The real battle behind Jetstar HK’s rejection

Courtesy Jetstar

Courtesy Jetstar

IT might well have been a technical inquiry. Jetstar Hong Kong (JHK)’s fate was hanging in the balance as the court debated the definition of “principal place of business” (PPB) which Cathay Pacific Airways and other airlines in the opposing camp so successfully narrowed down to as the sole criterion to decide Jetstar’s legitimacy. They contend that “the task before ATLA (Air Transport Licensing Authority) is the determination of whether JHK meets the PPB requirement now, and not whether 25 other airlines met that requirement at any point in the past.”

The objectors submitted that JHK does not have its principal place of business in Hong Kong, so granting it a licence to operate scheduled air services contravenes Article 134 of the Basic Law. If they had attempted to set the direction of the proceedings, they had succeeded, stating that “the common law meaning of PPB, i.e. that the PPB of an entity where the effective exercise of central and ultimate management control of the entity lies, is thus the intended meaning as it best suits the intended purpose of ensuring that only Hong Kong-based airline may be licensed by the HKSAR (Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) authorities.”

It has been two years since JHK set up its intended base in Hong Kong, initially as a joint venture between Qantas and China Eastern Airlines. Cathay and other home-based airlines – Dragonair, Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express Airways – were quick to protest, and as it became clear that the PPB clause would be the hot issue of contention, local conglomerate Shun Tak Holdings came on board as the majority shareholder (51%), and its managing director Pansy Ho was named the new company’s chairman. The onus then rested on JHK’s shoulders to demonstrate how that composition, the control and decision making machinery as structured by it, would make the airline a Hong Kong company. JHK contends that it “has entered an arrangement with Jetstar Airways Pty Limited (JAPL) as licensor of the ‘Jetstar’ brand and as a service provider.”

In the end, ATLA decided that was not good enough. It said: “In determining whether the principal place of business of an applicant is in Hong Kong, the answer is not confined to where the day-to-day operations are conducted (but) its activities must not be subject to the control of senior management, shareholders or related parties located elsewhere.” It concluded: “The Panel is of the view that JHK cannot make its decisions independently from that of the two foreign shareholders. The Panel does not have to decide whether its nerve centre or whether its principal place of business is in Australia or the mainland China. The Panel needs only to determine whether JHK has its PPB in Hong Kong. We are of the view that it is not and therefore the PPB requirement is not satisfied.”

Naturally both Qantas CEO Alan Joyce and JHK CEO Edward Lau expressed disappointment at the outcome, but one wonders if they were at all surprised even though they had previously expressed confidence that ATLA would eventually approve JHK’s application. The thing is that technically the state of play is not theirs to win, for as much as Mr Lau insisting that “we genuinely believed that Hong Kong is Jetstar Hong Kong’s principal place of business.” JHK as a branch of the main Jetstar entity and Qantas’s vehicle to extend its market reach is more than just implied in the brand’s genesis, which the objectors made capital of, pointing out that “JHK is related to Qantas via Jetstar International Group Holdings Co. Lrd and through Qantas to JAPL.” They contend that it is all part of a Jetstar Pan-Asia Strategy “to create an integrated Jetstar network in which each Jetstar LCC will, far from operating independently, share aircraft, boarding, airport facilities and a further range of unspecified goods and services.” JHK’s rebuttal that JAPL, in spite of the relationship, is but an outsource partner was not convincing.

To some degree, JHK might have felt straitjacketed by the narrow scope for arguing its case. Mr Joyce said ATLA’s ruling was as disappointing for JHK shareholders as it was for travellers: “At a time when aviation markets across Asia are opening up, Hong Kong is going in the opposite direction. Given the importance of aviation to global commerce, shutting the door to new competition can only serve the vested interests already installed in that market.” That is an issue that the Hong Kong government may have to address separately, as a matter of policy unprejudiced by JHK’s application.

As a key aviation hub in the region, Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) can only benefit from an open policy and more competition.  Throughout the proceedings were timely reminders of the importance of maintaining “the status of Hong Kong as a centre of international and regional aviation.”

