What defines a best airline?

What defines a best airline, considering the different surveys that rank them? Conde Nast Travel has just released its readers’ choice of the best in 2017, and it is no surprise the list is made up of Asian, Middle East, European and SW Pacific carriers.

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Of course, it depends on the readership, but recognizing that, it also points to what really makes these airlines stand out. It is clear that the premium class service weighs heavily – the seat comfort and the fine food.

Etihad Airways (ranked #16) offers “the future of first-class comfort: a three-room “residence” with a bedroom, private bath with shower, and lounge.” Emirates (#4) offers “posh perks for premium fliers – cocktail lounges, in-flight showers… part of the reason it scores so high among travellers.” And the suites on Singapore Airlines (#3) offer “a pair of fully flat recliners that can be combined into a double bed.”

Mention is made of the premium economy class in almost all the ranked airlines” KLM (#20), Lufthansa (#19), Japan Airlines (#17), All Nippon Airways (#13), Qantas (#12), Cathay Pacific (#10), Virgin Atlantic (#7), Virgin Australia (#6), Singapore Airlines (#3) and Air New Zealand (#1).

So it may appear to be the voice of the premium travellers that is being heard. Maybe coach travellers aren’t too concerned about the ranking, more driven by price and less frilly factors, although to be fair, the Conde Nast report did mention of at least one airline, i.e. Etihad Airways (#16), not ignoring “those sitting in the back.” While many travellers may resign to the belief that the economy class is about the same across the industry, it is reasonable to assume that an airline that strives to please its customers in the front cabins will most probably carry that culture or at least part of it to the rear.

Although you may draw consensus across many of the surveys, it is best best to treat each one of them in isolation. It is more meaningful to try and draw intra conclusions within the findings of the particular survey.

You will note in the Conde Nast findings, there is an absence of American (including Canadian) carriers, never mind that of African and South American carriers.

Asiana Airlines (#8) is ranked ahead of Korean Air (#11).

All Nippon Airways (#13) is ranked ahead of Japan Airlines (#17). V

Virgin Australia (#6) is ranked ahead of Qantas (#12).

The order of the “Big 3” Gulf carriers is as follows: Qatar Airways (#2), Emirates (#4) and Etihad Airways (#16).

Of European carriers, there is the conspicuous absence of the big names of British Airways (compare Virgin Atlantic #7) and Air France, and the pleasant surprise of Aegean Airlines (#9) while SWISS seems to be regaining its erstwhile status years ago as being the industry standard.

The best belongs to Air New Zealand as the quiet achiever.

Ultimately, the results also depend on the group of respondents whose experiences may be limited to certain airlines.

Other airlines ranked in the top 20 of the Conde Nast survey: Finnair (#14), Turkish Airlines (#15), EVA Air (#18).


Competing to be the best: How reliable are survey readings?

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

SKYTRAX has named Cathay Pacific as the world’s best airline in 2014, displacing last year’s winner, Emirates. In second and third place are Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines (SIA) respectively. Asian and Middle East carriers dominated the ranks of the top ten: Emirates (4th), Turkish Airlines (5th), All Nippon Airways (6th), Garuda Indonesia (7th), Asiana Airlines (8th), Etihad Airways (9th) and Lufthansa (10th). No American carrier was placed.

Are those really the world’s best airlines?

The winning airlines are unlikely to question the validity of any survey, as you can see how many of them are listing awards from all and sundry like a laundry list as endorsement of their good reputation. The corollary must be that if you accept the accolade willy nilly, so must you recognize one and all sideswipes.

Which leads to the next question: Is Skytrax the standard?

Skytrax claims its World Airline Awards to be “the global benchmarks of airline excellence”. The winners are decided by 18.85 million travellers from over 160 countries, and that should take care of any misgiving about the survey having an inadequate population and most importantly, the bias factor or its susceptibility to political influence.

Cathay CEO Ivan Chiu said: “The World’s Best Airline award is particularly important to us because it was decided by the votes of close to 19 million travellers from around the world.” Cathay was placed sixth last year and has won the award four times, previously in 2003, 2005 and 2009.

