Indonesia's largest airline, the Lion Air Group, is preparing to use its eastern regional hub in Manado, North Sulawesi, as a springboard to reach destinations in East Asia.
'We are aiming to open a route to Canton [Guangzhou] this year using Batik Air,' Lion Air president director Rusdi Kirana told reporters on Friday evening after the launch of the Simas Lion Air Ticket debit card at the Lion Hotel and Plaza.
'After Canton, we will serve other destinations such as Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo.'
He said he expected Batik's service to Guangzhou to begin in the third or fourth quarter this year.
Batik will also fly from Jakarta to Ambon, Balikpapan and Pekanbaru.
Rusdi added that Manado would be linked with other cities, including Denpasar and Balikpapan, to allow smoother connections to and from East Asian destinations.
'These connections will allow investors and tourists from East Asia to visit eastern areas in Indonesia more easily,' Rusdi said.
Currently, he said, visitors had to transit in Jakarta if they wanted to visit Maluku or Papua.
'With our Manado hub, they will no longer have to backtrack via Jakarta,' Rusdi said.
Another advantage of Manado being the hub to East Asia, he added, was that the airline could avoid using and paying for air charts, as most of the routes were over the sea.
'The distance to those destinations from Manado is the same as it is from Jakarta via Singapore,' Rusdi said.
He added that Lion would also be opening schools in Manado to train pilots, flight attendants and mechanics, as well as constructing a hangar at Sam Ratulangi International Airport to strengthen the eastern hub.
Lion's western hub is being set up at Hang Nadim International Airport in Batam, Riau Islands.
In addition to its aviation-related businesses, the 180 room, four-star, beach-front Lion Hotel and Plaza has also opened and is accepting guests, despite the fact that not all facilities have been completed.
'We will also be building a five-star hotel on 2 hectares of land worth US$30 million,' Rusdi said.
He further revealed that Lion planned to operate a cruise ship to carry passengers to dive sites, such as Bunaken, just 45 minutes from the planned hotel, and Raja Ampat in West Papua.
Coordinating Economic Minister Hatta Rajasa said Manado was a strategic place as it lay on a line connecting the Pacific Ocean in the north and Australia in the south.
'Manado is one of the key meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions ( MICE ) centers in Indonesia and has tremendous potential for development,' he said in his address at the debit card's launch.
'This will help improve connectivity both at home and at the regional level and, hopefully, also the global level.'
That is why, Hatta added, the government had agreed to extend the runway at Manado's Sam Ratulangi airport from 2,600 meters to 3,000 meters to allow for larger aircraft.
Hatta, who was in Manado for a meeting to discuss the government's Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia's Economic Growth ( MP3EI ), added that Manado had the potential for tourism on a par with Bali.
Earlier in the day, Batik Air launched its first revenue flight, serving Jakarta-Manado three times a week on a Boeing 737-900 ER.
The full-service airline is Lion Air Group's third airline after its no-frill Lion Air and regional Wings Air.
Batik Air president director Capt. Achmad Luthfie said 151 passengers took the maiden flight and he expected a load factor of around 90 percent for the route.
He said the airline had carried out promotions, such as placing ads on various media outlets as well as holding talk shows.
Luthfie added that Batik Air provided roomier 32-inch legroom compared to Lion Air's 30-inch seat pitch as well as onboard meals and an in-flight entertainment system.
'We also plan to provide WiFi connections pending approval from regulators,' he said after arriving at the Manado airport.
Flag carrier Garuda Indonesia has also announced similar plans.
With only two full-service airlines currently flying, Luthfie said Batik Air would not steal passengers from Garuda as ample opportunities existed in the market.
'We are not taking passengers away from Garuda as we are relying more on Lion Air passengers who, with greater purchasing power, want better services,' he said.
Lion Air's director of general affairs, Eduard Sirait, said Batik Air aimed to achieve 90 percent on-time performance ( OTP ). 'But we will still be very pleased if we can get 85 to 87 percent OTP,' he said.
When asked about the possibility of opening routes to Australian destinations, Edward said several things needed to be settled first.
'We have to consider the air service agreements between both countries, and whether Batik Air can be named as a designated carrier for those routes,' he said.