Never say never: Cathay Pacific enters budget market

Courtesy AFP

In 2015, Cathay Pacific together with Hong Kong Airlines opposed Qantas’ application to set up Jetstar Hong Kong Airways – co-owned with China Eastern Airlines and billionaire Stanley Ho’s Shun Tak Holdings Ltd. Cathay was particularly vehement about there being no room or need for budget travel in Hong Kong. The authorities were convinced and Jetstar HKG never took off.

Today, Cathay announced its decision to buy Hong Kong’s only budget carrier, Hong Kong Express Airways, for HK$4.93 billion (US$628 million). This expands Cathay’s stable of airlines to three, which includes regional carrier Cathay Dragon. It will boost Cathay’s market share to 50 per cent in Hong Kong.

A Cathay spokesperson said: “We intend to continue to operate Hong Kong Express as a stand-alone airline using the low-cost carrier business model.”

Now what caused Cathay to change its mind?

Cathay is not alone in facing stiff competition in the long-haul and premium market, from not only neighbouring rivals such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) but also Middle east carriers such as Dubai Airlines. Besides, Chinese carriers from mainland China are also fast expanding, flying direct and more services to Europe and North America.

At the same time, Cathay can no longer ignore the encroachment by the flourish of budget carriers in the region, particularly those operating out of mainland China. The Hong Kong authorities too may begin to realise how all this may be reducing Hong Kong International Airport’s hub status, particularly when limited options are resulting in Hong Kong being bypassed.

It could be a matter of timing. In 2017 Cathay reported its first annual net loss in eight years and introduced a three-year transformation program. It was later in that same year that Cathay CEO Rupert Hogg affirmed that Cathay had no plans to start a low-cost carrier. But the debt-ridden HNA Group which owns Hong Kong Express offers a timely opportunity not to be missed even as Cathay posted its first full year profit in 2018 of US$299 million.

The business climate can change fairly quickly, but unfortunately airlines may be slow in catching up with the changes because of the huge investment and lead time to implement many of the changes, apart from a host of other reasons, some of which could be largely circumstantial.

Many legacy airlines pooh-poohed the threat of budget airlines to their traditional market when it was first mooted, and as many of the carriers fell by the wayside before they could assert any impact.

SIA for one came on the scene later than most others, setting up Tigerair jointly with Ryanair, and then Scoot. Its strategy has changed yet again with the merger of Tigerair and Scoot, and now SIA is in the process of assimilating SilkAir into the parent airline.

One wonders if this is the path that Cathay may take should Hong Kong Express and Cathay Dragon find their services overlap as they expand.

Whatever the reading, it would be discreet to never say never. The question is always if so, when?

Baggage Woes

Courtesy Ryanair

Ryanair

Ryanair flew into a rough patch with Italian antitrust lobbyists following its decision to levy new fees for hand luggage. Unless you pay €6 (US$7) for priority boarding, you will be allowed to carry only one piece of hand luggage, which must be able to fit the space under the seat in front. Any second piece (up to 10 kg) to be checked in will be at a cost of €8.

Antitrust advocates said this could amount to unfair commercial practice as hand luggage should be “an essential element of transport”. It would distort fares and make it difficult for comparison across the industry.

In defence Ryanair said its policy was intended to “improve punctuality and reduce boarding gate delays”. In fact, it maintained that it would not make any money out of it and may in fact lose revenue when more passengers switched to carrying smaller bags instead of the the normally larger suitcases which must be checked in at a higher fee.

However, research by US travel consultancy IdeaWorks suggests that a third of the airline’s profits came from so-called “ancillary revenue” comprising £1.7 billion (US$2.2 billion) from charges for add-ons such as checked baggage and seat selection last year.

Swoop

Across the pond in Canada, new Calgary-based budget carrier by WestJet is also facing complaints about fees charged for a carry-on bag. The fee is C$35 (US$27) if paid in advance, C$50 if paid at the time of check-in at the airport, and C$80 at the gate.

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs has filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency, claiming that this is unlawful since the Canada Transportation Act requires domestic airlines to offer a basic fare for travel within the country that has no restrictions with “reasonable baggage”.

As in the Italian argument, Lukacs finds Swoop’s practice “deceptive”. While what constitutes “reasonable” may be debatable, the general rule thus far has been that the allowable one piece has to fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat. Ryanair has restricted the carriage at no fee to the space under the seat, but Swoop is not even considering that. In defence, Swoop says it is “confident that Canadians are appreciative of the ability to be in control of what they pay for.”

