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Pat James flies high with Destination Air

2007: Business of the Year Award

Saturday, December 29, 2007
Year in Review: Business of 2007 Award
THE LOW SEASON can mean a cut in business for those who have any connection with tourism. Restaurants close, owners go abroad for a couple of months. Resorts take the opportunity to renovate and rebuild.

Errr, what low season? Destination Air didn't have that problem. An air shuttle to speed people to their offshore five-star destinations is an idea that has taken flight without the need to circle, land, then try again.

Some people may have been skeptical that there would be a sufficient takers who wanted to wing it to Phi Phi. But since early in 2007, flights have often been full . . . and the formula for success looks likely to boom along with the business.

Managing Director Pat James, from the big idea state of Texas, launched the service in February.

In the near future, his vision includes 10 aircraft, hip-hopping from island resort to island resort around the Andaman from their base at Phuket International Airport.

A discount promotional offer of 1999 baht for a brief one-way flit between Phuket and Phi Phi put bums on seats for six fights a day to Phi Phi.

During the high season the same flight is a bit more expensive, depending on where you board.

''The discount prices ended in July,'' Mr James said. ''To be frank, every time we fly someone at that price, we lose money.''

Destinations already extend from Ranong in the north of Phang Nga to Koh Mook, south of Trang. Approval has been given for a high-season service to the protected marine national park at the Similan islands.

The flights begin at 7am and take off from Phuket every two hours, with Phi Phi as the hub.

While the views are spectacular (''We want to make sure everyone brings their camera because it's gorgeous out there'') transfers to five-star resorts are what's important about the future of the business.

Cessnas are in operation now, with De Havilland Otters on the way. Soon there will be six planes or more, with an international staff, regular training as more join, and a deepening relationship with resorts.

The sky's the limit with Krabi and Phuket the only places where the seaplanes touch down on terra firma. Everywhere else the aircraft put down on water.

From October to April, the growing number of five-star resorts all along the Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga coast will be able to carry guests direct to their destinations faster than ever possible in the past.

There is one floating pier at the classy Sri Panwa development on Cape Panwa that already sees flights land with increasing frequency.

A speedy transfer service is the main aim, although charters are an option for
companies, photographers, and yacht owners who want to catch up with their boats in a hurry.

''We spent over a year getting everything ready to open in February,'' Mr James said. And judging from the requirements needed to win the right to take off, this is no fly-by-night operation.

''We've been working with DCA inspectors, the National Park Service and others to expand landings,'' Mr James said.

''We do an environmental impact study for every landing site. That's a cost of 500,000 baht for every landing site, and we have 30 landing sites.''

Many meetings have been required to explain the corporate aim, and to meet the stringent standards of Thailand's air safety authorities at all levels.

''The only problem is communications,'' Mr James said. ''The Phuket Governor, wow, talk about help.

''There are some good people who really want to promote this area. They're not trying to hold us back.

''With the governors here and in Krabi and Phang Nga, we get plenty of support.''

He says that what happened in the Maldives with the advent of seaplanes will happen in Phuket.

The islands there were filled with two-star hotels, and all the visitors had to arrive by boat, he says. Then came seaplanes, and resorts that once charged $100 a night were suddenly able to charge $300 for the same rooms.

''Nobody goes there by boat now,'' he says. ''The Greek islands went the same way, the Caribbean too. The same thing will happen here.''

He says Destination Air has been ''so lucky over one and a half years.''

While the process of winning government approval at every level has been time-consuming, ''we know people are trying to help us.''

''Other businesses I know have big problems,'' he says. ''Our biggest thing was finding out what was required. Once we found out what they required, then we did it, we showed them, and we have no problems.''

He is full of praise for the standards set by Thailand's DCA.

''Aviation, to be professional, takes lots of money,'' Mr James says. ''Our CEO comes from the government and the military and knows how to manage.

''I know how to manage aircraft, operations, safety . . . DCA spent many days in long, long interviews over a long time to understand and accept my experience.''

Now, the sky is perhaps no limit. ''We're a baby, we're only four months old. Most seaplane companies have one or two planes only.

''You get more than six, then you're middle-sized. There's probably only 10-15 in all the world that have 20 or 25 planes.

''We can be that size in three to four years. That's very fast, but the market is here, without question.''

Expansion will be driven, like Phuket's future, by the continuing flow of quality tourists.

''Phuket's market now,'' he says, ''the demographics of people coming to Phuket, has changed in the past five years.

''Five years ago, Patong was a focus. It's not the focus anymore.

''Now, families are everywhere. The type of tourist is changing completely.

''Now it's the people coming from Singapore, Hong Kong, from Thailand, they can fly here any time they want, not just once a year.

''So the whole area is changing. That's our kind of customer. People with money take the seaplane, not the boat.

''All the resorts will be able to raise their standards.''

He says that because the planes only carried a small number of passengers, there will still be plenty of customers for taxis, ferries and longtails.

So far, word of mouth has proved the most important form of marketing.
When people see a family getting off in Phi Phi, they want to get on board.

''Our customers are our best salespeople,'' he says. ''We're very lucky.''

Agreements with resorts will mean room prices can include the transfer service by seaplane. Guests who get their timing right can be on Phi Phi perhaps 30 minutes after arriving in Phuket on an international flight.

Destination Air's customer service will pick up bags and transfer them directly onto the seaplane.

''Service is fast and professional, on a schedule, seven days a week. That's our business.

''We can bring in as many planes as we need. Our company is strong. We're here for a long, long time. We want to set a very high standard.''

As for Mr James, he hitches a ride on a seaplane every day if he can, as long as there's a spare seat, just for the pleasure of it. He's a high flier, and enjoying every second in the air.

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