2018 Skytrax airline awards: Largely the same winners

Top airlines remain largely the same ones as last year’s.

Yet again we note how the top ten airlines remained largely the same ones as last year’s. If you’re good, you’re good, so it seems, and consistency won the day.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) which was second last year switched places with last year’s winner Qatar Airways. All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Emirates Airlines held steady in 3rd and 4th position. Cathay Pacific moved down one rung to 6th,, exchanging places with EVA Air. Lufthansa held its 7th position. Garuda Indonesian followed Hainan Airlines up one notch to 8th and 9th position respectively. The only new entrant to the list was Thai Airways International, which actually only moved up one rung from 11th last year, edging out Etihad Airways as it fell from 8th to 15th position.

So much for the excitement as the winning airlines, going by the result of the survey, continued to please their customers who found no reason to think otherwise of them.

Unlike some high-brow surveys whose results lean heavily on the premium class, Skytrax does readings across all classes.

Best for First Class was SIA followed by Etihad and Air France. This used to be the realm of Asian and Middle-East carriers, and let it not be a surprise to see two European carriers in the ranking. Lufthansa took 4th place.

Best for Business Class was Qatar followed by SIA and ANA. You would imagine that if an airline is good in First, it should not be too far off in Business. However, Air France was not placed in the top ten list and Lufthansa ranked 8th.

Best for Premium Economy was Air New Zealand followed by Qantas and SIA. It looks like the Pacific airlines are pretty good with this product. Lufthansa and Air France ranked 4th and 5th.. There was an absence of Middle-east carriers because they didn’t believe in such a class. Qatar chief CEO Akbar Al Baker had said: “We won’t roll out premium economy… I don’t think there is room for premium economy in our region, and of course in Qatar Airways. We give you a premium economy seat with an economy class price.” Sounds familiar if you recall the early days when SIA too expressed the same skepticism. However, Emirates has said its new Airbus A380 expected to be delivered in 2020 will feature premium economy.

Courtesy Star Alliance

Best for Economy Class was Thai Airways followed by SIA and Qatar. This category was dominated by Asian carriers with the exception of Lufthansa in 9th position.

Only these six airlines were placed in all three categories of First, Business and Economy (excluding premium Economy since not all airlines offer this sub-class): ANA, Cathay, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar and SIA. You can then rest comforted that whatever class you travel with these airlines, you will be treated without discrimination.

But is the Skytrax survey a good guide in choosing which carrier to fly with? Generally people can agree on makes a good airline. What matters when you travel with an airline? For the long haul, seat comfort is an important feature. Inflight entertainment, if you look for some distraction and are not otherwise doing something else or trying to catch up on shuteye. A good meal, if you are not one who will not eat airline food no matter what (unfortunately this is not featured in the Skytrax survey). Cabin cleanliness, of course, and that includes the condition of the washrooms. How often do you see the crew give it a clean-up and spraying some kind of deodorant to try and make it as pleasant as it possibly can be? Above all, the service provided by the cabin crew, to be treated in a friendly manner and with respect. Not forgetting service on the ground in the event that you may need assistance, as when your bag is damaged or has not arrived with you.

Perhaps the ranking for some of these more specific services may be of some help:

Best Economy seat (First and Business should be way better anyway): 1st Japan Airlines, 2nd SIA and 3rd Thai Airways.

Best cabin crew: 1st Garuda, 2nd SIA and 3rd ANA.

Best inflight entertainment: 1st Emirates, 2nd SIA and 3rd Qatar.

Cleanest cabin: 1st ANA, 2nd EVA and 3rd Asiana Airlines.

Best airport service: 1st EVA, 2nd ANA and 3rd Cathay.

But, of course, you can’t expect a single airline to be best in all categories, but you get a pretty good idea of where they all stand, perhaps with exceptions.

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Will Singapore Airlines, competing with United Airlines, have the last laugh?

Courtesy Getty Images

Two years ago, United Airlines stole a march on Singapore Airlines (SIA) when it launched a non-stop service between Singapore and San Francisco four months ahead of its rival.

Then it did it again last year when it started flying non-stop between Singapore and Los Angeles while SIA awaits delivery of an ultra long range jet to ply the route probably by next year. However, this second service, barely a year old, will cease operations at the end of October.

It looks like good news for SIA, but is it really?

