VIENTIANE – The national carrier of tiny landlocked Laos is undergoing a dramatic revamp, leasing its first jet, changing its name and unveiling a new logo as it seeks to leave its chequered past behind.
Formed when the communist government took power in 1975, Lao Aviation officially adopted its new name Lao Airlines on Wednesday to coincide with the inaugural international flight of its newly-arrived Airbus-A320.
The lift-off of the leased 140-seat aircraft marks the end of an era for the previously all-turbo-prop carrier, which has been dogged by a notorious reputation for questionable safety practices. Four aircraft have crashed in remote areas of mountainous Laos in the past decade.
"Many conversations over beer take place about this experience when this happened and that experience," says a British expatriate who has flown with them for six years. "It’s generally: ‘Oh blimey, Lao Aviation!’"
The United Nations advises its staff to fly only on the fleet’s two hardy but ageing French-Italian ATR-72 aircraft, and the governments of the United States, Britain and Australia advise their citizens likewise.
Flying on the Chinese Yuen-12s and Yuen-7s is discouraged — but difficult to avoid in a country where the roads are frequently rated just as dangerous.
Stories of rain-flooded cabins and pilots forgetting to fill the fuel tank before take-off swirl among those who have flown the airline, with many tales bordering on the mythical.
One long-running suggestion to jittery fliers is to ensure that the French mechanic said to maintain the ATRs is not on leave if they plan to fly.
"Well, this is one of the great unknowns of Lao Aviation: Does this man really exist? And if he does, is he working?" says a Vientiane-based diplomat.
At the least, the French have been closely involved with the rebirth of Lao Airlines, with Air France Consulting, a subsidiary of Air France Group, engaged by the government last year to knock the cash-haemorrhaging carrier into shape in preparation for its part-privatisation expected within a few months.
"For me it was a very small company with very bad organisation. No plan, no project, no ambition, nothing. The company was losing a lot of money and not believing in the future," says Guy Le Sann, who headed the consulting team before joining Lao Airlines as advisor to the carrier’s president in March.
A seven-year business plan was put in place covering the serious to the superficial: staffing levels have been slashed from 400 to 320 and a jaunty tropical frangipani replaces the carrier’s former inscrutable red, white and blue logo.
A one-year agreement has been inked with Vietnam Airlines to provide crew, maintenance and support services, while four Lao pilots have been whisked to France for training and two in-country Airbus staff are providing technical assistance.
High hopes are placed in particular on the Airbus jet, which is expected to double the company’s revenue — just 14 million dollars in 2002 — from its second year of flying.
Aviation analyst Binit Somaia from Sydney-based Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation said the leasing of the Airbus was a "major step forward" for the struggling carrier.
"They’re going through a fairly comprehensive overhaul of their image which has to be good in the long-term, particularly for their tourism industry," says Somaia.
Just 700,000 tourists visited this former French colony last year, seduced by its image as a sleepy destination almost forgotten by the outside world and dotted by more than 4,000 Buddhist temples.
The World Heritage-listed town of Luang Prabang in the country’s north represents a definite focus for optimism, says Robert Martin, managing director of Singapore Aircraft Leasing Enterprise, lessor of the new aircraft.
"This is one of the important reasons behind Lao Airlines wanting to grow their fleet at the moment, because they can see what has happened already with Angkor Wat, what has happened with sites in Thailand," he says.
"There’s no reason why Luang Prabang shouldn’t have the same number of tourists coming to it in the future."