Some airlines may not survive Covid-19

Anxiety is gripping the airline industry, the concern that some airlines may not survive Covid-19.

Particularly vulnerable are airlines laden with debt and are already struggling to stay afloat as well as small carriers which rely on seasonal traffic.

The dip in oil prices cannot make up for the drastic fall in demand for seats as people refrain from flying and as more countries impose travel restrictions and close their borders.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global airline revenue losses would rise above US113bn following the announcement of restrictions on travel from Europe into the United States.

Poland for one is suspending all international flights, and many other European countries are expected to take similar action to reduce travel.

Cathay Pacific has warned of financial losses ahead because of the coronavirus outbreak, adding to its woes of plunging profits in 2019 resulting from political unrest in Hong Kong.

Courtesy Getty Images

Korean Air has already sounded the alarm. The airline’s president Woo Kee-hong said: “If the situation continues for a longer period, we may reach the threshold where we cannot guarantee the company’s survival.”

Like many other airlines, Korean Air has suspended flights – as much as 80 per cent – and is asking staff to take voluntary leave. Ryanair may force staff to take unpaid leave.

Norwegian Air Shuttle CEO Jacob Schram said the airline has started talking to the unions about “temporary layoffs for flying crew members as well as employees on the ground in the offices.”

British Airways (BA) too is not ruling out cutting jobs. BA chief Alex Cruz said: “We can no longer sustain our current level of employment and jobs would be lost – perhaps for a short term, perhaps longer term.”

Uncertainty is the word. And that makes it all the more onerous for some airlines not knowing for how much longer they can afford keep their planes on the ground.

Review: From Singapore to Seoul vv on Korean Air

When I was planning a trip from Songapore to Seoul last month, I had intended to fly either Singapore Airlines or Asiana Airlines. I decided to go with Asiana as it was the cheaper option. However, when I completed my online booking, a different fare was shown.

It so happened that Korean Air in conjunction with a local bank was promoting a fare that was even lower.

Photo by DL

Although I had flown Korean Air before, I confess that I had not thought of Korean Air this time because comparing the two Korean carriers, I had been prejudiced by the many surveys particularly Skytrax which continually favoured Asiana over the years. But the Korean Air offer was too good to resist.

KE 646 departing SIN 01:30 arriving ICN 08:50
KE 647 departing ICN 23:10 arriving SIN 05:00+1

I flew Economy.

Flight

What’s good about a red-eye flight is that you travel at a relatively off-peak time, and you can try to get some sleep during the journey (as would be the normal thing to do at the time) before arriving in daylight.

I have never flown a more quiet flight in all aspects – there was little movement and hardly any unnerving noise made by the passengers. Quite unlike my experiences flying Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific long distance when the call button kept ringing throughout the flight. Understandably the distance may make a difference. In any case, this was a pleasant change.

Crew

They were good, the female flight attendants looking most impressive in their exquisite attire. Above all, they were polite and pleasant.

Unlike the crew of most other major carriers (not excluding the big names known for reputable customer service) who would gather behind the curtain in the back galley between meals, there was at least one attendant who would maintain his or her presence in the assigned station throughout the flight.

Food

Good. I liked the choice of a local Korean option out of Seoul.

Toilet

Surprisingly clean. It was observed that the crew would make frequent checks.

Ground service

But ground service seemed to be less than satisfactory. At Singapore Changi Airport, the check-in agent could be a little friendlier and less perfunctory. By comparison, the check-in agent at Incheon International Airport was more customer-friendly, showing a readiness to assist.

The flight departs and arrives at Changi’s Terminal 4, which means you will have to ride the shuttle to Terminal 2 if you are commuting by subway.

At ICN, Korean Air operates out of Termninal 2, which seems spartan compared to the bustling Terminal 1. By 9 pm, it would be hard-put to find a restaurant (or anything else to amuse oneself) except the 7-11 convenience store.

Will I fly this route on Korean Air again?

Certainly YES. Worthy of note is that while Asiana Airlines has lost its place in the Skytrax survey as one of the world’s best, the top 25 airlines for 2020 ranked by AirlinesRatings include Korean Air but not its rival.

What do Conde Nast best airports have in common?

Yet again – and again – no surprise who tops Conde Nast’s pick of the best airport, or even the top five which are located either in Asia or the Middle East What do these airports have in common?

