Chief Commercial Officer of Myanmar Airways International

Tanes Kumar joined Myanmar Airways International (MAI) in January 2019, overseeing the commercial aspects of the turnaround and strategic growth of the carrier, together with its sister airline Air KBZ.

A versatile professional with over a decade of successful track record in strategic planning with major airlines groups in the region, he was also part of the leading teams that oversaw the business expansion and turnaround implementations. His previous experiences include being a member of the Group Business Development for AirAsia Group and as the Head of Distribution & Commercial Strategy for Malindo Air.

Since joining MAI, Tanes has been an integral part of the merger between MAI and Air KBZ to increase synergies as the airlines pursue aggressive market share and ambitious fleet growth.

Please tell us more about MAI’s latest operation to KL International Airport (KUL)?
Currently, MAI operates daily flights between Yangon (RGN) and KUL, focusing on repatriation flights for Myanmar citizens. At the same time, we took the opportunity to make KUL our preferred transit hub during the pandemic, providing much-needed air connectivity to passengers leaving or returning to Myanmar.

We found KUL to be the most transit-friendly hub in the region regarding regulatory terms and transit facilities & amenities. Compared to other Southeast Asian hubs, Malaysia has implemented workable and sensible policies, which allowed MAI to use Malaysia as a key transit hub. Flight connections also played a vital role as KUL is a focus destination, providing a host of options for our transit passengers via our airline partners.

With our daily operation, we are looking to cater to everyone. The RGN-KUL route is primarily for transit passengers, followed by a niche segment of point-to-point passengers, while the KUL-RGN route consists mainly of point-to-point passengers. Some examples include Myanmar patients heading to Malaysia for treatment or expatriates returning to Myanmar to resume work.

We commend Malaysia Airports for this, and I cannot emphasize enough that we are grateful that KUL has allowed us to carry many passengers both ways. Plus, the authorities, the embassies, and our partners from both countries have been highly supportive of us, and it has been tremendous for us in our path to recovery.

What is your vision for the route and what can passengers look forward to?
MAI’s vision for this route goes beyond the current operations due to the suspension of commercial flights by the Myanmar authorities. We are confident that this is the right direction based on the underlying connections between Myanmar and Malaysia. This is proven during pre-pandemic, whereby three carriers operated 3-4 frequencies per day on the RGN-KUL route, indicating the importance of Myanmar to their network.

As a Myanmar carrier flying the nation’s flag, we also want to take this opportunity to position Myanmar as an alternative getaway for Malaysians and others in the region. Coupled with our domestic operations in Myanmar, which covers 18 cities, we can carry passengers via our hub in RGN to the main attractions without hassle. Moreover, we received highly positive feedback from those who have flown with us during the past two years. This is a testimony to the quality of our product offerings and services. By this token, we hope that the travellers in the endemic climate will warm up to our RGN- KUL flights positively.

Once the commercial flights are resumed, we aim to operate daily scheduled flights to KUL, and we have done the necessary groundwork in preparation for such operations. We will position KUL as our preferred transit hub with airline partners. At the same time, we will expand our partnerships further – this applies to both passengers and cargo arrangements.

Can you share your strategy for the outbound traffic from KUL to Yangon?

We do not plan to limit ourselves to a specific traffic type or passenger segment. Instead, we have a broad strategy, primarily due to current curtailed travel demand and, subsequently, the travel restrictions in place.

We aim to appeal to every traffic type and passenger segment, whether passengers intend to travel point-to-point or find flight connections to/from their origin/destination via KUL. Our focus will be primarily on business and visiting family & relatives (VFR) segments, as many travellers were unable to travel during the border closures for work or connect with their family back home. However, at the same time, we will strive to serve other segments, including niche ones such as seafarers, students, and medical travellers.

We believe in our strategy as we have a versatile product that appeals to travellers. Hence, we can offer valuable offerings at competitive price points, considering the totality of current travel costs for the passengers in the pandemic situation.

