The Southeast Asia region is emerging as a hotly contested commodity among air carriers, big or small. Attracted by the success of budget airlines in the region, full-service carriers are hoping to cash in by expanding flights there as well. A wide range of destinations has made Southeast Asia a favorite vacation spot, and the region's economic potential has also drawn more fliers in recent years.
◆ Korean Carriers
Korean Air launched regular flights from Incheon to the Maldives -- a first for a domestic carrier -- and Colombo, Sri Lanka, last Saturday. The airline previously launched flights to Da Nang, Vietnam, in January 2012 and Rangoon, Burma, in September.
"We are looking to Southeast Asia in order to secure a new growth engine," a Korean Air spokesman said.
Asiana Airlines will launch regular flights to the largest Burmese city of Rangoon starting at the end of this month.
Demand for flights to the resource-rich country is expected to keep rising as businesses around the world are trying to make inroads in its market amid moves to reform and open up the country. It is already a popular travel destination for its Buddhist temples.
Asiana also plans to operate flights from Incheon to Jakarta and Bali in Indonesia starting in July.
"There has been a surge in the number of business travelers to Southeast Asia, while the Korean Wave has led to a sharp increase in the number of passengers flying to Korea from Southeast Asia," said Kim Nam-soo, an executive at Asiana.
And budget carriers are no exception. Jeju Air plans to open two or three new routes to Japan and Southeast Asia this year. Flights to existing destinations like Bangkok, Manila and Cebu are more than 80 percent full on average, according to a staffer at the company, and more flights to Thailand and the Philippines are in the works.
Jin Air, a subsidiary of Korean Air, launched four new international routes last year, and two of them are in Southeast Asia -- one to Taipei in Taiwan and the other to Vientiane in Laos.
Air Busan, which operates flights from its home city to Cebu, Hong Kong and Macau, said these routes are completely booked during vacation seasons. It is also mulling expansion to Southeast Asia.
◆ Foreign Carriers
Foreign budget carriers are also competing for a slice of the lucrative Southeast Asian market. Europe's largest budget carrier Ryanair has challenged Air Asia, the largest budget airline in the region, by establishing Malindo Air, a joint venture with Malaysia's state-run National Aerospace and Defense Industries. Malindo will start flying domestic flights in Malaysia next week and expand to Guangzhou and Hong Kong in China in the near future.
Air Asia also plans to aggressively expand its business, particularly in Southeast Asia. It said it will purchase 32 new aircraft this year -- 25 of them for routes in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. It will also create a subsidiary, Air Asia India, to advance into the Indian market in the fourth quarter of this year.
"The expansion of Air Asia will intensify competition for Southeast Asian routes, but it could also attract more travelers," said Kim Min-ji, an analyst at E-Trade Securities.