Air Bagan or Air Mandalay? – Choosing a domestic airline in Myanmar

“Are you sure?”
“If you don’t book it now, I’ll change my mind!”
– Patrick checking for the umpteenth time that I was still keen on going to Myanmar.

That’s it, we were going. With one swift click, we sealed the deal on the second leg of our trip. Our confirmation and e-tickets promptly arrived in Patrick’s inbox. We would soon realise how much we took that for granted.

Having decided on our Myanmar itinerary – Yangon for three days, Bagan for two days and Mandalay for two days – our next debate was how we would travel between the three. Information on trains and buses seemed contradictory and given it was our very first visit to Myanmar and we have absolutely no idea what we’re in for, we decided to fly. Quicker, convenient and safer – we hoped.

Flying within Myanmar presented us with a choice of two airlines РAir Bagan or Mandalay. Patrick has a bit of a fear of flying, so his research into each airline was intense and thorough. Both airlines seemed to be privately owned, with very small fleets. Air Bagan has a fleet of five aircraft including one Fokker 100, two ATR 72 and two ATR 42; whilst Air Mandalay owns and operates three aircraft including two ATR 72 and one ATR 42.

Patrick quickly discovered that Air Bagan had links to the military junta and the U.S prohibits its citizens from dealing with the airline due to sanctions imposed by the U.S against the junta. Whilst safety records aren’t published freely, he spied an alarming amount of news reports about Air Bagan plane crashes.

Air Mandalay on the other hand read much better. We couldn’t find any mention of sanctions or links to the junta. There were less reports of Air Mandalay aircraft being involved in crashes (in fact, at April 2011, Air Mandalay had been operating for 16 years without incident – the only Myanmar airline to do so). Also worth noting for those trying to decide on an airline is Air Mandalay’s company profile in which the proudly and openly disclose the European standards their aircraft are maintained to, and that the fleet and maintenance hanger are inspected once a year by the Direction General de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC) of France. For us, the choice seemed obvious – Air Mandalay.

Booking with them was a whole other experience. Where we in the West can book and pay for an entire holidays in a few mouse clicks, it was rare to find a Myanmar company that has the ability to do this.

To book with Air Mandalay, we selected our desired flights (much the same as you would booking with Air Asia) and the dates we wanted to fly. Instead of being taken to the usual credit card details page, we were taken to a “Travel Booking Request Form”. Patrick filled out all of our details and clicked send. We were still unsure of what was happening. The page told us our request had been sent to Air Mandalay’s booking office and we would receive an email shortly. Sure enough, about an hour later Patrick received an email informing us our tickets had been reserved and instructing us that we would need to pay for and collect our tickets from Air Mandalay’s head office in Yangon.

What? No tickets in my inbox? Help! Whilst experiences like this are all part of the adventure, I would have felt a lot more comfortable if we had our tickets right away. Perhaps it is a symptom of my generation, or perhaps its my lack of travel-before-credit-cards-and-internet experience? All I know is e-tickets and the internet are the greatest invention known to mankind and I will never take them for granted again! I was tad terrified that they would lose our reservation, but was also slightly comforted by the knowledge that we are were the very first tourists to Myanmar and if it were too hard, nobody would bother.

On our arrival in Yangon, we asked our taxi driver to take us to Air Mandalay’s head office on the way to our hotel, so we could collect the tickets. We arrived at what could have been mistaken for an enormous white rendered house, and Patrick went in to pay and collect. After what seemed an extraordinary amount of time, John and I went to investigate (we had stayed with the taxi, basking in the heat and admiring this country we had come to be in). We found Patrick waiting patiently while the Air Mandalay staff hand wrote each of our air tickets. Hand written air tickets!

While Lonely Planet notes it is perfectly fine to book the tickets once you are on the ground in Yangon, I would argue that it is better to plan ahead and book/reserve your tickets online. Both airlines only run limited flights in the morning, as the hot air is too thin for the planes to take off later in the day. With the current tourist boom in the country, flights fill up quickly. If you are planning to fly on domestic airlines in Myanmar, save yourself a headache and book ahead. While we were picking up our tickets in Yangon, there were two backpackers trying to get on a flight the next day – already full, much to their dismay!

Side note – On 25 December 2012, Air Bagan’s Fokker 100, flying from Yangon to Heho, crashed on a road after mistaking the road for the Heho Airport runway in heavy fog and striking powerlines on decent. Two people were killed, including one on the ground, and 11 people were injured, including two Australians, two Britons, two Americans and a Korean. That pretty much sold it for us – Air Mandalay!

Who did you fly with in Myanmar? Have the online booking facilities been updated since our venture into Myanmar in 2013? Drop me a comment below and let me know.

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