Emirates president Tim Clark said: “These awards are widely regarded as the industry’s benchmark for excellence. To be voted ‘World’s Best Airline’ by millions of discerning travellers is something… to be proud of.”

Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker said: “These awards are highly rewarding as they are judiciously voted by passengers a true account of the overall experience felt by customers who have travelled with the airline.” Qatar won in 2011 and 2012.

Courtesy Etihad Airways

Courtesy Etihad Airways

However, Etihad’s withdrawal from participation apparently over differences in the methodology may tell a different story. Although it had never won, Etihad was consistently placed in the top ten in the past five years, ahead of Emirates in some years. Despite its withdrawal, Etihad was still ranked in this year’s survey because according to Skytrax, “an airline cannot be withdrawn from the World Airline Awards since these results are directly decided by customers.” That statement should add to the survey’s credibility, yet without taking sides and arguing the toss about fairness, one can only suspect and understand that the subjective nature of the survey (and of any survey) is naturally exposed to dissatisfaction, whether baseless or with reasons which may well be valid, the way that the Oscars results do not sit as squarely with a lot of people. Now and then you get an outstanding actor declaring his or her disinterest in the awards.

The issue is usually one of weightage and relevance of selection. However designed, the respondents may to some degree be steered by what is being asked. Take, as matter of curiosity, the 2014 Skytrax survey readings for the top ten. SIA is ranked ahead of Cathay for inflight entertainment, cabin cleanliness, First Class amenities, First Class cabin overall, seats in First, Business and Economy, and First Class meals; but close behind Cathay in other areas except for its noted absence for airport services, Business Class amenities and Business Class meals. Yet Cathay takes the cake.

It is encouraging to see breakthroughs by airlines such as Turkish and Garuda in a game dominated by the familiar big names. Interestingly, Turkish ranks above everyone else except Emirates and SIA for inflight entertainment. It is no surprise that Garuda tops for cabin crew, the epitome of Asian service culture, in a category swept by Qatar (6th) and nine other Asian carriers: Cathay (2nd), SIA (3rd), Asiana (4th), Malaysia Airlines (5th), EVA Air (7th), ANA (8th), Thai Airways (9th) and Hainan Airlines (10th). In like fashion, with the exception of KLM (8th) and Qantas (9th), the airport services category belonged to Asian carriers: ANA (1st), EVA (2nd), Thai (3rd), Asiana (4th), Cathay (5th), Korean Air (6th), Garuda (7th) and Dragonair (10th).

Yet, giving credit where it is due, one may question the appropriateness of comparing a carrier having limited global presence with others that are more exposed in the global arena, and how a population of largely local respondents compares with the wider global population. Hence it may be more meaningful to look at niche rankings, but we all love the sweeping titles of the best overall, don’t we? Even regionalized readings must be viewed in their proper context. The Qantas Group went ga-ga over Jetstar Airways’ win as best low-cost airlines in Australia/Pacific over AirAsia X (2nd), Scoot (3rd) and Tiger Airways (4th), but the world’s best is AirAsia followed by AirAsia X in second place ahead of Jetstar Airways (4th). Note how the preferences change when the population mix changes.

Who then really is the best overall? It may be difficult to say for sure one definite airline, and under the circumstances a wider reading of the top three or five or up to ten may be a more sensible assessment. The contest is to get into that magic circle of the elite.

Courtesy TODAY

Courtesy TODAY

Equally significant is the consistency over time. Airlines such as Cathay, Emirates, Qatar and SIA may pat themselves on the back for being there long enough to deserve their stripes. Narrow that down further, and you will see that only two airlines – Qatar and SIA – have been consistently placed in the top three in the past five years. Asiana had a good run from 2010 to 2012. Cathay was just outside in 4th place until it tumbled to 6th last year and bounced back to be this year’s winner. The wider reading should lead some airlines such as Qantas to ask why it has dropped out of the respectable club.

