Legacy airlines go the budget way

It’s yet another sign of how legacy airlines are feeling the heat of the competition posed by budget carriers.

Courtesy Getty Images

British Airways (BA) will operate planes for the short haul with seats in economy that cannot recline. The airline said the seats will be “pre-reclined at a comfortable angle”. Affected flights up to four hours include runs from Heathrow to Rome, Madrid and Paris.

BA which already ceased providing complimentary booze and meals for the short haul last year admitted to the pressure. It said the move will allow the airline to “be more competitive” as it will then be able to “offer more low fares”.

Many legacy airlines are already adopting the “pay for what you want” model of budget carriers, charging for extras such as checked luggage and seat selection at booking.

The big three US carriers of American, United and Delta have introduced “basic economy” fares which will board such ticket holders last with seat assignment only at boarding. There may be other restrictions.

Asian rivals Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA) are also moving in the same direction. Cathay’s economy supersaver and SIA’s economy lite do not permit seat selection at booking and do not accrue full mileage perks. SIA is also charging additionally a credit card service fee for tickets purchased out of certain ports. (See Same class, different fare conditions, Jan 5, 2018)

While legacy airlines are finding ways to cut costs to offer lower fares, this can be a double-edged sword that only serves to narrow the gap between them and budget carriers. What price, therefore, the differentiation? But, good news for travellers not too fussy about brands.


Same class, different fare conditions

Legacy airlines, faced with increased competition from no-frills operators, are going the budget way by restructuring their economy fares.

In the United States, the big three carriers of American, Delta and United have introduced basic economy fares, which are quite akin to the budget fare. Conditions include no pre-seat selection at the time of booking, seat assignment only at the gate, last to board and other restrictions that may concern baggage allowance and flight changes.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

In Asia, rivals Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA) too have revised their fare structures. At the lowest level, Cathay’s economy supersaver and SIA’s economy lite may seem attractive, but travellers should check out the restrictions so as not to be disappointed or surprised by hidden costs. Such fares do not permit pre-seat selection at the time of booking, unless you are prepared to pay a fee for the privilege. Mile accruage has also been reduced – 50% in the case of SIA and 25% in the case of Cathay.

There may be other charges. Earlier in the week, SIA announced that it would levy a 1.3% credit card service fee maxing at S$50 for outgoing flights from Singapore from January 20 only to retract the policy before its implementation, following a public outcry. However, this fee has already been introduced for flights departing Australia since November 2016 and others departing New Zealand, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom since April last year. SIA referred the fees to as “costs relating to the acceptance of credit cards” when really it is not a fee imposed directly on the consumer but rather the vendor. It brings to mind how airlines faced with rising fuel costs so adroitly levy additionally a fuel surcharge as if it was something between the fuel companies and the consumers.

True, whatever the costs incurred by the airlines, they are likely to be passed on to the consumer. How much is reasonable will be decided by the competition, given that there is indeed fair and open competition.

Many travellers may not be aware of the different tiers of fare and their conditions, and are consequently unhappy if they had to top up what they had initially thought was an attractive offer. Same class, but different fare conditions. So, as always, caveat emptor.

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.

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.

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).

Cathay Pacific axes 800 jobs: Is this the answer?

TIMES are hard for legacy airlines, it seems, when major airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific are beset with economic woes.

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

SIA announced a plan to transform the airline after reporting a last quarter loss of $S41 million (US$ 29 million) (see SIA’s transformation is long overdue, 27 May 2017). Cathay, losing HK$585 million (US$103 million) in 2016 – its first annual loss in eight years – is set to cut 800 jobs. Both airlines cited intense competition, mainly from the big three Middle East carriers of Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, and carriers from China. Cathay additionally suffer substantial fuel hedging losses.

Invariably cost cutting is almost every airline’s clarion call to try to get back into the black. It helps, of course, and such an exercise can eliminate wastage and improve productivity when in good times the airline has lost the discipline. However, more may be needed to be done if the issues are structural and operational. It calls for a deeper review of product, procedures and processes, and marketing strategies against a changing aviation landscape that renders old successes irrelevant and demands new innovative approaches.

Like SIA, Cathay is caught in a price-sensitive market where competitors have been able to provide comparable services at lower fare, and that’s not talking about low-cost carriers (LCCs) alone. Cathay risks losing its position as the gateway airline at the door of the huge China market as more carriers from the mainland commence direct services to destinations beyond China and offer connections out of Shanghai and Beijing. Also, partnerships between China carriers and other airlines are also threaten to cut Cathay out of the game.

Some analysts think Cathay is disadvantaged by the absence of budget arms, unlike SIA which is supported by Scoot and Tigerair. The solution really is not for Cathay to go budget, but to make that difference between flying low-cost and flying full-service in its favour.

Cathay’s loss is a sign of the times

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

WHEN an airline like Cathay Pacific reports a loss, you may assume it is a sign of the times. The Hong Kong-based airline made an annual net loss of HK$575m (US$74m) in 2016, its first since the global financial crisis and the third in its history. Last year, it made a profit of HK$6bn.

The culprit is the competition it faces, primarily from mainland Chinese carriers and Middle East airlines.

Cathay’s positioning at Hong Kong as the gateway for many Chinese travellers has been affected by increased direct services offered by carriers such as Air China and China Eastern Airlines. This has not been helped by a continually price-sensitive market.

The aggressive presence in the region of Middle East carriers such as Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways offering competitive fares has also affected not only Cathay but also other airlines such as Singapore Airlines. Indeed, the Gulf carriers have earned that unenviable reputation across the globe, raising the ire of airlines in Europe and the United States. While they have been accused of being unfairly subsidised by state support, there is no denying that their competitive fares are matched by a good product, excellent in-flight service and wide network connections.

Cathay lamented the falling demand for business and first class seats, which has been a mainstay of its profitability. Unfortunately, the uptick for premium travel has been slow in the recovery since the financial crisis, and while the airline has invested heavily on the product, this has taken a toll on the yield. But this is not a problem faced only by Cathay. Some airlines are already auctioning empty seats as a matter of course.

Also, the increased popularity of premium economy is in fact pulling in an opposite direction.

All said, even Middle East carriers known for their lavish premium product are paying more attention on the product offered in the rear of the aircraft as the competition intensifies, and as legacy airlines recognize as well the threat posed by low-cost carriers which are advantaged by the current low fuel prices.

Cathay chairman John Slosar said 2017 would be “challenging” as he announced plans for restructuring which would result in jobs being axed. He said: “Our organisation will become leaner.”

It is interesting how the business seems to be following a cycle of growth and cutbacks, and the cycle is getting to be shorter and shorter. Too often, in good times we conveniently forget there ever was such a thing as bad times.