Much Ado About China’s Geography

Since the United States (USA) have recognized the one-China policy (following a resolution of the United Nations in the early 1970s that legitimized the sole representation of the People’s Republic of China), it would appear groundless, even against logic, that it should protest the Chinese demand for US carriers to reflect Taiwan as a Chinese territory (this applies also to the autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau) on their websites.

While many airlines including British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have reflected the change in their booking itnerfaces to comply with the ruling, US carriers – United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines – have yet to agree, apparently at the urging of the Trump administration. But China is not budging while extending the deadline from May 25 to July 25, at the same time rejecting the US request to discuss the issue.

It may be said that there’s a fine line between politics and business, that it is difficult to separate the two. Yet it seems only expected that any company that wishes to engage in business with a country should respect its sovereignty. A way out – even if it means turning a blind eye – is to recognize the independence of business operations, that the decision of the airlines concerned is purely commercial.

So it is with Qantas, which has decided to comply with Beijing’s request after the initial resistance. As with the USA, the Australian government, while embracing the one-China policy, was critical of the Chinese ruling, but conceded that how Qantas structured its website was a matter for the company. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “Private companies should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure of governments.”

So, will US carriers comply or be prepared to stop flying to China?

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Same airports in Skytrax’s best ten 2018

The 2018 Skytrax list of world’s top 10 airports is a gentle rejuggling of last year’s list which may be divided into three parts. The top three airports remain the same as the next three, and so too the last three with Chubu Central in the same 7th position.

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Singapore Changi tops the list for six consecutive years, a remarkable feat that according to Skytrax “is the first time in the history of the awards that an airport has won this prestige.” Its closest rival is Seoul’s Incheon International in second place, followed by Tokyo Haneda, which has been making impressive stride in recent years. In fact, Haneda was 2nd last year, and Incheon third.

The other airports in the top ten list are Hong Kong International (4th ), Hamad International (5th), Munich (6th), London Heathrow (8th), Zurich (9th) and Frankfurt (10th).

Changi scored with the best amenities, enhanced by the addition of a new terminal (T4) and the upgrading of Terminal 1. With continual upgrading works and the opening of the aptly named Jewel Changi Airport facility next year – a complex of gardens and more leisure activities – it looks like it may yet again achieve the top honour.

However, Changi is second to Hong Kong for transit and dining, and second to London Heathrow for shopping. It ranks behind Taiwan Taoyuan (1st), Incheon (2nd) and Tokyo Haneda (3rd) for customer service, and much lower in 7th position for baggage delivery. Incheon and Japanese airports score high in these areas. Not surprisingly, Japanese airports score top marks for cleanliness.

Don’t bet on the list changing much next year. Airports are massive investments that take time to materialise, and many of the existing ones are quite content to be functional and hopefully efficient than to be wowing! Yet note that Beijing Captial, which was one of the ten best from 2012 to 2015 has dropped to 34th position.

As appeared to be the order of the day, there is a noticeable absence of US airports with the first mention in Denver airport, ranked 29th. Canadian airports fared a little better, with Vancouver International which was among the ten best for three consecutive years 2012-2014 now ranked 14th but still the best in North America, and Toronto Pearson ranked 41st.

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.