Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Bamboo who? Vietnam start-up’s ever-shifting strategy

Vietnamese start-up Bamboo Airways’ commitment to 20 Boeing 787-9s represents a startling growth in ambition, but the prospective carrier’s strategy is far from clear.

Bamboo Airways is nothing if not ambitious. First announced by local property conglomerate FLC Group in early 2017, Bamboo Airways would initially serve Vietnam leisure destinations. Congested airports such as Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat and Hanoi’s Noi Bai would be avoided.

Early plans called for Bamboo to fly international passengers direct to secondary cities, addressing the clear market opportunity of flying North Asian tourists to Vietnam.

"With new flights connecting provinces with tourism potential, Bamboo Airways will not create additional pressure on overloaded airports, and will help fully exploit under-used infrastructure," said general manager Dang Tat Thang.


A media report in early 2017 quoted FLC Group chairman Trinh Van Quyet as saying that the carrier would lease seven Airbus aircraft and start services in early 2018.

The early 2018 service start never happened, but in March 2018 a memorandum of understanding was signed with Airbus for 24 A321neos. This despite the carrier’s lack of approval to start services. Should all go well, it said it would even go for an additional 24 A321LRs.

In April, FLC revealed that it was recruiting for 92 pilots, 250 cabin crew, 90 technical staff, and nearly 100 administrative employees. It said that it wants to operate 40 routes by 2023, consisting of 24 domestic and 16 international destinations.

In the first two years of operation, the carrier said that it planned to operate between eight and 10 domestic routes. Internationally, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand were identified as targets.


FLC added that it expected to start services at the end of 2018. Curiously, it said that it would only submit its official application for an air operator’s certificate in July. Why this hadn’t been done to ensure a launch in early 2018 wasn’t clear.

But, just in case anyone doubted its ambitions, Bamboo committed to 20 787-9s at the end of June. Apparently, it has even paid deposits to Boeing. The deal was announced in a Washington DC ceremony attended by no less than Vietnam’s deputy prime minister, Vuong Dinh Hue.

During all this there was little mention of the 2017 strategy of flying leisure passengers to secondary Vietnamese cities. The new plan, which presumably complements the 2017 leisure destination plan, calls for operating 787-9s from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi – Dang’s “overloaded airports” – to Europe and that holy grail of Vietnamese airlines, the USA.

Conventional airline thought would suggest that the 787s would provide feed in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for the carrier’s fleet of A321neos, but again this would contradict the 2017 idea of avoiding big, congested hubs.

While the 787s are only due for delivery from 2020-2021, Bamboo apparently feels this is too late, and hopes to push this to 2019. The aircraft will have four classes: first, business, premium economy and economy.

During the June ceremony, incidentally, FLC chairman Trinh told FlightGlobal that the carrier continues to make progress toward a local AOC, and that he expected it soon. Just two months earlier, however, the carrier had said that the AOC application would only be made in July.


Anyway, Trinh added that Bamboo would launch sales in October 2018, with flights to begin in the fourth quarter. The airline's headquarters will be in the coastal city of Qui Nhon, which it plans to link with Hanoi in Bamboo's inaugural route. It also plans to begin flights between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This is one of Asia’s most competitive routes and in sharp contradiction to the 2017 plan to avoid hubs.

Irrespective of its strategy, several obstacles remain in Bamboo’s path: it is not a given that Vietnam will achieve FAA category 1 status, although there appears to be progress in this area. Despite apparently high-ranking connections, FLC also has yet to receive its local AOC. Other parties, including AirAsia and local MRO firm Aerostar, have tried for years to launch airlines, but to no avail.

Even if Bamboo gets off the ground, getting up to scale and becoming profitable competing against the likes of VietJet is far from easy.


The carrier’s website adds little clarity. While it states that it hopes for a late 2018 launch, it acknowledges the regulatory challenges.

Aviation enthusiasts, however, will enjoy the site’s casual use of pictures. On one page is an artist’s depiction of a pure white A380 taking off. The caption reads “Bamboo Airways will take off at the end of 2018.” Another page has a 747-400 landing at dusk. The caption reads “No one knows when Bamboo Airways can take off.”

The two pages could well have been posted at different times, but this is not clear.

The site also makes much of the carrier’s plans to avoid Vietnam’s big hubs – although recently it seems company leadership has changed tack on this.

For the time being, Flight Fleets Analyzer shows that Bamboo Airways has LOIs to order for 24 A321s and 20 787-9s. Airbus and Boeing will, of course, hope these are firmed up. The upstart unit of FLC Group has made headlines, but it remains to be seen if Bamboo’s strategy, or lack of one, will deliver a success story.

(Greg Waldron - FlightGlobal News)

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