ABU DHABI // Potentially thousands of AirAsia X ticket-holders hoping to fly between the capital and Kuala Lumpur have been left in the lurch after the long-haul budget airline announced yesterday it was shutting down its Abu Dhabi service. Barely five months after the carrier announced plans to establish Abu Dhabi as its base in the Middle East to launch onward flights to Europe, the long-haul arm of the low-cost carrier AirAsia began informing customers that flights up to October were cancelled.
The carrier called the move temporary and said it hoped to return to Abu Dhabi. "We're basically contacting all of our customers who have booked flights to basically say, in fact, we've suspended our service for commercial reasons," said Azran Osman-Rani, the chief executive of AirAsia X. Flights this month will be reduced from five to three a week, with the last trip scheduled on February 21. More than 30 weeks of flights until October will be cancelled. Ticket-holders on the Abu Dhabi-to-Kuala Lumpur route will be refunded, Mr Azran said.
The chief executive cited "underwhelming" demand for tickets, uneconomical aircraft and an aviation industry crippled by the financial crisis as reasons for the suspension of Abu Dhabi flights to and from Kuala Lumpur. The airline employed a four-engine Airbus A340 on the route, with 256 seats in economy and 30 premium seats. AirAsia X hopes to resume services in the future using a smaller, twin-engined A330 aircraft.
"We are not going to be flying, period, to Abu Dhabi until we figure out what's the right strategy, the right hub, the right aircraft and we'll probably come back again," Mr Azran said. AirAsia and its AirAsia X affiliate fly to more than 130 destinations in China, South East Asia and Australia from its base in the Malaysian capital. Through its no-frills business model, AirAsia said it typically offered fares up to 60 per cent lower than its competition.
Abu Dhabi ticketholders such as Nafisa Robella were forced to scramble following the news. Ms Robella and her parents were preparing to fly to Kuala Lumpur on February 20 when she was informed on Saturday that her flight was cancelled. "I've booked up holiday packages from AirAsia tours and transfers and hotels," she said. "I pre-booked it all, which was about Dh4,000 just for my parents." The freelance television producer, 28, said she did not have travel insurance and would likely not be refunded for her other travelbookings expenses. She has been told that her return flight may be cancelled as well. "I don't think I can get my money back," she said.
In Kuala Lumpur, the changes also ruined Adrianna Tan's plans for a cheap trip to the Emirates. Ms Tan, 24, a photographer, was planning to purchase tickets on AirAsia X to attend a wedding in October. "I usually used an AirAsia destination as a jumping-off point to somewhere else," Ms Tan said last night. "I was going to plan maybe Yemen or Syria." "It's going to make it harder to pop by the UAE."
A spokesman for Abu Dhabi Airports Company said: "AirAsia X has confirmed to Abu Dhabi Airports Company [ADAC] that, from late February 2010, the airline will temporarily suspend its current, five-times-per-week, service to Abu Dhabi. "ADAC looks forward to the airline recommencing its service to Abu Dhabi International Airport in the near future. ADAC would like to advise any passengers who feel they may be affected by the AirAsia X announcement to contact the airline directly for further details."
The AirAsia X decision to stop serving Abu Dhabi comes as a surprise, as the airline as recently as November joined with local aviation and tourism officials to trumpet its Abu Dhabi flights as a new era of budget travel. The decision to pull out after just a few months, when airlines typically require years to make a route profitable, added to the mystery. Also, while it was pulling out of Abu Dhabi, the airline was growing elsewhere; last week it announced Mumbai and Delhi as new destinations planned for this year on A330 aircraft.
"What I understood was that their flights were full, so I don't know what happened," said Jim el Murr, the general manager of Salem Travel in Abu Dhabi. He said the airline could have reached out more to local travel agents; many UAE residents are still unable to purchase tickets online via credit card. Mr Azran said the airline would continue to fly to Australia, China and London and that holiday-makers could still re-route their flights to those destinations at no extra cost.