Interview: A Golden Opportunity

US startup Airbahn is a new venture being launched by Tariq Chaudhary, the founder of Pakistan’s Airblue.

Credit: MattGush / Getty Images

Scott Hall, Airbahn EVP

When do you expect Airbahn to start operations?

We’re moving through the FAA certification process and people will soon start to see us all over the US once we start to undertake proving flights. We’ll initially do some simulated charters and scheduled service, with the aim of launching our first commercial flights in late spring. Although we’re currently losing money now because we’re not generating any revenues, the timing of our launch will probably be pretty good based on where we are with COVID and the pent-up demand heading into summer.

What will the business model be?

We’re not going to be ultra-low cost, but we’re not going to be high cost either. We’re hopefully going to find that middle ground and offer a good price and a good seat. It’ll be a similar fare structure to Airblue in Pakistan. Our operations won’t support a hub system, so we’ll be able to offer flights at times when people want to travel, not necessarily leaving at 5 in the morning out of LA. At first there’ll also be no overnights, so all aircraft will return to the base.

You are yet to announce your network plans, but Ontario, Orange County and Long Beach have been mooted as bases. Can you elaborate on your initial focus?

California is a very big market and we’ll be focusing on the medium to larger cities here. I think Ontario offers us a lot of things because it’s not slot restricted and there’s no curfew, and we have applied for slots in Orange County. As soon as we get certified, we’ll look to Long Beach too. We’re mainly targeting the Southern California airports to capture the north-south flow. Due to slot restrictions, Orange County probably isn’t going to give us the mass that we need but there are good opportunities at other airports in the LA Basin area.

These Golden State markets are already hugely competitive. How can Airbahn gain a foothold?

If you look at the fare structure from the LA Basin area for Southwest, say to Sacramento, there’s 36 flights per day and they’re all the same price. If we come in at a reasonable price, we think we can provide a good alternative. We’ll offer a quality service at the times of day people want to travel, as well as frequencies that will allow passengers to travel there and back in the same day.

Are you only looking at routes within California or do you plan to expand beyond the state border?

We’re focused on one market initially because of the pandemic situation, but we are looking to go international, firstly to Canada and then to Mexico. There are probably some opportunities for us to link up with other airlines that are a smaller size like us. However, at this point, we know there’s strong demand from the LA Basin area to San Francisco Bay Area, so we believe we can do very well in that market. The western US is probably where our niche will be.

You have one Airbus A320 at the moment. What are the longer-term fleet development plans?

There’s a lot of aircraft availability at the moment but we’ve been holding back until we complete the FAA process. Aircraft are expensive assets, especially if they’re going to be sitting on the ground. It’s likely that we’ll launch with two aircraft and we’re hopeful of having five or six by the end of the year. But getting aircraft won’t be an issue—a bigger issue in the US at the moment is recruiting pilots and mechanics. However, we think we’ve got a competitive pay structure and will be able to attract the right talent.