VALE AP © Duncan Graham 2005
Dreams die at daybreak. And that’s how it was for thousands of Australians this week who woke to find their Bali holiday plans shattered by the downing of Indonesian airline Air Paradise.
Apart from the personal anguish of lost money and jobs, and the hassle of having to make new plans, in the great scheme of things there’s nothing extraordinary about the story.
Businesses collapse every day because they misjudge the market and skid off the profit runway. From mini-marts to multinationals all are subject to the raw law of the corporate jungle: Earn less than you spend - and die.
Airlines wrap themselves in the gloss of exotic locations and pretty hosties, but in the end they are just common carriers as the insurance policies say. Bemo or Boeing, you jump on, sit down, bounce about a bit, then climb off at another location. If one stops operating you find another.
So why get weepy over the demise of yet another little airline?
Even to the most varicose-veined traveller Air Paradise did offer something a mite different. It understood the mindset of Aussie holidaymakers in a way never appreciated by Garuda.
Of course AP’s significantly lower fares put travellers in a good frame of mind from the start. This was a holiday airline that flew only to Bali. Ngurah Rai wasn’t just a refuelling stopover on the way to somewhere else, but the destination.
As the company slogan said, Bali is our home - and it resonated. Cabin crew on every airline wish you a pleasant flight but their lips are usually on autopilot. Seldom with AP staff, maybe because they got to sleep in their own beds most nights.
With AP your fellow passengers weren’t going on to London or New York and determined to be grumpy all the way. They were people like you keen to swap yarns about shops with the best bargains and restaurants with the coldest beer. So flying was fun, and the kilometres clicked away in no time.
AP flights from Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane took off in the morning when travellers were fresh. It also meant most passengers were in Kuta or Ubud with enough daylight hours to settle in and look around.
The shortest journey was from Perth and took only 3 hours 20 minutes, much less than a flight to Australia’s east coast capitals.
No wonder Bali has been Western Australian’s most popular holiday spot, and AP the favoured transport. At one stage the airline, which promoted itself as family-friendly, was bringing in 20,000 dads mums and kids every month from Down Under.
The other factor in AP’s favour was its underdog status that appealed to the Aussie sense of determination – a boisterous youngster taking on the old blokes of Garuda and Qantas and doing it in style.
In this case the upstart was Bali entrepreneur Kadek Wiranatha whose capacity for generating business has been tainted by the curse of misfortune.
The airline was due to launch in 2002, but take off was postponed till February 2003 following the first Bali bombing. Then came the SARS scare that hit the payloads of carriers world wide.
The second Bali bomb did even more damage to bookings.
The Australian government’s persistent travel warnings also did nothing to encourage holidaymakers to add Indonesia to their itineraries. Better try peaceful Malaysia where Australians get a free three-month visa on arrival.
But AP kept aloft and invited home-going passengers to contribute their loose change to a charity Wiranatha had established. This was not to help his ailing airline but to assist orphans and other victims of terrorism. Few knew the boss, but he seemed like a decent, can-do sort of bloke.
When the doomsayers said Bali had been blasted off the world’s tourist map, the sight of AP’s four Airbusses waggling their yellow tails on the aprons of Australia’s airports gave travellers new heart.
If a feisty young Indonesian airline was still in business despite all the problems, then it deserved a fair go. And Aussies were starting to squash their bottoms into cattle-class seats and tackling ayam goreng with plastic cutlery when the bombs went off again.
Hard-nosed business analysts exercising hindsight say the airline was vulnerable because it relied on one market. But in fact AP was already planning to expand beyond Australia and bring visitors into Bali from Shanghai, Seoul, Osaka and Tokyo.
Most Aussie travellers will recover and fly again, probably with Qantas which has boosted its profile by promising to honour about 1,500 AP tickets issued before 23 November.
But will Bali tourism survive? It’s become an article of faith for travel writers and hotel hustlers to put on a brave face and say the island will bounce back.
All except fundamentalist terrorists pray their optimism will win out, but the question is when.
Robert Murdoch, the Australian head of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told ABC Radio that Bali hotels were operating at below break-even levels and many would go bankrupt.
Aussie holidaymakers whinge about ruined holidays, but the Balinese have more serious concerns. AP’s collapse will have a knock on effect throughout the nation.
It’s not just the 350 airline workers who face a bleak future; think of the hotel staff, the bus drivers, the handicraft makers, the shop workers … Then there’s the impact on the Indonesian economy, already reeling with 18 per cent inflation and millions unemployed.
Bali needs everyone’s support, not because of maudlin sentiment and to boost business, but to preserve a decent society. The grounding of AP must not be seen as a triumph for terrorism.
(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 26 November 05)