However, Qantas had misread the apparent liberalised aviation landscape in Hong Kong, assuming it to be as open as, say, Singapore. When it once considered setting up an Asia-based premium carrier, Hong Kong was an attractive alternative because of the growing traffic from the China hinterland. Qantas had also failed to anticipate the strong opposition from OneWorld partner Cathay and compatriots, considering the relative ease that it had experienced in setting up the Jetstar brand in other locations such as Singapore, Vietnam and Japan. At some point, the advance is apt to draw awareness of the competition it poses.

Across the globe, entering into a joint venture with a local partner provides a convenient channel for a foreign carrier to gain a foothold in the local market, perhaps made easier if the partner were an airline, better still, the national flag carrier. In that connection, Shun Tak might have been viewed by the objectors as a potential local threat to come into its own riding on the back of more experienced operators.

Qantas might also have placed too much weight on the facilitation expected of a name like China Eastern. That became apparent when the court pointed out that “the Central People’s Government (of China) shall give the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region the authority to issue licences to airlines incorporated in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and having their principal place of business in Hong Kong.” It may even be suggested that the relative silence of both Shun Tak and China Eastern in the tussle could only project their passive roles but Qantas’s prime-mover position.

The technicality of Article 134 of the Basic Law as a moot point aside, it cannot be denied that  implicit in the objectors’ presentation is their concern of the competition posed by JHK. They contend that the joint venture aims “to deepen the Qantas Group presence in Asia-Pacific.” Refuting JHK’s claim of “the economic benefits which can be brought by the new airline and its contribution to maintaining Hong Kong as an international aviation hub,” the objectors insist that the Jetstar business model is designed “in the wider interests of all the Jetstar LCCs rather than JHK alone” and that all decisions pertaining to JHK’s operations such as capacity and aircraft purchases “are made with a view to maximising profitability for the Qantas Group.” They argued that through the Jetstar Pan-Asia Strategy, “Qantas is increasing the international competitiveness of a key Australian business by seeking to capitalise on the growth in demand for air travel services in Asia for its own benefit and ultimately the benefit of Australians.”

Indeed, Cathay’s early objection had hinged on the economic aspects of JHK’s proposition, which might have given JHK firmer ground to promote its application. Cathay insisted that unlike other Asian countries, the nature of the Hong Kong market is such that it has no real need of LCCs – that, in spite of the operations of Hong Kong Express and calls made by foreign budget carriers. Why would Cathay, already one of the world’s most successful and profitable carriers, be so threatened by JHK? It is apparent that the rivalry is more specific than general, the wariness of an expanding Jetstar network that is supporting an international competitor.

All’s fair in war as in love even as some observers hint at Cathay’s political sway. What next then for JHK? As at December last year, Qantas has invested some A$10 million (US$7.7 million) in the joint venture. JHK has already sold eight of its nine aircraft. Rather than accept ATLA’s decision as a natural demise of the unborn carrier, Mr Joyce has not ruled out appealing the decision. Consulting experts may already be working at more creative solutions to skirt round the technicality of the Basic Law. Or, as Qantas too had hinted, it might reconsider basing the low-cost carrier in Hong Kong, perhaps elsewhere but close enough where the real market screams loud to be served. No doubt a costly affair, it all depends on how much farther the shareholders are prepared to go.

And as the objectors hailed ATLA’s ruling as “the right decision for Hong Kong” with Cathay corporate affairs director James Tong reiterating that it “ensures that important Hong Kong economic assets, its air traffic rights, are used for the benefit of the people and the economy of Hong Kong,” proponents of more liberal aviation competition may begin to wonder to whom the real victory belongs.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

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Qantas-China Eastern partnership: Dressing up an old arrangement

qf logocea logoQantas and China Eastern Airlines announced a new agreement that the airlines said will enlarge their existing codeshare arrangement signed in 2008 for a deeper level of commercial cooperation on flights between Australia and China. A statement issued by Qantas referred to the new relationship as a “joint venture”. In the application to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), it was referenced as a “Joint Coordination Agreement”. Whatever the terminology, one wonders if this agreement is any different from the usual run-of-the-mill alliances that are not much more than a formal handshake.

