This Vietnamese Airline Is Giving New Meaning to the Term Landing Strip

Vietnam’s VietJet airline grew from nothing to hold one third of the country’s aviation market share in the space of just a few years. But that success has not come without its fair share of controversy, due largely to the “Bikini Airline’s” tactic of employing pretty, scantily-clad flight attendants.

It all started in 2007, when Vietnamese businesswoman Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao decided to create her own airline company called VietJet Air. The ambitious project saw the launch of Vietnam’s first privately-owned airline, with Thao herself serving as the CEO.

Despite planning to begin flights as early as 2008, the airline endured long delays, partly attributed to the effects of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. When VietJet finally commenced flights in December 2011, though, nobody expected this tiny domestic carrier to enjoy any great success.

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But the low-cost airline expanded rapidly, adding more domestic routes, and its first international flight between Vietnam’s Ho Chi Mihn City and Bangkok in neighboring Thailand began in early 2013. Today, the airline offers flights to 47 destinations in Vietnam and other Asian countries.

VietJet’s rapid growth raises an obvious question: how did they do it? For many, of course, the answer lies in the airline’s controversial, yet highly publicized, strategy of employing photogenic flight attendants in bikinis.

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Indeed, in 2012 the airline began kitting out their female cabin crew in bright red-and-yellow bikinis and having them entertain its passengers while handing out gifts. Rather than being standard practice, though, these “bikini shows” are mostly restricted to inaugural flights to sun-soaked coastal destinations.

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In addition to the in-flight shows, the airline also releases a yearly calendar and other promotional campaigns featuring their bikini models. Predictably, the free release of its 2016 calendar attracted hordes of male visitors to VietJet offices across Vietnam.

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Naturally, this tactic has provoked its fair share of criticism. In August 2012, for instance, Vietnam’s Civil Aviation Administration fined the airline $960 for performing a bikini dance show on its opening flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang without receiving permission to do so first.

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Another incident took place in 2014 when popular Vietnamese model Ngoc Trinh posted photos from one of VietJet’s promotional shoots on her Facebook page. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the photos received overwhelmingly negative comments that criticized the airline for sexual objectification. Trinh later removed the photos.

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But Thao fired back at critics, arguing that the airline’s bikini image is helping break down Vietnam’s conservative cultural norms. Indeed, she told Bloomberg Pursuits in March 2016, “You have the right to wear anything you like, either the bikini or the traditional ao dai.”

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Thao did, however, agree that VietJet’s bikini gimmick is risky. But, at the end of the day, she stated that taking “calculated risks” and being innovative is the key to success. She also said that businesspeople have a responsibility to support progressive alterations in their home nation.

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And Thao is no stranger to success. She studied finance in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, and she became a millionaire at the age of 21 by trading commodities, including office equipment. She later returned home to Vietnam and began investing in a number of business ventures before deciding to form VietJet.

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While it’s unclear where or how Thao got the idea for her swimsuit flight attendants, one thing’s for sure — it’s working. In fact, VietJet’s success has been nothing short of astounding.

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In just four years of operation, for example, the airline has grown to take up a 30 percent share of Vietnam’s air travel market. What’s more, VietJet is set to make Thao the first female billionaire in Vietnam.

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The airline is also already estimated to be more valuable than Asiana Airlines in South Korea or the Scandinavian carrier Finnair. VietJet is further expected to exceed the state-owned Vietnam Airlines as the biggest in-country carrier in Vietnam by the end of 2016.

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But is this success solely down to bikinis? After all, airlines in other countries, among them Irish aviation giant Ryanair, have also used bikini-clad flight attendants in their promotional calendars. Then again, no one else has been so bold as to actually put the models on flights, like VietJet.

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Despite all the controversy, though, VietJet remains incredibly popular. The carrier was recently recognized as one of the 15 strongest brands in the country and the favorite airline of Vietnam. It was also voted best Asian low-cost carrier of 2015.

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The airline shows no signs of slowing down, either, having purchased an additional 30 A321 airbus planes at the end of 2015. It seems that now domestic market dominance is nearly secured, Vietjet is planning to focus more on expanding its international flights, like the recently opened Hanoi to Taipei route.

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Indeed, Thao hopes to emulate the success Dubai’s Emirates airline, which grew into one of the largest airlines in the world despite originating in a small country. As the businesswoman told Bloomberg Pursuits, “We plan to make VietJet a global airline.”

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VietJet will be holding its initial public offering later in 2016, giving investors the chance to buy shares in the company and potentially fueling additional growth. Furthermore, the airline is expected to raise its passenger numbers by a further 50 percent in 2016 and to add 12 new aircraft to its fleet every year for the foreseeable future.

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