How does MAI plan to adapt to the current post-pandemic climate?
This is a great question, and I believe the most significant hurdle airlines face today is to assert confidence in air travel again for passengers and authorities. Internally, we have taken the vaccination drive seriously for our airline staff from an operational standpoint. As a result, today, 98% of our frontliners are vaccinated.

Meanwhile, we have also emphasized healthcare and insurance offerings for our passengers, given the relevance to the pandemic. MAI was the first and only carrier in Myanmar to kickstart a healthcare initiative focused on partnerships with prominent hospitals and insurers in Malaysia and Myanmar, significantly benefiting our passengers. We have enabled RT-PCR test bookings via our direct channels, and soon, travel insurance products will also be made available.

Also, since mid-2021, we embarked on expanding our Sky Smile Loyalty Program & Sky Deals Partnership Program to bring together affected partners due to the pandemic, primarily from the service industry. Currently, we work with more than 60 partners, including hotels, food & beverage outlets, and lifestyle brands.

In a nutshell, we have taken holistic efforts to prepare for the endemic climate, adding exceptional benefits to our passengers and partners alike while readying our workforce for the current operating environment.

Please share your view on cargo operation for MAI and its future potential.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, cargo has been the backbone of our operations, contributing approximately half of our revenue. Just as a context, before the pandemic, cargo operations contributed only 3-4% of our revenue profile. We have achieved the current numbers by operating dedicated cargo charters and carriage of airfreight on our passenger flights. It is noteworthy that MAI was the first carrier
in Myanmar to explore this strategy and worked closely with the authorities regarding the operating procedures.

Since the suspension of commercial flights in March 2020, we have operated more than 1,300 cargo flights to China, Thailand, India, Vietnam, and the rest of the region. We have performed these flights by building significant relationships with the air cargo community to undertake dedicated cargo flights. We are proud that these cargo flights provided vital air links for the country’s trade.

Moving forward, we believe the opportunities for air cargo are tremendous for MAI and will continue to be instrumental to our recovery for at least the next 24-36 months. We are currently evaluating our options, including the potential of pure freighter operations, or converting suitable aircraft from our existing fleet to expand our cargo operations.

What is your outlook for the Southeast Asian airline industry in 2022? How can MAI be one of the leaders in the industry recovery?
I see another challenging year, at least for the first half of 2022. The actual turnaround hinges heavily on the travel restrictions adopted by the various countries in the region as the world grapples with new Covid-19 strains. The Achilles heel is the individual government policies in the region differ from country to country, which makes it a lot more complicated for airlines and travellers.

Nevertheless, despite our airline’s cautious outlook for the year, there are a few positives that we will focus on: selected operations to international hubs, domestic flights within Myanmar, and cargo operations, which we have touched on in- depth.

We will continue our flights to KUL, Seoul- Incheon (ICN), Bangkok (BKK), Dubai- International (DXB), and Guangzhou (CAN). Our carefully selected international flight operations ensure that we can operate sustainably and consistently, providing much-needed flight options in tandem with our airline partners. Eventually, we will aim to increase our frequency when it makes commercial and operational sense. For the domestic market, because of the pent-up travel demand and border closures, travellers are happy to go anywhere for some time off these days, essentially driving the domestic travel demand. As a result, we noticed a substantial domestic upside to tourist destinations such as Thandwe, Heho, and Nyaung-U.

Besides the industry positives, we have confidence in an important aspect – our people. We believe we have built a very resilient team to face the challenges we have weathered during the past two years.

On a personal note, what has it been like working overseas in this tough and challenging industry?
Personally, it has been a very challenging period for me, which I would call a ‘baptism by fire’, as this has been the worst period for the aviation industry, which I believe many of my peers would concur with.

Still, despite the challenges and unprecedented situation, I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved when I look back on the past 24 months. We have been the only carrier to operate continuously since the suspension of commercial flights in Myanmar in March 2020, maintaining essential domestic services to flying long- hauls to new places.

All-in-all, I see this as an accelerated learning curve with a resilient attitude and sheer passion. I have also learnt to appreciate travel, freedom, and health. I am glad that my loved ones and team members are safe and healthy during this pandemic and hope things will resume normalcy in 2022.

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