There is the standard co-ordination and sharing of facilities such as airport lounges. A key feature is the co-location of both carriers’ operations within the same terminal at Shanghai International Airport. This reduces transit times by about an hour to facilitate a wider range of onward connections. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said: “Coordination means the opportunity to improve schedules and connection times, and to deliver improved products such as a joint lounge and streamlined check-in facilities in Shanghai.” The Australian flag carrier is banking on more of its customers opting to fly to not only Shanghai but also beyond from there, in a region where it is much weaker compared to Asian carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA).

Many codeshare partners are already making similar arrangements. Star Alliance airlines, for example, operate out of a dedicated terminal at London Heathrow. So what’s the big deal about the Qantas-China Eastern agreement which, subject to regulatory approval, will commence in the middle of next year and be effective for five years?

According to Qantas, the agreement is designed to complement the Qantas-Emirates partnership for Europe, Middle East and North Africa, and the Qantas-American partnership for the United States. That covers almost the whole world and makes Qantas truly a global airline. But to what avail? Interestingly, Qantas itself has limited operations to some of the regions. It operates to only London in Europe, Dubai in the Middle East, Johannesburg in Africa and Santiago in South America. The airline’s presence in North America is limited to Dallas/Fort Worth, New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu.aa logo

The Qantas-American agreement signed in 2011 is a codeshare arrangement for transpacific flights between the US and Australia to also include New Zealand. It does little more than what the global alliances, in this case OneWorld of which Qantas and American are members, have been set up to achieve. American does not operate to Australia.

emiratesThe Qantas-Emirates alliance caused a stir when it was announced in 2013 because of changes made to the traditional kangaroo route when Qantas shifted its operations hub from Singapore to Dubai. While Qantas is leveraging on Emirates’ extensive networks in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, it looked like the move was aimed at checking the competition posed by SIA. However, the real winner is not Qantas but Emirates, which is aggressively making inroads into the Asia-Pacific market. More than a year after, Qantas continues to make losses. It posted the biggest loss in its history of A$2.84 billion (US$2.66 billion) for the last financial year ending June 30.

How different from these other agreements is the new partnership between Qantas and China Eastern, and how will it play out for Qantas?cathay2

The flying kangaroo has long eyed the growing China market as a way to improve its bottom line. A partnership with a Chinese carrier makes sense for a quick and easy penetration into the large market in addition to its current daily service between Sydney and Shanghai. The agreement is also supposed to complement Qantas’ existing services to mainland China via Hong Kong, competing with Cathay Pacific and Dragonair. In its application to the ACCC, Qantas says it “does not consider the Hong Kong and Shanghai gateways to be mutually exclusive” the way that Dubai has replaced Singapore as the hub for its European flights. Quite clearly, Cathay which has a stake in Air China Cargo is a veritable rival to reckon. The rivalry has heightened in the Jetstar Hong Kong saga. China Eastern’s participation as partner in the budget joint venture does not seem to be able to do much to facilitate its application for approval to fly. After two years of its launch, approval is still pending.

siaThen there is SIA, the other competitor with a strong presence in the region, mentioned in the Qantas-China Eastern application to ACCC. Qantas notes how SIA’s subsidiaries Tigerair and Scoot are flying from Australia to Singapore with onward connections to China. As if pre-emptory to the new agreement, the existing Qantas-China Eastern codeshare already covers flights out of Singapore.

While Qantas will gain wider access across China, so will China Eastern within Australia. Passenger air services between Australia and China have been growing at an average rate of 11% for the four years to April 2014. In the past 12 months to June 2014, passenger numbers grew by 8%. In the application to ACCC, Qantas expresses fear of being “marginalised”. On its own, it says it “will not be able to keep pace with the capacity growth being driven by carriers such as China Southern and Sichuan Airlines.” ACCC will have to decide whether the case is about Qantas or Australia, notwithstanding the former`s status as the country`s flag carrier. Yet Qantas has argued that the proposed agreement is far from being anti-competitive, though clearly that fear has been exacerbated by the growing importance of Chinese carriers if only the competition could be limited to a single but partner airline, other strong regional carriers, and rival Virgin Australia’s reciprocity with Delta, Air New Zealand, Etihad and SIA in the wider network.

