adds.

As Jetstar recently celebrated carrying its 100 millionth passenger, Hrdlicka says that Jetstar's success is now convincing other carriers around the world to follow a similar strategy, including some of its competitors.

"The Qantas Group has proved that it can be done successfully, so it's not surprising that other airlines are trying to emulate the model that we've established," she says.

"We welcome the competition but, with almost nine years of experience, we feel that we're in a strong position, and we're looking forward to the next phase of our journey, leading the low fares market in Asia."