Scoot in silence: Going where the big boys dare not go

Courtesy Scoot

Courtesy Scoot

Scoot in silence. Not quite the image, it would appear, of an airline that was so-named supposedly because it was bold enough to break away from convention. The expression sounds somewhat anomalous. Yet, perhaps, it is but only being bold, treading where few fear to go.

Scoot, the wholly-owned budget carrier of Singapore Airlines (SIA), has demarcated a quiet cabin zone on board that would keep out children under the age of 12. The “ScootinSilence” zone, said the carrier’s chief executive Scott Campbell, would cater to “guests seeking an exclusive cabin, extra legroom and confidence that under 12s will be seated in another part of the aircraft.” As if in consolation, Mr Campbell added, risking conveying condescension although most likely he did not mean it, that young children “still have the rest of the aircraft.”

Had the initiative been introduced by SIA, there might be less of a perplexity. So, one wonders, why is Scoot introducing a restriction that even an airline like SIA which may be more interested in attracting the serious business traveller (not necessarily those travelling in the upper classes) is so far not prepared to consider? The budget market is largely characterised by leisure travel and by little differentiation; indeed, if the “silence cabin” works to attract more travellers (as different from demand by customers who would fly budget anyway), it would top as a high-value privilege at no additional charge.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Apparently, Scoot is doing what Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia’s subsidiary AirAsia X has already done early in the year when it introduced a “Quiet Zone” of some 7 rows just behind the premium section. Children under the age of 12 will be banned from the zone, which will feature more conducive “soft ambient” lighting which, it may be implied, is not something that young children would want or enjoy. As someone quickly points out, considering the smallness of the aircraft, you will still catch the wails of babies but for consolation farther away, but you will at least not get children running up and down the aisle, rocking in their seats and peering over your shoulders. Suffer the little children, so they say. AirAsia X chief executive Azran Osman-Rani described his carrier’s “Quiet Zone” as a “heavenly package for those who want peace of mind.”

Suffice to say that every traveller wants that “peace of mind” when they fly. It is often a matter of luck as you try to pick a seat that you hope is not next to a family of kids or away from the bulkhead where the bassinets are normally fixed. Noise is noise and it is disruptive, whether up front or in the rear end of the aircraft. AirAsia X and Scoot may be taking a step to improve a situation that is prone to elicit complaints, something that has been mulled over before by the big boys but reservations loom large.

Some two years ago when the issue was a hot industry topic, Virgin Atlantic had said it had no plans to introduce such zoning that bans children. Former Virgin Atlantic director Paul Charles said: “It would be a bad decision by an airline to ban children. Once you did, would you start banning other types of traveller? It would be a mistake.”

Yes, indeed. What about “fat or smelly people”, as one respondent to a survey asked? It could get nasty and become offensive. There were others who said adults who drank too much and became rowdy made a worse nuisance, so too groups of travellers who moved about between seats frequently, gathered to play cards and chatted loudly and ceaselessly. Where do you draw the line?

In fact, providing good “family” service is the pride of many full-service airlines. Japan Airlines provides exclusive Family Service counters and lounges at both Narita and Kansai International Airport that even well wishers may use.

A British Airways (BA) spokesperson had said: “We do a lot of research into what our customers want and are always looking into new ways of making their journey as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.” BA wanted it to be known that “we’re a full service airline that caters for both business travellers and family and leisure customers.” The last thing it would do is to suggest discrimination and make family with children the pariah of air travellers to be seated away from a self-assumed elitist class (and this is not referring to travellers in First and Business).

Malaysia Airlines may be the only full-service airline in the region to have introduced a kid-free zone in economy class. Children under 12 are not allowed to sit in the upper deck of its Airbus A380. The aim is to provide a more restful and enjoyable trip for business travellers flying in economy – again, as if that need for rest and enjoyment is exclusive to that category of travellers and not the rest. However, the airline said (as an afterthought, it would appear by the timing of this being issued subsequent to the earlier instruction): “Where there is overwhelming demand for seats in economy class from families with children and infants, resulting in full load in the main deck, we will still accommodate such demand in the 70-seat upper deck economy class zone.” Informatively, Malaysia Airlines does not allow infants in the first class cabin of its A380 and B747 aircraft.

To a certain degree, there may be more justification to apply the restriction in Business Class, purely on the basis of it being a different class – the underlying message being that there is a price to be paid for a different privilege. In fact, price alone may do the “weeding” job, whether intended or unintended. Even then, to declare it openly speaks of indiscretion. The lesson here is that there may be ways to achieve certain goals without turning it into a controversial issue and raising a furore. For example, airlines can consciously seat families with children in a certain zone without making it known it is an unspoken policy, but travellers may circumvent this or be none the wiser these days with internet seat selection and check-in. Then again, is it all that big a deal, really?

Of course, Scoot and AirAsia X would want to capitalise on the new feature as a draw, and why should it not be when it is offered at no extra charge? While deep down in the subconscious human heart one may abhor the discrimination, let’s face it, the unaffected adult traveller is but only normal to be selfish enough, given the opportunity, to be seated away from potentially disruptive children. Yet it may all come to naught if the select minority’s expectations are not met – say, for example, a child immediately behind the zoned row starts kicking the chair in front or some baby starts bawling – or if the less privileged majority feel a sense of unfair treatment since they do not pay any less for the same ride, or if families with children are turned off by the seeming discrimination. It is a more rewarding feeling to be seated a row immediately behind a higher paying class than knowing that a fellow same-class traveller is enjoying the perks that could have been yours.

The competition between budget carriers is even more intense than that between legacy airlines, in that there is little margin for differentiation. So the creation of a “no-kid division” should place Scoot and AirAsia X a cut above the rest. Will Jetstar be the next to announce such a feature? Considering the profile of the budget traveller and the business attitude and philosophy of budget carriers themselves, it may in the end all be much ado about nothing. By targeting what they perceive to be a special group of passengers, Scoot and AirAsia X may be looking to building loyalty of a certain group of travellers. However, brand loyalty in the budget market is not a major determinant in the choice of airline. So, the “quiet” or “silent” option is good only post factum and if available; in other words, a bonus to be enjoyed that one lucky time, as you might say.

But give Scoot and AirAsia credit if they additionally think of outplaying the big boys who are increasingly facing the threat of even loyal customers downgrading to take advantage of the much lower costs offered by budget carriers, all that in spite of the perks they dish out. Why then are these bigger airlines vacillating if at all they have thought about the strategic potential of a silent cabin? Or, is it a matter of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread?


About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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