Nok Air set to discontinue direct flights to, from Betong
Nok Air has decided not to continue direct flights to and from Betong International Airport in Yala after its Flying Betong Direct project ends this month.
The airline’s chief commercial officer, Teerapol Chotichanapibal, said the project of flying directly to and from Betong would not be continued under a third phase once the second comes to a close.
Teerapol said Nok Air had cooperated with tour companies by selling packages for direct flights to and from Betong during the two phases – from April 29 to July 29 and from July 31 to October 28.
The airline is using its 86-seater Q400 Next Gen planes for three flights per week to the southern city.
“Nok Air will not continue the services in the next phase because we will have to use the planes on other routes, where there are more passengers under winter flight schedules, such as the Bangkok-Mae Hong Son and Bangkok-Mae Sot routes,” Teerapol explained.
He said Nok Air has also noticed that Thais now prefer making foreign trips to Japan and Singapore than visiting Betong.
“We will have to wait for Thais to get over the excitement of a renewed chance to visit these foreign destinations before we consider whether to resume direct flights to Betong,” Teerapol made it clear.
But he said it was “not a waste” for Nok Air to carry out direct flights to Betong.
“We will simply have to wait for the right time after Thai tourists are no longer excited about foreign destinations. They have been longing to make foreign trips once the Covid-19 pandemic eased. After that, we may reconsider direct flights to Betong again,” Teerapol said.
Nok Air’s partners, who have been selling tour packages to Betong, understand the current situation well, he said.
The tour companies could not sell foreign trip packages earlier because of Covid travel restrictions, so they adapted to selling Betong tour packages, which became a “unique product” as many Thais had never visited that city.
Teerapol said the first phase of the project was a success because many Thai tourists sought to visit Betong for the first time, but the number of passengers dropped during the second phase.
“And now, international destinations have reopened, so these tour companies have begun selling foreign packages again,” Teerapol pointed out.
Betong mayor Sakul Lenglukkul said that during the Covid restrictions, foreign tourists could not return to Betong so the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) teamed up with Nok Air to promote the city. In the past, tourists from Malaysia and Singapore made up 70 to 80 per cent of tourists visiting Betong, he said.
During the first phase, TAT subsidised 1,000 baht of the air ticket to Betong, so it proved a success, Sakul said.
He blames “expensive” air fares as the main obstacle to promote Betong as a tourist destination.
He said the fare of 6,000 baht per trip to Betong was high compared to airfares for foreign destinations. For example, the flight from Bangkok to Penang in Malaysia is just 3,000 baht per trip, Sakul said.
Moreover, he said, Thai tourists can also fly to Hat Yai International Airport for 1,000 baht and travel by road to Betong, so tour operators have turned to promoting packages to Hat Yai and linking it to Betong.
“If the airfare is reduced to 3,000-4,000 baht per trip, Betong airport will not be deserted as you see in the current situation. The flight from Bangkok to Mae Hong Son by Nok Air is also cheaper than flights to Betong – at 3,500 baht per trip,” Sakul bemoaned.
He called on the government to expand the airport runway to accommodate larger planes, such as the Airbus A320, so that there are more passenger seats available per flight and airfares go down.
Betong Tourism Association vice president Narin Ruangwongsa said it would take seven years to expand the current runway from 1,800 metres to 2,500 metres, and 1.8 billion baht would be needed for the purpose.
As a result, he said, the runway expansion may have to wait for approval from a new government after the general election expected next year.
He said if the runway is extended, the airport will have the capacity for direct flights from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, as well as other markets such as western and Middle-East nations.
“The utilisation of the airport could be better optimised so that Betong will not have to wait for tourists coming through Hat Yai,” Narin said.
“[Without a longer runway] we’ll lose a chance to upgrade the status of our town, although we have the Aiyerweng Skywalk for tourists to enjoy a sea of mist.”
According to Narin, Betong has 2,000 registered hotel rooms and another 2,000 non-registered rooms.
“With the country reopening in July, the room occupancy rate in Betong has averaged about 70 per cent. Most tourists who arrive on weekdays are Thai, and most on weekends are Malaysian,” Narin added.