Building Timor-Leste

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Batavia, Merpati, Batavia, Merpati?

You should fly Batavia sometimes. Its good for the country.

A competitive spirit is good for the economy - help them compete.

The price of flights between Dili and Denpasar matter not one iota to most people in Timor-Leste.  80% of Timorese live in the mountains where a flight to Indonesia is either a once a year (or once a lifetime) act, or something beyond comprehension.

Dreams of 30,000 feet in the air?

However, there is a price war going on between Batavia and Merpati.  Stories of $60 one-way flights abound. Daily changes in prices seem common place. The fact is that Batavia and Merpati are slugging it out, in no uncertain terms.  Here is a media piece in Tetun. But ongoing warfare between Batavia and Merpati is not good, peaceful yet competitive coexistence is best for the companies and for the consumers.

The Dili-Denpasar route has long been Merpati’s most profitable and Batavia’s entry into the market was not a welcome development for Merpati. However, it was very welcome to Timor-Leste’s “chattering classes”, both foreign and domestic. Merpati has for many years been ripping people off. Then again they had a monopoly, and in some ways understandably exploited it. Despite shoddy service, ancient planes, and some horrendously hard landings they kept the prices up and laughed all the way to the bank.

But its not all bad news with Merpati – had they not been flying at all, there would have been no air link with Indonesia – not good. Also remember that during the crisis in 2006 Merpati kept on flying.

Lonely Planet readers have a go at Merpati here. Merpati planes crack up on occasion too!

Bad day in April 2010

So if you want to do the right thing and further encourage the competitive spirit in Timor-Leste fly Batavia once in a while. It will help keep prices down, drive further performance improvements both with Merpati and Batavia. It takes two to tango and if either one cave in and go home, we end up with one operator again, and a return to high prices and bad service.

I always use Antika Travel in Dili for booking tickets. I found out a few days ago that they cannot, or will not, book tickets on Batavia. Seems slightly anti-compettive to me. It also seems odd given that Batavia has an EU safety certification, something that travel agents could use to drive ticket sales if they got their act together. Unless they change their ways I am going elsewhere.

"I would fly if I could afford too!"

Saving for a plane ticket? One egg at a time. Ermera, Timor-Leste.

So who is this all for?  Its for the the future of Timor-Leste as it moves into the 21st century, when hopefully more than a handful can afford to fly. More movement of more people is good for the country. It improves educational, social, economic and political links with the outside world, and will have positive impact back at home, in the mountains of Timor-Leste.

Fly Batavia, fly Merpati, fly Batavia, fly Merpati.  Test them out.

Dili Air Services are Batavia’s locally based partners: find them here.

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  1. Fish says:

    Lets just hope that price cuts will not lead to a (further) slacking of safety protocols… Me? I’d rather skip that ridiculous ban-on-transit airport (and its monstrous queues) and go straight to Singapore. Now cheaper too :)

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by PDM-TL, Edward Rees. Edward Rees said: BATAVIA, MERPATI, BATAVIA, MERPATI? #timor #merpati #batavia […]

  3. ann turner says:

    I think that the two will manage to co-exist: Merpati as very low-cost option and Batavia grabbing the more up-market, safety-conscious end of the market (UN, for example, who are not allowed to fly Merpati anyway). There need to be two airlines on the route. no point substituting one monopoly for another, eh?

  4. MartinBreen says:

    Wow a kind of Merpati comment site. I have more than anyone – often contradicting what is said, but lets have some good old Merpati stories. 1977 (yes I am a veteran Merpati passenger) Darwin-Denpasar Wet leased Pertamina owned BAC111, bounced on landing at Denpasar – didn’t even know you could manage that in a jet. 1979 Merapti’s leased Boeing 707 (yes they actually had one for a while) impounded in LA on its weekly flight via Biak (Irian) leaving Darwin bound passengers in Bali for two weeks until rescued by an MMA Fokker F28 out of Perth. But better than most you can get a refund if you persist. 1986 Kupang to Darwin, in an extraordinary episode, the plane took off an hour early with ONE passenger. Having found my way back to Darwin and confronting the airline rep who said my story was fantasy, returing armed with a letter from Civil Aviation confirming the time of arrival of the plane with number of pax, I was then informed it arrived early because of a tail wind, meaning when the maths was done, it flew this distance in 10 minutes, finally the hapless Merpati rep managed to not only refund the air ticket, but the added cost of returning to Darwin via Bali. But my favourite is more recent – 2006 just after the “political crisis/fiasco” in Timor, Dili-Denpasar, After repairs were being effected to the left side engine with cowlings up etc, and having been loaded on the plane when it was “ok now”, then after running up the engine, and being offloaded again, for more tarmac repairs, I watched a poor foreign woman who decided (with good and obvious reason) that she wasn’t going after all, be bullied by airport officials who told her that because her bag was on the plane that she would “have to go” otherwise she would be “pushed” onto the plane. After being reduced to an hysterical wreck and sobbing sitting in the middle of the floor in the departure lounge, her fellow passengers (all 14 of use who had not left in the mad exodus a few weeks before) stated clearly if she did not want to go then we all would not go. Finally the “officials” relented and “remembered” that if they took her bag off, then she did not have to join the flight after all. I think she was right, as an intrepid Merpati traveller, I took the flight, and I am sure that after takeoff, the troublesome engine was either closed down or they reduced power and started again on approach and landing because it never takes 2 hours and ten minutes on that 1:40 minute flight. As we use to say rhyming with that song “Its Merpati and I’ll die if I want to”. Well so far so good, but my odds must be close to up after 33 years. At least my unusual condition of sweating on the inside of my palms which only occurs prior to Merpati flights might be a thing of the past with Batavia.

