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.

More offloading stories: What’s right, what’s wrong?

Suddenly, following the United Airlines incident of a passenger being forcibly removed from the aircraft in an overbooked situation (see The saga continues: United Airlines CEO promises no repeat of David Dao incident, Apr 14, 2017; United Airlines flew deeper into a PR storm, Apr 11, 2017; Fly the friendly skies? Not on United Airlines, Apr 10, 2017), air travellers are awakened to the harsh reality that even when they hold a fully-paid for confirmed seat, there is no guarantee they may not be bumped off.

Suddenly too, stories about more incidents of being bumped off are circulating via the social media.

A passenger travelling with her husband and a child happily publicized a windfall when Delta Air Lines compensated her US$11,000 for giving up their seats.

Yes, Delta has announced a change in its policy to compensate volunteers an amount as high as US$10,000 for giving up their seats. More specifically, gate agents can offer up to US$2,000, up from the previous maximum of US$800, and supervisors can offer up to $9,950, up from $1,350.

That’s mighty generous of Delta, and why not if it means taking down the competition? However, a recently published list of the ten worst US carriers for overbooked flights did not list Delta, which means the offer may not be made as often as you might think.

Many people believe if United had upped the compensation, it would have been spared the bad PR patch it went through.


Courtesy Air Canada

Just as soon as the Canadian authorities quickly reacted to the United debacle and vowed to protect consumers’ rights, a story surfaced of an incident on Air Canada of a 10-year-old child being denied boarding. His mother asked if an adult travelling with them could give up his seat for the child and was told that seat could not be guaranteed for the boy and would likely go to another passenger.

Oh, come on, Air Canada, to think this could happen in a country known for its people’s compassion!

The airline now said they were “following up to understand what went wrong” and that they had apologized to the family and offered a C$2,500 (US$1,866) voucher. If only airlines could understand how money cannot adequately make up for a disrupted holiday and the stress they caused, all the more in this case of separating a child and his parents.

A couple posted their story of being asked to leave the aircraft of yet another United Airlines flight, and this was not a case of an overbooked situation. Apparently they found another passenger lying across their assigned seats, asleep, and decided to sit in a different row which happened to be “economy plus” seats . According to the crew, the couple tried to sit in an upgraded seat and refused to comply with instructions to return to their booked seats.

Well, well, it looks like anything United now does that displeases a passenger is wrong, even if it means following the rules. It is every traveller’s right to heed the call to boycott the airline after the way it treated passenger David Dao, but it is not fair to take advantage of the airline’s vulnerability.

Things are getting better for Economy travel

Courtesy Getty Images

American Airlines is not going to let rival Delta Air Lines go it alone in bringing back free meals for their flights. (See Delta Air Lines ups the ante, reintroducing free meals in Economy, 19 Feb 2017) However, American will for a start reinstate the freebie only two domestic routes – New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco. Nevertheless it is an indication of how the competition is heating up, and how the game has come a full circle. It is only to be expected that United Airlines (and others) will follow suit.

In the end, it is not a matter of the meals but one of being ahead in the game, doing something different. Interestingly, across the pond in Europe, British Airways (BA) is doing away with free meals and has announced plans to add more seats in Economy, thus reducing the pitch. (See British Airways is becoming more “budget” than Ryanair, 7 Mar 2017) Here the critical question is whether BA is a leader or a follower in the European context, although it appears it is somewhat of a Johnny-Come-Lately and what Delta and American are doing may force it to re-think its strategy.

At no time than now is coach travel getting more attention from the airlines, which understandably have been paying lots more attention to the premium product because of the higher yield. (See Cathay’s loss is a sign of the times, 16 Mar 2017) And that’s good news for the majority of travellers.

Delta Air Lines ups the ante, re-introducing free meals in Economy

Courtesy Delta Air Lines

Courtesy Delta Air Lines

While British Airways (BA) came on lately to charge for meals on the short haul – something which North American carriers have been doing for quite a while now (see No more free meals for BA short haul, Jan 16, 2017), Delta Air Lines across the pond is re-introducing complimentary meals in Economy on March 1 following a trial last year. The offer even comes with a choice of selections, for example, a mesquite-smoked turkey combo, Mediterranean whole-grain vegetable wrap, or fruit and cheese plate.

What is interesting is how the business model keeps shifting as the competition heats up, and how things sometimes come a full circle to what they used to be. Meals used to be part and parcel of the total package, so too checked baggage, seat selection at time of booking, and seats with more leg room. The budget model of product unbundling and add-on charges soon became a way for airlines to be seen as offering lower fares and at the same time a source of ancillary revenue. It is to be noted that some airlines are still offering the freebies, notably Asian carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific which, for example, are still allowing two pieces of checked baggage.

The crux of the game is really one of staying ahead of the competitors – and while BA becomes a late follower in charging for meals (but fortunately in a different market), Delta is shaking up the game with re-introducing an old practice which may soon be followed by rivals for the same routes, among them American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Virgin America.

Virgin America tops, according to Conde Nast

Courtesy Virgin America

Courtesy Virgin America

Virgin America is the best airlines in the US according to a readers survey by Conde Nast. It is a credible list.

The top five airlines are as follows:

1. Virgin America, for its service and roomy cabins that include such features as touch-screen menus ordering, seat-to-seat messaging, no shortage of power outlets, Netflix streaming and mood lighting.

2. JetBlue Airways, for its ten-inch seatback screens, entertainment streaming options, free internet, unlimited blue chips and snacks.

3. Hawaiian Airlines, for its lie-flat seating in the premium cabin, welcome mai tais and guava cookies, and reputation for punctuality.

4. Alaska Airways, for its friendly staff, comfortable seats, reliability and guarantee that checked luggage will arrive no later than 20 minutes after touchdown.