It seems United might have sprinted too soon only to lose stamina to sustain the race. Yet it is anyone’s guess as to when the timing is right, and United stood to gain first-mover advantage, benefitting from the early start to build up brand loyalty.

Courtesy Reuters

SIA itself used to fly non-stop to Los Angeles and New York before the flights, introduced in 2004, were suspended in 2013 because of poor yields against the backdrop of a declining world economy and unfavourable fuel prices.

But things have since changed – the global economy has recovered from the 2007/2008 financial meltdown, fuel prices have steadied, and more fuel-efficient aircraft are reviving interest in the ultra-long range.

A big problem faced by airlines though is anticipating the change and making timely adjustment, failing which may mean lost opportunities or sunk costs depending on how the market is trending.

If there is a lesson that United has learnt from operating the non-stop Los Angeles run, it is the constant need to re-strategise. In terminating the service, it is hoping to replace it with a second non-stop San Francisco service, thus upping the ante in competition with SIA.

United said in a media statement that the changes were in response to “customers’ desire for alternative departure and arrival times.”

Travellers will now have a choice of three non-stop flights between Singapore and San Francisco, the number leaning in favour of United which is said to be also offering cheaper fares. While SIA, having earned the reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, will leverage on its superior service, the pressure on fares cannot be ignored.

Clearly, both airlines, which are Star Alliance partners, are not thinking of end-to-end traffic alone. Certainly in the case of SIA, the sole Singapore market will not have the volume to support the operations. Connecting traffic therefore is a key component.

In this respect, United boasts an extensive domestic network in the US and numerous connections to other cities in North and South America. For SIA, Changi Airport is the region’s major hub.

The game plan is explicit in the words of United’s senior vice president Worldwide Sales Dave Hilfman when he said at the launch of the Los Angeles service: “United is making travel to Singapore easier and even more convenient than ever before and customers arriving in Los Angeles will have multiple opportunities to connect to hundreds of United destinations in the US, Canada and Latin America.”

As United wraps up its Los Angeles operations, the main driver for its San Francisco service remains unchanged.

SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong expressed the same sentiment when he announced plans to once again fly non-stop to New York in October ahead of the Los Angeles service. He said that “the flights will help boost connectivity to and through the Singapore hub.”

Rivalry between SIA and United is expected to intensify. The US has been traditionally a strong market for SIA, and United is the leading American carrier in Asia. But it would be a mistake to think that the competition is confined to only these two airlines as many Asia-Pacific carriers are also well connected directly to the US.

When SIA suspended its non-stop New York services in 2013, Cathay Pacific filled that void with connections out of Hong Kong.

With more ultra-long range services connecting major cities directly, airlines thriving on connecting traffic such as SIA will be challenged to make it worth the traveller’s while to fly via their home ports to the final destinations.

Mr Goh said at the recent annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association in Sydney that SIA was looking into more non-stop services to other US destinations. Besides New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the airline currently also serves Houston via Manchester in the UK.

This will set the stage for a different ball game altogether if SIA moves increasingly to feed directly into US destinations, chipping away at United’s domestic strength. The question is whether there is enough load to justify more non-stop flights.

In tandem, SIA is said to be reassessing its stopover flights to the US, but it is unlikely it will skip stopovers altogether in favour of non-stop flights. While it is true that some passengers may prefer a break in their long journeys to get off the plane and stretch their legs, SIA is also able to tap into the traffic that originates or ends at stopover airports. It therefore makes economic sense to continue operating some flights via Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo.

United’s cessation of the Los Angeles-Singapore service will not deter SIA from mounting a similar non-stop flight, although New York takes precedence when the new Airbus A350-900ULR aircraft joins its fleet in September. What SIA has now is lead time to build up demand for the service. On the other hand, if United succeeds in mounting a second non-stop service to San Francisco and it becomes a threat, this may hasten plans for an earlier launch to promote Los Angeles as an alternative gateway to the US.

Where United has failed, SIA may succeed since it had been down that road before. Only then can SIA confidently have the last laugh.

Can Seletar grow as Singapore’s second commercial airport?

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

A new S$80 (US$59million) passenger terminal equipped with four check-in counters, six immigration lanes and two security screening stations in a straight line formation leading to a holding room capable of accommodating three flights (hence three aircraft parking bays but no aerobridges) or 200 passengers, one food and beverage kiosk but no duty-free outlet, and being some 20 km away from the current international airport: are these enough to make or unmake Seletar Airport the number two Singapore airport as a commerically viable alternative to Changi Airport?

