Bassaka Air began operations in 2014 with the launch of its first flight from Phnom Penh to Macau. Three years later, it now flies to six destinations with plans for further expansion. Bassaka Air’s CEO Mark E Thibault recently spoke to Khmer Times’ Sok Chan and stressed that strategic partnerships were crucial for the small airline to survive in a competitive aviation market.
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KT: What are the efforts of Bassaka Air to assist the government to encourage two million Chinese tourists to visit Cambodia by 2020?
Mr Thibault: I met with Tourism Minister Thong Khon and he told me about the China Ready campaign. I told him we were all set to assist. We have to go to the next level now by buying more aircraft, expanding office space and also bringing in Chinese speaking representatives into our commercial group. We also have to refurbish our old aircraft to make them more efficient. We realise that China is a very large market and also we want the Chinese travellers to experience Cambodian hospitality all the way from getting on a Bassaka Air plane and arriving in either Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville and then returning back to China.
We want them to spread the word back home that Cambodia is good value for money and they had a great time in the kingdom – it’s city life, beaches, history, religion and heritage sites all packaged into one.
KT: Chinese airlines have direct flights from various cities in the mainland to Cambodia. Do you think you’re facing stiff competition since Bassaka Air primarily targets the Chinese market?
Mr Thibault: Competition is healthy and I think we can build partnerships with international airlines to bring them into the hub. Yes, the market is crowded but if we all play nice, it will be enjoyable for everybody. I look forward to the competition and expansion.
Right now, about 70 to 80 percent of the market is inbound and hopefully, at some point, it will balance off with the outbound.
I guess in the next five years, we will have more outbound passengers on business travel and also Cambodians travelling overseas.
KT: What has Bassaka Air done to build its brand locally and also internationally to ensure customer loyalty?
Mr Thibault: We have been doing a lot to improve our infrastructure, upgrade our airline booking system and strengthening our management. We are building our image as a good and safe airline.
We are also refurbishing our aircraft to make the interior is more comfortable for passengers. The carpets and seats will be new. The new seats will be made with titanium to ensure strength and comfort at the same time.
Nothing beats safety and quality service, and we will be concentrating on that.
We also will be seeking out strategic partnerships in a competitive market, where you can partner with your competitor to ensure everyone grows together.
KT: Could you tell us about the memorandum of understanding between Bassaka Air the national flag carrier, Cambodia Angkor Air?
Mr Thibault: We signed the MoU with Cambodian Angkor Air to enter into a strategic partnership. It is to cooperate for the development and enhancement of Cambodia’s domestic and international air routes and also to promote air safety.
Bassaka Air is also looking to cooperate with other airlines across the region.
KT: How many destinations does Bassaka Air currently fly to?
Mr Thibault: Currently we fly to six destinations – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Xi’an, Changsha, Hangzhou and Macau. We also do a lot of ad hoc charters and our routes are mostly to China. We hope to add on two more destinations, in China, by the end of the year.
Right now we have three planes and we would add two more next year and expand our routes around Southeast Asia.
KT: The Cambodian aviation market at the moment is small. Do you think there is room for further growth?
Mr Thibault: Absolutely, there is more room for growth. I think that Cambodian airlines are realising that and moving fast to expand before their slots are taken up by big international carriers. If there is an opportunity to grow through strategic partnerships, now is the time to do it.
KT: Currently there are no direct flights from Cambodia to the Philippines, Indonesia and India. Does Basska Air have plans for these routes?
Mr Thibault: I think every airline in Cambodia has plans to cover these routes. It’s only a question of time.
We’re carrying out feasibility studies to identify new routes and for that reason we are keen to get the new planes next year. The good thing about strategic partnerships is that the risks are spread out. We are looking for strategic partnerships, both inside and outside Cambodia.
KT: Airlines are looking at competitive pricing of tickets to grab customers. Is Bassaka Air on the same path?
Mr Thibault: Yes we also have competitive prices for tickets. But you cannot be just competitive on prices, you also have to offer good services and customers have to know that they are travelling on a safe airline. Our prices are now competitive, and we will stick to that.
KT: What are your future plans for Bassaka Air?
Mr. Thibault: We are going to add more planes, hire more people, expand offices, refurbish, and rebrand.
The Bassaka Air brand won’t change. We will be rebranding our image – starting with a new office and new airplanes.
Our next goal is to get the International Air Transport Association’s Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certificate by January next year. We will restructure the company and bring in more resources in preparation for the IOSA certification. Safety is our top priority and we are bringing a new safety team here to support the team we have now.