Indonesians living in Aceh province, on the westernmost tip of the country, have recently discovered a hack to booking cheaper flights—get a passport. For some reason, it's cheaper to fly to Kuala Lumpur, in neighboring Malaysia, and then continue on to Jakarta than just fly straight to the capital domestic. This weirdly international flight cuts airline ticket prices by as much as half. But it's also really annoying government officials in Indonesia.
The hack went viral when Zikirullah Alfarisi, a freelancer from Banda Aceh, posted it on social media. The idea, that an Indonesian citizen would need to leave the country to find an affordable domestic flight, immediately caught people's attention. Flights on Garuda Indonesia or Batik Air can reach sky-high rates—climbing to nearly Rp 3 million ($211 USD) for a round-trip. But fly to Kuala Lumpur first, something you can only do if you have a passport, and those rates drop to a more agreeable Rp 1.4 million ($98 USD).
"I first thought about it a week before going to Jakarta," Zikirullah told VICE. "It came all of a sudden. A friend told me to apply for a passport and fly to Jakarta through Kuala Lumpur. It turned out the passport fee and the ticket were cheaper."
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But Zikirullah's smart flight route also caught the attention of Teuku Taufiqulhadi, a local politician, who said that the entire idea was an embarrassment to Indonesia's transportation network.
“If this keeps happening, our transportation ministry will be discredited," he told local media. "Our country will become a laughing stock. I hope the Ministry of Transportation will address the issue immediately."
Both Zikirullah and Teuku are on to something—Indonesia's air travel rates, at times, make absolutely zero sense. As a Jakartan, I can't help but notice that some days it's cheaper to leave the country and fly to Singapore then it is to fly to Bali. And domestically, flights to Bali can be cheaper than to Yogyakarta, even though Bali is more than twice the distance.
“We can’t let airline tickets to Kuala Lumpur to be cheaper than tickets to Jakarta,” Zikirullah said. “How is it possible that flying to our neighboring country is cheaper than to our own capital?”
It makes you wonder how flights are priced in the first place. Indonesians, tired of paying ridiculous fares, blamed the weakened rupiah. A weaker rupiah means fuel, which is typically priced in US dollars, has to cost more when it's paid for in rupiah compared to, say, Malaysian ringgit.
But industry insiders says that a weaker rupiah has nothing to do with the high cost of travel.
"Between 2016 and 2018, our currency has weakened by 170 percent," Akshara Danadiputra, the chairman of the Indonesian National Air Carrier Association, or INACA, told local media. "Meanwhile, the price of flights hasn't gone up since April of 2016."
But just because someone says something doesn't mean it's true. A worsening exchange rate hit Indonesian airlines pretty hard, with the national carrier Garuda reporting a 12 percent rise in fuel costs last year on the back of higher oil prices worldwide.
And INACA's own secretary general, a man named Tengku Burhanuddin, released a statement explaining that fuel prices, among other things, were directly linked to fluctuations in ticket prices.
"Airfares adjust to demand, which is still high since the Christmas and New Year holidays, especially to several big cities in Indonesia," the statement read. Airlines also price their tickets according to the rise of supporting costs such as navigation, airport, avtur (aviation fuel) and the rupiah's fluctuating exchange rate against the US dollar."
The statement then went on to say that, despite these changes, the fares were still within appropriate levels. "[The fares] are still below the ceiling stipulated by the Transportation Ministry," the statement said.
But, here's the thing, the ministry recently raised the ceiling 5 percent in August of last year because, you guessed it, an increase in operational costs. That's how passengers end up shelling out more money for higher ticket prices that are also still beneath the government's ceiling.
The ministry caught on and recently demanded that airlines lower ticket prices back to affordable levels, with the Minister of Transportation Budi Karya Sumadi telling the press that prices had "reached an apprehensive level."
INACA now says it will do whatever it can to make the cost of flying lower.
"We are committed to lowering ticket prices following a positive commitment made by our stakeholders,” Akshara told Kompas.
Prices, as of writing this article, are still pretty high. So until they actually drop maybe it's better to do what Zikirullah did and get your hands on a passport.