Some savvy businessmen in Thailand have started a new airline to tap an unmet demand in the country’s predominantly Muslim southern border provinces: providing direct flights to Saudi Arabia for pilgrims traveling to Mecca and other Islamic holy cities.
Muslims from Thailand’s Deep South who undertake the Hajj pilgrimage – one of Islam’s five pillars – and the minor Umrah pilgrimage usually must fly north and change planes in the Thai capital for onward flights to Saudi Arabia.
But the entrepreneurs behind newborn Fatonee Airlines plan to make it a little easier for southern pilgrims to undertake the life-altering Hajj – and offer them Muslim-friendly halal in-flight services to boot.
“Every year, more and more people from the southern border provinces have to travel to Bangkok to catch flights to attend the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia,” said Jay Khan, one of six executives behind the new venture, which is based in Pattani province with its operational hub located at the airport in neighboring Narathiwat province.
“So I think we should provide them with an opportunity to fly direct from Narathiwat to Jeddah, which is faster and more economical as it is mostly over open ocean,” he told BenarNews. Khan previously worked for British Airways and Saudi Arabian (Saudia) Airlines, and he is a senior vice-president for Bangkok-based Business Air.
There is a constant demand from the region for flights catering to Muslim travelers heading to Saudi Arabia, according to Fatonee Airlines executive Pornchai Pettonkham.
In addition to those going there during the Hajj season, no fewer than 20,000 Thais travel from the Deep South to the kingdom to undertake Umroh pilgrimages, which can take place at any time of the year, he said.
Thailand currently has a Hajj quota set by the Saudi government of 8,000 pilgrims over the three-month Hajj season. There is no such quota for Thai Muslims wanting to travel to the Holy Land for Umroh, he explained.
Missing ingredient: an airplane
Fatonee Airlines officially launched earlier this month, and its first flights to Saudi Arabia are expected to take off in September – in time for this year’s Hajj season.
But the fledgling carrier has no fleet to speak of as of yet.
Parent company Fatonee Airline Systems is trying aggressively to finance the acquisition of its first airplane, and is eying a 290-seat Boeing 767. The company has yet to determine whether it should purchase or lease a plane.
At the airline’s launch in Pattani on May 2, its executives kicked off a campaign to attract investors to the new venture.
They aim to raise 300 million baht (U.S. $8.93 million) in the first six months of the company’s existence. It is issuing shares and requiring investors to buy a minimum of 100 shares, or a total investment valued at 1,000 baht (U.S. $30).
Fatonee also is exploring the possibility of a partnership with Business Air, a company that offers charter flights and has a fleet of 767s. If successful, this would allow Fatonee to bypass the long and complicated process of registering as a new airline with the Thai Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), company Chairman Ismaae Waemustofa said.
The airline plans to begin with flights direct to Jeddah from both Narathiwat and Bangkok. It has been promised four slots per week at King Abdulaziz International Airport near Jeddah, Pornchai said.
The company may eventually operate a Jeddah-Bangkok-Narathiwat-Jakarta route, as well as offer service to Seoul, South Korea.
“With the terms of the ASEAN Economic Community [AEC] soon to go into effect, we will also be very well placed to attract Malaysians wanting to fly to Jeddah from neighboring states, such as Kelantan, rather that travel all the way to Kuala Lumpur,” Pornchai told BenarNews.
Apart from catering to Muslim travelers, the airline has plans to acquire a turboprop plane in order to offer direct flights between the Deep South and the southern Thai island of Phuket. It is now only accessible by air from the Deep South via commercial flights through Bangkok.
The pride of Patani
The idea of starting Fatonee came about through the creation of a regional Muslim Chamber of Commerce a few years ago, said Ismae, the company’s chairman. The chamber’s members are Malay-speaking Muslim businessmen from Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces, as well as some parts of Songkhla province, he said.
“We discussed logistics and several members expressed the need for better air transport options in the region, especially with the terms of the ASEAN Economic Community set to take effect at the end of the year,” Ismae said.
“As you know, the region is 80 percent Muslim, and we believe that Narathiwat International Airport has great, under-utilized potential, not just for Thais but also for people from neighboring states such as Kelantan in Malaysia,” he said.
The airline’s name, Fatonee, is the word that Malay-speaking people use in identifying the region known as the Deep South, an insurgency-stricken region that was formerly as Patani before Thailand annexed it in the early 1900s.
“The name Fatonee Airlines was chosen because this is how our region is known to other Malay-speaking peoples of the ASEAN region, who know it historically as a great center of learning in the past,” he told BenarNews.
“This is a matter of history for us. It is important because there are many Malays in this region who have a [defeatist] attitude. They think ‘it’s impossible’. But if we can make this dream come true, it could serve as a positive turning point for us,” he added.