Will Singapore Airlines finally get to fly trans-Pacific from Australia to the United States?

Singapore, a leading voice in advocating open skies, is hoping to conclude a more liberal aviation agreement with Australia, following a recent meeting of the two nations’ leaders, namely Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

That naturally revives Singapore Airlines’ dream of gaining rights to the lucrative trans-Pacific route from Australia to the United States.

While both Singapore and Australia have already agreed to allow carriers from both countries to operate unlimited flights between them, with Australian carrier Qantas benefitting from using Singapore Changi Airport as a regional hub to points beyond Singapore, it has been more than two decades since SIA expressed its interest in operating trans-Pacific flights from an Australian port.

A review in 2006 by the Australian authorities denied SIA’s application to fly the route that has since been opened to only American carriers besides home carriers. Despite SIA’s argument that the proposal would boost tourism in Australia, clearly Qantas was the thorn in SIA’s side as the authorities were apprehensive that the reciprocity would not be in the flying kangaroo’s favour.

Since then there has been no new overt push in that direction. So, will SIA finally get to fly trans-Pacific from either Sydney or Melbourne to the United States?

As Qantas grows from strength to strength as demonstrated by its record performance in the last couple of years, perhaps Australia could afford to be a little less protectionist.

While for now, it looks like the answer is still blowing in the wind, there is nevertheless a ray of hope emanating from the high-powered meeting.


Basic economy set to become the norm as more airlines adopt budget model

TO face off competition from low-cost carriers, more legacy airlines are rebranding their economy class. Basic economy, as different from the normal economy, looks set to be the mode of travel for many of its customers.

This has been introduced for quite some time now in the United States, and by other carriers for the long haul including Cathay Pacific nad Singapore Airlines. In some way, many other carriers are already taking steps in the same direction as they begin to adopt the budget model of charging additionally for services now considered as ancillaries, such as checked baggage, seat selection and meals.

Courtesy British Airways

British Airways, which has since done away with complementary in-flight meals and is implementing non-reclining seats in the economy cabin, has announced it will be offering basic economy for the long haul from April 2018. Passengers will not be able to pre-select seats at the time pf booking, and checked baggage is subject to a fee. The fare is expected to be some 10 to 20 per cent less than the normal economy.

It goes to show how the threat by low-cost operators isn’t something that legacy airlines can dismiss as easily as it was once thought as they continue to feel the squeeze of the competition.

Over the years, the class configuration of air travel has evolved from a single luxury class to a two-class of first and economy to a three-class division to include a business class, which, when first introduced, was dismissed as redundant by then successful airlines such as Swissair.

In the same way, the budget model was viewed by legacy airlines as a non-threat because they catered to a different market, which today proves to be not entirely the case.

The blip in the global economy that caused a decline in the demand for premium travel led to a new economy subclass of premium economy, which again was initially scoffed by some airlines including Singapore Airlines, which today is aggressively promoting it. Premium economy is increasingly taking on an identity of its own, and may well be considered a fourth class in its own right, squeezed between business and economy, in the gamut of classes.

Now comes basic economy, and you wonder where the normal economy is heading.

Airlines dangle the premium economy carrot

IT looks like the traditional economy class may be heading toward a split between premium economy and basic economy, with the in-between normal economy not quite as exciting in terms of perks or costs.

While basic economy as already introduced by American carriers (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines) and Asian rivals such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in an attempt to stamp a potential loss of the business to low-cost carriers, the premium economy in a way will make up for reduced profit at the very bottom of the scale.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

United Airlines may be Johnny-come-lately, but it promises to be as good as the slew of airlines that are already in the game. Its version of the class to be known as United Premium Plus will have more spacious seats, and customers according to its spokesperson will “enjoy upgraded dining on china dinnerware, free alcoholic beverages, a Saks Fifth Avenue blanket and pillow, an amenity kit, and more.”

EVA Air may be said to be a pioneer of such seats, but it is Cathay that has created an exclusive class with its own cabin that has propelled the popularity of a product that is better than economy but not quite business class, particularly for long-haul flights.

But airlines, which have been cautious about hopping on the premium economy bandwagon are not going to abandon the old workhorse but will instead make it work harder. A number of them are already making plans to increase more seats at the back of the aircraft,with British Airways announcing recently that economy seats in its new planes will no longer be able to recline.

More space in the forward sections of the plane can mean less legroom at the rear as airlines dangle the premium economy carrot to entice customers to upgrade.

Airports are going silent

Changi Airport T3/Photo by D Leo

Since Jan 1, Singapore Changi Airport no longer air final calls for passengers to board or page for missing passengers. Only annoucnements considered essential and warranted by an emergency will be allowed.

However, this is not the first time that Changi has considered the option. In fact, when the airport opened on July 1, 1981, it was considered but circumstances did not favour its implementation. Nor is Changi the first airport to go silent.

Airports that have gone silent include Helsinki Airport, Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg) and India’s Mumbai as well as Chennai Airport (domestic terminal).

Finavia Corp which operates the Helsinki Airport, which has since June 2015 discontinued flight information announcements and passenger paging made throughout the terminals, said: “The aim is to improve the comfotability of the waiting areas and to reduce the stress caused by traveling.” It believes that reducing the number of announcements will “minimize the background noise and sense of hurry at the terminal.”

The increased attention given to noise pollution particularly within confined areas is likely to influence more airports to adopt the “silent” mode. Busy airports during peak horus are often inundated with announcements on the heel of one another. It remains an open question as to whether people actually heed them. With improved signboards, checking travel information has become quite simple. While there continues to be some concern about late boarding of passengers who have lost track of time, the majority of travellers are quite on the ball for fear of offloading or losing their seats, and missing out on overhead compartment space. It’s a matter of getting used to the silent treatment.

Caveat emptor: There may be hidden costs

Composition with colorful travel suitcases

AFTER years of fighting to ensure that airlines keep the costs of flying transparent, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) is making a U-turn announcing that US carriers will no longer be required to disclose baggage fees at the time of ticket purchase by a customer.

That means travellers may not get the full picture of the cost of a ticket, since it may not include the fees for baggage should they decide to check in a bag – the kind of misrepresentation that the authorities used to tick carriers off for leaving out certain costs.

DOT’s decision will make it difficult for consumers to compare prices, so passengers are therefore well advised to at least find out whether the airline they are booking with charge for checked baggage to avoid being surprised by the additional cost at check-in.

Airlines may find it easier to vary the fees under the cirucmstances, so too you cannot assume a standard fee across the industry.

Will this also lead to similar treatment of other ancillary services? So much about the protection of consumer rights, it is caveat emptor.

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.

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.