Aviation experts discuss key reasons Bonza airline fell into administration

Low-cost upstart Bonza airline entered the Australian market with a bang.

To celebrate its first flight into the North Queensland city of Mackay, the airline showed off local rugby players wearing purple budgie smugglers and put on purple-themed cocktails.

The airline offered Australians in the regions a chance to snatch a holiday to tourist hotspots or see loved ones in under-serviced cities and towns at ultra-low prices.

“We are about connecting communities and giving Aussies the chance to fly directly to see loved ones where before it was either too expensive or took too long,” Bonza chief executive Tim Jordan said at the time.

But less than 18 months after it first flew up into the skies in January 2023 to take on established behemoths Qantas and Virgin, Bonza is bust, collapsing into administration with thousands of passengers left stranded.

Accountancy firm Hall Chadwick is now scrambling to determine whether the low-cost carrier has any kind of future in the country.

So what went wrong?

Here are the key factors underpinning the fall.

The ‘app-first’ approach

For nearly all of its run, Bonza did not offer ticket purchases through a traditional website, accessed through a Google search.

Instead, the company promoted its Fly Bonza app, with customers booking flights directly through their phone.

Passengers could book flights, manage their bookings, check in and order in-flight food through the app.

The app-first approach may have shut out elderly Australians, who are generally not as technologically savvy as younger Australians, and Australian National University aviation guru Dr Zena Assaad said the approach posed serious “visibility issues”.

“I don’t know about others but I go onto Google Flights to book my tickets because you can see a comparison of all the different ticket prices and that’s when I choose which provider I am going to go for, which is the cheapest,” she said.

“And Bonza isn’t on that. When you go onto Google Flights, Bonza doesn’t come up like that.

“If you are going for an app-first approach and you are not on any of these flight comparison websites, which is where most people go to get an idea of flight prices, you are just off everyone’s radar.”

The ‘Golden Triangle’

Bonza did not compete in the all-important Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne market or what the aviation industry refers to as Australia’s “Golden Triangle”.

This meant the company lost out on the market’s most concentrated money pot.

“The Golden Triangle is so important because this is where most of the action happens and where the money is being made,” Professor Rico Merkert, deputy director at the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney Business School, told NCA NewsWire.

“In terms of seats, both Sydney to Melbourne and Sydney to Brisbane are in the top 10 of the busiest routes globally and when measured in revenues generated, Sydney to Melbourne is typically among the top three in the world and was No.1 in 2023 in front of London to New York.

“More importantly, having access to these three hubs enables to build domestic and regional feeder networks.”

Bonza opted to go for regional routes, often flying direct to new tourist hotspots or linking smaller cities without transiting in a major hub.

Dr Assaad said Bonza’s Sydney void may have been a factor in its downfall.

“Sydney is the biggest airport across Australia, to the point we now have Western Sydney Airport coming out,” she said.

The struggle is real in Australia’s small and competitive market

The business world is tough. Most businesses fail. And Australia’s airline market is brutal.

Even the behemoths struggle to survive.

Virgin fell into administration in 2020, with US private equity firm Bain Capital bailing it out.

During the pandemic, Qantas bled billions.

In addition to the standard struggles that confront all airlines, Australia’s domestic market is comparatively small.

In the wake of Bonza’s collapse, Transport Minister Catherine King suggested such a limited market would always present challenges to new entrants.

“I think what we’ve got to remember that despite the fact that we are incredible travellers, both domestically and internationally, we are a very small market,” she told the ABC.

“And it is a small market in terms of the number of customers available and really in terms of what the market can bear in relation to that.

Dr Assaad also said the market was “extremely competitive”.

“We’ve got three major airlines, Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar (a subsidiary of Qantas),” she said.

“Because it is such a small market, we’re not the US or Europe, where we have the capacity that they have or even the airspace that they have and the number of airports that they have.

“It’s a small market and it’s a concentrated market and I think it was incredibly hard for them (Bonza) to tap into that.”

Bonza’s fleet

Bonza operated with just four aircraft.

By contrast, Qantas has more than 100.

With such a limited fleet, there is little room for error and timetables can quickly become scrambled.

The low-cost carrier also leased Boeing 737-8s, which are large aircraft that boast 186 seats.

Professor Merkert said there may not have been “sufficient demand” to keep the fleet afloat.

“The Bonza story was great from a cost perspective, which was essentially getting super cheap aircraft during the pandemic that were not only cheap from a capital cost but also operating cost perspective,” he said.

Budget airline Bonza ‘doesn’t need’ government help

“Being brand new, surely, they would be popular with the customers, too, especially at such low fares and being operated at routes that no one else did, which was 84 per cent of their routes.

“And sure, Bonza optimised their cost structure to the extreme.

“Problem is, this does not guarantee sustained profits.

“Those aircraft had 186 seats and those seats want to be filled on as many flights as possible.

“I think Bonza did a great job in developing these routes but was likely not quite there in terms of profitability.”

Turbulence from the beginning

Bonza suffered almost immediate reputational damage as flight delays and cancellations piled up.

The airline started flying passengers in January 2023 and by July, customer complaints were already sweeping through social media.

“Don’t how long they will be around,” John Watt said.

“First attempt at flying with Bonza(,) cancelled flight up to Sunshine Coast four (hours) before boarding with no options and cancelled the return flight to Melbourne and rescheduled for three day later.

“(Their) excuse, staff issues, won’t be booking any more Bonza flights.”

Darren Boyes wrote: “Have booked five Bonza flights. And never boarded a single plane. Bye bye Bonza.”

Frustrations also mounted over Bonza’s scheduling.

“The problem with Bonza is that their primary target market is short-haul domestic travellers, yet they don’t accommodate people who want a weekend away,” customer Sarah Ryan said.

“If they changed their flight schedules to Friday evening departures and Sunday afternoon returns they’d see an increase in bookings.”

Just months after launching, Bonza chief commercial officer Carly Povey apologised directly to customers and promised to rejig schedules and routes.

“We also know that in the past couple of months, not everyone has had a good experience with Bonza and we need to stare directly into why that is, specifically when we cancel or delay flights,” she said in late July.

“We will be implementing a range of changes to our schedule from August 1 based on what we have learnt so far and the feedback you’ve given us with regards to route demand.”

The ‘competitive moat’ of frequent flyers

Australians love racking up frequent flyer points and David Boyd, the chief executive of comparison website Credit Card Compare, said the programs offered by Qantas and Virgin acted as a “competitive moat” against new entrants into the airline market.

“It’s a moat, it’s a defence,” he said.

“If Bonza had been more successful, maybe they would have got to the point where they could have set up their own frequent flyer program.

“If you are sitting on a couple of hundred thousands points, or 50,000 points, and you need to make a trip close to one of those destinations where Bonza was flying to, chances are they (Qantas or Virgin) got more planes going and you can cash in your points.

“So I can redeem my points or take a risk with Bonza.

“You’re just going to keep falling back into the arms of Qantas and Virgin.

“The frequent flyer program is a massive moat.”

Leave a Comment

URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL URL