Malaysian airline Firefly struggles to fill seats on flights to Seletar

Passengers checking in at Firefly counters in Seletar Airport on May 23, 2019.
The Straits Times

Malaysian carrier Firefly, which resumed operations to Singapore on April 21 after services were suspended in December over a bilateral air disagreement, is struggling to fill seats.

The airline, which has moved from Changi to the new Seletar Airport, now operates six flights a day between Subang (near Kuala Lumpur) and Singapore, filling up only about 40 per cent of all its seats.

Before the suspension, an average of 65-70 per cent of seats were filled, said Firefly’s chief executive Philip See.

Speaking to journalists in Singapore on Thursday (May 23), he said the airline is now focused on winning back customers lost during the suspension.

Firefly is also working with Changi Airport Group, travel agents and other industry partners to raise awareness of the new Seletar Airport passenger terminal which opened in October.

“Some still think it’s an old military airport,” Mr See said.

As for the suspension period, he admits it was “quite long”.

“So yes, work is needed to re-engage our customers (who went to other airlines) and say ‘Hey, try us again. You used to love us and actually, the experience now is even better’,” he said.

While flying point-to-point from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Changi Airport can take several hours, a Subang-Seletar trip takes under two hours, said Mr See, adding: “Fundamentally, it’s a great route, especially for business travellers.”

Firefly’s woes started last December when it had to suspend flights to Singapore after failing to obtain approval from its regulator to move from Changi Airport to Seletar, which it had earlier agreed to do.

Malaysia’s civil aviation authority had objected the move, saying that Singapore’s plans to introduce Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures at Seletar would affect developments at the nearby town of Pasir Gudang.

Both countries subsequently took steps to defuse the airspace dispute, agreeing to set up Global Positioning System-based instrument approach procedures, to replace ILS procedures, and paving the way for Firefly to resume services to Singapore. Firefly’s aircraft are still not GPS-ready and currently rely on their pilots’ vision for landing.

Like ILS, GPS-based procedures allow planes to land under the guidance of instrument systems. This means planes can land even in bad weather when visibility is low and pilots cannot see clearly.

The difference is that the ILS receives signals from a ground-based station while GPS signals are received from a satellite.

To be GPS-ready, Firefly will either have to retrofit its fleet of 12 turboprop planes or adopt some other technology.

The main priority now is to stabilise the current route, which should take about three months.

“After that, we can move to the next level of expansion,” he said.

This could include adding more Subang-Singapore services and flying to other points like Ipoh and Kuantan.

Asked if expansion would be tied to the roll-out of the GPS landing procedures, Mr See said that adding a seventh or eighth flight, or a new destination, should not be an issue.

The challenge will come when expansion requires night flights that typically require pilots to rely on landing aids.

Asked if Firefly now regrets its decision to move to Seletar, Mr See said: “It’s tough but do we just give up? I don’t think so. It’s part of the business.”

No decisions have been made, Mr See said.