One survey alone cannot be definitive, hence winning across notable surveys may strengthen the reading. Compare the Skytrax results with Conde Nast Traveler’s assessment by its readers – based on the same principle of uninfluenced feedback – and you will begin to understand why. In its ranking for foreign carriers (outside America), Etihad is placed 4th behind Emirates (2nd) and ahead of Qatar (7th). Cathay is 7th, and the winner is SIA. Korean Air (8th) did better than rival Asiana (18th), and so did Japan Airlines (16th) over ANA (21st). The Conde Nast top ten includes Virgin Atlantic (3rd), Air New Zealand (5th) and Swiss International (10th).

Then there is the annual Airline of the Year award given by the Air Transport World (ATW) magazine. The criteria take into consideration financial performance (which debunks the myth that the world’s favourite airline is not necessarily the most profitable or even profitable) and visible leaps forward in services. However, naming only one winner can often lead to suspicions of political influence (the way that some beauty pageants are said to be when a winner is crowned) and the tendency to pass the honour around although airlines such as ANA (2007 and 2013) and Air New Zealand (2010 and 2012) had been named twice. Cathay (2006), SIA (2008) and Asiana (2009) had all had their turns. Delta Air Lines is ATW’s Airline of the Year 2014.

Several other magazines also dish out their own annual awards, which may be based on their readers’ feedback, or assessed by a panel of judges or arrived at combining the two methods. Some of them target niche markets such as awards that recognize the best airline for business travel. That in a way avoids spillover or halo effects and sectarian prejudices as, for example, an airline that impresses in First and Business Class may pay scant attention to what happens in Economy.

Nevertheless, surveys are useful tools in maintaining competition. Everyone loves to win, unless you do not give a hoot about how the world sees it and how that may affect your bottom line. So too, everybody loves a winner; but that is no guarantee that the traveller will necessarily fly with the named best airline. Without downplaying their influence on the market, such awards probably mean more to the airlines than the travellers.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Asiana crash raises questions about safety procedure

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

The Asiana Airlines tragedy at San Francisco International Airport when its Boeing B777 crash-landed and caused the death of two teenage girls and injured several others of the 291 passengers on board is likely to cause concerns among potential customers for some time.

The Korean airline said mechanical failure did not appear to have been the cause but revealed that the pilot landing the aircraft was a trainee doing it for the first time. However, he was assisted by another more experienced pilot, which was apparently an industry practice. It is likely to raise questions as to whether with only 43 flying hours in a Boeing 777 he was adequately prepared for the task, and whether the supervision was sufficiently executed.

Initial inquiries suggested that the plane was flying “significantly below” its target speed on approach, and a last-minute effort to ditch the landing came too late.

Air travellers are likely to also find disturbing the confirmation from US officials that a navigation system helping pilots descend safely had been turned off for maintenance since June. The Glide Path is particularly useful for landings in bad weather conditions, but on that fateful day of the Asiana crash, the weather was reportedly clear and sunny. Still, it is disturbing to learn that no contingency plan has been made for maintenance downtime of a safety system as one wonders if it could have helped avoid the disaster. You cannot leave it to chance where safety is concerned.

Asiana was ranked fifth in the 2013 Skytrax World Top Airlines survey.

Female Asiana crew want to wear pants

Photo credit: GETTY

Photo credit: GETTY

THINK again if you believe female cabin crew should only wear dresses and skirts. Asiana Airlines has been asked by South Korea’s human rights commission to ease its dress code to allow female flight attendants to wear pants. The ruling is not binding, but the airline said it would consider pants as an option in future uniform designs.

Many airlines, notably those in the west, have already included pants as part of the uniform for their female crews. For the Asiana crew, it is a victory for the 3,400 female staff who are said to be subject to a very stringent dress code that includes no glasses (which the airline has now allowed), a limit on the number of hairpins and manicured nails at all times.

