What It’s Like to Fly Vietnam’s Newest Airline: Bamboo Airways
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After months of struggling to get an operating license, Bamboo Airways took to the skies for its first passenger flight on January 16. Three weeks later, I found myself in Vietnam between Cathay Pacific mistake fare bookings and I figured I’d check out the new airline that has ambitious goals to fly to the US by 2021. What I texted to my wife after my first flight sums it up in both the negative and positive ways: “Wow!”
The first thing that’s obvious from my experience with Bamboo Airways is its growing pains. Some aspects of its website “shall be updated soon” — and that presumably includes a booking engine that accepts international credit cards. Despite multiple attempts with multiple types of credit cards, I could never get a booking to go through on the website.
I tried to call the Bamboo Airways phone number to make a booking, but after a message in Vietnamese, I was thanked in English for calling Bamboo Airways and then disconnected. This happened every time I called — from both international and local numbers.
Considering the seat reservation system was letting me pick any seat on the aircraft, I assumed that the flights were flying practically empty.
I headed to Da Nang airport hoping to book a flight in person and arrived to a scene I didn’t expect: a full check-in line.
When I went to the ticket counter, I was told that the flight was sold out, but that I could wait “until the last minute” to see if there was space. At 45 minutes to departure, the ticketing counter agent took my name, saying that there would be enough space for me and the three other last-minute passengers that had gathered. However, the purchase process was far from smooth. In the end, I’d be charged around 3.3 million Vietnamese đồng — around US$142 — for a last-minute walk-up economy fare.
Once I was ticketed, I still needed to check in. And the check-in agents were still dealing with checking other passengers’ bags. Finally, at 18 minutes to the 9:35am departure, I was successfully checked in and issued a boarding pass.
After taking a photo, I rushed through security and to the gate, boarding a few minutes before stated departure. We ended up pushing back just eight minutes late.
The ticketing hassle was cleared up when I bought my return ticket in the Hanoi airport. I was hoping to spend much of the seven-hour layover in the Priority Pass lounge, so I inquired when I would be able to check in. The agent answered that there was currently no web or “kiosk” check-in available, and the desk check-in wouldn’t be available until two hours before departure.
That’s because the booking system currently closes to new bookings at three hours to departure and then exports the passenger list to the airport system to open check in. I was assured that this process was only a temporary measure and that web and kiosk-based check in would be available soon. Until then, it seems you can plan to spend quite a bit of time in the check-in line as all passengers have to check in with an airport agent.
Another aspect of Bamboo Airways’ growing pains: a lack of its own fleet. While the airline has ordered 24 Airbus A321neos — one of which has now been delivered — and 20 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, half of its fleet is currently wet-leased A320 aircraft. These aircraft have Freebird Airlines crew and Freebird Airlines safety videos — with Vietnamese subtitles.
There are even Freebird Airlines feedback boxes on board.
Quite a Marketing Budget
What Bamboo Airways lacks in features and on-board consistency, it’s making up in marketing spend. It’s clear that the airline — started and run by one of the richest men in Vietnam — is very well funded. Even the wet-leased Freebird Airlines aircraft have been repainted with Bamboo Airways livery, even though these three aircraft are still registered as Turkish planes.
When starting my journey in Da Nang, I found it impressive how quickly the young airline set up Bamboo Airways logos at the entrance to the airport:
However, it wouldn’t be until I saw the two large glossy magazines on board that I started to understand just how deep the airline’s pockets must be. The airline started operations three weeks ago and has only six aircraft yet it had a 120-page large and glossy Bamboo Inspiration magazine and an 88-page magazine called FLC Spotlight with “Bamboo Airways” and its new A321neo taking the front cover. Unfortunately, only a couple of articles were in English in either magazine. However, the quality of the photos of Bamboo Airways crew and aircraft clearly demonstrated how well-produced the magazines were.
