What do air travellers want?

Photo credit: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Wikipedia Commons


I flew with SATA International from Toronto (Canada) to Lisbon (Portugal) via Ponta Delgada in the Azores only because it was comparatively more affordable and I thought offered a more direct routing instead of having to transit long hours in another European airport that may involve a change not of airplanes but airlines and airport terminals.

I did not know what to expect in terms of comfort and service, but was pleased that it was an overnight flight leaving at 2100 hours, which means I could sleep through whatever the level of service and not having to deal with it. But, as it turned out, it was a reasonably satisfactory experience.

I could not complain about the narrower seat pitch as there were two empty seats between me and my wife. The service was taciturn but efficient, and I wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that it was an all-male crew for economy. SATA is not a budget carrier, so a hot meal was served for dinner, and there was breakfast before the first touchdown.

In-flight entertainment on Air Canada. Photo courtesy Air Canada.

In-flight entertainment on Air Canada. Photo courtesy Air Canada.

In fact, I found the experience strangely nostalgic as I recalled my early years of flying when airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA), Cathay Pacific and United Airlines showed movies on an overhead screen. Of course, it would be nice to have your private video-on-demand (VOD). On this occasion, since I had already seen Trouble with the Curve, it actually gave me time to catch up on a little reading and forced me after that to have some shut-eye. You may however feel differently if it were a day flight.

All said, the experience also made me reflect on what air travellers actually want. My focus is general rather than specific. It is what – for want of a better phrase – the average traveller wants. You have to make exceptions for the well-heeled who could afford first class whatever the price, or for that matter, budget travellers at the other extreme who are guided by the lowest cost even if it means taking them half-way across the globe before arriving at their destination. Even then, there are clearly preferences that cut across all classes.

You want to fly safe. While some people would rely on the reputation of an airline, many simply travel in faith – especially when choice is limited. So in reality, it may not even figure in the wish list – not because it is not important (when it is in fact the single most important factor), but because it is a given.

You want to pay the best (not necessarily lowest) price for your ticket. Since the 2009 economic crisis, air travellers have become more conscious of the cost of flying, which explains the flourish of budget carriers, the downgrading from upper to economy class by many erstwhile business travellers that has adversely affected the performance of many legacy airlines, and the industry trend to levy separate charges for add-ons. At no other time are travellers more ready to shop around and compare rates, aided by their being more savvy with the computer and the accessibility of useful information. Fares advertised by airlines without compliance to the bottom-line rule legislated in the European Union, the United States and Canada can be deceptive as extras can add up to a fair bit. However, while cost has become an increasingly significant consideration, it is not the only determining factor.

You want to get from point A to B in the shortest time possible. Is it a direct flight between two points, and if not, how many stops are there in between? If there are stops, how long is the transit and does it incur an overnight stay? Leisure travellers may not mind the one stop or two in between, and sometimes it is not a matter of choice. More than that, it becomes onerous. In fact, airlines generally do not operate milk runs to cater to these so-called globe trotters, but to drop off and pick up passengers en route. Flying is tiring – even when you premium class; who has not heard of jetlag?

Long security line at an US airport. Photo credit: Doug Pensinger.

Long security line at an US airport. Photo credit: Doug Pensinger.

You want minimum transit and connection time and minimum hassle if it is not a direct flight. But, complain as you may, you will put up with the inconvenience as a necessary evil. Through check-in these days has taken care of a lot of the hassle even if it means changing airplanes or connecting a different airline. The bigger headache may be the stringent security checks practised by some airports and where passengers are required to take out their bags for inspection at the first port of call.

You are becoming less concerned about brand loyalty and are prepared to switch airlines for the best deal. Besides, with extensive code shares, you may well be flying an airline other than the one you are booked with. The economic crisis has not only intensified but also levelled the competition as airlines cut back on frills and seek ways to reduce costs. However, to retain loyalty, airlines are becoming more generous with their frequent flyer rewards.

