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If three is a crowd, what do you call a feisty foursome?

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaGreater Bay Airlines, Hong Kong’s latest carrier-in-waiting, wants to service Singapore, Bangkok and Phuket for starters. Can its plans fly?

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Greater Bay Airlines cabin crew

Greater Bay Airlines crew pose in their signature turquoise - the new airline hopes to start flying from Hong Kong mid-2022, putting the squeeze on the three currently operating carriers.

THERE has been a torrent of press comment from the latest Hong Kong airline wannabe, Greater Bay Airlines. Its enthusiasm is both startling – with revenues plummeting in a pandemic – and understandable. Greater Bay is the new mantra for the envisaged economic powerhouse incorporating Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau. For GBA it is a clever, if unsubtle, capitalisation on the name. Airlines have rarely opted for the romantic. If you can get away with Southwest or Northwest, it could be argued Greater Bay Airlines is as apt a moniker as any.

Its logo is stridently plain. There are no sarus cranes or feathers or yin and yang symbols, just the white letters GBA set against a turquoise background. The uniforms are smart and functional, treading on Bangkok Airways turf. There is no Landor sophistication in concept and design as in Garuda’s elegant wings, or Etihad’s geometric desert colours.

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It is clear this will be a straight-talking, prosaically practical Chinese airline focused on revenues, something its founder Bill Wong, a colourful Hong Kong land developer and the owner of Shenzhen-based Donghai Airlines, has experience in. Mr Wong attainted some notoriety over the renting of a three-storey penthouse in Shenzhen – owned by his East Pacific Group – to former Chief Executive Donald Tsang at a time when he was negotiating for a digital broadcasting license in the territory. Tsang served 12 months in jail for ‘misconduct’.

Why fork out on expensive branding? BBC paid a whopping US$1.8m in 1977 for a new logo (its initials in white set in separate black boxes as plain as Auntie herself). ANZ Bank coughed up US$15m in 2010 and British Petroleum an astounding $210m in 2000.

{As and when China opens up to Hong Kong, it will be a bunfight as all four carriers compete for a nibble on some hugely shrunk cake...

In the summer of 2020 and well before Cathay Dragon was retired, Mr Wong announced his intention to launch a new Hong Kong flag carrier. He arrived with a war chest of HK$2bn and targeted the summer of 2021 for launch with three B737-800 aircraft.

Greater Bay Airlines Director Stanley Hui announced the hiring of staff in the second quarter of 2021. His vision was for the fledgling carrier to service Beijing, Shanghai and provincial capitals on the mainland along with regional destinations. Cathay Dragon’s closure gave GBA just the entry it was seeking with landing slots suddenly opening up in China and across Asia and a flood of out-of-work cabin staff and pilots to pick from (both GBA CEO Algernon Yau and Stanley Hui are from Cathay Dragon).

GBA continued to talk up a storm but a hugely symbolic flight to Beijing on 1 Oct 2021, National Day, failed to materialise as a license had not been secured. Various launch dates were rolled back. On 21 February 2022 the airline finally secured its license to operate scheduled services between Hong Kong and 104 destinations from the Air Transport Licensing Authority.

Greater Bay Airlines now hopes to begin flying by mid-2022 from Hong Kong to Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi Airport), Phuket, and Singapore. By 2026, Wong hopes to have 30 aircraft (all B737-800s) in the fleet.

Each aircraft will seat about 170 with a small business class section for up to eight. In the manner of no-frill airlines, there will be no seatback monitors to kill time and passengers will be encouraged to use an app to pre-order food and alcohol.

As a self-described ‘value’ carrier, GBA will compete in the mid-market with low-cost carrier HK Express and the beleaguered Hong Kong Airlines, which has cut routes, inflight entertainment, and jobs. As a full-service legacy carrier Cathay Pacific will continue to offer its premium service while coping with revenue haemorrhaging Covid protocols and quarantines that have whittled passenger traffic forecasts to just 2% of pre-pandemic levels through 2022.

Will the new kid on the block survive? Stephen Miller, the flamboyant launch CEO of Dragonair (which was was later folded into the CX brand) tried and failed with a brilliant low cost long-haul attempt. His Oasis Hong Kong Airlines – flying from Hong Kong to London and Vancouver – folded in 2008 having racked up over US$1bn in debt. Oasis did have seatback video screens, hot meals, and a 32-inch economy class seat pitch on its B747-400s that equalled or exceeded the legroom offered by Cathay Pacific, Air Canada and British Airways.

There are three factors working in GBA’s favour. As a new airline it has no carryover debt or other baggage in the form of hedged fuel bets, carry-over staff and pensions. Launching on the cusp of a post-Covid travel revival it can cautiously ramp up costs as revenues climb. And Wong’s close ties to the mainland are considered a possible advantage in securing China slots and timings.

Hong Kong operates some of the busiest passenger routes in the world and there is enormous pent-up demand. Yet the city must wait for the Great Hong Kong Covid Firewall to come down. In the event the territory opens up to China, as it is keen to do, travel will surge to and from the mainland. It will be a bunfight as all four carriers compete for a nibble on some hugely shrunk cake.

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