Selling the Middle Seat

No one likes the middle seat. Now Lufthansa is introducing what is becoming known as the “throne” seat in its business class, where the 1-1-1 seating formation allows more space for the seat than the usual 1-2-1 formation.

Courtesy Lufthansa

However, that’s more like the seat in the middle row, in a class that is more frills-competitive. The real middle seat is one squeezed between two others in coach.

Seat designers are already at work to suggest ideas on how to make these less desirable seats more comfortable. US-based Molon Labe Designs for one has developed a “stagger seat” concept making the middle seat slightly below and behind its neighbours, in fact three inches wider than the window and aisle seats. It also allows access to at least half the length of the armrest because of the setback of the seat, since it would be quite awkward for the passenger on either side to stretch their elbow all the way back.

If that sounds good enough to relieve the anxiety of having to be squeezed in the middle, airlines don’t really see that as an airline problem. In fact, it may work to their benefit as an added incentive for travellers to book early just so they have a better chance of getting the seats they want or for them to want to pay for seat selection where this is charged separately.

Some airlines have mulled over charging more for aisle and window seats just so that the middle seat will look cheaper – taking advantage of consumer preferences. However, that would jack up the fare, which may then become less competitive across the industry. Conversely, if the middle seat comes genuinely cheaper, the appeal is not a foregone conclusion unless, perhaps – and only perhaps – the difference is substantial.

Ultimately, wherever you sit, it is more important what the other passengers seated beside, in front of and behind you are like. And that, you have no control over.

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A Brief History of Singapore Airlines Going Forward

Courtesy Bloomberg

The history of Singapore Airlines (SIA) dates back to the incorporation of Malayan Airways on May 1, 1947. The airline changed its name to Malaysia Airways in line with the formation of Malaysia in 1963. The entity splits into SIA and Malaysian Airlines System in 1972, seven years after Singapore left the Malaysian federation and became a nation in its own right. Then on SIA expanded quickly and became one of the world’s top airlines.

SIA established Tradewinds in 1975 as a regional carrier catering mainly to the leisure market. This was SilkAir’s predecessor as the airline looked beyond into the business segment and assumed its new identity in 1976. With the growth of budget travel, SIA partnered leading budget carrier Ryanair to set up Tiger Airways which commenced services in September 2004. Tiger underwent several changes over the years, performing below expectations. In the meantime SIA set up Scoot, a fully-owned budget subsidiary said to be targeting the medium (and now long-haul) while Tiger focused on the short-haul. The line soon blurred, and by the end of 2016, Tiger was assimilated into Scoot.

As SIA expanded as it grew, so did it reconsolidate by contracting as the aviation landscape shifted. The demise of Tiger was imminent when Scoot was formed, not only to extend the range of the budget operations but also to recapture ground lost by Tiger. The intra-competition that followed did not make much sense. The costly lesson from Tiger is that it can be hard to repair a badly tarnished image and easier to start a new slate.

Now, from four down to three, will there be further restructuring of the SIA stable?

Courtesy AFP

According to OAG, an air travel intelligence agency based in the UK, Scoot has overtaken SilkAir in the number of seats offered. The budget airline is also about a third as big as SIA in the economy market. And it is growing at a faster rate than its regional sibling. Besides, parent SIA looks set to refocus on premium travel, a move that some analysts believe to favour the expansion of Scoot, particularly when the line between budget and legacy airlines begins to blur across the industry.

This does not augur well for a carrier like SilkAir operating in the middle of the field. Since its inception, the so-called regional carrier has been operating in the shadow of the parent airline and continues to do so despite recent efforts to change that image. Does this forebode a merger between SilkAir and Scoot, going forward, although the former has time and again insisted it is not a budget airline? Can Scoot on the other hand be more than a budget carrier?

What’s in a name anyway? So says the Bard, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

SIA’s calculated bet on premium travel

http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/sias-calculated-bet-premium-travel

Benefits come with a price, so British Airways is boarding cheap fares last

Gate boarding procedures vary across the industry, from an open system of “anyone can board at any time” to specific policies that assign the order of who get on first. This only becomes an issue with economy passengers as premium classes as has been their privilege may board on their own time.

Because of limited overhead bin space, economy passengers may compete to board early. Traditionally most airlines board passengers from the rear so as to avoid bottlenecks in the aisle. The idea is to hasten the process that may cause a delay in take-off if it becomes problematic. From the perspective of efficiency, that seems to make a lot of sense.

Courtesy British Airways

That, until some airlines hit on the opportunity to make boarding a benefit to be purchased in a bucket of ancilliary charges. Now British Airways (BA) has announced that it will board passengers who have paid cheaper economy fares last. BA said the new procedures aim to “speed up the process and make it simpler for customers to understand.” Really? That’s a hard pill to swallow.

BA’s defence is that this is already a procedure practised by some other carriers. Yes, US carriers such as the Big Three of American, United and Delta have introduced basic economy fares – their version of budget fare to counter the no-frills competition – which do just that besides other non-entitlements such as no seat assignment until boarding at the gate.

But there is one difference – passengers are made aware of that sub-class before they amke the choice. However, most airlines sell different fares for the same economy seats, designed to help them sell the seats. One wonders if you purchase a ticket during a promotion period and become committed to flying maybe a year later, will you now be penalised for not paying a higher fare that is usually the case closer to the date of the flight? It is only fair that customers know and understand what they are paying for.

Of course, BA’s new procedures have already raised a lot of ire among its customers. Some of them feel that while they may have purchased cheap fares, they do not deserve to be made to feel cheap or to be treated as such. Oh well, as some people may say, you have the choice. Or, take it with a pinch of salt as Banjobob@scottishcringe says: “Nothing quite like a British class system to let you know your place!” Or, punch back with a new challenge, as Martin Lovatt wrote on Twitter: “I wonder if disembarkation will be in the reverse order then?” Now, that will be quite a task managing the process in economy based on fare.

