Malaysia Airlines: Waiting for the white knight

Courtesy Reuters

IN July, there was much excitement about Qatar Airways’ interest in acquiring Malaysia Airlines (MAS), being one of four proposals received by the ailing flag carrier of Malaysia. It seems that has as quickly dissipated.

According to sources, apparently only one proposal from local investors Jentayu Danaraksha Sdn Bhd (JDSB) is left on the table. The consulting firm is fronted by former MAS chief executive officer Tan Sri Abdul Azia who retired in 1991.

But MAS’ owner Khazanah does not seem to favour JDSB which in 2014 said it was keen to revive the carrier but was snubbed.

There has been ambiguity as to whether MAS prefers a local or foreign investor. But there is now new excitement about the possibility that Japan Airlines (JAL) might be that white knight. Much has been hyped about JAL being a good fit for MAS since it had only not too long ago pulled through a difficult time of near collapse and would therefore know what’s needed to rescue MAS.

JAL has earlier tied up with MAS to operate joint flights between Japan and Malaysia, and it looks like a natural step forward to take on a bigger role. Besides, both airlines belong to the OneWorld Alliance (and so too Qatar Airways).

And while the powers that be at Khazanah are gushing with excitement about that prospect, JAL president Yuji Asaka said it was too early to consider an equity investment in MAS but future discussions were possible.

Extending its reach internationally may be a strategy for JAL in competing with rival All Nippon Airways. So far it has partnered with airlines which include China Eastern Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Garuda Indonesia in commercial agreements. But equity acquisition is so far not on the card. So it may be a long road, so patience may just be what MAS needs right now.

Will Qatar Airways be Malaysia Airlines’ white knight?

Some three to four months after Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohamad said ailing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) may shut down or be sold, he revealed he had received four proposals to take over the national flag carrier.

The first known interest came from former AirAsia non-executive chairman Pahamin Ab Rajab and five partners, whose consortium is looking at scooping up a 49 per cent stake in MAS. Whether AirAsia is part of the consortium is not clear, but the budget carrier’s chief Tony Fernandes had said he was not interested as it would be a mistake for a low-cost operator to want to go full-service. (See Can AirAsia save Malaysia Airlines, 8 July 2019)

Qatar Airways now emerged as the second prospective white knight come to the rescue of MAS following a meeting between Dr Mahatir and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamin Hamad al-Thani. Both Qatar and MAS belong to the OneWorld alliance. At least that’s common ground for a start, unless geopolitical problems Qatar faces with its neighbours that lead to its isolation in the region stand in the way.

But, of course, no doubt Qatar has the funds to shore up the loss-making MAS. There are good competitive reasons for doing so. The tie-up will certainly boost Qatar’s standing in Southeast Asia and the extended Asian region. Dr Mahatir has recognised that MAS suffers from fierce competition, and Qatar’s aggressive strategy in the international arena may well also push the Malaysian carrier in the same direction.

The acquisition will complement Qatar’s investment in Europe, where it is already a major shareholder of the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. With a share of 20.01 per cent, it s IAG’s largest single stakeholder.

It is interesting that of the four proposals received by MAS, Qatar is the only foreign company. It is not known if the other proposals are from industry players apart from the suggestion that Mr Pahamin had an aviation link in a non-executive capacity. That probably explains how many industry experts think MAS’ best bet is AirAsia, once a carrier heavily indebted and now Asia’s leading budget operator.

Qatar’s credentials as the world’s best airline voted by Skytrax respondents are impressive, but national pride to keep the flag carrier in local hands may present a hurdle. Yet one only has to look at Swiss International Air Lines now owned by the Lufthansa Group and the merger between Air France and KLM to appreciate how in business, the desire to survive will dictate the course. Already Dr Mahatir has assured his people MAS will retain its name.

Emirates’ profit plunges: Are the good days over?

Courtesy EPA

Emirates Airlines posted its weakest earnings in a decade – its profit at Dh871m (US$237m) plunged 69 per cent for the year ending March 31.

The airline’s chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum attributed the lacklustre performance to higher oil prices, competition, weakening of travel demand particularly in the Gulf region, and strengthening of the US dollar.

Was 2018/19 merely an exceptionally tough year, or is it a sign that the good days are coming to an end?

Emirates has been very successful in operating inter-continental flights, hubbing at Dubai International Airport. However, with more airlines mounting direct flights, Emirates may face the challenge to fill up its fleet of A380 superjumbo. Its reliance on Asia-Pacific traffic to connect through Dubai to Europe has also been affected by the spread of terrorist attacks that are turning travellers away.

