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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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.

Air New Zealand tops again

Courtesy Air New Zealand

AirlineRatings.com has named Air New Zealand as the world’s best airline for 2018. Other airlines that make the top ten in descending order are Qantas, Singapore Airlines (SIA), Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Etihad Airways, All Nippon Airways (ANA), Korean Air, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

According to the editorial team, airlines must achieve a seven-star safety rating (developed in consultation with the International Civil Aviation Organization) and demonstrate leadership in innovation for passenger comfort to be named in the top ten.

The evaluation team also looks at customer feedback on sites that include CN Traveller.com which perhaps explain little surprise in both AirlineRatings and Conde Nast Travel naming Air New Zealand as their favourite. (See What defines a best airline? Oct 19, 2017) Four airlines, namely SIA, Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific are ranked in the top ten of both lists. These look like consistently global favourites.

Notable absences from the AirlineRatings list are Middle east carriers Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines. While these airlines scored for service in other surveys, they may have lost the lead in product innovation for which most of the airlines ranked by AirlineRatings are commended. Virgin Australia’s new business class is said to be “turning heads” and Etihad is said to provide a “magnificent product throughout the cabins.” Looking ahead, Air New Zealand will feel the pressure from Qantas and SIA for the top spot. (See Singapore Airlines steps up to reclaim past glory, Nov 3, 2017) In the same survey, Qantas is selected for best lounges and best catering services, and SIA for best first class and best cabin crew.

For those who think best airline surveys are often skewed by the halo effect of service provided in the upper classes, AirlineRatings has named Korean Air as best economy airline.

Keeping the Asean Dream Alive

AT its recent meeting of Transport Ministers, Asean reiterated its intention to work towards more liberal skies, adopting a master plan to facilitate a more integrated approach to aircraft movement across the region.

Certainly the spirit of co-operation is not lacking, but for a bloc of nations that are far from being uniform economics-wise, the road for consensual implementation is not an easy one to manage when it comes down to the details. Open Skies was to have been fully realized two years ago, i.e. 2015. (See The Elusive Asean Open Skies Dream, Dec 10, 2015).

So what’s new in the latest manifesto, besides the renewed commitment to co-operate? Two agreements to liberalise regional services were signed – one to allow domestic code-share rights, and the other to progressively reduce restrictions on related aviation businesses such as airport ground handling services. These are not exactly ground shakers, as there are already cross border joint-ventures in the region. The reality is one of progression, and its recognition that it takes time so as to not having to constantly move back the goal post while keeping the Asean dream alive.

What is new apparently though is the association’s professed agreement to extend co-operation beyond Asean to other partners. There is already a memorabdum of understanding with China to boost co-operation in aircraft accident investigations. However, on open skies issues, it is not quite clear how the co-operation will take shape, bilaterally vis-a-vis en bloc. Nevertheless, while the Asean dream may be slow in crystalling, it may be more exigent to secure the wider markets beyond its borders.

New US airport security measures raise concerns of flight delays

The United States will kick in stricter security measures on Oct 26. This may include short interviews with passengers at check-in or the boarding gate. According to a Reuter report, airlines are concerned that this will extend processing time and may increase the possibility of a flight delay.

Consequently airlines have suggested to their customers to arrive much earlier at the airport. Cathay Pacific, for example, has advised travellers to arrive at least three hours (instead of the usual two hours) before departure time.

Although some people are apt to grumble about the inconvenience, even question the degree of necessity imposed by some authorities in some instances, few if any would dispute the need for the various measures. The “odd chance” theory usually holds sway because there can never be a definitive “fit all” answer to the problem. What then becomes excessive is a difficult question.

Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, said “unilateral measures announced without any prior consultation is very concerning and disturbing.” But the real concern, as expressed by Director General of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, Andrew Herdman, is how “other countries make similar demands”.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Security measures are largely time and place related. The new measures imposed by the US are supposed to follow the relaxation of the ban on the carriage of laptops and other electronic devices from certain countries and on certain airlines, the implementation of which had caused quite some reaction from those concerned. In the same way that the ban was a confined implementation, the industry can only have faith that discretion will prevail to decide what’s best and relevant – at the pertinent time and place.

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).

Travelling across Europe in summer: Expect flight delays

Travelling across Europe during the summer can be a nightmare should anything happen to disrupt the flow of the peak traffic. It may be worse this summer, and travellers should expect delays. Already there are stories of a number people who have missed their flights.

British Airways, Ryanair and EasyJet have advised their customers to allow plenty of time to get through the airport because of enhanced immigration checks. Ryanair suggests that customers arrive at least three hours before departure time.

The European Commission said this is “the price of security”. It is not something most people want to argue about for their safety. New measures to check potential terrorist threats have been introduced, but it looks like some airports are not ready for the implementation. Passengers complained about inadequate border control booths and staff to handle the usual surge in summer travel.

The summer months in the past had also experienced disruptions caused by industrial action. For now, strike action by security workers at Barcelona Airport every Friday, Sunday and Monday since August 4 to last throughout the season has added to the woes of travellers. Let’s hope other disgruntled airport staff and airline crew do not see this as an opportune time to join them.

It may make sense to put off travel to outside the peak months, but for many people this just isn’t possible because of work, school and other commitments.