The facility, designed to serve turboprop flights, is expected to open for operations by the end of the year, following a decision to free up capacity at Changi for use by jet aircraft now that the budget terminal has been replaced by another full-fledged terminal. Seletar is therefore likely to be used by small regional budget carriers carrying end-to-end traffic.

Firefly, a low-cost subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines, is slated to be among the first customers, moving from Changi. The carrier operates 20 daily turboprop flights to and from Subang, Ipoh and Kuantan. Already it has expressed concerns about the lack of public transport to access the airport, much less an issue about the absence of transportation between Seletar and Changi.

While the Changi Airport Group (CAG) is looking into introducing a bus service to assist passengers who need to make connections between the two airports, it is more critical to work on convenient public access if carriers were to be encouraged to use Seletar.

Travellers who choose to make the transfer between the two airports should be well aware of the inconvenience; consider the use of Gatwick or Stansted in relation to London Heathrow.

There are carriers that may be interested to switch from Changi to Seletar because of the lower costs. AirAsia for one has always expressed interest to operate out of the secondary airport. Adding a couple more retail outlets or eateries will certainly help, as these too can help the airport grow.

It looks like CAG may be more interested to grow Seletar for chartered business flights and private jets. The new terminal will have a business aviation centre with its own amenities such as a waiting lounge, dedicated immigration and a private drop-off area. While there is potential in these businesses, CAG will do well to at the same time prepare Seletar for more low-cost flights the likes of Firefly as Asean skies become more liberalised.

Changi Airport’s T4 suffers from reduced inter-terminal connectivity

Photo by DLeo

On its own, Singapore Changi Airport’s new Terminal 4 (T4) is a gem, adding another feather to the airport’s cap for comfort, architecture and luxury. The terminal boasts cutting-edge technology that makes the process of checking-in for a flight, dropping the bags, clearing through immigration and gate boarding a breeze without human interaction although there are staff positioned at every juncture to direct and assist. The processes are speedier.

However, T4 suffers from reduced inter-terminal connectivity. If, for some reason, you need to move between it and any of the other older three terminals, the lack of ease of movement makes it cumbersome and quite stressful if you do not have the luxury of time – much, much more than you would have provided under normal circumstances.

To begin with, the subway station is not linked to T4 (unlike the other terminals). But that’s not the problem, as you can ride the complimentary bus shuttle to the terminal at intervals of ten minutes from the station exit at T2. The real hassle comes when you want to go to another terminal after clearing immigration.

For one thing, there are too many check points, along the way, but one cannot legitimately complain when it is a security requirement. Often you are reminded to allow yourself sufficient buffer time, particularly when you need to return to T4 for your flight. Then you understand why since the shuttle bus that runs between T4 and T2 operates at an interval of 27 minutes, and that does not include walking time within the two terminals, and if you wish to go farther from T2 to T1 or T3.

That means, why even bother to leave T4 to, say, use a facility in another terminal, unless you need to connect a flight there on transit? Many travellers in any case would stay within the terminal of their flight, and T4, though smaller, is not worse off in its amenities. There again, why the big fuss when at some other airports you will have to check out of one terminal completely and check in again at another terminal to make a connection?

But when you are used to the ease of movement that an airport like Changi provides at its older terminals, the restrictions at the new terminal can be somewhat frustrating. It seems something is missing from the otherwise excellent order of things. Perception matters. And for many Changi fans familiar with its setup, they may wonder if some day the skytrain would connect T4 to the other terminals as well.

IAG levels up

Courtesy Level

International Airlines Group (IAG) which also owns British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus is expanding the scope of its new low-cost carrier Level. Originally intended to be a long-haul budget operator, it will now also offer short-haul services from Austria.

The Europeans may not be aware of how Scoot, set up as a budget carrier by Singapore Airlines (SIA) for the long-haul, soon took on the short-haul as well and ended up assimilating its short-haul budget sibling Tigerair. (See After the merger of Scoot and Tigerair, will it be Singaproe Airlines and SilkAir next? Aug 29, 2017)

While IAG’s move is motivated by the competition with rivals such as Ryanair and EasdyJet, we note that IAG already owns a short-haul bydget carrier namely Vueling which operates out of Barcelona, which is also the springboard for Level’s long-haul. Will this lead to intra-competition? But, of course, there is only so much one may suggest of the comparison between IAG and SIA since Europe is a much bigger arena than Singapore.