As with the American and Emirates alliances, the agreement with China Eastern once again is a case of Qantas needing its partner more than the other way round. The partners continue to retain their distinct identity vis-à-vis brand, product and pricing differences. Qantas runs the risk of its customers switching loyalty to its partner by the lure of lower fare, better facilities and services. Emirates, for example, may offer more than just a convenient hop from Dubai to other destinations for Qantas customers when it also competes on the kangaroo route. Before Emirates, there was speculation that Qantas might form the alliance with Cathay instead. That would make a formidable force, but Qantas would have faced the same risk. Besides, a partnership between giants is apt to be paved with problems unless the advantages to one partner are worth its compliance, if not silence.

Will China Eastern similarly flip the game for Qantas? The China carrier has much to gain. Qantas desperately seeking to check competition and new growth may find its prowess neutralized, dressing up an old arrangement.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Qantas’ Chinese connections

EVERY airline looking east (or westwards or northwards depending on where they are based) wants a foothold in China, that huge market with a growing population of air travellers.

Three years or so ago when Australian flag carrier Qantas announced a transformation program, chief executive Alan Joyce identified Asia, in particular China, as the answer to the airline’s woes in the international arena. The rising wealth of Asia’s most populous country makes good reason for Qantas to consider an Asia-based premium carrier near enough to tap into that market, and to set up a budget carrier in Hong Kong, the gateway to China, jointly with China Eastern Airlines and a local conglomerate owned by casino magnate Stanley Ho. While the former proposal was aborted, the latter is awaiting regulatory approval – against the wishes of Cathay Pacific – with ordered planes parked at the Airbus factory awaiting delivery. That, Mr Joyce had said, was not unusual for start-up airlines.

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

All that did not stop Qantas from building up its Chinese connect ions through codeshare services. In a recent agreement with China Southern Airlines, Qantas customers can gain direct access to four destinations within China including Guangzhou from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. China Southern customers will similarly gain access to domestic destinations across Australia as well as beign able to fly between Sydney and Auckland.

Qantas International CEO Simon Hickey said: “Partnerships are at the core of our strategy in Asia and together with our airline partners, we’re pleased to now offer customers access to 179 flights to 12 cities in Asia each week, with fares available to over 120 additional Asian cities.” He added: “The Qantas Group has never had a stronger presence in Asia. More than one sixth of our total revenue now comes from flights to and within the region, and we plan to keep opening up new travel opportunities.”

This can only mean high alert for rival airlines, particularly those which by fifth and six freedom rights have been routing travellers through their home bases.

Qantas already has a codeshare arrangement with China Eastern Airlines between Australia and China via Singapore.

None of the mainland China-based airlines are members of the OneWorld alliance to which Qantas belongs. That may be of little consequence, considering that codeshare partners Chna eastern and China Southern are both SkyTeam members. Air China and Shenzhen Airlines are members of the Star Alliance. Out of Hong Kong, Qantas` Jetstar may face stiff competition from Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express, both carriers owned by the Hainan Airlines Group, besides Cathay’s Dragonair. Note however that Hong Kong Airlines and Dragonair are by definition regional and not budget carriers.

If there is any indication of China’s growing demand for air travel, it is Shandong Airlines’ recent order of 50 Boeing 737 aircraft to the tune of US$4.6 billion. At the same time, however, Air China warned that its first quarter profits would be 65 per cent lower compared with that last year because of the falling yuan. A statement issued by the airline said: “The financial expenses of the company substantially increased as compared with the corresponding period of 2013 due to the exchange losses.” Fellow competitor China Southern issued a similar warning on falling profits. These are but minor blips that will not deter foreign airlines from connecting with the China market.

