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7 Jun, 2004

Aussies Seek to Launch Airline for Backpackers

MELBOURNE: Bangkok is to be one of the five popular backpacker destinations to be connected by a new airline that will be dedicated almost exclusively to this fast-growing niche-market.

The Australian-owned airline, backpackersXpress, is due to start flying in late October early November. It is planning a thrice weekly schedule between Manchester-Melbourne, and a twice-weekly Munich-Melbourne, with both flights stopping in Bangkok both ways.

Subject to the outcome of a traffic rights competitive bid, New Delhi will also be on the routenet.

Group Managing Director Glenn Millen said the airline will use two Boeing 747-300s that will be configured to single-class 473 seats with a 38-inch pitch. Food will have to be bought and will be confined to pizzas, sandwiches and other such snacks and drinks.

BackpackersXpress claims to be the first airline to pick a niche market and first airline to take a low cost model international. The airline needs to raise initial start-up costs of A$ 50 million.

Founding partners Mr. Millen and Capt Gordon Latham, a retired Qantas pilot, are also investors in the project. More money is being raised by four members of the board who have a range of financial and legal background to manage the fund-raising.

Bangkok is a major beneficiary of this flight because of three long-standing policy initiatives, two of which pre-date the Thaksin administration.

The hosting of two World Youth and Student Travel Conferences in Thailand 1999 and 2003 has facilitated the popularity of Thailand as a major hub of backpackers in recent years.

The long-standing promotion of links with the Greater Mekong Subregion countries has also attracted backpackers and is part of the package that raised the level of interest in Bangkok by backpackersXpress.

The Thaksin administration’s more liberal aviation policy has ensured the accessibility, allowing Bangkok to be the airline’s Asian hub.

The crew-change will take place in Bangkok. A crew of UK pilots will fly the aircraft from London to Bangkok and Australian pilots will take it on to Melbourne. Other agreements are also being finalised related to ground handling, tours, airport and hotels.

While India’s appeal also lies in its immense popularity as a backpacker destination, and proximity to Nepal, also popular with backpackers, Mr. Millen said traffic rights are still being negotiated with India.

Australia has a legacy aviation agreement with India signed in the late 1960s which provides for a maximum of 2,200 seats a week. Qantas has also put in a bid for those same rights and announced plans for thrice weekly services to Mumbai as of September.

There capacity curbs in the agreement cannot fit both the Qantas and backpackersXpress requests, though Mr. Millen said he was aware of an effort to ‘refresh’ the agreement to allow both bids to go through.

Mr. Millen said that if they don’t get New Delhi, they will fly through Colombo, Sri Lanka.

However, New Delhi is a critical stop for another reason: the huge potential for low-cost freight traffic, which is expected to be a major revenue generator in its own right and help keep the air-fares low.

Like all the low-cost airlines, creativity reigns supreme.

In the nose of the aircraft, what is usually the first or business class section in most aircraft because it is the quietest part, the entire first class has been taken out and replaced with a café and bar for backpackers to meet and mix.

Upon boarding, all the passengers will be asked to look under their seats, one of which will contain a coupon with a prize giving the occupant a full refund on the fare.

Young people who fly the airline as backpackers will be allowed an opportunity to apply for the positions of cabin crew. Said Mr. Millen, “We know two things for sure about them after they finish their trip. They will be broke, and they will have the travel bug in them.”

Because they will have done the backpacking rounds of Australia, India and Thailand, they could apply for two-year contracts as cabin crew which will help continue travelling while offering personal experience-based advice to other backpackers. It will also help the airline keep its crew costs down.

Product partners are being signed up. One of them is the brewery that makes Foster’s beer, an Australian. The logo and design of the beer is to be emblazoned on all the engines of the two 747s, making the engines look like flying beer cans.

Return tickets will carry no expiry date and no additional costs for itinerary changes. However, some conditions will apply and the tickets will expire by geography, not time.

This flexibility will allow European backpackers to stay beyond their working visas in Australia, which they cannot do with normal airline tickets which expire after a year, leaving the backpackers to foot the bill of the return journey.

Although backpackersXpress is looking to book most of its tickets through the Internet, it will keep travel agents in the loop. However, rather than offer them a fixed commission or remuneration, the airline is working out separate structures off a clean sheet with each agent, depending on what ideas they bring to the table on creating a partnership.

Although named backpackersXpress, the airline is not solely targetted at backpackers. The term refers to a “mindset, not a demographic,” says Mr. Millen. Those who don’t want to necessarily mingle with the backpackers will be offered special seating on the upper deck.

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