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Friday September 30, 2011

Community airline begins silent cancellation, leaving passengers and tour operators fuming

KUCHING: Firefly, Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) community airline, has apparently begun cancelling some of its flights to and from Sarawak since yesterday.

This is ahead of Firefly’s rumoured pullout from the state by end of October.

The Star learnt that at least one Kuching-Kuala Lumpur flight was cancelled late last night, with passengers put onboard a MAS flight instead. The unannounced move has left more than a few ticket holders unhappy.

“My Kuching-KL flight yesterday evening was cancelled after I booked it online just a few days earlier,” said Ng CH in an e-mail.

“I read in newspapers about the possible cancellations. When I checked (with Firefly), I was informed my flight had indeed been cancelled. They transferred me to a MAS flight, which was departing at about the same time.”

A senior MAS official confirmed that Firefly flights involving Sarawak without enough passengers, “to break even financially”, were being cancelled.

“The standard operation procedure is like this: When a last minute cancellation occurs because of too few passengers, then, preferably, affected ticket holders will be placed on the next Firefly flight. But when the (departure) time is too far apart, a FIM will be issued,” he explained.

FIM is an aviation terminology for “Flight Interruption Manifest”. It is normal for airlines to issue FIMs, especially among affordable airlines.

“Once the FIM is issued, passengers can be put onboard MAS,” the official added.

The Star was unable to determine how many of Firefly’s Kuching-KL-Kuching flights have been cancelled, or how many will be cancelled in the coming weeks.

Of the four Kuching-KL flights listed on Firefly’s website for today, only two evening flights are priced and with tickets bookable online.

For tomorrow, Firefly has three Kuching-KL flights on sale. For Sunday, five are on sale; but for Monday, there are only three flights again. Efforts to contact Firefly for comments on its scheduling were unsuccessful. Talk of Firefly being downsized surfaced after the MAS-AirAsia share swap deal was announced in August.

During Firefly’s peak around mid-year, the airline was flying multiple daily flights between Kuching-KL, Kuching-Johor and Sibu-KL. It had a reported load factor of 70%.

But Firefly is now all but certain to cease flights from Sarawak and Sabah to Peninsular Malaysia by the end of October. On Malaysia Day on Sept 16, the Kuching-Johor sector became the first Firefly route to be axed.

According to the MAS official, it was very likely all three Firefly routes involving Sarawak would be terminated by Oct 31.

He said this had “more or less been confirmed internally (with MAS and its subsidiaries)”, pending an official public announcement.

The public and travel agents have reacted unfavourably to the developments. Travel agents were unhappy about Firefly’s “silent cancellations”.

Although Firefly tickets are still available for purchase, tour agents have by and large stopped putting customers on board those flights.

Sarawak Tourism Federation (STF) Sibu chairman Frankie Ting said his customers had been advised to only purchase AirAsia tickets.

“There’s only two Sibu-KL options: There’s Firefly, which we are not buying anymore, and then there’s AirAsia.

“So what choice do we have (but AirAsia)?” Ting said.

Ting felt that any possible cancellation had to be announced earlier.

“Since there is no MAS Sibu-KL flight, then we can only buy AirAsia tickets.

“But as you know, the later you buy an AirAsia ticket, the more expensive it is. My customers with Firefly tickets wanted cheap airfares in the first place.”

A tour agent in Miri, Albert Sim, who is also a member of STF, said: “In a way, I think Miri people are lucky Firefly never flew to us. What a hassle they’ve caused.

“Why have they not issued any statements or at least an explanation to travel agents? As a result, there’s so much inconvenience and misunderstanding.”

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