Move over, Ryanair, the new low-cost model is Jetstar

Courtesy AFP/Getty Images

Courtesy AFP/Getty Images


REPORTING a net profit of 602m euros (US$831m) for the six months to end-September and despite an increase of 1% year-on-year, Ryanair yet again warned that profits are likely to fall for the full year. The airline reiterated an earlier exhortation about the numbers dipping as low as 500m euros compared to last year’s 570m euros, thus negating the gain made in the first half.

It is bad news that profits will fall despite an expected drop in fares by 10% over the winter months. Ryanair attributed this to “increased price competition, softer economic conditions in Europe and the weaker euro-sterling exchange rate.” As a result, the airline may ground some aircraft.

The truth is that Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier is beginning to feel that its hitherto successful modus operandi, hailed as a true budget model, may be finally running up against the wall. Surprise, surprise, surprise it is that the airline is talking about change, and more specifically in the department of customer service when previously it may even be said to have been sitting pretty comfortable and breathing arrogance about being labelled brusque, unfriendly and uncompassionate. Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary acknowledged it is now time to “listen to customers” in a somewhat belated but hopefully never too late attempt to retain customers and attract new ones.

Among the measures to be introduced are: the return of allocated seating in February next year for a smoother boarding process and to enable families and other groups of passengers to sit together; the allowance of a small second carry-on bag, which will be a bonus compared to other low-cost operators; and a 24-hour grace period to allow passengers to correct minor booking errors, a far cry from the alleged erstwhile practice of faulting or penalizing passengers on the slightest technical inaccuracy. It is a lesson learnt that in an increasingly competitive environment, customers do have a choice.

But, of course, many upstarts in the same niche market as Ryanair have failed to make the same strides as the Irish carrier. Some of them tried in vain to tweak the low-cost model to do one better and then ran the risks of evolving an expensive but misplaced hybrid model. Ryanair made no secret about flying the dollar and that everything else was baloney. Can you blame it that in its robust years it had not anticipated that this day of reckoning would arrive?

Image courtesy ABC

Image courtesy ABC


Younger Jetstar Airways and its sister airlines operating in a different part of the world might have gleaned some valuable lessons from the doyen’s experience. A subsidiary of Australian flag carrier Qantas, Jetstar has made its mark not only domestically but also in New Zealand and across Asia with local partners in Singapore, Vietnam, Japan and soon Hong Kong. It is fast becoming the region’s favourite low-cost carrier, competing with AirAsia and Tigerair whose founding fathers included Ryanair. Ranked tops in Australia, Jetstar Airways was second to AirAsia for best low-cost carrier worldwide in the Skytrax 2013 survey. Singapore-based Jetstar Asia was ranked seventh in the same category, but there was no mention of either Ryanair or Tiger Airways (now Tigerair) in the top ten list. In the Asia category, Jetstar Asia was ranked ahead of Tiger Airways. For Europe, Ryanair was outside the radar.

Jetstar is spreading its wings across Asia as Ryanair has done in Europe. It is enjoying an Asian boom, posting double-digit passenger growth. Since 2009, it has flown 23 million passengers within Asia and 10 million passengers from Australia to Asia. However, as pointed out by Jetstar CEO Jayne Hrdlicka, “low fares are just part of the story.” For too long while the going was good, competing on the lowest fares was everything for Ryanair. Price leadership has to be complemented by good products and services. Jetstar has identified “customer advocacy” as one of its drivers for growth. Providing a consistently good experience each time that a passenger flies is the surest way of attracting returning as well as new customers. It is the best advertisement that you can get.

Jetstar has contributed positively to the bottom line of the Qantas Group even though its last full year (ending June 2013) profit dipped by 32%, attributable largely to start-up losses in Jetstar Japan and Hong Kong. Is Jetstar, compared to standalone Ryanair, advantaged by its being an offshoot of an established legacy brand? Jetstar may attribute its success largely to its focus on local and independent management, but you cannot rule out parental influence. The airline is not alone in that aspect, if you consider the many others so conceived. This could well be the reason why AirAsia failed to work with partner All Nippon Airways (ANA) in the Jetstar Japan venture which has since been fully assimilated by ANA and the airline renamed Vanilla Air. Yet Qantas and Japan Airlines so far seem to have done all right in the case of Jetstar Japan.

It is not a given. The parental association can benefit or be detrimental to the offshoot carrier. United Airlines and Delta Airlines were reluctant parents to Ted and Song respectively. Or, it can disappoint. The magic of Singapore Airlines has not seemed to rub off Tigerair, not even Scoot that it wholly owns.

Good bloodline may provide an advantageous lift-off; the rest depends on the offspring coming into its own. Jetstar has scored many firsts since its inception, among them the first LCC in Asia-Pacific to introduce customer self-service for changes and disruptions, SMS boarding passes, and the unbundling of check-in bags. It was also the first LCC to put on board iPADS with the latest content and the first LCC to offer interline and codeshare flights. Soon it will be the first LCC to launch avatar chat (“Ask Jess”).

In all fairness to Ryanair, it is an equally innovative airline and it should be commended for being a bold one too. Here is where the path diverges for both airlines. As a true blue low cost carrier, Ryanair is focused on measures aimed at reducing costs further. The first principle of economics is that ceteris paribus, consumers will go for the lowest cost. If, for example, you do not fancy eating up in the air, why should you subsidise the cost of meals that other passengers tuck in? You pay only when you want to eat. Budget carriers, including legacy airlines – notably North American carriers – operating domestic or the short haul routes are already subscribing to that principle. Ryanair goes further with other measures such as charging a fee for counter check-in and has no compunction about bumping off a passenger who arrives at the airport without a pre-printed boarding pass. Scrimping on staff numbers to provide customer service also helps to reduce its operating costs. Mr O’Leary raised some brows when he suggested charging for the use of the aircraft loo and providing standing room only fares. The vibes turn out to be negative.

Jetstar on the other hand offers more positive solutions to perceived constraints that may be considered by many travellers as necessary evils of the budget travel mode. It has adopted a consolatory approach that has earned it brownie points. What little additional costs it incurs on the swings, it more than makes up for it on the roundabouts. Ancillary services are a major earner for the airline.

Move over, Ryanair, the new low-cost model is Jetstar. Still, it is quite something to hear Mr O’Leary say: “Listen to customers.”

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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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