In Hanoi, the airport seemed to be plastered with Bamboo Airways banners and advertisements. But what truly blew me away is when I visited the lounge — shared by numerous airlines and also available through Priority Pass — and saw the pillows:
Not a Low-Cost Experience
Despite fares starting at US$6 one-way ($24 after taxes and fees), Bamboo Airways certainly doesn’t act like a low-cost airline. At boarding, flight attendants passed through the economy cabin with baskets of individually-wrapped Bamboo-logo wet wipes:
Once in the air for a one-hour flight from Da Nang to Hanoi, the crew passed through the cabin with a cold meal. I’m generally not a picky eater, but one of my strange food preferences is that I can’t stomach a cold sandwich — probably from eating too many soggy ones in flight. I figured I’d try a bite and was pleasantly surprised to find the bread was surprisingly fresh. It was so good that I ended up finishing the entire meat, cucumber and lettuce sandwich.
While I wasn’t able to measure the seat pitch — as my mini tape measure was recently confiscated by airport security in Malaysia — the pitch seemed to be about 30 inches. That’s a little tight by US standards, but it seemed spacious for the Vietnamese passengers. However, it’s noteworthy that this was on one of the wet-leased Freebird Airlines aircraft. The seat pitch may differ on Bamboo’s own aircraft.
And if any passengers were chilly, bright-green blankets were available upon request — as you could see scattered throughout the plane after the flight.
With all of that available in economy, why pay $125+ one-way for business class? Well, because business class is even more over the top. After flying one-way from Da Nang to Hanoi in economy, I booked the return in business class as it was practically the same price as the walk-up economy fare. I charged 3,321,000 Vietnamese đồng (US$143) to my Citi Prestige Card to get 5x ThankYou Points on the purchase.
Although there was a very long line at check in, I was able to bypass it all and check in through the empty business class line. As there’s no loyalty program or other way to get into the business class line, it truly was only reserved for business class.
As the ticket came with lounge access, I figured that I’d just get a lounge pass at check in. However, I didn’t expect the agent to call for backup and then personally walk me to the crew-only security line, see me through security and hand me off to another agent who’d take me the rest of the way to the lounge.
On board, the business class seats on the wet-leased aircraft were a standard recliner seat, stocked with a blanket and a small pillow. Unfortunately, the seats didn’t have power outlets.
But again, it’s the on-board service where the experience really excelled. Before we’d push back, I was given a cold towel, warm mixed nuts and choice of pre-departure beverage of water or orange juice. Everything sported a Bamboo logo.
Once we were in the air for the short one-hour flight time to Da Nang, business class passengers were served a meal, complete with real silverware. The meal consisted of a fresh egg sandwich, two large shrimp, a salad and very fresh fruit. Of course, everything had a Bamboo Airways logo on it.
Not surprisingly for a low-price airline in an emerging economy, there were some very inexperienced passengers on board. During my flight from Da Nang to Hanoi, I went to the back galley to get a shot of the cabin. I noticed a lavatory door was open. As I went to close it, I was surprised to find a man urinating inside it without having closed the door.
The other bathroom was unlocked, but I didn’t dare open it. Sure enough, the toilet flushed and a woman emerged. As she started walking back to her seat, she swung the door closed but didn’t know that she needed to latch it. As I used the restroom, the handle was jiggled multiple times by a passenger (or two).
I went into my Bamboo Airways experience assuming that this would be just like any other low-cost Asian airline, and I wondered if it would make it in the competitive space. At least for now, Bamboo Airways is clearly trying to stand out with low prices while providing a superior experience. The question is if it can end up charging a fare premium for this or if it’ll rely on filling up flights and selling vacation packages to the other FLC Group properties as a way of making a profit.
For now, I can definitely recommend flying Bamboo Airways when flying intra-Vietnam — as long as you’re willing to ticket and check in at the airport. I’ll be fascinated to watch how Bamboo Airways progresses, whether that’s towards a low-cost model, a higher-price model or if it’s able to sustain this superior service for a low price while rapidly expanding.
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