From Zero To Hero: The Incredible Rise Of Bamboo Airways

Vietnam is one of the world’s hottest aviation markets, with Bamboo Airways expecting at least 50 aircraft by the end of 2021 – less than three years after it started. Is it biting off more than it can chew?

Bamboo Airways B787
Bamboo Airways’ B787-9s are being used domestically ahead of international expansion. Photo: Bamboo Airways.

Vietnam is one of the hottest aviation markets anywhere in the world. The country’s domestic market more than trebled in the past decade, with 35 million (!) seats added. It expects just over 50 million domestic seats this year, up by 13% over pre-coronavirus 2019.

Vietnam Airlines is the country’s top domestic airline, followed by VietJet and Bamboo Airways. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Bamboo Airways is much older than two, but it’s not.

Like the country itself, Bamboo Airways has grown exceptionally quickly from its January 2019 start, with nearly 7.5 million domestic seats this year for a 15% share of the market, analysis of OAG data shows.

Vietnam's domestic market
Another new airline, Vietravel Airlines, began domestic flights this year, pushing Vietnam’s domestic market past 50 million seats this year. Note: the data excludes Pacific Airlines, which was rebranded from Jetstar Pacific. Source: OAG.

Domestic currently key for Bamboo Airways

Bamboo Airways’ growth (which does not refer to profitability) was somewhat helped by coronavirus. As the carrier’s CEO, Dang Tat Thang, said:

“The first success of Bamboo entailed its leadership promptly making appropriate decisions from the beginning of the year, such as stopping international flights even before being requested by the government and an early focus on domestic resources.”

This doesn’t mean that international markets are not key to Bamboo Airways’ future – they are. Indeed, Vietnam’s total international scene saw 49 million seats in 2019, up by nearly 32 million in a decade.

Bamboo Airways has already operated internationally, with its top route, before the pandemic, being Da Nang-Seoul Incheon, a huge leisure market with 11 airlines. But it’s on the domestic front that Bamboo Airways is focusing on while planning to resume and to grow internationally:

“We are focusing on the domestic market, but have never stopped preparing resources for international flights. Non-stop flights to South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are set to commence as early as the second quarter of 2021, if allowed by the government.”

Bamboo Airways A320
The A321 is the second-most-used aircraft in Bamboo Airways’ fleet. Photo: Melv_L – MACASR via Wikimedia.

B787s to Embraers for domestic flights

Bamboo Airways now has 29 aircraft comprising A319s, A320ceos, A320neos, A321ceos, A321neos, B787-9s, and Embraer 190/195s – all after 26 months. And its CEO expects “at least” 50 by the end of 2021. There is some commonality between the Airbus aircraft and, of course, it has the ability to right-size capacity with demand.

But it’s crucially important that Bamboo Airways does not overstretch itself with all the potential problems that could result in. Growing so quickly and trying to do so many different things all at the same time can be deadly.

Bamboo Airways has a network of 57 domestic routes this year, with the A320 by far its top aircraft by scheduled capacity, followed by the A321, Embraers, B787 (clearly sub-optimally), and A319. Yet, Vietnam is for now really all about core routes, which is why Bamboo Airways’ top-10 routes have nearly four million seats and over half (53%) of its total.

Bamboo Airways' domestic routes.
Bamboo Airways has 57 domestic routes this year with an average distance of just 447 miles. Image: OAG

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B787s on two routes, Embraers on 26

Bamboo Airways uses its B787-9s between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to the island of Phu Quoc, some 769 miles away. That’s nearly as long as a route gets in Vietnam, with the country’s geography brilliant for multiple sectors a day. That one reason why it’s so attractive to low-cost carriers, with which Bamboo Airways competes.

Its Embraers, meanwhile, are used on 26 routes, with Hanoi-Con Dao, Hai Phong-Con Dao, Can Tho-Con Dao, Da Nang-Con Dao, and Phu Quoc-Can Tho top. The island of Con Dao, some 143 miles south of Ho Chi Minh, has a runway of just over 6,000 feet.

Bamboo Airways Embraers
Bamboo Airways’ Embraers are partly to serve the island of Con Dao. Photo: Bamboo Airways

Big international ambition

Bamboo Airways has always been clear on its desire to serve the US along with Melbourne, Munich, Prague, and more, on a scheduled basis, and this hasn’t changed:

“Preparations for flights to Australia and China, Germany, the Czech Republic, America, and so on are also underway. As you can see, in 2020, a big aim for Bamboo was to be licensed to transport passengers and goods to and from the US.”

That ambition hasn’t yet been met with reality. But make no mistake: the markets are often large. Nearly a million people flew between Vietnam and the US in 2019, with Ho Chi Minh-Los Angeles top with nearly 200,000 point-to-point passengers. Almost half-a-million traveled between Vietnam and Germany, while Melbourne-Hanoi alone saw 74,000. And they’re pretty fast-growing, too.

Bamboo Airways B787
Bamboo Airways has so far scheduled its B787s on two domestic routes this year. Photo: Bamboo Airways

Big markets, but…

The issue isn’t size, but often fares and long distances, most particularly to the US. Bamboo Airways should avoid routes that may look ‘attractive’, and instead focus purely on those with strong potential. Perhaps less sexy, but hopefully far more sustainable.

As its CEO said:

“During the pandemic, increasing flight routes proved to be the right decision. When the market recovers, we will already have a well-rounded system to serve the needs of our customers.”