Singapore Airlines disappoints

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines


Singapore Airlines (SIA) prefaced its report on its annual performance (2012/13) with attribution to high fuel prices and lower yields owing to a weak global economy for its lacklustre results. The announcement concluded with an equally dismal outlook, saying very much the same thing, warning that “the global economic outlook remains uncertain with the ongoing weakness in the Eurozone and sluggish recovery in the United States” and that “yields are likely to remain under pressure amid weak economic sentiment.”

So what’s new, indeed?

While the results per se disappoint, the presentation disappoints even more so, simply because it does not provide any excitement going forward, almost in resignation to whatever the circumstances that will decide its fate. Perhaps it is because we have come to expect so much more from an airline that has for a long time been considered one of the world’s most profitable, most innovative and most gungho airlines.

Group operating profit fell 19.8% to S$229 million (US$184 million) with only the parent company registering an increase of 3% from S$181 million to $187 million on the back of a growth of 7.3% in passenger carriage, and cushioned by the surplus on sale of aircraft spares and spare engines. SIA Engineering and SilkAir reported lower profits, the former from S$130 million to S$128 million (1.6%) and the latter from S$105 million to S$97 million (7.6%). Losses for SIA Cargo deepened by more than 40% from S$119 million to S$167 million.

The not so-good-signs for SIA the airline are falling yields, a weak fourth quarter of losses and relatively flat demand in forward booking for the next few months. In fact, SIA’s last quarter performance ran contrary to industry performance which, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata), saw air passenger travel growing by 5.9%, boosted by emerging markets. Iata chief Tony Tyler added: “Strong demand for air travel is consistent with improving business conditions.” However, developed markets were experiencing relatively low growth. That could explain SIA’s limited growth – operating largely in mature markets that are highly competitive.

The pressure on yield will continue to be a challenge – and with time, a bigger challenge – as SIA faces increased competition from rival airlines for not only the long haul but also regional routes. Middle-East airlines such as Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways in particular have become very aggressive in the premium air travel segment, investing heavily in the product and forging strategic partnerships with other operators. Their increased popularity is likely to also shift hub airport activity to the Middle East, threatening Singapore Changi Airport’s hub status in east-west connections between Asia-Pacific and the regions of Europe and Africa. No doubt SIA will benefit from Changi’s ability to remain a favourite hub among airlines and their customers.

At the lower end, SIA also faces exposure to cheaper options from regional and budget operators that in pre-economic crisis days would have been scoffed at. Consequently SIA is adopting a broad catch-all strategy – that saw the launch of budget subsidiary Scoot last year – which may not necessarily work in its favour as it dilutes its premium product and compromises yield. The other airlines in its fold are not exactly star performers: Little has been reported of Scoot’s performance to date; Tiger Airways in which SIA has a 33% stake is losing money; and SilkAir is operating below capacity growth.

SIA needs a more robust and focussed strategy than that – to lead, rather than follow, and to pro-act, rather than react. In a highly competitive environment, the player that sets the rules wins. High fuel prices and the continuing sluggish state of the global economy are by now givens since they are woes that cut across the industry, and they should be viewed as challenges and not as excuses for poorer performances. The success story of Japan Airlines’ turnaround in spite of these circumstances provides a lesson on not accepting things as they are; the Japanese carrier emerged from bankruptcy to become the world’s most profitable carrier in 2011. Certainly the credit must go to the man at the helm – honorary chairman Kazuo Inamori, who very humbly attributed his success to hardworking employees.

Some observers think that SIA is hugely disadvantaged by its lack of strong partners, but the airline has a speckled history of failed relationships, notably its acquisition of stakes in Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand in 1999/2000. Both stakes were later relinquished at a loss. SIA also failed to buy into China Eastern Airlines, which today has entered into a codeshare arrangement with Qantas. To be fair to SIA, a number of other airlines have also bought lemons. The International Airlines Group which owns British Airways and Iberia has reported a first-quarter loss of 630 million euros (US$808 million) – almost five times more than the 129 million euros loss in the same quarter last year – attributed to the poor performance of the Spanish partner.