  5. MartinBreen says:

    And one more thing – sometimes at Dili Airport you can see airport employees watching the Merpati take offs near the runway. I happened to be airside recently talking to someone when all the local employees jumped up with glee and ran out towards the runway. I asked their boss “yes what is that all about you would think if they work here they wouldn’t be that interested”. He told me another ghastly story about Merpati. He said his staff and a few others take bets on where the 737 will rotate (lift off) as it is dependant on how overloaded the aircraft is! Having been charged excess baggage on a Merpati flight once, I was surprised, but was informed that in fact you can be charged excess baggage on Merpati, but the counter staff do not tell Merpati as they pocket the money and do not manifest it. This unfortunately means that the pilots only have a vague idea what their takeoff weight will be when flying out of Dili. Hopefully with Batavia also serving the route, the planes will be lighter.

  6. Edward Rees says:

    Get your mates to chuck in some more thoughts Martin.

  7. Aqing says:

    I don’t know why the Government keep quiet, they must control the price. How come commercial flight like Merpati can play their price, why don’t they push their price down before Batavia came; this is not a healthy business.

    Their game maybe like this, they reduce the price from $340 – to $150, if Batavia company in Timor Leste didn’t find the market income within 6 months of 12 months then they have kick out from Timor because didn’t achieve market sales. Then if Batavia has to closed, Merpati will increase the price again!

    Most of the people in Indonesia starting doesn’t like Merpati because their airplane is too old, and they have the same issues which is delay sometimes for more than 3 or 5 hours, I’ve never seen Merpati support any of the Timorese Government activity or charity.


  8. Alex Tilman says:

    What are the chances that both airlines could collude and set the price?

  9. Edward Rees says:

    That is a very good point. Other than it being very obvious if they did that and it being against the law in both Timor-Leste and Indonesia I suppose it is quite possible.

  10. Edward Rees says:

    I would argue price fixing is not the answer, as it has never really worked anywhere the free market has a hold as it is does in Timor-Leste. Perhaps there are other ways that the Government could promote competition? Ie by having the Government fly Batavia some times, or by giving Batavia better and more time slots for arrival/departure?

  11. Ricardo says:

    The whole principle of having one more air company in Timor-Leste was in fact to have some that “fight” in prices you so mention and give many the opportunity to finally fly or increase the number of flights per year. Any kind of agreement on price (collusion) would suggest a situation of “Cartelised” Oligopoly (or Duopoly) which as you may know doesn’t benefit the consumer at all. In fact, any situation where price is greater than marginal cost (perfect competition means price = marginal cost) would imply a loss to the final consumer, which is a typical situation where a few companies agree in fixing a price.
    In some sitations under a few hypothesis, free market can be a bliss to the Timorese and to the Internationals who were a bit disappointed for paying an average of 340 USD for flying a few hours just because we had Monopoly in the past.

  12. Edward Rees says:

    Ricardo, You make a very valid point about monopolies. However, I was not suggesting collusion, rather I was suggesting that in some way a normalisation of the competitive spirit be reached. It would be a shame if Merpati and Batavia fought to the death, and we ended up with one operator again. But your comments are very useful. Many thanks. Edward

  13. Flavio Simoes says:

    Ohhhh MERPATIII…ohh Merpati …. not a single chance now you get, so get over it …

  14. Ken Westmoreland says:

    What comes first, the chicken or the egg, the demand or the supply? Merpati have operated flights between Denpasar and Dili since the days of the Indonesian occupation, and, for better or worse, have kept flying the route unchallenged. Timor Air never happened, Timor Leste Airlines (backed by Portugal’s EuroAtlantic) probably won’t happen either. The advantage that Merpati has is that it’s a state owned airline of a very large country, with the economies of scale that come with it – plus the fact that it’s just next door. Airnorth is much the same, though not state owned. Flights to Dili might not be a cash cow, but they’ve got a captive market.

    It’s always possible that the two airlines could try and fix prices – this happens even in developed markets. One example is Wellington in New Zealand, where Air New Zealand and Qantas have a duopoly. They even tried to do a codeshare on that route, but the NZ competition authorities stopped them. Would the Indonesian and Timorese ones have the teeth to stop Merpati and Batavia doing the same? I wish…

    Like Dili, Wellington’s airport is cursed with a short runway, and even small aircraft like the A320 can’t land there fully loaded. It’s a shame that Baucau’s airport is barely used – it’s the same distance from Dili as Nadi in Fiji is from Suva. Granted it’s a fair trek by road, but much better than it was in Portuguese times when it took the best part of a day to drive from Baucau to Dili. As for location, I remember hearing from people who flew from LA to Bali or Jakarta stopped over in Biak on the way – not the most conveniently located airport, being on an offshore island.

    Air Timor (formerly Austasia) could have carved out a niche serving visitors from Europe (especially Portugal) but it just seems to be for those who are prepared to pay top dollar for the convenience of bypassing Bali (or Darwin). Only a few people I know have used it, one of them because he was on an Indonesian blacklist!

    Having a national carrier wouldn’t necessarily help – Air Nuigini in Papua New Guinea has a monopoly on international flights in and out of the country, and Qantas has to do codeshares with it – meaning the prices are just as steep and you travel with the same airline whoever you book through.

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