Monday, November 1, 2010

Phnom Penh and Siem Reap get more flights but Sihanoukville remains in limbo

By Luc Citrinot, eTN | Oct 31, 2010

PHNOM PENH (eTN) - Société Concessionnaire des Aéroports (SCA), Cambodia’s private airports operator, looks with satisfaction to the coming winter season. Traffic is recovering according to Nicolas Deviller, CEO of SCA. “Passenger traffic is growing again with a passenger increase of approximately 8 percent in Phom Penh and 26 percent in Siem Reap for the entire year 2010. Phnom Penh should be back to its level of 2008 with some 1.7 million passengers, while Siem Reap should reach again its traffic level of 2007 with some 1.5 million passengers,” explained Mr. Deviller during a press conference.

This winter, some 20 carriers regularly link Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports to the rest of the world. The winter timetable is seeing 16 additional frequencies per week added out of Phnom Penh, while Siem Reap benefits from 18 additional frequencies. Most of the additional frequencies come from Korea, Malaysia, and neighboring countries (Bangkok and Hanoi). On the domestic front, national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air (CAA) will add a daily frequency between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, bringing frequencies to four daily returns.

Phnom Penh’s major event, however, will be the return of Air France by next March with a direct service to Paris (via Bangkok). According to Nicolas Deviller, the return of France’s national carrier after a hiatus of 37 years is a sign of confidence into Cambodia’s potential, as there are few medium-sized airports in Asia which can claim to have an intercontinental flight.

“We must, however, be careful at the robustness of the recovery. It might not be as strong as expected as we still face many restrictions in air capacities such as a lack of aircraft for some airlines or restructuring issues,” added the SCA CEO. A typical example of a negative external factor is the lack of Japanese carriers flying regularly to Cambodia. Japan is Cambodia’s third largest tourism source market with almost 150,000 travelers in 2009. But despite this high number, Japan’s carriers are still not flying directly to the Kingdom.

“Japanese carriers are in a restructuring process and are rather downsizing than expanding their network,” said Mr. Deviller. The SCA CEO still predicts a huge growth in the future from Northeast Asian markets. “The potential is huge out of China, Korea, and Japan. We should also follow the evolution of the demand in India. There is obviously an enormous potential for Cambodia there,” told Mr. Deviller. For 2011, SCA estimates that passenger growth will reach respectively 10 percent in Phnom Penh and 13 percent in Siem Reap.

Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports currently offer a total capacity of 4.5 million passengers a year, a capacity likely to be reached in 2013/2014. “We are now working on a masterplan to upgrade capacities at both airports. After the completion of our airport extension, Phnom Penh will be able to accommodate four million passengers a year and Siem Reap 3.5 million passengers a year,” explained Mr. Deviller. Work should start in early 2012.

Sihanoukville International Airport meanwhile remains an eyesore to SCA management. Upgraded to international standards for US$30 million in 2009, the small airport on the southern coast of Cambodia has been desperately looking to attract airlines since then. Despite both Ministry of Tourism and SCA pleas to integrate Sihanoukville into scheduled airline timetables, the airport has failed so far to attract carriers, including national airline CAA. Most airlines speak of a lack of potential, an explanation that Mr. Deviller rejects: “I am deeply convinced that there is a future for the coastal zone of Cambodia with its wonderful pristine beaches and islands. Studies show, for example, that from 800,000 tourists visiting Siem Reap, 50 percent of them would continue their holiday to a beach destination. However, they prefer to go to neighboring countries, as access to the coast is too time-consuming,” he told.

Sihanoukville welcomes a few charter flights every year, but Mr. Deviller would love to see regularly-scheduled flights from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap or even from Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. “We did our part of the job, as we offer free access to the airport for a new entrant,” he added. Critics are to be heard more often against Cambodia Angkor Air. As the Kingdom’s national carrier, CAA should have the duty to pioneer domestic routes, even if unprofitable. However, the Vietnam Airlines-backed carrier seems to only shape its strategy on pure profitability considerations.

After over a year flying, CAA continues to only fly between Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh City. The airline is due to integrate in 2011 two new Airbus A321 and launch flights to China, Korea, and Japan. But Sihanoukville is still not on the airline’s radar, unless pressures mount up from the highest level of the Cambodian government. Maybe it would be the right time for the government to remember that it owns 51 percent of CAA's shares.

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