Virgin flights take the long way round to Indonesia

Believe it or not, the number of domestic air trips being undertaken in Indonesia these days is around 20 per cent more than in Australia. And air travel between Australia and Indonesia is also at record levels, with nearly a million Australians a year holidaying in Bali alone.

But the burgeoning two-way traffic is being funnelled through just two hubs – Jakarta and Denpasar – because of the lack of direct air services.

That was behind Virgin Australia’s recent announcement increasing the number of code-shared flights to Indonesian destinations via Singapore through Singapore Airlines and its subsidiary Silkair – a great way to rack up frequent flyer points, but hardly the most convenient connections.

Some of these codeshares are similar those invented by Qantas after its once formidable European network was wound back to just one destination, London’s Heathrow airport.

To get to Vienna on a Qantas ticket until recently, you had to fly to Heathrow, change planes and backtrack more than two hours to the Austrian capital on a British Airways/oneworld codeshare.

Virgin Australia is now proposing you do the same via Singapore to get to Silkair’s Indonesian destinations, of which there are now a dozen: Medan, Pekanbaru and Palembang in Sumatra; Balikpapan, Ujung Pandang and Manado in Borneo and Sulawesi; Bandung, Semarang, Solo, Yogyakarta and Surabaya in Java: and Lombok just east of Bali.

Of course, none of the travel will involve Virgin Australia aircraft: it will all be delivered via Singapore Airlines and Silkair. And, except when low-season specials are on rare offer, you can expect to receive little change from $1300-$1500 for the whole deal.

No doubt, analysis at the Indonesian national carrier Garuda closely watch the so-called origin-destination traffic – the statistics on exactly where people begin and end their journeys.

As this column has reported before, Indonesia’s biggest domestic airline Lion Air also harbours ambitions to fly non-stop between Australian capital cities and secondary Indonesian cities.

But it merely underlines the difficulty it will have gaining Australian regulatory approval for such services when, earlier this year, it destroyed a perfectly functioning Boeing 737-800 at Denpasar airport because of an apparent pilot error.

The other complication is that most routes between Australia and secondary Indonesian cities are beyond the range of smaller narrowbody planes like the 737 and the Airbus A320. So instead of having to sell 160-180 seats to fill the plane, airlines would have to jump to the next size category, a 300-seater like the A330-200.

Virgin Australia’s existing flights between the Australian east coast and Bali are right at the 737’s range limit. Jetstar wanted to fly non-stop from Brisbane to Bali, but its A320s have to stop enroute at Darwin.

The Northern Territory capital is the logical jumping-off point for services to secondary Indonesian cities – Yokyakarta or Surabaya in Java and the south Sulawesi capital, Ujung Pandang (Makassar), for example.

But the privatised Darwin airport has priced itself out of the market, becoming one of Australia’s most expensive domestic and international destinations.

Even though Jetstar has established a Darwin hub for international operations, the airline has been arguing with the airport for years about its high charges and, after the axing of flights from Darwin to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, the long promised ramp-up has been virtually still-born. There are now just three Jetstar international destinations from Darwin: Singapore, Bali and Tokyo via Manila.

However, it seems that not even the recent diplomatic problems between Australia and Indonesia will curb the long-term demand for travel between the two. And inevitably that will mean more non-stop travel on more routes.

With Indonesian domestic travel alone booming by about 20 per cent a year, hubs like Jakarta are already choked, while there are now no aircraft parking bays available at Denpasar at key times of the day because of congestion.

In a few years' time, people at both ends will want to fly straight to their destination and, increasingly, that won’t be megacities like Jakarta or crowded holiday resorts like Bali.

Have you had to travel to regional Indonesian destinations? How did you do it? Is the “via Singapore” useful to you? Do you think there are Indonesian cities other than Jakarta and Denpasar that need non-stops to Australia?