American carriers

Meantime south of the border, American carriers are taking turns to up their checked baggage fees. American Airlines joined JetBlue, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines in raising their fees from US$25 to US$30 for the first bag, and from US$35 to US$40 for the second bag. Budget carriers Spirit and Frontier are already charging between US$40 and US$50 per bag. For now, Alaska Airlines has kept its fees at US$25 for the first and second bags, while Southwest Airlines still allows passengers to check in two bags for free.

These fees generally apply to travel within North America and to destinations in the Caribbean. Internationally, the likes of United Airlines cannot afford to ignore the competition especially in Asia where many legacy airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are still generous with free carriage of two checked bags.

Indeed, ancillary services have become a significant billion dollar business world-wide in an airline’s portfolio as more operators including legacy airlines go “a la carte” to keep the fare seemingly low but charge extra for features that used to be part and parcel of the normal ticket price. And the list is getting longer to include also priority check-in, priority seats (with more leg room), meals and headsets. It will not stop growing as the permutation multiplies, as can be seen in the different ways charges are applied even within the same service category, such as the baggage fees imposed by Ryanair.

Qantas is changing the game

Courtesy Getty Images

After the successful launch of the non-stop Perth-to-London flight in March, Qantas is now working on plans to introduce a non-stop Sydney-to-London flight, which is expected to take a little more than 20 hours. Boeing and Airbus have been invited to retrofit an aircraft that will fly the distance, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce expected a launch by 2020.

This is set to be a game changer, continuing the momentum set by the Perth non-stop which, according to the Australian flag carrier, is performing well, and in fact, exceeding expectations. Mr Joyce himself said early signs were positive, and that the new route “is the highest rating service on our network.”

The task now is how to make the ultra-long haul comfortable enough to influence the pattern of travel and get non-believers on board. According to the Independent, a Twitter poll with over 1,200 responses showed that 40 per cent would prefer a non-stop flight, 30 per cent would want a break in the journey, and the remaining 30 per cent said it would depend on the fare.

“We’re challenging ourselves to think outside the box,” said Mr Joyce. “Would you have the space used for other activities – exercise, bar, creche, sleeping areas and berths?”

Maybe think, along the line of a cruise?

One suggestion put forth was converting the plane’s cargo hold into sleeping pods.

With more non-stop ultra-long haul flights from Australia – Perth now, Sydney next and most likely Melbourne to follow suit – to London and possibly other European destinations such as Paris and Athens (and further down the road to key destinations in Africa and the Americas as well), how will this affect the competition?

The Kangaroo Route has been a lucrative route for Qantas and rivals that include Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Middle East carriers, notably Emirates Airlines (despite its alliance with Qantas), Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, flying via their home airports. Even Cathay Pacific may be counted as a veritable competitor.

However, these airlines are themselves also operating the ultra-long haul, so they are not unaware of how the game may be changing. Take, for example, the Middle East: Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are all operating non-stop to Los Angeles, albeit from their different home airports of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha respectively, in close proximity, and this is besides Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) flying from Jeddah. Both Emirates and Qatar are also flying non-stop to Auckland.

Asian rivals Cathay Pacific and Philippines airlines both fly non-stop from New York to Hong Kong and Manila respectively, and will soon be joined by SIA connecting the Big Apple with Singapore. Cathay and Philippines are also competing on the non-stop option from Toronto, while SIA and United Airlines are taking on each other flying non-stop between San Francisco and Singapore.

Perhaps to the relief of Qantas, British Airways (BA) has expressed no interest in mounting non-stop flights between Australia and the UK. In fact, over the years, BA has reduced its interest in Australia, currently operating only one service from London to Sydney via Singapore.

It seems that the ultra-long haul aims at narrowing the rivalry on key routes where point-to-point traffic is the target, and is perhaps also an attempt to claim native rights, cutting out third parties jumping on the bandwagon. The question is whether there is adequate traffic to justify the operations.

The fortunes of some airlines may shift, so too those of some airports which rely on transit traffic with no real attraction other than being a convenient stop en route. One only needs to look back at how Bahrain Airport quickly lost its status when new technologically advanced aircraft able to fly a longer distance without refuelling emerged on the horizon.

Dubai International and Singapore Changi are two popular hubs on the Kangaroo Route. How will their fortunes change?