You may be concerned about the lack of alternative arrangements or compensation in the event of a flight cancellation or delay. It is true that under the circumstances you are in better stead when flying with a bigger operator with higher frequencies. But then, who books to travel in the knowledge that the flight may be delayed or cancelled?

You want seat comfort and good cabin service up in the air. First, the seat as to whether it is wide and deep enough with a good incline. If the difference in pitch matters, it is likely to be felt more in economy than in the upper classes. This varies across the airlines although the differentiation in many new aircraft is not much of a deal. Even among the best airlines, the bonus is getting the seat you want and an empty one beside yours. But chances are less when you book with a popular airline. Unless it is really bad, it is likely you will make do.

Second, the in-flight entertainment system as to whether it is adequate in terms of quality, user-friendliness, choice and suitability. Many airlines have introduced cutting-edge technology that enhances the entertainment, and many spoil their customers for choice of programmes. When I fly with SIA, Cathay Pacific and Air Canada, I expect to catch up with the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Not all airlines offer sufficient programmes in English, and that sometimes presents a disappointment for the international traveller. Since the introduction of VOD, cabin crew have benefitted from reduced attention demanded of them by passengers. Yet strangely I found my SATA experience quite a pleasant change, and I asked if in-flight entertainment has been over-hyped. I was quite happy to be free of the “must watch” impulse at the expense of a good rest.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Third, the meals and refreshments as to whether they are sufficient and reasonably palatable. But the more that you fly, the less you become excited about this.

Fourth, newspapers if available in economy run out quickly. Magazines are even more a rarity. Bring your own reading materials and you shall not want.

Fifth, the service by the crew as to whether it is friendly, courteous, efficient and adequate. It feels good to be pampered, but you get by so long as the minimum standards are met and especially if the crew is efficient. Unless it is really bad all round, the lack of one service attribute is usually compensated by the presence of the others.

Collectively, in-flight service can influence a traveller’s choice of airlines. But for many people, it usually figures ex post facto, much less as a prerequisite. Is it therefore all that big a deal, without denying it significantly shapes the traveller’s experience but only post factum?

Courtesy Condor Air

Courtesy Condor Air

Courtesy Condor Air

Courtesy Condor Air

I recall flying Condor Air only because it is linked to Lufthansa. I could not complain about the seat, nor the meal and refreshments. I was not interested in the movie – the ubiquitous Trouble with the Curve shown on an overhead screen (as in the case of SATA) – and was quite happy to occupy myself with crossword puzzles in print form. The crew was not particularly friendly but efficient. After take-off, the purser announced a special offer of US$200 for upgrade from economy to premium economy which is segregated by an invisible line: same seat pitch, only that you get magazines, served first with a choice of meals, and refreshments on demand. There were no takers.

You dread but are probably resigned to poor ground service. You cannot get round this, not if airlines themselves pay little heed to them, except to complete as much of the pre-flight requirements online as there are available. Increasingly online check-in, advanced seat selection and the possibility of self-activated change, meal requests and flight status updates are becoming key features of a travel bag of perks, and some airlines are beginning to charge them as add-ons even though it actually reduces the work downstream. At least for the customer, they do not bark and bite. This is not saying that I myself have not on occasions been pleasantly surprised at some airports. Your air travel experience may literally begin and end on the ground (as a certain airline has boasted), but it can also mean a stressful start, and sometimes what ought to be a sweet ending or a big relief turns out to be the grief of missing or lost luggage, an unduly long delivery of the bags otherwise, and the absence of assistance when you most needed it.

You hope not to have to resort to using after-sale service. When you do, it can only mean problems, and airlines are not particularly good at handling customer issues. And if you have to telephone them, be prepared with a thick book to while away your time while waiting for a response!

