Malaysia's AirAsia X operated its first flight to the US earlier this week - a non-revenue one-off service to Oakland - as the long-haul low-cost carrier contemplates launching regular flights to the US next year.
AirAsia X CEO Azran Osman Rani says one of the carrier's two Airbus A340-300s landed in Oakland on 14 September following a non-revenue flight from London Stansted. The special flight, which Azran says was made possible by cancelling one of AirAsia X's seven weekly Kuala Lumpur-Stansted rotations, was made in an A340 painted in Oakland Raiders livery. The aircraft was only in an Oakland a few hours for a ceremony attended by the city's mayor and the US ambassador to Malaysia before returning to Stansted.
AirAsia X signed up as a sponsor of the Oakland Raiders American football team earlier this year. AirAsia X currently does not fly to the US but has been evaluating several potential airports including Oakland, an alternative gateway for San Francisco.
Azran says the carrier is also evaluating airports in the Los Angeles and New York City areas. He says AirAsia X is interested in any airport in southern California except Los Angeles International and any airport in the New York City area which can support quick turnaround and taxi times.
Azran says the carrier is now looking at which routes to launch in 2010 and it is not certain that AirAsia X will begin serving the US next year. "We're studying it very closely and measuring it against the opportunity cost of other destinations," he told ATI following a 16 September speech at the Cargo Facts annual aircraft symposium in Seattle.
Azran says Oakland is attractive because it is a big base for US low cost carrier Southwest Airlines "and it's very important for us to get the feed". AirAsia X has found that a lot of its passengers self-connect to other low-cost carriers, including to easyJet at Stansted.
Oakland is also an obvious choice for AirAsia X because its sponsorship of the Oakland Raiders has helped it build brand awareness in northern California long before it launches services to the US. Azran points out sister carrier AirAsia's sponsorship of the Manchester United football team from 2005 to 2008 helped build awareness of the AirAsia brand in the UK before AirAsia X started serving Stansted earlier this year. This helped AirAsia X's Kuala Lumpur-Stansted route achieve instant success, with more than half of the passengers originating in the UK rather than Asia.
Azran says AirAsia X would serve the US west coast from Kuala Lumpur via Taipei, Seoul or Honolulu. US east coast destinations would be served via Stansted.
He says the carrier can launch service to the US east coast with its two existing A340s by extending its Kuala Lumpur-Stansted route across the Atlantic. For the west coast Azran says AirAsia X would need to acquire additional A340s.
He says the carrier currently does not plan to expand its A340 fleet but will entertain proposals for more A340s if the right deal is offered. "If it is sub $400,000 per month we'll look at it," he adds.
AirAsia also now operates three A330-300s and will take three more of the type this year followed by three more next year as part of its earlier order for 25 A330s. But Azran says A330s are not an option for US routes as they lack the range for a one-stop service and would require an unattractive two-stop service. He says the new Airbus A350 will be ideal for one-stop US service but AirAsia X is not scheduled to receive its first A350 until 2016.
Azran says when AirAsia X began evaluating the A350 it was looking at both A330 replacements and growth. But he says the carrier is not currently focused on replacing its A330s with A350s because it believes on "bread and butter Asia Pacific" routes, which are typically seven hours or less, the A350 does not have a big advantage over the A330. As a result he says AirAsia X decided to order only 10 A350s instead of 25 firm plus 25 options, which it originally was considering.
He says AirAsia X now intends to use the A350s to replace its A340s and launch more long-haul routes. While the A330s can be used to for services within Asia as well as to Australia and the Middle East, the A340s and later the A350s are needed for non-stop services to Europe and one-stop services to the US.