Yes, they may lose some traffic with Qantas flying direct from Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, but all is not lost so long as there continues to be up to 70 per cent of travellers who are yet convinced the ultra-long haul is the way to fly. The airlines themselves understand the dynamics, hence the dual strategy, offering the options. Qantas may reduce some flights, but it is unlikely to completely stop flying via Dubai or Singapore. Similarly, SUA will not cease making a stop at an Asian port just because it has introduced non-stop flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Again, if one sees how Dubai International does what Bahrain could not do, reviving the importance of a Middle East hub with convenient connections to Europe and Africa, no less owing to the vast network of Emirates, and how Changi has enticed transit and transfer passengers with being more than just another airport, one can be hopeful of their future. They may even flourish as important regional hubs, feeding traffic from and into the ultra-long haul flights.

And don’t forget, non-stop flights cost more. People spend their dollar in different ways.

2018 Skytrax airline awards: Largely the same winners

Top airlines remain largely the same ones as last year’s.

Yet again we note how the top ten airlines remained largely the same ones as last year’s. If you’re good, you’re good, so it seems, and consistency won the day.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) which was second last year switched places with last year’s winner Qatar Airways. All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Emirates Airlines held steady in 3rd and 4th position. Cathay Pacific moved down one rung to 6th,, exchanging places with EVA Air. Lufthansa held its 7th position. Garuda Indonesian followed Hainan Airlines up one notch to 8th and 9th position respectively. The only new entrant to the list was Thai Airways International, which actually only moved up one rung from 11th last year, edging out Etihad Airways as it fell from 8th to 15th position.

So much for the excitement as the winning airlines, going by the result of the survey, continued to please their customers who found no reason to think otherwise of them.

Unlike some high-brow surveys whose results lean heavily on the premium class, Skytrax does readings across all classes.

Best for First Class was SIA followed by Etihad and Air France. This used to be the realm of Asian and Middle-East carriers, and let it not be a surprise to see two European carriers in the ranking. Lufthansa took 4th place.

Best for Business Class was Qatar followed by SIA and ANA. You would imagine that if an airline is good in First, it should not be too far off in Business. However, Air France was not placed in the top ten list and Lufthansa ranked 8th.

Best for Premium Economy was Air New Zealand followed by Qantas and SIA. It looks like the Pacific airlines are pretty good with this product. Lufthansa and Air France ranked 4th and 5th.. There was an absence of Middle-east carriers because they didn’t believe in such a class. Qatar chief CEO Akbar Al Baker had said: “We won’t roll out premium economy… I don’t think there is room for premium economy in our region, and of course in Qatar Airways. We give you a premium economy seat with an economy class price.” Sounds familiar if you recall the early days when SIA too expressed the same skepticism. However, Emirates has said its new Airbus A380 expected to be delivered in 2020 will feature premium economy.

Courtesy Star Alliance

Best for Economy Class was Thai Airways followed by SIA and Qatar. This category was dominated by Asian carriers with the exception of Lufthansa in 9th position.

Only these six airlines were placed in all three categories of First, Business and Economy (excluding premium Economy since not all airlines offer this sub-class): ANA, Cathay, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar and SIA. You can then rest comforted that whatever class you travel with these airlines, you will be treated without discrimination.

But is the Skytrax survey a good guide in choosing which carrier to fly with? Generally people can agree on makes a good airline. What matters when you travel with an airline? For the long haul, seat comfort is an important feature. Inflight entertainment, if you look for some distraction and are not otherwise doing something else or trying to catch up on shuteye. A good meal, if you are not one who will not eat airline food no matter what (unfortunately this is not featured in the Skytrax survey). Cabin cleanliness, of course, and that includes the condition of the washrooms. How often do you see the crew give it a clean-up and spraying some kind of deodorant to try and make it as pleasant as it possibly can be? Above all, the service provided by the cabin crew, to be treated in a friendly manner and with respect. Not forgetting service on the ground in the event that you may need assistance, as when your bag is damaged or has not arrived with you.

Perhaps the ranking for some of these more specific services may be of some help:

Best Economy seat (First and Business should be way better anyway): 1st Japan Airlines, 2nd SIA and 3rd Thai Airways.

Best cabin crew: 1st Garuda, 2nd SIA and 3rd ANA.

Best inflight entertainment: 1st Emirates, 2nd SIA and 3rd Qatar.

Cleanest cabin: 1st ANA, 2nd EVA and 3rd Asiana Airlines.

Best airport service: 1st EVA, 2nd ANA and 3rd Cathay.

But, of course, you can’t expect a single airline to be best in all categories, but you get a pretty good idea of where they all stand, perhaps with exceptions.

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.