According to Conde Nast, they stand out “with enough amenities and time-wasters that you might be a little late boarding that flight.” Such frills include indoor waterfalls and great restaurants. In other words, they have to be more than just a fucntional facility for air transportation – however efficient although one must assume efficiency is a key consideration.

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Top in the ranks is Singapore Changi, followed by Seoul’s Incheon, Dubai International, Hong Kong International and Doha’s Hamad International.

Size matters. They are all huge airports. Changi has a handling capacity of 82 million passengers a year. Incheon is adding a second terminal which will double capacity to 100 million passengers annually, and Dubai Intl is aiming for 200 million passengers yearly. Hong Kong Intl handled more than 70 million passengers last year. Opened only in 2014, Hamad Intl is fast growing, recording a throughput of 37 million passengers last year, an increase of 20%.

They are hub airports. Dubai is now the world’s largest airport for international passenger throughput, edging out London Heathrow. Hong Kong Intl is positioning itself as a gateway to Asia in competition with Changi, with connections to some 50 destinations in China.

They are supported by strong home airlines with extensive connections: Qatar Airways (Hamad Intl), Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong Intl), Emirates Airlines (Dubai Intl), Korean Air and Asiana Airlines (Incheon) and Singapore Airlines (Changi).

They are modern with state-of-the-art infrastructure, and are constantly upgrading. Changi has recently added a fourth terminal where passengers can expect hassle-free processes from check-in to boarding without the need of any human contact.

The Asian airports offer fast rail connections to the city.

And, they are all competing to provide the most alluring “time-wasters”. Changi made news when it offered a swimming pool where passengers with time on their hand could relax and soak int he tropical sun. Now that’s also available at Hamad Intl, where you may even play a game of squash too. While Dubai is known to be one of the world’s biggest duty-free shopping centres, Hong Kong Intl is reputed for its great restaurants. Incheon is uniquely Korean with its “Cultural Street” that showcases local cuisine, dance performances, and arts and craft workshops. It also boasts an indoor skating rink and a spa. Hamad Intl too has an exhibit hall for that cultural touch.

Changi comes closest to being a destination in itself where it is said a passenger wouldn’t mind a flight delay. Besides the swimming pool, there are: an indoor waterfall, a butterfly garden, a swimming pool, vast play areas for families with children, and an array of restaurants and shops. And for passengers with at least a transit of six hours, you can hope on a free city tour.

But, of course, all these would not mean much if they are not supported by efficiency and friendly service.

What defines a best airline?

What defines a best airline, considering the different surveys that rank them? Conde Nast Travel has just released its readers’ choice of the best in 2017, and it is no surprise the list is made up of Asian, Middle East, European and SW Pacific carriers.

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Of course, it depends on the readership, but recognizing that, it also points to what really makes these airlines stand out. It is clear that the premium class service weighs heavily – the seat comfort and the fine food.

Etihad Airways (ranked #16) offers “the future of first-class comfort: a three-room “residence” with a bedroom, private bath with shower, and lounge.” Emirates (#4) offers “posh perks for premium fliers – cocktail lounges, in-flight showers… part of the reason it scores so high among travellers.” And the suites on Singapore Airlines (#3) offer “a pair of fully flat recliners that can be combined into a double bed.”

Mention is made of the premium economy class in almost all the ranked airlines” KLM (#20), Lufthansa (#19), Japan Airlines (#17), All Nippon Airways (#13), Qantas (#12), Cathay Pacific (#10), Virgin Atlantic (#7), Virgin Australia (#6), Singapore Airlines (#3) and Air New Zealand (#1).

So it may appear to be the voice of the premium travellers that is being heard. Maybe coach travellers aren’t too concerned about the ranking, more driven by price and less frilly factors, although to be fair, the Conde Nast report did mention of at least one airline, i.e. Etihad Airways (#16), not ignoring “those sitting in the back.” While many travellers may resign to the belief that the economy class is about the same across the industry, it is reasonable to assume that an airline that strives to please its customers in the front cabins will most probably carry that culture or at least part of it to the rear.

Although you may draw consensus across many of the surveys, it is best best to treat each one of them in isolation. It is more meaningful to try and draw intra conclusions within the findings of the particular survey.

You will note in the Conde Nast findings, there is an absence of American (including Canadian) carriers, never mind that of African and South American carriers.

Asiana Airlines (#8) is ranked ahead of Korean Air (#11).