The choice of the right partner is key to success. SIA has recently increased its stake in Virgin Australia from 10% to 19.9%, added to extensive marketing cooperation in schedule meshing and the use of each other’s premium lounges int heir networks. While there is potential in Virgin making big forays in the international arena, the alliance at best will present a stronger domestic presence for SIA in Australia for now and pales by comparison with the mega alliance (albeit a non-equity partnership) between Qantas and Emirates which is an attempt to shift the traditional competition to a new playing field such as replacing Changi with Dubai as Qantas’ hub for flights on the kangaroo route.

It is always with great interest and perhaps somewhat unfortunately with high expectations that the industry awaits moves by SIA to regain its lead in the business of flying. But the introductory and closing remarks of its latest result announcement provide little to excite the imagination. Somehow it seems SIA prefers to bide its time. SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said at the results briefing: “We think at some point there’ll be a recovery, and we’ll be well positioned to tap the recovery with the growth and the partnerships that we’ve established within Asia and other parts of the world.”

However, telling the same bleak story may be consoling, but it can also be dangerously self-fulfilling in resignation. The good neBut it seems SIA prefers to bide its time. SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said at the results briefing: “We think at some point there’ll be a recovery, and we’ll be well positioned to tap the recovery with the growth and the partnerships that we’ve established within Asia and other parts of the world.”ws is that many still believe in the airline’s ability to do better, in spite of gloomy weather. Backed by a strong balance sheet, not many of its rivals have the privilege of believing still that the game is theirs to lose.

The race for Chinese connections as Qantas increases Asian presence

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

Qantas took another step forward to increase its presence in the Asian market, which it has recognized as a key strategy in returning the international operations of the airline to profitability. Just last week, it expanded its codeshare agreement with China Eastern Airlines.

“We said we would expand Qantas’ Asian network through our airline partnerships and we’re now delivering on that promise,” said Qantas General Manager Andrew Hogg.

The codeshare will provide greater access to China, offering a choice of 17 direct weekly flights between Australia and mainland China on either airline, and onward connections via Shanghai to 11 other Chinese destinations domestically. Qantas already has a codeshare service with China Eastern between Shanghai and Singapore.

It is inevitable that the competition will zoom in on the rivalry between Qantas and Asia’s leading airlines Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific Airways. Although Qantas reiterated the importance of Singapore as its Asian hub – after moving its hub for Europe-bound flights to Dubai following a mega-alliance arrangement with Emirates Airlines – it is clear that Qantas will tackle the Asian market in more ways than just relying on transit connections as there will be more direct flight options between Australia and Asian destinations. That reduces the importance of Singapore and Hong Kong as the go-between.

Additionally, Qantas is pushing the low-cost subsidiary brand of Jetstar across the region through Jetstar Asia based in Singapore, Jetstar Hong Kong pending approval, and Jetstar Japan based in Narita.

If China is where the aviation pot of gold is, Qantas is not wasting time. Cathay, though unhappy with Qantas’ proposed Jetstar operations based in Hong Kong, already has a stake close to 19 per cent in Air China and a stake of 49 per cent in Air China Cargo. Its wholly-owned subsidiary Dragonair operates an extensive network connecting Hong Kong and other Chinese destinations.

That leaves Singapore Airlines to work on its Chinese connections. Five years ago, it failed in a bid to buy a stake in China Eastern, but it has not ruled out the possibility of reviving that bid now that it has divested in Virgin Atlantic – a lacklustre acquisition it made more than decade ago. There is also the possibility of it looking at China Southern Airlines.

Chinese carriers’ results attest to industry volatility

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

MORE dismal results from other Asian carriers only attest to the continuing volatility of the airline industry, and this is reflected in a region said to be the beacon of the business that analysts had predicted to be finally heading back into far healthier numbers.

China’s three major state-owned airlines – Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines – posted big decline in annual profits because of the weak global economy, higher jet fuel prices and smaller foreign currency gains. Profit plunged by half for China Southern and by a third for Air China and China Eastern.