Three reasons have been cited for the relaxation. First, safety, the one reason that no one wants to refute. But really, where does one draw the line? As Asiana spokesperson Min Man-ki said, “(We) cannot expect flight attendants to wear track suits and sneakers just for safety.” Now one imagines if the sexy qipao worn by female crew of Chinese carriers such as China Airlines, and the unique sarong kebaya won by those of South-east Asian airlines such as Singapore Airlines are any less safe. It is almost inconceivable that they should trade those for pants.

I risk being branded sexist to say I will not forget the elegance of a Korean Air flight attendant in her hanbok paring a pear. Indeed, as Mr Min explained to CNN, “The uniform was designed based on hanbok, Korean traditional dress — women didn’t wear pants traditionally when they wore hanbok.”

At which point therefore does maintaining a certain image become sexist, and upholding a certain standard of grooming become unreasonable? Which, perhaps, goes to explain the noticeable difference between the immaculate presentation of Asian crew compared to the not so fastidious image of American crew. I am told that in the early days of one Asian airline, the crew would stand in line to be inspected lest their nails were unpresentable or their hair was falling out of place.

A second reason cited for Asiana’s consideration was comfort. Perhaps so, and an important criterion. Then again, Mr Min’s comment about track suits and sneakers may be as applicable here. But that would be stretching the argument a little too far. Sure, some budget carriers have gone the way of t-shirts but for the “hang lose” image they wish to project.

Third, the rights to choose. This is probably the thrust of the move upon which the first two reasons were included to lend support to. Denying women that rights would be deemed to be discriminatory, though male crews are unlikely to ask to be permitted to wear dresses and skirts. And dare anyone say that women do not look as good in pants!

A tale of three airlines in a rough year: SIA, Cathay and Qantas

IT has not been a good year for Singapore Airlines (SIA), Cathay Pacific Airways and Qantas – these three airlines that are the closest rivals in the Asia-Pacific region. What they do usually make headline aviation news, whether in shaping up the competition or feeding the gossip mill, and the airlines themselves most probably are keeping a close watch of one another’s moves.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

It is a year that they share the common woe of falling profits, with Qantas being the worst hit, reporting deepening losses for its international operations. In May, SIA reported profits plunging 60 per cent with a Q4 loss for fiscal year 2011/12. Cathay very quickly followed with the warning that its first half for 2012 “will be disappointing due to the triple whammy of soaring fuel costs, continuing soft demand in our cargo business and worsening yields on the passenger side.” Qantas had already in February reported a 52-per cent plunge in first half profits for fiscal 2011/12, with CEO Allan Joyce renewing a call for change because of “highly competitive markets and tough global economy in which we operate.”

As anticipated, Cathay in August reported first half loss for 2012 of HK$935 million (US$121 million). At the same time Qantas posted net group loss of A$244 million (US$254 million) for the year ending June 30, while its international operations suffered a greater loss of A$450 million. Going forward, Mr Joyce reiterated that “our biggest challenge is Qantas International.” Earlier in May, the Australian flag carrier had announced a split of the airline operations into autonomous international and domestic units. SIA followed in October with reports of its group profit for first half of FY2012/13 dipping 30 per cent to S$168 million (US$137 million), and a worse Q2 performance, the profit falling by a higher margin of 54 per cent.

So what’s new? Both SIA and Cathay are not expecting the immediate future to be substantially kinder. The reality of the global economy aside, the greater danger lies in the resignation that it is a given. All three airlines have effectively softened the impact of anticipated poor performance; the news is passé when everyone’s boat is rocking in the same rough waters. What is needed to rough up any assumed resignation is for one of them to break the expectation barrier with better performance news.

Courtesy smh.com.au

Will it be Qantas first to the finishing line with that ray of hope, having dished out probably the year’s most impacting development when it announced in September a partnership with Emirates Airlines that would shift the hub for its Europe-bound flights from Singapore to Dubai, providing access to a wider network of destinations in Europe, Africa and the Middle-East?