5. Southwest Airlines, for its fun staff, affordable fare, two free checked bags allowance and any change of ticket without penalty.

Worthy of note is the ranking in the top five positions of both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, which have since merged but continue to operate under their different names for the time being. Their merged identity is set to be a major aviation powerhouse in the US,

Also worthy of note is the absence of the big three US airlines: American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Size is not a plus in this case, it seems.

What conclusions can you draw in an airlines survey?

SIA courtesy SIA

WE continue to be fascinated by rankings of the world`s best airlines, although the results of most surveys – take away some bias here and there – are quite predictable and almost similar across the board. The winners by and large boast excellent cabin service, great food, comprehensive in-flight entertainment and innumerable choices, more generous legroom than what their competitors offer, and frills such as complimentary champagne and brand name overnight kit. It is all about creature comforts. And the impressions are understandably almost always skewed by the luxuries of the upper classes.

Traveller magazine Conde Nast has just posted its list of the world’s best airlines, surveyed among some 128,000 readers. Of course this is not the definitive list of excellence to the detail, in the same way that no other list can be as definitive without considering factors such as the type of respondents involved, the scope of the survey and the criteria adopted, but there are nevertheless interesting conclusions to be drawn from them. So often it is more interesting to look at the omissions.

Long haul can impress or disappoint

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is a perennial favorite of Conde Nast readers, ranking top for 27 of 28 years. It is hardly surprising, which to be saying it seems even redundant. The airline has long earned the reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, and is frequently celebrated in other surveys as well. It was ranked second after Qatar Airways in the last Skytrax survey. It is hard to find a match that depicts consistency in excellence. The real clincher seems to be in its long haul operations – such flights that are likely to elicit the flaks when passengers are apt to become more stressed and demanding. Here is where SIA is able to make the difference by a well-trained crew that anticipates a passenger’s needs, always mindful the passenger’s comfort first and foremost in the service.

All the airlines in Conde Nast’s top ten are long haul operators, with the exception of Porter Airlines which is more a city shuttle that flies between Toronto in Canada and US destinations such as Boston, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

While the long haul impresses, it can also take apart an airline’s reputation, which explains why some airlines are inundated with complaints about being handled like a can of sardines. Interestingly, the Conde Nast list of best American carriers is made up of short-haul operators to the exclusion of the big three of United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Virgin America is ranked first followed by JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf Carriers

Again, it is not surprising that Conde Nast’s top ten ranks are dominated by Asian and Gulf carriers, which together were placed in not only in the top three ranks but also seven of the top ten positions. The Gulf big three of Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways were second, third and fifth respectively. Qatar was tops in the earlier Skytrax survey, ahead of Emirates (5th) and Etihad (6th). Other Asian airlines in the Conde Nast list are Japan Airlines (6th), Korean Air (7th) and Cathay Pacific (10th). Both SIA and Cathay were also ranked among Skytrax’s top ten airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf carriers means the stark exclusion of airlines of other regions. Only one European airline – Virgin Atlantic – was listed, and in fourth placing. One asks: Where are British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa although going further down the list you will find Swiss International Air Lines (17th) and Finnair (20th)?

That and the marked absence of US carriers demonstrate the superior service culture of Asian and Gulf carriers and their growing popularity that continue to put pressure on their rivals in the competition. The US big recently accused the Gulf big three of unfair competition supported by state subsidies. In truth, North American airlines are not inefficient, but they lack the soft pampering touches of their competitors. There is a host of pertinent questions. Can US carriers be as friendly or, to go one further, do better? And, ultimately, do they even see the need?

Luxury improves image

Etihad boasts the “residence” suite that comes with a bedroom, private bath with shower and lounge. That is for now the forerunner in the race for the ultimate luxury in the air, leaps ahead of SIA’s first class suites and all the other airlines’ flat bed allures. There are also the extras: Etihad provides a concierge service that will make a dinner reservation for you when you land, and some airlines offer door-to-airport limousine services. The slant towards premium classes is to be expected, for that is what makes news even as the perks are limited to a smaller but more lucrative market of the travelling population. If there is one airline that seems to be doing much more for coach than many others, it is Air New Zealand, which offers “Skycouch” in economy – seats that can be converted into a lie-flat double bed – but then again, this is limited to only three seats in the cabin, reminiscent of the days when EVA designates a small number of seats as the ill-defined premium economy before the subclass takes on an identity of its own today.

Comparison is the crux

In any survey, the crux is the comparison, particularly when they are all said to be providing good cabin service and excellent food amongst the creature comforts. The Conde Nast survey again surfaces the rivalry between SIA and Cathay Pacific in the top ten, favoring the former. Interestingly, Japan Airlines (6th) is ranked ahead of All Nippon Airways (11th), and Korean Air (7th) ahead of Asiana Airlines. That indicates a reversal of order that has been the reading of many past surveys, and may well portend how the competition may be trending.

In the case of Gulf carriers, the ranking rivalry among Emirates, Qatar and Etihad is very much a close call going by several international surveys. At the same time, we cannot ignore the inclusion of Turkish Airlines in Conde Nast’s top 20. Turkish was fourth in the Skytrax survey.

In the close rivalry between Qantas (15th) and Virgin Australia (19th), the former continues to enjoy an advantage over the latter.

What else matters? All the hype about going green as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the impact of climate change? That Korean Air prepares its food from humanely raised and organically grown produce. That El Al offers an iPad rental program. That Virgin Atlantic has a stand-up bar. That Qantas offers Select on Q-Eat that allows you to pre-order your meal. That Air New Zealand makes its safety presentation more entertaining than others. That British Airways allows you to log on to a movie as soon as you board and stay with it until the aircraft is docked at the gate on arrival. The list goes on. And one wonders.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.