In the bigger picture, IAG’s new focus on budget travel yet again testifies to the thriving low-end market and the competition that it poses to legacy airlines. (See Ryanair affirms market for budget travel, May 22, 2018) Level, which commenced operations last year, was intended to check the aggression of other low-cost long-haul operators such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and WowAir. Interestingly, IAG tried but failed to acquire Norwegian, and expanding Level may be a strategy to boost its viability in a wider market, foster brand familiarity and promote intra-connectivity.

IAG chief executive Willie Walsh said: “We are launching this new short-haul subsidiary to provide Austrian consumers with more flight choices across Europe. These flights will be branded as Level to build upon the huge success of our new long-haul low-cost operation.”

Read between the lines.

Much Ado About China’s Geography

Since the United States (USA) have recognized the one-China policy (following a resolution of the United Nations in the early 1970s that legitimized the sole representation of the People’s Republic of China), it would appear groundless, even against logic, that it should protest the Chinese demand for US carriers to reflect Taiwan as a Chinese territory (this applies also to the autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau) on their websites.

While many airlines including British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have reflected the change in their booking itnerfaces to comply with the ruling, US carriers – United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines – have yet to agree, apparently at the urging of the Trump administration. But China is not budging while extending the deadline from May 25 to July 25, at the same time rejecting the US request to discuss the issue.

It may be said that there’s a fine line between politics and business, that it is difficult to separate the two. Yet it seems only expected that any company that wishes to engage in business with a country should respect its sovereignty. A way out – even if it means turning a blind eye – is to recognize the independence of business operations, that the decision of the airlines concerned is purely commercial.

So it is with Qantas, which has decided to comply with Beijing’s request after the initial resistance. As with the USA, the Australian government, while embracing the one-China policy, was critical of the Chinese ruling, but conceded that how Qantas structured its website was a matter for the company. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “Private companies should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure of governments.”

So, will US carriers comply or be prepared to stop flying to China?

My “budget” experiences on Scoot and Jetstar Asia

I flew from Singapore to Hainan, arriving in Haikou on Scoot and returning from Sanya to Singapore on Jetstar Asia. I thought I might try both airlines and see the difference.

I was all prepared for the “budget” experience – the add-ons and the no-nos, the expected lack of service and whatever that which was provided perhaps not as refined as you would expect on the better legacy airlines, less comfort because of the smaller seat pitch, and the unsavoury tales told by some travellers.

But, really, for a short flight and for the absence of choice, I became convinced I could ride it out. And so I did. Overall, the flights were comfortable enough. But I couldn’t help but observe a common challenge faced by the crew on both flights: How to manage passengers’ behaviour when it becomes necessary.

Courtesy Scoot

Scoot

There was a big tour group on board. They were not unruly but gathering along the aisle most of the time during the flight. Although they were passing around bags of food which they had brought from the ground, the crew ignored it. Yet when a single traveller outside the group stole a bite of a cookie, a flight attendant told him it was not allowed while the others were still chewing on their “ham chim peng” (fried Chinese doughnut). Most people will put up with the rules so long as their implementation is not discriminatory. The incident gave the impression it might be easier to pick on a single traveller than a group of them!

As the flight landed at Haikou Meilan Airport, the same group of travellers stood up to retrieve their bags from the overhead compartments, and were milling along the aisle. While still taxiing and waiting to dock, I could hear the flight attendant who was seated at the back screaming repeatedly, “Please sit down!” She was literally shouting till her voice hoarse, and I lost count of the number of times she did it. However, the travellers ignored her instruction all the way to the parking bay.

Courtesy Jetstar

Jetstar

The same problem of passengers standing up and retrieving their bags as soon as the aircraft touched down was encountered. It was a lighter flight, so the problem was more manageable. The flight attendant immediately stepped down the aisle and told the standing passengers to return to their seats. Problem solved.

To be fair, this is not a problem faced only by budget carriers. It happens often too on legacy airlines. Most time, it was a problem of ignorance. It was however interesting observing how the crew on both the said Scoot and Jetstar flights handled the situation.