That could have been the trigger for SIA’s acquisition of  a 10-per cent equity interest in Virgin Australia – Qantas’ arch-rival – which is already 20 per-cent owned by Etihad Airways – Emirates’ competitor – so soon after an earlier commercial arrangement that would have the two airlines cooperate in seamless transfers and shared use of airport lounges. (See Singapore Airlines’ interest in Virgin Australia: Expedience or Strategy, Nov 7, 2012). At the same time, SIA announced its sale of a 60-per cent stake in Tiger Australia to Virgin – a move more expected than one of surprise, as an opportunity for SIA to start shaking off a troubling investment and for Virgin to strengthen its Australian competitive edge. (See Singapore Airlines releases Tiger into Virgin’s lair, Oct 31, 2012). SIA certainly feels challenged, when oncee it used to be driving the competition, but now reacting to it. It should be interesting to see how the competition plays out.

The year has seen Qantas, more than SIA and Cathay, going through a rough patch of bad publicity, largely the result of the aftermath of industrial disputes in the previous year, incidents of poor services such as the inordinately long delay out of Dallas-Fort Worth because of a spat between the operating pilots, and, of course, the poor bottom-line numbers.

Courtesy theaustralian.com.au

But if there is one person in the field that appears to enjoy media attention and understand the importance of the recall factor in consistently keeping his outfit in the news – good or bad – it is Qantas chief Allan Joyce. As an aside, I can only think of one other person, namely Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary: Is it any surprise that they are both Irish?  For most part of the year, Mr Joyce has been reiterating the promise in a corporate restructure that would turn the loss-afflicted airline around. The ends may be less important than the means in getting there.

SIA by comparison appears to be more muted in the past year. Its biggest news for the year is probably the launch of a new budget subsidiary for the medium-to-long haul – Scoot, which inaugurated services to Sydney in July. But its late entry in the budget market does not generate the pioneer excitement of earlier start-ups, even by comparison to sibling Tiger Airways’ introduction in 2005. It is unfortunate that Tiger has been a basket of woes in the passing year, following its fallout with the Australian authorities over safety concerns, but even more unfortunate is the lack of positive spins to sweeten the bitter aftertaste.

Then again, one migth ask what has Qantas to lose for the unsavoury state that it has found itself, when it needs to continually seize every opportunity to repair its image.

Courtesy Cathay Pacific Airways

By comparison too, Cathay plays a safe hand by balancing poorer performance reports with consistent news about product upgrades. Cathay chief John Slosar capitalized on the Hong Kong-based airline’s award by Skytrax as the world’s best for business class when announcing the 2013 upgrade of its regional business class product. This is where the competition is regaining new life. SIA which is ranked third in the same  Skytrax 2012 survey as the overall world’s best airline – after Qatar Airways and Asiana Airlines – has also earlier announced an impending upgrade of its business class. And so has Qantas. In spite of the sluggish global economy, it looks like the race for the premium market is heating up. While Mr Slosar may be talking only about Cathay when he said the aim was to ensure “our customers keep coming back,” that pretty much summed up the crux of the competition.

For good PR measure, Cathay may have earned brownie points for banning the carriage of shark fins, thus deserving the year’s responsible community award if there were one. (See Cathay Pacific bans shark fin carriage, Sep 13, 2012).

Time to renew and refresh, SIA

SINGAPORE AIRLINES (SIA) announced it would be developing the next generation of in-flight cabin products that include new seats and in-flight system. These will come on-line next year in a move that SIA said aims at helping it “remain at the forefront of airline product innovation.”

It may be only four years ago in 2008 that SIA embarked on a major product overhaul, but as the competitive gap narrows and robs it of some of its glitter, it seems too long ago.

So said SIA senior vice president of product and services Tan Pee Teck: “Singapore Airlines is always looking towards the future and we have many major investments lined up for the years ahead to help retain leadership position. In this business if you are staying still you are moving backwards, as your competitors can catch up quickly.”

SIA has lost much of its past glamour. Other airlines such as Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways that set up to emulate the Singapore flag carrier have caught up. Cathay Pacific Airways and Asiana Airlines have also intensified the regional competition. SIA ranked third as the world’s best airline in the 2012 Skytrax survey – after Qatar and Asiana.

