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An airline that you’ve (probably) never heard of took flight for the first time in January. But if it’s able to realize its ambitious plans, you’ll be hearing a lot more about it soon. Well-funded by one of the country’s richest men, Vietnam-based Bamboo Airways has aggressive plans to expand well beyond its initial network of intra-Vietnam flights.
If you’ve heard of Bamboo Airways, it’s likely from its blockbuster order of 20 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners in June 2018 to complement its already-large initial aircraft order of 24 Airbus A321neo. For a sense of scale, that Dreamliner order is just one shy of the 21 Boeing 787 Dreamliners that Norwegian currently operates.
The first of these are scheduled to be delivered in April 2020, but the airline is chomping at the bit to get the aircraft even sooner so it can expand internationally. Per its website: “Bamboo Airways is expected to expand direct flights to the US and Europe” by 2021 — but it’s hoping to launch regional international flights before then.
So far, Bamboo Airways hasn’t been able to keep up with its aggressive plans. The airline originally planned to launch flights on October 10, 2018 — Capital Liberation Day in Vietnam — but it wasn’t able to secure an aviation license in time from Vietnam’s Ministry of Transport. Once it was able to secure the license, it launched flights on January 16, 2019 — making it the fifth active Vietnam-based airline, joining Jetstar Pacific Airlines, Vietjet Aviation, Vietnam Airlines and its subsidiary Vietnam Air Services Co.
As of Feb. 8, Bamboo Airways only operates point-to-point domestic flights within Vietnam from its two hubs:
- Ho Chi Minh (SGN) to/from Hanoi (HAN); Quy Nhon (UIH); Thanh Hoa (THD); Van Don (VDO)
- Hanoi (HAN) to/from Buon Ma Thuot (BMV); Da Nang (DAD); Dong Hoi (VDH); Ho Chi Minh (SGN); Nha Trang (CXR); Phu Quoc (PQC); Quy Nhon (UIH)
This network is a bit smaller than the route map that the airline has posted on its website:
And it’s significantly smaller than the aspirational route map listed at the top of the airline’s Route Network page — which hints at flights to San Francisco and two other US destinations.
Currently, you can’t book connecting flights from one of the spoke airports through a hub to another spoke airport. This is a particular bummer for me as I was hoping to use Bamboo Airways to get from Da Nang (DAD) after a Cathay Pacific mistake fare to Phu Quoc (PQC) to check out the brand new InterContinental that was recently bookable for just 15,000 IHG Rewards points per night through PointBreaks.
Currently, the airline is operating these routes with its current fleet of six aircraft:
- One Airbus A319 — a former Silkair aircraft now registered as VN-A581
- Four Airbus A320 — three aircraft wet-leased from Turkish-based charter airline FreeBird Airlines and one former Turkish Airlines aircraft leased to Bamboo as registration VN-A586
- One Airbus A321neo — which was delivered new to Bamboo Airways as VN-A588 on December 30, 2018 through a lease from GE Capital Aviation Services
That’s not a very large fleet. But with short flights and quick turns, Bamboo Airways operating 1 – 2 flights per day on each of its current routes. But this is just the beginning. In less than four years, Bamboo plans to rapidly expand its fleet from the current six aircraft up to a fleet of 100 aircraft in 2022, consisting of 60 Airbus A320/A321 aircraft plus 40 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.
Bamboo Airways has three classes for tickets, as it explains on its website:
- Bamboo Eco. For the budget conscious, this fare removes baggage and other services allowing you to save money. If you need to add bags or other services you can add them later. True economy.
- Bamboo Plus. For those who want to have greater flexibility in their travel. Bamboo Plus allows luggage, name changes and multiple payment options. True flexibility.
- Bamboo Business. For the business minded, [the] business class product offers full flexibility for your travel along with a dedicated on-board product. True value.
By US airline standards, you can think of these as basic economy (Bamboo Eco), basic economy plus a checked bag (Bamboo Plus) and domestic first class (Bamboo Business).
Bamboo Airways flights don’t currently show up in Google Flights, Expedia, Priceline, Kayak, Momondo or any other online travel agency (OTA) that I checked. Instead, you’ll have to go straight to the airline’s website to book, which makes it similar to how Southwest manages its bookings.
The airline is aggressively pricing its flights with Bamboo Eco fares starting at US$6 one-way and Bamboo Business flights starting at US$99 one-way. Notably, these fares are before taxes. After taxes, these same flights cost $24 for Eco, $35 for Plus and $126 for Business.
However, it doesn’t seem that the airline is quite ready to sell flights to US passengers. In multiple attempts trying a handful of different credit cards, I was never successful in purchasing a flight on Bamboo Airways’ website. I’d go through the entire process just to have the payment declined, no matter which credit card I used. In the end, I needed to actually go to the airport and purchase a ticket at the Bamboo Airways ticket office.
Bamboo Airways has burst onto the scene with audacious aircraft orders and bold expansion plans. But failing to get its operating certificate in time for its planned launch date could be a sign of the airline management’s naivety about just how quickly the airline can realistically grow — especially as it tries to expand to strongly-regulated markets such as the US and Europe.
And regulators are just one of the challenges that the airline will face. Domestically, it faces tough competition from established budget carriers VietJet and Jetstar Pacific. And it’s not going to get any easier for Bamboo Airways when it expands internationally, squaring off against AirAsia, Scoot and VietJet’s growing international presence.
Whether Bamboo proves to be as strong and resilient as its namesake is yet to be seen.
Check back on Sunday for my experience flying Bamboo Airways.
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