Phot credit: Alexander Jonnson/Wikipedia Commons

Phot credit: Alexander Jonnson/Wikipedia Commons

Indeed, this is a more complex business than it appears. Ironically, an airline like Ryanair is raking in more profits than some more reputable airlines in spite of its widely known poor and rude service – a clear indication perhaps of how the players are increasingly competing on price as the main determinant of a customer’s preference. But it is not as straightforward as that. No doubt cost matters, but it is really the customer’s perception of value vis-avis what he is willing to pay – the one-stop instead of a direct flight, the no-meal option for a short flight at a lower cost, an acceptable level of comparative discomfort or not so friendly service within tolerable limits, the irrationality of paying much more for a brand when there is a similar alternative available, all these amongst other possible considerations including whether is worth paying an additional US$200 to move forward for more glasses of orange juice, some magazines you are unlikely to want to read, a choice of meals and a little more attention from the crew.

If only, you wish, airlines understand what their customers really want! Not that they are not trying, noting that many of them are constantly competing to introducing impressive new-fangled features to attract new customers. But, at what price? There is a lot of appeal in one airline’s selling line that the journey is in itself a destination. Not quite nowadays. Air travel has become as mundane as riding in a bus or train. In fact, the modern train offers an attractive alternative – if time is not a factor – without the hassles of pre-flight formalities, the need to travel long distance to an airport and the higher possibility of a flight delay. Whatever the mode, it is only a means to an end. The choice depends on how the customer perceives it to be the best-value means within the constraints of what he wants, what he can afford and what circumstances that necessitate the travel. It is a complex mix, and the winning formula will ever be an elusive one.

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China acts to reduce flight delays

Beijing Capital International Airport, Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Beijing Capital International Airport,
Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons


A recent survey by US-based FlightStats ranked Beijing and Shanghai at the bottom of 35 international airports with the worst record for on-time arrivals and departures. Apparently, according to South China Post, none of China’s provincial airports could manage to get half of their flights on time.

Chinese travellers are not taking all this passively. In response, the Chinese government announced that a six-month crackdown would be launched to improve the performance, complete with penalties for the culprit –whether an airline, the airport or some other party. Airlines found responsible for delays may also lose their slots.

There are more than 180 commercial airports in China and another 80 are being constructed. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has issued Air Operator Certificate to more than 30 airlines.

China’s straightforward ruling may prove to be more effective than the soft approach adopted by many authorities around the world. It goes directly to the parties concerned, and while travellers may not receive compensation from the fines levied by the authorities, they will benefit from improved performance overall. However, defining responsibility may be an issue especially where there are possible areas of conflict. Apparently, CAAC controls the order of take-offs and landings while the Military controls the airspace.

In the European Union (EU), USA and Canada, the focus is more on compensation for travellers who have been unnecessarily inconvenienced by flight delays. The EU has taken several airlines to task for that, but unfortunately the process is tedious, complicated by vague definitions of terms.

Ultimately, it is the same end – whatever the means, but a question of how to make it work more effectively. In six months’ time, we will know if Chinese airlines, airports and other related agencies heed their government’s behest.

World’s best airlines are from outside Europe and America

ANY surprise that the world’s best ten airlines according to the 2013 Skytrax survey are sited east of Europe and west of the Americas? Not anymore, when Asian and Middle-Eastern airlines consistently outdid their European and American counterparts.

Look at the Skytrax list, ranked as follows:

1 Emirates Airlines
2 Qatar Airways
3 Singapore Airlines
4 All Nippon Airways
5 Asiana Airlines
6 Cathay Pacific
7 Etihad Airways
8 Garuda Indonesia
9 Turkish Airlines
10 Qantas

qantasQantas, which is geographically situated within the broad borders of the region, is about the only airline that may be considered not Asian or Middle-Eastern, although Australia has increasingly moved to be closer to its neighbours – economically at least.

Clearly this tells us that Asian and Middle-Eastern airlines have beaten their European and American masters at their game, as far as image and customer service are concerned. Service appears to be a natural part of the eastern culture, whereas European and American airlines tend to be more functional than to be bothered with frills.