There is a perceived deterioration of the SIA product – or rather, SIA is not what it used to be. It is time to renew and refresh. What SIA needs is a fresh injection of excitement, through new service products and ideas to bring back the magic and romance of air travel that in its heyday put it in a class of its own. Or risk slipping into becoming just another airline.

Singapore Airlines needs “recharge” to stay ahead

 Picture courtesy Singapore Airlines

SINGAPORE AIRLINES (SIA) used to boast a service that other airlines talked about. The airline is still very much venerated, though the competition has robbed it of some of its glitter.    

According to the latest Skytrax survey of 18.8 million passengers, SIA was ranked third in the world’s best airline category – after Qatar Airways that won for the second consecutive year, and Asiana Airlines. It is interesting how in the past three years, the three airlines have dominated the top three ranks with SIA slipping to third this year.

Dubai-based Qatar Airways wins on seats, especially the flat bed in business class, in-flight entertainment, good food, and warm, caring service. It appears to have usurped SIA’s position as the world’s best premium class operator – winning top accolades for its first class airline lounges, business class onboard catering and business class airline seat. SIA retains its top ranking for economy class.

Has the Singapore Girl shifted gears downward, pressured by the sluggish world economy and increased competition from low-cost carriers? Even then, it was pipped at the finishing line by Asiana as the best overall in Asia and for best economy class airline seat, by All Nippon Airways as the best overall across the Transpacific, and by Thai Airways International for best airport services. It was also absent in the top three ranks for the category “best airline staff in Asia”, which was won by EVA Air, Asiana and Malaysia Airlines in descending order.

Indeed, why is an airline like Asiana better than SIA? The same that has been said of Asiana (and for that matter, Qatar Airways) – good food, wide selection of in-flight entertainment, professional crew – could be said of SIA, although there are visible differences in other aspects such as seat legroom and comfort. Asiana has a seat pitch of 34 inches compared to SIA’s 32 inches.

Being a clear leader in the field for so many years in the past, SIA may be suffering an image problem, and that has largely to do with customer’s expectations. While it is true that the competition gap has narrowed, the unfortunate perception is that SIA’s erstwhile excellent service has deteriorated. A common comment is that SIA is no longer what it was. For example, the quality of meals is not as good, and its crew has become curt and less attentive – the change often seen as a result of cost-cutting measures at the expense of customer service and care.

The perception is not helped by comparisons with other airlines. Both SIA and Asiana crews are said to be professional, but the former robotic and lacking warmth while the latter more cheerful, engaging and treating every passenger with respect Because of the high expectations, customers are less forgiving of SIA for perceived service lapses, as when the choice of meals runs out or where there is a lack of reading material on board. Dissatisfied customers cite value for money for their displeasure, since apparently they pay a premium to travel SIA when they could travel for less on other airlines.

To be fair, there are still many good things said about SIA, such as clean cabins, a generous drink menu and constant topping up, free toiletry items that are not offered on other airlines, good punctuality record and quick transfer assistance. Many of its customers still maintain it is a good way to fly – maybe not as great – but would qualify their testimony with a “but”: the cabin is clean but looks old and tired; still a good airline, but others are catching up or doing better; food and service are acceptable but not outstanding; overall still good but over the years the standard has fallen; will continue to fly SIA but it must improve.

It would appear SIA largely still meets its customers’ expectations. But more of the same is obviously not good enough to stave off the competition when new, emerging winners are exceeding their customers’ expectations. What SIA needs are new initiatives that will generate excitement, bring back the romance of travel and leapfrog it back into the forefront.

In the same way that Changi Airport is constantly re-making itself, SIA too needs a “recharge”. There is after all a dependency relationship between airport and airline, as it is not unusual that winning airports go hand-in-hand with winning airlines, if you consider the case of Changi Airport and SIA, Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and Asiana, and Hong Kong International Air port and Cathay Pacific Airways. They make similar demands of each other to excel, driven by a common national or provincial service culture.

Loyal fans of SIA are sending the airline a timely message: do not be just another airline. As one American traveller remarked, he did not want to have the feeling that he was flying on another American airline.