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.

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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.

Air New Zealand leads the pack

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is the world’s best airline according to AirlineRatings.com based on criteria that include fleet age, safety, profitability and leadership in innovation for passenger comfort. The agency’s Airline Excellence Awards program which lists the winning airlines is endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Many travellers would recognize ANZ for its attention-grabbing in-flight safety video that takes them into Middle Earth, the kind of out-of-the-aircraft features that a few other airlines have tried to imitate but fared only poorly. AirlineRatings.com Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Thomas said: “Air New Zealand came out number one in virtually all of our audit criteria, which is an exceptional performance.” The airline was favoured for its record-breaking financial performance, award-winning in-flight innovations, operational safety, environmental leadership and motivation of its staff.

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

But, of course, there are surveys and there are surveys that publish their own lists of favourites. Some airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific have a ubiquitous presence, and there also notable absences. This is where it is most telling, bearing in mind that the ranking is dependent on several factors such as the excellence-defining criteria and the population surveyed.

The other nine airlines ranked behind ANZ in the top ten list by AirlineRatings.com are in descending order: Qantas, SIA, Cathay, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways (BA), Etihad, All Nippon Airways, EVA Air and Lufthansa.

It is interesting to note that the top two airlines come from the remote Southwest Pacific. Qantas has in recent years been working on upgrading its product offerings, winning accolades for catering and airport lounges. Not surprisingly, innovation along with good service seem to be the driving winning streak going down the list – SIA and Cathay for their premium economy and revamped business classes, Virgin for its cabin ambience and friendly crew, BA for its leadership in in-flight entertainment, and Etihad for its equally impressive service in front and at the back of the aircraft.

Notable absences in the list are US carriers (no surprise there) and two of the big three Middle-East carriers (Emirates and Qatar).

Many survey rankings are skewed by the weight they place on service in the premium classes. However, Mr Thomas of AirlineRatings.com said: “We are looking for leadership and airlines that innovate to make a real difference to the passenger experience particularly in economy class.” Considering that the majority of travellers are seated in coach, it is time that airlines crowned with the halo of excellence pay more attention at the back of the aircraft, for this may well make the difference as the competition intensifies. And, it is where the differentiation becomes even more challenging. Perhaps too, this could be the reason why Emirates and Qatar, known for their lavish premium service, did not make it to the top ten of the list.

Cathay Pacific losing grip of China card

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific reported plunging profits of 82 per cent for half-year results up to 30 June. Revenue fell 9.2 per cent to HK$45.68 billion (US$569 million). For an airline that had boasted record margins in previous reports, it demonstrates the volatility of the airline business today in spite of the continuing low fuel prices.

While Cathay chairman John Slosar put the blame on competition and the slowdown of the China economy – what’s new, indeed? – it is worthy of note that Cathay also suffered hedging losses in the spot market. Many airlines are apt to extol their ability to gain from fuel hedging but will remain reticent when the reading goes awry.

Mr Slosar said: “The operating environment in the first half of 2016 was affected by economic fragility and intense competition.” Apparently premium economy, which since its introduction has been Cathay’s pride, and the long hauls were not performing to expectations, confronted by competition from Middle East carriers Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, and from China carriers such as Air China and China Eastern which are offering direct flights thus doing away with the need for Chinese travellers to fly through Hong Kong.

Competition from foreign carriers in a reciprocally open market is to be expected, and which may be augmented by those carriers offering an improved product. Cathay’s main woe is probably the falling China market on two counts: the reduced demand for premium travel and the diversion away from Hong Kong as the gateway to the region. Cathay and Hong Kong International Airport have benefitted from the growing China market, but while it was able to prevent Qantas from setting up Jetstar Hong Kong, it can do little to stem the growth of China carriers.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

It would be more meaningful to compare Cathay’s performance with its major regional competitors. Singapore Airlines (SIA) reported Q1 (Apr-Jun) profit of S$197 million (US$144 million) (up from S$108 million) while the other carriers in the Group – SilkAir, Scoot and Tigerair – also did better on the back of lower fuel prices. But group revenue declined by 2.1 per cent because of lower contribution by parent airline SIA. In July passenger load was down 1.2 per cent (1.676 million from 1.697 million), and the load factor by 2.2 pts at 82.4 per cent from 84.6 per cent. Except for East Asia (with flat performance), all other regions suffered declining loads.

This may be indicative of the global economic trend. Like Cathay, SIA’s fortune has shifted from the longer haul to the regional routes. Europe suffered the highest decline (4.5 pts) followed by Americas (3.1 pts). The picture will become clearer when it reports Q2 (making up the first half year) results. According to Mr Slosar of Cathay, the business outlook “remains challenging”.

Courtesy APP

Courtesy APP

However, it is good news downunder as Qantas reported record profit of A$1.53 billion (US$1.15 billion) for the year ending June 2016, up 57 per cent – the best result in its 95-year history. Qantas Domestic, Qantas International and the Jetstar Group all reported record results: the domestic market chalked up a record A$820 million, up A$191 million, and the international division A$722 million, up A$374 million. The Qantas Transformation program seemed to have continued working its magic to “reshape the Group’s base and ability to generate revenue” according to its report. CEO Alan Joyce said: “Transformation has made us a more agile business.” And, unlike Cathay, effective fuel hedging saw the Group secure an A$664 million benefit from lower global fuel prices, leaving us to wonder what Cathay would say to that.

It is once again a feather in Mr Joyce’s cap. He added: “The Qantas Group expects to continue its strong financial performance in the first half of financial year 2017, in a more competitive revenue environment. We are focused on preserving high operating margins through the delivery of the Qantas Transformation program, careful capacity management, and the benefit of low fuel prices locked in through our hedging.” He believed the long-term outlook for the Group to be positive.

The contrasting fortunes of airlines may prompt one to ask how in the end that as much attribution of an airline’s performance is attributed to global influences, so too as much is balanced by its self-discipline in adjusting to the vicissitudes of the times, its astuteness in seizing shifting opportunities and, of course, its ability to read global and regional trends as unpredictable as they are.