All Nippon Airways (#13) is ranked ahead of Japan Airlines (#17). V

Virgin Australia (#6) is ranked ahead of Qantas (#12).

The order of the “Big 3” Gulf carriers is as follows: Qatar Airways (#2), Emirates (#4) and Etihad Airways (#16).

Of European carriers, there is the conspicuous absence of the big names of British Airways (compare Virgin Atlantic #7) and Air France, and the pleasant surprise of Aegean Airlines (#9) while SWISS seems to be regaining its erstwhile status years ago as being the industry standard.

The best belongs to Air New Zealand as the quiet achiever.

Ultimately, the results also depend on the group of respondents whose experiences may be limited to certain airlines.

Other airlines ranked in the top 20 of the Conde Nast survey: Finnair (#14), Turkish Airlines (#15), EVA Air (#18).

Nut rage on Korean Air: Will passengers be compensated for the delay?

Courtesy AFP

Courtesy AFP


THE nut rage on Korean Air when senior executive and daughter of the airline delayed a flight out of New York for Incheon because she was served macademia nuts in a bag and not on a plate has certainly given it worldwide publicity that it can do better without. The chief steward who was ordered off the plane alleged he was forced to kneel before Ms Heather Cho Hyun-ah to ask for forgiveness, that he was called names and that she had also hurled a folder of documents at a junior steward before yelling order to “stop the plane”.

Apart from having to deal with all that public criticism about Ms Cho’s unbecoming conduct, Korean Air has certainly other serious issues to think about too. The South Korean transportation Ministry said it would investigate whether her behaviour had violated aviation safety laws. Causing disturbances on board a flight is not tolerated under the law.

Although both Ms Cho and Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho had apologized (the latter additionally for “failing as a father”), it would take a while for public anger to settle. Ms Cho has been called “a national embarrassment” on Facebook and some people have called for a boycott of the airline. Ms Cho has resigned from her post, and barring any other development of an adverse nature, the business will heal in time.

Now, the big question that must arise as the dust settles: Will Korean Air compensate passengers for delay of the flight? Airlines are generally protected by the caveat when a delay is said to be attributable to “an act of God” or circumstances beyond their control. It should be easy enough to exclude this one in question.

By the way, it is reported that the sale of macademia nuts has shot up.

Female Asiana crew want to wear pants

Photo credit: GETTY

Photo credit: GETTY

THINK again if you believe female cabin crew should only wear dresses and skirts. Asiana Airlines has been asked by South Korea’s human rights commission to ease its dress code to allow female flight attendants to wear pants. The ruling is not binding, but the airline said it would consider pants as an option in future uniform designs.

Many airlines, notably those in the west, have already included pants as part of the uniform for their female crews. For the Asiana crew, it is a victory for the 3,400 female staff who are said to be subject to a very stringent dress code that includes no glasses (which the airline has now allowed), a limit on the number of hairpins and manicured nails at all times.

Three reasons have been cited for the relaxation. First, safety, the one reason that no one wants to refute. But really, where does one draw the line? As Asiana spokesperson Min Man-ki said, “(We) cannot expect flight attendants to wear track suits and sneakers just for safety.” Now one imagines if the sexy qipao worn by female crew of Chinese carriers such as China Airlines, and the unique sarong kebaya won by those of South-east Asian airlines such as Singapore Airlines are any less safe. It is almost inconceivable that they should trade those for pants.

I risk being branded sexist to say I will not forget the elegance of a Korean Air flight attendant in her hanbok paring a pear. Indeed, as Mr Min explained to CNN, “The uniform was designed based on hanbok, Korean traditional dress — women didn’t wear pants traditionally when they wore hanbok.”

At which point therefore does maintaining a certain image become sexist, and upholding a certain standard of grooming become unreasonable? Which, perhaps, goes to explain the noticeable difference between the immaculate presentation of Asian crew compared to the not so fastidious image of American crew. I am told that in the early days of one Asian airline, the crew would stand in line to be inspected lest their nails were unpresentable or their hair was falling out of place.

A second reason cited for Asiana’s consideration was comfort. Perhaps so, and an important criterion. Then again, Mr Min’s comment about track suits and sneakers may be as applicable here. But that would be stretching the argument a little too far. Sure, some budget carriers have gone the way of t-shirts but for the “hang lose” image they wish to project.

