Does Air Berlin’s demise signal end of the road for budget carriers?

Courtesy Reuters

Air Berlin is folding up its wings, caused by falling pasxsenger numbers. Last month alone saw a dip of 25 per cent compared to July last year. Its biggest shareholder, Gulf carrier Etihad Airways which owns a 29.2 per cent stake, is not forthcoming with the needed financial support.

Does Air Berlin’s demise signal the end of the road for unaffiliated budget carriers, many of whom are benefitting from the currtent low price of jet fuel? Or that it is at least a forewarning of a more difficult time ahead for them in the continuing battle between them and legacy airlines which are at the same time supported by their own budget offhsoots?

That’s what Ryanair fears, accusing the German government and national carrier Lufthansa of conspiring to carve up Air Berlin. Ryanair said: “This manufactured insolvency is clearly beign set up to allow Lufthansa to take over a debt-free Air Berlin which will be in breach of all known German and EU competition rules.” A Lufthansa-led monopoly, it said, would drive up domestic fares.

How then will the game play out after Air Berlin?

Ryanair’s apprehension as a competitor is real. Air Berlin’s exit will mean a stronger Lufthansa and its budget offshoot Eurowings. Yet already Lufthansa is a dominant player with 76 per cent of its capacity focused on the German market. The Lufthansa Group posted record earnings for the first six months of 2017, increasing revenue by 12.7 per cent to €17 billion and net profit by 56.6 per cent to €672 million. Eurowings and other airlines in the Group including Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines and Swiss Interantional Airlines, also posted positive results. So as a group, Lufthansa has quite some msucle to flex in Europe, and the vacuum left by Air Berlin is likely to be filled by Eurowings.

On the other hand, it may be countered that competition is all but dead since airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet also have access to the German market. However, comparatively, their market share is small; Germany represents only 7 per cent of Ryanair’s capacity and 9 per cent of EasyJet’s. There is possibility that Air berlin’s demise may mean more demand for seats on these carriers, if not opening up the market for more competition. Hence the German government has denied Ryanair’s accusation that it had breached anti-trust rules.

Clearly the competition will intensify, whether it is a battle between legacy airlines and unaffiliated low-cost carriers or one between budget airlines themselves is not any more a matter of note. The competition has levelled, with budget carriers attempting to do more and legacy airlines even adjusting down to match. Legacy airlines including Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France are fighting back, and the old strategy of doing it through a subsidiary equivalent is receivign a revival. Besides Lufthansa, British Airways (as part of the International Airlines Group which is already supported by Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling) has introduced Level, and Air France annoucned plans to launch Joon which, however, it says, is not a low-cost carrier.

The competition does not stay the same for long in the aviation business. Little surprise that Etihad has decided to step back from its acquisition spree.

Etihad flies into the red

Courtesy Etihad Airways

Are you surprised that one of the big three Gulf carriers has flown into the red? For the first time since 2011, Etihad Airways reported a hefty loss of US$1.87 billion in 2016 compared with a profit of US$103 million a year ago.

Chairman of the Etihad Aviation Group Mohamed Mubarak Fadhel al-Mazrouei said “a culmination of factors contributed tot he disappointing results.”

The United Arab Emirates airline blamed it on “one-off impairment charges and fuel hedging losses”.

It is a wonder how airlines would always blame poor hedging decisions for losses as if they were not responsible for their failure to correctly read the market. Etihad’s woes include billion dollar charges on aircraft and certain assets, as well as financial exposures to beleaguered equity partners including Alitalia and Air Berlin. Etihad owns 49% of Alitalia and 29.21% of Air Berlin. This has called for some reflection on the airline’s acquisition program.

But Etihad said the core airline business remained solid and strong. Although load factor declined slightly from 79.4% to 78.6%, passenger numbers increased from 17.6 million to 18.5 million.

Etihad’s new CEO Peter Baumgartner however was cautious about the future. He said: “We are in an industry characterized by overcapacity, declining market sizes on key routes and changing customer behaviour as a weak global economy affects spending appetite.”

Understandably, this comes at a time when the United States are imposing restrictions on travel from the Middle East and the airline too is caught in the diplomatic Qatar crisis that has affected regional routes.

More Middle East airlines allow laptops in cabin

Good news for Middle East carriers as the United States gradually exempts them from the ban imposed on the carriage of laptops and other electronic gadgets in the cabin.

Etihad Airlines was the first to announce the lift of the ban, followed by Emirates Airlines and Turkish Airlines. Now Qatar Airways becomes the fourth airline to join the list this week. Saudia, the flagship carrier for Saudi Arabia, said its passengers would be able to carry the electronics on board US-bound flights from 19 July.

This follows strengthened security to meet US standards, which include measures such as enhanced screening, more thorough vetting of passengers and the wider use of bomb-sniffer dogs.

Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait have yet to announce similar exemption. The UK government which followed the US in imposing similar restrictions on flights originating from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have not indicated its readiness to also lift the ban.

For all the initial outcry against the ban and questions about its wisdom, one might concede that the good that came out of it was the greater awareness of in-flight security. But for the airlines compliance means holding up the bottom line. Emirates for one had reported a drop in business because of the ban.

Is Singapore Airlines liable for misconnections?

sia-logoamericanemirates-logoetihad-logoturkish-airliens-logoSingapore Airlines (SIA) is among five major carriers taken to task by the British Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) for not compensating their customers for flight delays that resulted in missed connections. Emirates Airlines is said to be the worst offender. The other three carriers are American Airlines, Etihad Airways and Turkish Airlines.

