South Korean low-cost carrier Eastar Jet has become the fifth member of the U-Fly Alliance, alongside HK Express, Lucky Air, Urumqi Air and West Air.

It is the first non-Chinese airline to join the group, and the first not affiliated with Chinese conglomerate HNA Group.

Launched in 2009, Eastar Jet is an independent South Korean LCC without a parent company – a fact that its chief executive Jung Shik Kim believes is a significant advantage over airlines such as Air Busan (Asiana Group) and Jin Air (Korean Air).

“We do not have any other businesses aside from Eastar Jet, which means that we are able to focus entirely on delivering the best low-cost fares and quality standards to our customers,” said Kim.

The LCC is primarily based in Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport, which none of the other member airlines currently serve. Eastar’s entry into U-Fly therefore expands the alliance’s reach in South Korea, including destinations such as Cheongju and Gunsan.

Kim noted slot constraints was a big factor for Eastar joining U-Fly, as it highlighted the need to join forces with like-minded partners in order to grow  operations – a sentiment shared by U-Fly’s chief executive Andrew Cowen.

“We’ve got an ever-growing demand for new destinations across our customer base and the majority of our passengers are between the ages of 20 to 35 [who value low fares],” said Cowen to Business Traveller Asia-Pacific.

“As you might expect, that demographic likes to travel so this has encouraged us to come together as the U-Fly Alliance. We can grow our networks and customer offerings faster than we can grow our [individual] airlines.”

As previously reported, U-Fly member Lucky Air is seeking approval from the Civil Aviation Administration of China to launch flights to Moscow and Los Angeles by year’s end.

However, Cowen noted the possibility of long-haul routes from other members was still some way off.

“We’re very happy that Lucky Air is a member of the alliance but you have to realise that it is the largest LCC amongst the group. So it’s natural for them to start thinking about how they might expand their markets further by going into long haul,” said Cowen.

“For the other members, long-haul LCC services are a potential opportunity but that is a very big step. You would only consider taking that step when you reach a certain size and have the full capability to execute it.”

Steven Greenway, U-Fly’s deputy chief executive who has also been involved with Value Alliance (the second low-cost alliance to emerge), also believes this is just the beginning of LCC alliances.

“There are really only two LCC alliances and they exist in this part of the world,” he said. “I think it’s early days, but as an emerging trend there’s a huge amount of opportunity that can lead to destination growth as well as cost savings.”

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Clement Huang