Third, the rights to choose. This is probably the thrust of the move upon which the first two reasons were included to lend support to. Denying women that rights would be deemed to be discriminatory, though male crews are unlikely to ask to be permitted to wear dresses and skirts. And dare anyone say that women do not look as good in pants!

Air Canada goes budget

AS the popular folk ballad ‘Blowing in the Wind’ goes, “When will they ever learn?” In announcing plans to consider launching a long-haul budget carrier, has Air Canada not learnt from the failure of Hong Kong-based Oasis Airlines, which commenced operations first between Hong Kong and London in 2006 and then between Hong Kong and Vancouver in 2007 only to fold up its wings in 2008?

So also is it said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but can Air Canada do it any differently in order to succeed where other hopefuls had so quickly failed?

Besides Oasis Airlines, Air Canada could have also considered very carefully the case of defunct fellow carrier Harmony Airways, which started as HMY Airways in 2002 and was renamed in 2004, operating to various destinations within Canada and beyond to the United States, Mexico and United Kingdom. The airline received favourable customer feedback and was eyeing the growing China market, but that was to be an unrealized dream when it ceased operations in 2007.

Harmony Airways preferred to be called a niche player than a low-cost carrier as it took pride in providing good service and serving hot meals on board. But it was hurt by soaring fuel prices in a highly competitive environment. It did not have the muscles to stand up against the larger carriers like Air Canada and WestJet. According to spokesman Peter Bruecking at the time, Harmony Airways had banked its future on gaining access to the China market, but delays in agreement between the two countries inevitably forced it to reshape its course, hence its demise.

Perhaps it was this very disappointment expressed by Harmony Airways then that has given new hope to Air Canada today as both China and Canada relax the rules for more Chinese travellers and carriers to enter Canada. Vancouver International Airport (YVR) has been working hard to promote itself as the gateway to North America and not just Canada. As admitted by President of the airport authorities Larry Berg, “Much of Vancouver Airport Authority’s focus in attracting new routes, passengers and airlines over the past number of years has been on Asia, given the growth potential of markets in the region.”

Three major airlines from China, namely Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines, are already operating to Vancouver. A fourth airline, Sichuan Airlines, will inaugurate services on 22 Jun. YVR is also well served by other Asian carriers such as Cathay Pacific, China Airlines (Taiwan), EVA Air, Japan Airlines, Korean Air and Philippines Airlines.

How well the new Air Canada carrier will fare against the competition is a real poser, especially when the parent airline itself is highly prone to industrial disruptions and not as highly regarded for service as some of its competitors. However, as a low-cost operator, the new carrier will understandably compete on price, but considering the low fares charged by some of the established carriers, the differential may not be adequately compensatory for the deprivation of creature comforts on a long-haul flight.

Yet again, this raises the question as to whether the budget long-haul is a viable proposition, having seen the dissolution of Oasis Airlines and, lest you cite AirAsia X otherwise, you will note that the Malaysian carrier has ceased its long-haul operations from its home base in Kuala Lumpur to London, Paris and Christchurch, and is refocusing on shorter runs.

All said, Asia is still the Holy Grail that most airlines are after. Interestingly, when Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu first mooted the idea of a budget carrier, he was thinking of Europe, But with the economic crisis hanging over Europe, the priority shifted to tapping the potential of Asian destinations instead.

Unfortunately, geographically, Air Canada is not as fortuitously positioned as, say, Qantas, to penetrate the region, which leaves it to either dress up or dress down its operations and to rely on sustaining the flow of long-distance traffic between Asia and North America. That is why China, with its growing nouveau riche, is an attraction. Yet, unlike Qantas, which believes the demographics favour a regional premium carrier (however, understandably so considering the proximity of Australia), Air Canada intends to go low-cost to attract the masses.

Almost paradoxically too, when the Harper government of Canada has been courting businesses in China to connect with Canada, and its successes would boost traffic between the two countries.

 It may be said that Air Canada has been somewhat slow in latching on to the frenzy of budget travel beyond its national borders. Mr Rovinescu has said the launch of a budget carrier is a top priority. In a speech to shareholders, he said: “We need to participate in this segment of the market in one manner or another.”

A more interesting development in the plans allegedly is for Air Canada to eventually operate only domestic flights and flights to the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. All other flights beyond these countries will be handled by the new budget carrier in which Air Canada will participate as a partner. When that happens, Air Canada will have completed its transformation from full-service to budget status, since its domestic and regional flights are already largely no-frilled. O Canada, can you see that day coming?