What do Conde Nast best airports have in common?

Yet again – and again – no surprise who tops Conde Nast’s pick of the best airport, or even the top five which are located either in Asia or the Middle East What do these airports have in common?

According to Conde Nast, they stand out “with enough amenities and time-wasters that you might be a little late boarding that flight.” Such frills include indoor waterfalls and great restaurants. In other words, they have to be more than just a fucntional facility for air transportation – however efficient although one must assume efficiency is a key consideration.

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Top in the ranks is Singapore Changi, followed by Seoul’s Incheon, Dubai International, Hong Kong International and Doha’s Hamad International.

Size matters. They are all huge airports. Changi has a handling capacity of 82 million passengers a year. Incheon is adding a second terminal which will double capacity to 100 million passengers annually, and Dubai Intl is aiming for 200 million passengers yearly. Hong Kong Intl handled more than 70 million passengers last year. Opened only in 2014, Hamad Intl is fast growing, recording a throughput of 37 million passengers last year, an increase of 20%.

They are hub airports. Dubai is now the world’s largest airport for international passenger throughput, edging out London Heathrow. Hong Kong Intl is positioning itself as a gateway to Asia in competition with Changi, with connections to some 50 destinations in China.

They are supported by strong home airlines with extensive connections: Qatar Airways (Hamad Intl), Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong Intl), Emirates Airlines (Dubai Intl), Korean Air and Asiana Airlines (Incheon) and Singapore Airlines (Changi).

They are modern with state-of-the-art infrastructure, and are constantly upgrading. Changi has recently added a fourth terminal where passengers can expect hassle-free processes from check-in to boarding without the need of any human contact.

The Asian airports offer fast rail connections to the city.

And, they are all competing to provide the most alluring “time-wasters”. Changi made news when it offered a swimming pool where passengers with time on their hand could relax and soak int he tropical sun. Now that’s also available at Hamad Intl, where you may even play a game of squash too. While Dubai is known to be one of the world’s biggest duty-free shopping centres, Hong Kong Intl is reputed for its great restaurants. Incheon is uniquely Korean with its “Cultural Street” that showcases local cuisine, dance performances, and arts and craft workshops. It also boasts an indoor skating rink and a spa. Hamad Intl too has an exhibit hall for that cultural touch.

Changi comes closest to being a destination in itself where it is said a passenger wouldn’t mind a flight delay. Besides the swimming pool, there are: an indoor waterfall, a butterfly garden, a swimming pool, vast play areas for families with children, and an array of restaurants and shops. And for passengers with at least a transit of six hours, you can hope on a free city tour.

But, of course, all these would not mean much if they are not supported by efficiency and friendly service.

Qatar Airways acquires stake in Cathay Pacific: Is there a strategy in place?

IT is not surprising to see cash-rich Qatar Airways buying stakes in other carriers. It already has stakes in International Airlines Group (20%) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus; South America’s LATAM Airlines Group (10%) and Italian airline Meridiana (49%). It was however rebuffed by American Airlines.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

The Middle East airline’s latest buy is a 9.6% stake in one Asia’s leading airlines, namely Cathay Pacific, for HK$6.5bn (US$662m). Now that might not have come as expected, although both airlines which are OneWorld partners have publicly acknowledged the outcome as a positive one. Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker was pleased with “massive potential for the future” and Cathay chief executive Rupert Hogg looked forward to “a continued constructive relationship.”

Unlike Gulf rival Emirates Airlines, Qatar has seen acquisitions in key partners as a way to access the wider market. Tying up with Cathay would open up opportunities to tap into the wide and growing China market. That depends on how much influence Qatar can assert on Cathay’s China channels, quite unlike the Qantas-Emirates’ relationship although the latter was merely a commercial arrangement. Yet too the way that the aviation business is shaped by the somewhat promiscuous relationships across the industry, it may well be a sitting investment for profit, albeit Cathay’s recent poorer performance.

Perhaps Qatar’s move may be telling more of Cathay, which in fact is a rival airline. Things may not be looking as good at the Hong Kong-based carrier as it embarked on stringent cost-cutting measures to turn its fortune around. Interestingly, news of Qatar’s interest was met with a 5% dip in the price of Cathay’s stock.

United Airlines moves ahead of Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Getty Images

United Airlines does it again, stealing march on rival Singapore Airlines launching its nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Singapore – now the world’s longest nonstop flight – on Oct 28. The flight covers a distance of 8,700 miles and may take as long as 18 hours.

SIA plans to introduce a similar service next year.

Back in February last year, United started a nonstop from San Francisco to Singapore, ahead of SIA’s introduction which came months later in October.

Demand for United’s Los Angeles flight seems healthy, considering the low launch fares for a round trip as low as US$384 which no doubt boosted the sale. No doubt it is good publicity to raise awareness, and it looks like the competition will benefit travellers when SIA joins the race next year. Meantime, United enjoys the run-in to build loyalty.

In Singapore, United’s Vice President of Atlantic and Pacific Sales Marcel Fuchs said: “United is proud to launch the long-awaited Singapore-Los Angeles route for our customers in Singapore.”

In the bigger picture, United must be looking at the initiative as being “the leading US carrier to Asia” as mentioned by its senior vice president of worldwide sales Dave Hilfman, who added that the new route would consolidate the airline’s position in Asia. Conversely, Mr Fuchs said: “The addition of this new exclusive service gives more options for our customers to conveniently connect to our extensive US network.”