SIASingapore Airlines in its early days took the aviation world by surprise to set the benchmark for customer service, and that was the beginning of the end of western supremacy in the field. Today, it is the Middle-Eastern airlines such as Emirates and Qatar that have taken over the lead, but Asian airlines from Singapore to Japan continue to be among the top airlines. It is the region, rather than an isolated case that wins.

garudaThat may be explained by the heightened competition among the airlines within the region to beat each other at the game. An encouraging sign is the emergence of Turkish Airlines and Garuda Indonesia in the top ten list. While Turkish may have been an underrated airline in the past, Garuda has been very much sidelined by travellers and authorities for a speckled history of safety incidents, but the Indonesian flag carrier has recently embarked on a makeover program to gain traction in the competition. The comeback is a big honour for the airline.

Conversely, it is this absence of competition among airlines in the west that may have resulted in a happy co-existence of average performers and the resignation of consumers to the limited options. A dollar spent on one is not much different from a dollar spent on another – just get me there safely and in good time, sort of. It becomes a vicious circle.

cathay emiratesQantas on the other hand may be feeling the pressure of the competition by its neighbouring airlines, since it is very much operating in the same arena. Besides, Qantas has identified Asia as its Holy Grail to turn round its losing international arm. SIA and Cathay are definitely strong rivals, and Emirates before the two airlines enter into an extensive partnership that is likely to shake up the competition on the kangaroo route and in the Asia-Pacific region.

Can European and American airlines make their way back into the coveted list? A more pertinent question would be, do they even want to?

Asian airports dominate Skytrax survey

Asian airports continue to dominate the top ranks in the 2013 Skytrax survey of over 12 million travellers. Singapore Changi Airport was named the world’s best airport, followed by Seoul’s Incheon International Airport in second place, Hong Kong International Airport in fourth place and Beijing International Airport in fifth place. Only one airport outside the region – Amsterdam Schiphol Airport – was listed in the top five.

Singapore Changi Airport, Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Singapore Changi Airport, Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

The last time that Changi came out tops was in 2010, this being the fourth time that it had won the title. If you look back at the list of winners over the past five years, the top three spots were very much a rotation among Changi, Incheon and Hong Kong. So much for the consistency of their standards but for this year that Schiphol has pushed Hong Kong down one notch. In the early years of aviation history, European airports such as Schiphol, Zurich and Frankfurt were the model for Asian upstarts which soon overtook them in many ways from cutting edge infrastructure to passenger facilities and service standards.

It looks like a tough task for many airports to match the Changi-Incheon-Hong Kong trio. Changi for one is constantly upgrading its facilities – and image – driven more by regional rivalry to retain its hub leadership. It has become the darling of transit passengers with its wide array of facilities that include free wi-fi accessibility, a cinema, a swimming pool, garden areas, and a wide variety of specialty shops and restaurants. Both Changi and Hong Kong come closest to adopting the airport city concept that in the 90s became the blueprint for constructing an airport that is more than a functional air transport interchange.

Skytrax chairman Edward Plaisted attributed Changi`s success to it being a leader and innovator within the industry.” He said: “The vast array of leisure and entertainment facilities really stands out at Changi and serves to highlight the extent to which the airport management has gone to ensure maximum levels of passenger satisfaction.”

But do not underestimate the growing popularity of airports such as Schiphol, Zurich, Munich and even London Heathrow in spite of that has been said of its congestion. Although Munich, for example, slipped to sixth placing last year, it was ranked fifth in 2008 and 2009, and fourth in 2010 and 2011.

Beijing Capital International Airport, Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Beijing Capital International Airport, Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

But if there is one airport to keep a close eye on, it is Beijing Capital. Ranked fifth in the last three consecutive years and eighth in 2010, it was 17th in 2009, and this was remarkable progress considering that the airport as it is known today opened only in 2008. It ranked among the top five in this year’s best airport terminal and best baggage delivery categories. Its next challenge is to do as well as if not better than its winning Asian rivals in customer service standards.

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.

Plunging Cathay profits: What went wrong?

