A hub airport needs a strong home-base carrier – but does it really?

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

INCOMING Cathay Pacific Chief Operating Officer Rupert Hogg who will be taking up his new position in March loses no time in marking his presence as one with a voice and views to be heard. At a recent meeting in Vancouver, Canada with officials from Vancouver International Airport (VIA), he offered a piece of advice that might not sit too well with his host but certainly something that Air Canada in its battle to check VIA’s enthusiasm to open its doors to foreign carriers willy-nilly might use to support its case.

Mr Hogg emphasized the need of a strong home-base airline to anchor an airport’s hub operations. He said: “Only a home-base carrier has the wherewithal to create the banks of incoming flights and make them connect to the banks of outgoing flights.”

There is much truth in Mr Hogg’s statement. No one, including Mr Hogg, can resist citing the opposing fate of Dubai and Bahrain as an example. Both airports are quite on par in terms of an advantageous geographical location and the capability to provide good facilities, but Bahrain today is unable to achieve the kind of success that Dubai is enjoying because it lacks a strong home-base carrier like Dubai’s Emirates Airlines. Gulf Air, once the leading airline of the Middle East and which was expanding rapidly in the ‘80s and becoming the first airline from the region to fly to Australia, has succumbed to the competition posed largely by rival Emirates and by other younger airlines such as Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi) and Qatar Airways (Doha). Gulf Air has since ceased operations to major airports such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney. So too spelt the decline of Bahrain as a major Middle East hub.

There is more to the story of the decline of Bahrain, which did enjoy brisk business in its early days when Dubai and Emirates were relatively little known; it became badly affected when new jets plying the kangaroo and east-west routes no longer needed a technical stop in a city that offered little else and their operators preferred airports in Asian cities such as Bangkok and Singapore. Bangkok offered the shortest route from Sydney to European cities and the additional attraction as a touristy stopover, and Singapore topped the efficiency table for best connectivity and the lowest probability of a costly disruption.

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

But Mr Hogg’s advice to VIA, as it appeared to be intended, might be incidental. He was actually talking about Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), and their symbiotic relationship. Mr Hogg cited the synonymous growth of both Cathay and HKIA in support of his argument. Similarly, as another example, we can look at the relationship between Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Singapore Changi Airport. In fact, in many of the recent surveys such as those conducted by Skytrax, the awards for the best airline and for the best airport seem to go hand-in-hand: SIA/Changi, Cathay/HKIA, Asiana/Incheon and Emirates/Dubai amongst them. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine London Heathrow without British Airways, Frankfurt without Lufthansa, Sydney without Qantas, Tokyo Narita without Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways, and major American hubs without the spoke patterns of resident American airlines.

Mr Hogg’s argument may therefore come across as being self-serving in the interest of Cathay, which has protested Qantas setting up Jetstar Hong Kong jointly with China Eastern Airlines and a local company. In that respect, his view is one-sided, to think that it is the airline that grows the airport (and not the other way round) although one definitely cannot deny the airline’s contribution to an airport’s success. The question is: Does an airport similarly contribute to the success of its home-base airline (or for that matter a visiting airline)? More specifically, how much of Cathay’s success can be attributed to HKIA’s positioning (and for the sake of comparison that of SIA to Changi’s)?

Mr Hogg said: “As you can see in the case of Dubai, you need geographical location, but if you don’t have a successful home-base carrier, you have nothing,”

Those were strong words, which led us to the next question: Can an airport and its home-base airline succeed independently or one without the other?

While geography is not everything, it cannot be denied that it is an important factor. Mr Hogg would not refute that, as he did say that airports and airlines must leverage their geographical advantages. But as the world shrinks with technological advances, this importance can shift, as when Bahrain lost its geographical advantage with the introduction of modern jets that allows airlines to overfly it. In the same way, Mr Hogg did not think that SIA poses a threat to Cathay in the North American market. He reasoned: “If you look at the Great Circle Route, Hong Kong is directly on the route. The reality is, with current technology, Singapore is too far south to effectively serve North America. If you are travelling to India, you are not going to go all the way south, then come back up north to Delhi.”

Changi has often been cited for its geographical advantage over its regional rivals, and no doubt this advantage has contributed to SIA’s success. But the lesson of Bahrain continues to hold true, in yet another example when Qantas decided to move its hub for European flights from Changi to Dubai. So Mr Hogg was right here to think that geography is not everything but a starter’s advantage. Qantas’ exit from Changi has more to do with a shift in marketing strategy. So in the same way, hypothetically, can SIA do a Qantas on Cathay in the case of Indian traffic, even though logically the shorter flight distance favours Hong Kong but not that much more considering the close proximity of HKIA and Changi to each other?

Indeed, Cathay should be grateful for HKIA’s growing popularity as an Asian gateway, advantaged by its location at the doorstep of the huge Chinese market. That, while not denying Cathay’s contribution, Mr Hogg might accede, has to do with geography too.

We have come round a full circle to recognizing that Mr Hogg’s view cannot be viewed as the definitive scenario of things to come. At best, it was pre-emptive. In spite of the setback caused by the Qantas rerouting of its kangaroo runs, Changi continues to register higher passenger volumes. In 2013, it handled a record 53.7 million passengers, an increase of 5.0% attributed to growth in regional travel, fuelled particularly by the burgeoning budget business. As a hub airport, it is confronted by growth issues of the airport per se vis-à-vis the interest of its home-base carrier. So it is with HKIA and VIA. Changi boasts an open skies policy that may intensify the competition for SIA. HKIA will face the pressure of allowing more airlines to call at its port in view of its proximity to the growing market of the Chinese hinterland and its promotion as an alternative Asian gateway, but this has disturbed Cathay somewhat. VIA sees its future in connecting with more Asian carriers across the Pacific, positioning itself as the western gateway to the rest of North America, the initiative meeting with objection from Air Canada. How then will the airlines figure in their growth plans?

Although it was in Vancouver that Mr Hogg spoke, his message to HKIA on Cathay’s position is clear. His view was hardly a new one, but it was a timely reminder of how as the competition among hub airports and that among airlines begin to move divergently, the concerned parties may increasingly lock horns over whose interests are more important.

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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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