The results for 2013 may yet show an improvement on the poorer performance reported for 2012, so it is still a wee bit too early to expect the International Air Transport Association (Iata) to revert to downgrading its forecasts as it did ever so often in the past three years. The signs for now though are not all that encouraging.

Qantas-Emirates tie-up is no surprise

THERE are several reasons why a Qantas-Emirates tie-up should not come as a surprise.

 

Foremost is the Australian flag carrier’s desperation to revive its loss-making international operations, which, it is expecting will plunge its full-year profit by as much as 90 per cent from US$552 million the previous year. So the airline is looking for opportunities to boost its earnings as it rationalizes its network operations and connections. Qantas has said that alliance deals have always been on the agenda, particularly when such arrangements not only open up new traffic channels but also reduce operating costs.

The Dubai-based Emirates Airlines, its home situated roughly midway on the kangaroo route, makes a veritable partner. Significantly, the airline is profitable and expanding. Besides, Emirates is a keen competitor for the same market. A tie-up would mean a more amicable intra rather than inter-airline competition.

It has also been speculated that Qantas as a consequence would reduce its operations to Europe – retaining only London as a destination and giving up Frankfurt – while it then feeds traffic to other European ports through Emirates. Qantas hopes to also gain access to a wider Middle-East market as well as making inroads into Africa through Emirates.

Not to be ignored is the fact that other Middle-East airlines such as Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways (also an airline of the UAE but based in Abu Dhabi) have also intensified the competition. Etihad has acquired a 10-per-cent stake in Virgin Australia.

But what is likely to unsettle Qantas more is the alliance between key rivals Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Virgin Australia. In the end, a Qantas-Emirates tie-up would look like a counter-move when adversaries join hands to take on a common enemy. There is not much of a choice left really, so to speak, for the self-professed “alliance specialist”.

Analysts who were quick to deduce that Qantas would also shift its operations from Singapore to Dubai have been mistaken. For many years now, Singapore has been Qantas’ major hub outside Australia, and from where it is able to feed transfer traffic to other Asian ports.

While it is convinced that its fortunes lie in the lucrative Asian market, it does not make sense for the flying kangaroo to skip Singapore or make a sizeable reduction in its operations there. After all, Singapore (Changi Airport) is the darling of transit passengers worldwide. An exit would shut Qantas out of growth opportunities – not just in Singapore but in the region – even as Qantas raises the profile of its low-cost Jetstar subsidiary and continues to pursue the dream of staging a separate Asia-based premium carrier.

Qantas chief Alan Joyce has said that Qantas would continue to develop large hub airports or en-route gateways in its network since these hubs, pulling in travellers from all over the world and sending them on to their final destinations, mean “extending our reach while restraining our costs.” However, he admitted: “We have a gap (in Asia), because our current schedule is predicated mainly on travellers transitting through Asia en route to Europe.”

While that might see some shift of such pure transit traffic from Singapore to Dubai, the former remains a premium hub for its infrastructure and connectivity – unless Mr Joyce becomes convinced that its family of hubs in partnerships with Japan Airlines (Narita), China Eastern Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways (Hong Kong) and possibly Malaysia Airlines in 2013 (Kuala Lumpur) are adequately positioned even with the exclusion of Singapore.

It looks like with the impending incorporation of the Malaysian flag carrier as a new member of the OneWorld alliance, the two airlines may yet again revisit the proposal of a joint-venture regional carrier to be based most likely in Kuala Lumpur. Even then, it would be difficult imagining Qantas skipping Singapore altogether.

However, there have been mixed signals from both Qantas and Emirates on the rumoured alliance.

While admitting that his airline has met with Emirates, Mr Joyce clarified: “We only enter partnerships when we have the right arrangement for the long term. In the current economic environment, taking our time with this part of our agenda will clearly not undermine our broader transformation plan.”

On the other hand, Emirates chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum revealed that a code-sharing agreement would likely happen within six months but would not include any revenue-sharing arrangement.

Is that any indication of who is more likely to benefit from the tie-up? You can confidently make your wager, can’t you?