Photo courtesy Cathay Pacific Airways

Photo courtesy Cathay Pacific Airways

WITH Cathay Pacific Airways – one of the world’s leading airlines – announcing an 83-per-cent plunge in annual profit, one must begin to wonder what went wrong.

Almost five years since the onset of the global economic crisis, the fortunes of the airlines can be best alluded to the unpredictable movements of the yo-yo. It was only at the end of last year that the International Air Transport Association (Iata) could with some confidence finally revise its profit forecasts upwards instead of downwards: from US$4.1 billion to US$6.1 billion for 2012, and from US$7.5 billion to US$l4 billion for the current year.

Could Cathay be an exception to the rule? For all the hype about product improvement all round including the new Premium Economy class and a new regional business class, the Hong Kong-based airline posted a net profit of HK$916 million (US$118 million), down from HK$5.5 billion a year ago.

Cathay has attributed its poorer performance to a number of factors.

First, higher fuel costs. Cathay reported that throughout much of 2012, fuel prices were at sustained high levels and the Cathay Group’s fuel costs increased by 0.8 per cent compared to 2011. What’s new anyway, when this should similarly affect all airlines across the industry? Yet, in spite of that, some airlines such as Japan Airlines are reporting improved performances. The volatility of the fuel price has been an easy target to blame no matter what degree its impact is on performance. It may not apply to Cathay, but in fact the average jet fuel price had been falling from Sep to Dec 2012 before rising again.

What is more of a concern is the reason for the decline in the fuel price, as explained by Iata chief Tony Tyler: “The reduction in fuel prices is a great thing for the airline industry but they are coming down because of concerns over world economic activity. If the world enters an economic slump, that will be even worse for the industry than the higher fuel price was on its own.”

Second, a drop in demand for corporate travel. This is a more cogent argument as the industry continues to be hard hit by the economic stagnation or slow recovery if at all it is happening, particularly in Europe and the United States. Cathay, which banks on its premium product, is naturally affected more than other airlines that thrive on the low-end traffic.

In a statement issued by the airline, Cathay chairman Christopher Pratt said: “Premium class yields were affected by travel restrictions imposed by corporations.”

Again, this is not a new lesson gleaned only yesterday but widely recognized during the global financial crisis which all but favours cheaper alternatives. Cathay is not alone in this predicament; rivals such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Qantas face the same threat.

In a counter-move, Cathay introduced the premium economy class to retain downgraders and attract those who are prepared to pay a little more but not that much more to upgrade to enjoy the frills of an in-between class. It is tempting to conclude that this strategy – perhaps to the relief of SIA which has until now snubbed the idea – is not working judging by the results posted by Cathay, but its full impact is yet to be realised. If the global economy continues to weigh down, it may well prove to be Cathay’s lifeline.

That brings us to the third point as to what went wrong then. Cathay attributes it to increased competition. Mr Pratt said: “An increasingly competitive environment added to the difficulties.” That may be true, but when an airline such as Cathay which is among the world’s most successful carriers resigns to that, it comes across as being somewhat less plausible and lame, and smacks of something amiss.

Competition is a given in this industry. So what has Cathay done or is doing to check the competition? To be fair, it has done much more than most airlines. It has rolled out new product improvements and improved its in-flight service. The airline is ranked consistently among the industry’s favourites, particularly its business class, by air travellers. By all account, its strategy should place it in the forefront of the competition, so what is missing that it should ascribe its falling performance to increased competition? If there’s such a thing as a success formula to suit different environments, has it got the equation not quite right?

Fourth, the weak cargo demand in major markets, particularly from Asia to Europe. No doubt this has affected Cathay’s overall profitability. If it is any consolation, close rival SIA is also similarly afflicted. There are no clear signs that the situation will improve substantially in the near term. In light of the weaker outlook, Cathay has cancelled an order for eight Boeing 777-200 freighters but instead placed an order for three Boeing 747-8 freighters which will carry 16 per cent more revenue-producing freight than predecessor Boeing 747-400. Cathay chief executive John Slosar said the larger airplane would result in fuel savings for the revamped fleet.   