According to BCAA Director of Consumers and Markets, Richard Moriarty, the five carriers have “systematically” denied the passengers their rights. He said: “Airlines’ first responsibility should be looking after their passengers, not finding ways in which they can prevent passengers upholding their rights. So it’s disappointing to see a small number of airlines continuing to let a number of their passengers down by refusing to pay them the compensation they are entitled to.”

Under EU regulations, which apply to airlines even if they are not based in the EU, a delay of more than three hours becomes compensable, unless caused by “extraordinary circumstances”. An airline is off the hook if the delay is caused by factors outside their control, such as inclement weather, but not if it is due to poor performance resulting from, say, the lack of maintenance, procedural hiccups or staff negligence.

This is not the first time an airline has been charged with not giving their customers their dues. Protecting air passengers’ rights has been a long running battle between regulators and the airlines, and the matter is far from being satisfactorily concluded. Nor is it as widely pursued as in the EU, United States and Canada. Even then, monitoring is not an easy task, and as arduous is the arbitration to decide if an airline should be held accountable. Ever since the EU ruling came into force, many airlines have been fighting the cases in court, and this can mean unduly long delays of compensatory payments if ever they are ruled in favour of the passengers.

Singapore airlines is putting compensation claims “on hold” if they involve connecting flights. This is a contentious issue as the delivering carrier has no control over a passenger’s choice of onward journey if he or she makes separate bookings. The question hinges on what is considered a reasonable connecting time. If an airline arranges the entire journey including the connection, it is usually obliged to look after the passenger who misses the connection as a result of a flight delay. This may cover a stopover stay at a hotel, meals, rebooking on the next flight or an alternative flight, and other related expenses. Some airlines have leveraged on short-connecting times as a marketing strength.

Following the US Department of Transportation final ruling on protecting passengers’ rights, SIA published a customer service plan for tickets purchased in the US for flights to and from that country. The plan stipulates: “In the event that Singapore Airlines cancels, diverts or delays a flight, Singapore Airlines will, to the best of our ability, provide meals, accommodation, assistance in rebooking and transportation to the accommodation to mitigate inconveniences experienced by passengers resulting from such flight cancellations, delays and misconnections. Singapore Airlines will not be liable to carry out these mitigating efforts in cases where the flight cancellations, delays and misconnections arise due to factors beyond the airline’s control, for example, acts of God, acts of war, terrorism etc., but will do so on a best effort basis.”

While an airline like SIA is unlikely to put its reputation on the line (the airline has often been commended by its customers for going the extra mile), there is always the caveat that it can only do so much to the best of its ability and on a best effort basis. In response to BCAA, SIA pointed out “a lack of clarity in the law” which it hoped would be resolved in the ongoing discussion with the British authority.

Air New Zealand leads the pack

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Courtesy Air New Zealand

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

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

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

The race to operate the world’s longest non-stop flight

Courtesy Emirates Airlines

Courtesy Emirates Airlines


THE race is on to operate the world’s longest non-stop flight. Ever since Singapore Airlines (SIA) suspended its flight from Singapore to New York in 2013, nine years after it was launched, the honour has fallen to various airlines. Qantas was the last to hold the record for distance flown, operating between Sydney and Dallas Fort Worth, until Mar 2 when Emirates Airlines commenced scheduled flights from Dubai to Auckland.

The inaugural Emirates flight using an Airbus A380 aircraft (subsequent services will use the Boeing B777 aircraft) flew a distance of 14,200 km (8,824 miles), compared to 13,800 km covered by the Qantas flight. The scheduled flight time is 17 hours and 15 minutes, about half an hour longer than the Qantas flight of 16 hours and 55 minutes. However, the inaugural flight landed earlier than scheduled, clocking only 16 hours and 24 minutes.

Some of the other notable ultra long haul flights clocking more 16 hours and more are operated by Delta Air Lines (Atlanta/Johannesburg), Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi/Los Angeles), Emirates (Dubai/Los Angeles), Saudi Arabian Airways (Jeddah/Los Angeles), Qatar Airways (Doha/Los Angeles), Emirates (Dubai/Houston), Etihad (Abu Dhabi/San Francisco), American Airlines (Dallas Fort Worth/Hong Kong), Emirates (Dubai/San Francisco), and Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong/New York).

While SIA had announced its intention to reintroduce its non-stop flight from Singapore to New York in 2017, Emirates looks determined to maintain the record for now. The Middle East carrier will be launching a non-stop service from Dubai to Panama City by the end of the month. The scheduled flight time is 17 hours and 35 minutes, shorter than the 19 hours of the erstwhile SIA flight.

As the industry heralds a return to the good times with the price of fuel at record low levels, airlines can afford a grab for prestigious attention. But surely, more than the prestige, the decision has to also make commercial sense.

Many of the ultra-long flights are operated by the big three of the Gulf region, namely Emirates, Etihad and Qatar. There is intense competition among these neighbouring carriers targeting the US markets, filling a gap left by the American carriers which are beginning to feel the pinch, leading to allegations by some of them of unfair competition. While the concentration may be a matter of the world geography as it is, it nevertheless shows how the Gulf carriers, taking advantage of improved technology that has continuously made flying a longer distance possible, are intent on driving a trend to reach the far corners of the world in a single hop.

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.