As national airline Cambodia Angkor Air announced plans to expand its services throughout the region, travel agents and associations this week criticized the airline for high ticket prices, poor service and for not flying to Sihanoukville .
Several travel agents said the airline, which offers the only available flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap City, is prohibitively expensive and that it is giving itself a bad name by how it handles cancellations, and has not fulfilled its responsibility to develop the country’s growing tourism sector.
“If there is not improvement, it will be worse. It could hurt tour-ism,” said Ho Vandy, co-chair of a working group on tourism policy. “We would like Angkor Air to run with quality and very good service and not too much frustration for tourists.”
This week, on the back of a 17 percent increase in air travelers to Cambodia in 2010, the national carrier announced at the Asean Tourism Forum in Phnom Penh that it planned to add two Airbus A321s to its fleet of two ATR-72s and one Airbus A321, and is considering flights to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Japan, China and South Korea this year.
The carrier, which claims to have served 329,000 passengers last year, already flies to Ho Chi Minh City. Officials also floated Sihanoukville, considered to be a key part of Cambodia’s tourism strategy, as a possibility.
Mr Vandy welcomed the expansion of the airline but said Angkor Air still needed to address several ongoing problems, though there have been some improvements with in-flight service.
The complaints about prices, he said, have been a frequent topic at government-private sector working group meetings over the past several months. The airline, which is 51 percent owned and controlled by Vietnam Airlines, has been unwilling so far to change its business plan since it began operating in July 2009, travel agents said.
Mr Vandy said prices began to spike when Bangkok Airways stopped making flights to Siem Reap in 2009 after its permit expired and Cambodia Angkor Air did not have a competitor.
“Angkor Air is pushing up the price, and we don’t want to see this in the market,” he said. “We are promoting the destination, and airline would like only to push up the price.”
In July 2009, a one-way flight on Angkor Air cost $53, tax and other charges included, while the cheapest flight with Bangkok Airways cost $40. Now an Angkor Air flight between the two cities costs $73, according to the Vietnam Airlines website.
He said the possibility of two new domestic airlines could lower prices and improve service. Two airlines, Tonle Sap Airlines and Skywings Asia Airlines, are slated to be approved by the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation this year, but it’s unclear when they could launch.
As for Angkor Air, it is not possible to compare their current price for flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap with a competitor, as there is none.
Travel agents say prices vary due to discounts, travel days and flight times, but that round-trip flights between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh can be as expensive or more than round-trip flights between Phnom Penh and Bangkok, which is twice the distance, and fuel costs.
Tour Cina, owner of Cina Travel, said she could sell round-trip tickets between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh for $173 on average, but flights to Bangkok cost only $167—taxes and fees included.
“It’s very expensive…. We want something fair and balanced for the agents, the passengers and airlines,” she said. “Many tourists say, ‘The flight is short, why does it cost so much?'”
According to Angkor Air’s website, round-trip flights cost $224, while Air Asia’s website lists flights between Phnom Penh and Bangkok as costing as low as $169. An Angkor Air representative said yesterday that the website was incorrect and round-trip prices were lower but could not say by how much.
And while Mr Vandy held out hope that the expansion could improve the airline, others were more skeptical.
Olivier Marchesin, general manager of Exotissimo Travel in Phnom Penh, said the national carrier needed to take more responsibility for developing tourism.
“They are not really helping, and they are doing the minimum that they could do, because in terms of service it is the minimum. The price is expensive, I don’t really see that they try to develop the routes,” he said.
He said the airline also canceled flights without informing customers, upending their plans. Passengers sometimes find out only after they arrive at the airport.
“The service is not good. They cancel the flights with notifying anybody, they then put someone on another flight without asking if you are OK or not,” he said.
Mr Marchesin expressed skepticism about whether the airline would buy the new planes and extend flights to the coast.
“I will wait to see, and then I will believe,” he said.
With visits to the beach considered a must for tourism markets regionally, tourism experts say a lack of flights to Preah Sihanouk is holding back a pillar of economic development.
Lim Mao, vice CEO of Angkor Air, defended the company and said Sihanoukville flights were a possibility this year as much as any of several recently announced possible destinations.
“Sihanoukville is also the same possibility. It is possible to have this year,” he said, adding that a lack of demand had kept the airline from extending flights there.
He said that cancellations were rare and that service issues were the exception and not the rule, while prices were determined by market research, which included factors like type of aircraft and fuel costs.
“I do not know if they are more expensive or not. The prices are fair,” he said, adding that competition would not make a difference.
“We don’t care about the other airlines, we do on our own. We promote our airline as a professional airline,” he said.
Win Zaw, general manager of Asia Expedition, said coastal flights would make Cambodia a single destination, allowing people to see Angkor Wat and the beaches of Preah Sihanouk province all in one holiday.
“If we have direct flights, there will be a combination of leisure and culture. It would make Cambodia a perfect destination, but most of the people are going to Vietnam and Thai beaches,” he said.