Fifth, high operating costs, especially of the long haul routes that according to Mr Pratt were dominated by “older, less fuel-efficient Boeing 747-400 and Airbus A340-300 aircraft”. Last year, the company announced plans to accelerate retirement of the less fuel-efficient 747-400 as it continues with the fleet upgrading programme for both airlines in its fold – Cathay and Dragonair. In January, Cathay ordered 10 Airbus A350-1000 and converted 16 of its existing order for A350-900 to the larger A350-1000. These 350-seaters will ply high-density routes which include non-stop flights to Europe and North America.

The future should look rosier. Mr Slosar said: “This is an important strategic development for Cathay Pacific. The A350-1000 aircraft will bring us world-beating fuel efficiency.” 

Last, incommensurate cost-cutting measures that include offering unpaid leave to crew and reducing capacity on some routes which unfortunately, according to Mr Pratt, “were not enough to offset in full the effects of high fuel prices and weak revenues.”

And we have come one full circle. So what makes one airline more likely to succeed than another when almost every one of them alike ascribes its failed performance to the same factors?

Mr Pratt said: “Our core strengths remain the same ever: a superb team, a strong international network, exceptional standards of customer service, a strong relationship with Air China and our position in Hong Kong. These will help to ensure the success of the Cathay Pacific Group in the long term.”

Sounds familiar, you may say, except for specific references applicable only to Cathay.

Optimism returns to aviation

London celebrating New Year . Photo courtesy Reuters

London celebrating New Year 2013 . Photo courtesy Reuters.

THERE is renewed optimism for the airline industry, going by the latest International Air Transport Association (Iata) forecast that 2013 will see an improvement in global airline profitability from US$6.7 billion to US$8.4 billion. This has been revised from an earlier estimate of US$7.5 billion.

Iata chief economist Brian Pearce said: “I think we are past the low point, which was earlier this year.”

The positive mood was encouraged by slightly higher economic growth and slightly lower fuel prices than expected. Of course, there remains the caveat that fuel prices continue to be volatile and susceptible to hikes and the world economy is moving slowly, if at all it is recovering. So, do not raise your hope too high.

Iata director-general Tony Tyler admonished: “It is of course good news that the outlook is moving in a positive direction, but let’s keep the figures in perspective. The industry is keeping its head above water. But only just.”

Indeed, the past few years have demonstrated how the industry has been saddled with more uncertainty than confidence moving forward. But starting the New Year on a positive note may in itself give a needed boost to the morale as the airlines in general may have for too long tried to adjust to the gloom and stay with it rather than shake themselves out of it.

In the next couple of years, the industry will be invigorated with airlines making plans to upgrade cabin products to include more comfort in premium class and enhanced in-flight entertainment in all cabins. Major US carriers such as United, Delta and American will introduce seats that can be converted to flat beds that are already available on international flights, on cross-country domestic flights. Ground facilities such as airport lounges will get a makeover.

United Airlines chief executive Jeff Smisek said: “In 2013, you will start seeing a lot of product development. We have to catch up for many years of underinvesting.”

In Asia-Pacific, airlines such as Qantas, Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines have also announced plans to improve cabin products. The New Year is likely to see a re-focus on the premium product even as budget travel continues to grow in the region.

According to Iata, US airlines will continue to improve their profitability while European carriers collectively will break even. Now that’s good news especially for Europe, considering its long-running saga of the euro debt crisis. Asia-Pacific, hitherto touted as the region of growth, will turn in mixed performance but “overall profitability has not deteriorated as much as expected, despite weakness of cargo markets.” With 40 per cent of the global cargo market, the region’s carriers are most exposed to weak cargo demand. All other regions are also expected to show improved profitability, even if it is marginal.

I reiterate: It is always good to start the New Year on a positive note. For now, it is still a long year ahead to be concerned about unexpected turns in the road.