Going forward, Sheik Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said: “We expect the year ahead to remain challenging with hyper competition squeezing airline yields, and volatility in many markets impacting travel flows and demand.”

Interestingly, Emirates will be introducing a premium-economy class next year to help broaden its appeal. Known to have modelled itself after Singapore Airlines (SIA) in its early years of formation, Emirates is going through the same kind of pain that SIA experienced. And a little lately. SIA had for some time fought shy of going the premium-economy way, and is now competing aggressively to lead the pack.

The danger with success is how one thinks the good days will never come to an end so long as one continues to do what one has been doing. We forget that things are constantly changing around us.

Emirates’ profit plunge may signal something wider in the Gulf region. Last year Qatar Airways reported a loss of 252m riyals (US$67m), attributing it largely to a political dispute that resulted in a ban on the airline by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. It expects to make a loss again this year.

Etihad Airways too has been incurring losses since 2016. Last year it posted a loss of US$1.28b. The Abu Dhabi-based airline has since shifted its focus on acquiring stakes in other airlines to build up its intercontinental network to focusing on operating point-to-point flights. There is rumour that it may eventually be assimilated by rival Emirates.

So true it is that one’s fortune may change depending on how and where the wind blows. You can’t ever rest on your laurels.

Qantas considers “crazy” ideas for ultra-long flight

Courtesy Reuters

Qantas is taking the lead in raising the bar for the ultra-long flight. And it is understandable why. The Australian flag carrier will be launching the world’s longest flight from Sydney to London in 2022 – a journey of 20 hours and 20 minutes.

Qantas is already flying non-stop from Perth to London, but the flight (17 hours and 20 minutes) is shorter than Qatar Airways’ 18-hour flight from Doha to Auckland and Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s flight from Singapore to New York (closer to 19 hours).

However, not many people may think staying up in the air for that long a time is the best way to travel. So the task for Qantas is to shift that mindset. According to the airline, their Perth-London experience has shown that health and wellness are the main concerns of passengers, and these may be translated into “comfort, sleep, dining, entertainment, and state of mind”.

The package goes beyond providing more comfortable seating, noise-reduced headsets and food specially designed to help the body adjust to the journey.

The limited space of the aircraft’s pressurized cabins and its complete lack of view pose a big challenge. So pre-flight programs become an option.

Qantas has introduced a lounge at Perth International with ‘light therapy’ showers, hydration menus and yoga classes to reduce the effects of jetlag. But this facility is only open to customers travelling in business, gold, platinum and platinum one Frequent Flyers, Oneworld emerald and sapphire customers, and Qantas Club members and their guests.

What about the rest of the travelers who are travelling in economy? These are the passengers who probably need more convincing than premium passengers. Unless, as in the case of SIA’s Singapore to Newark flight which offers only business and premium class seats (there again, certain privileges may not apply to the lower class).

That said, what really matters is what happens on the flight. According to a Qantas study, suggestions include common spaces for stretching (now there’s the rule about not conglomerating), a cafe and stand-bar (which is not new even for the long-haul), exercise bikes and guided meditations.

Think cruise, as it were, although that’s not quite a fair comparison. But they all seem to be saying: If you can’t sleep through the flight or enjoy the view outside, and when you are tired after watching several movies or getbleary-eyed reading, you want to be doing something else or simply to get out of your seat.

Qantas said it is thinking outside the box and considering some “crazy” ideas. That will certainly change the flying experience, cost aside. It may mean the return of luxury air travel at least for the ultra-long haul.

But it is a strategic investment for the flying kangaroo “because of where Australia is situated on the globe,” said Phil Capps, head of customer experience. He added, “we’ve always had to push the boundaries of long-haul flying to ensure our passengers arrive at their destination ready for the next stage of their journey.”

While more airlines are battling it out in the long and ultra-long haul arena, the real competitor for Qantas may be SIA since there may still be many travelers who prefer to break their journey and because Singapore Changi Airport is the indisputable airport for transiting. The corollary is that SIA will be equally challenged to keep them coming through Changi.

Qantas is changing the game

Courtesy Getty Images

After the successful launch of the non-stop Perth-to-London flight in March, Qantas is now working on plans to introduce a non-stop Sydney-to-London flight, which is expected to take a little more than 20 hours. Boeing and Airbus have been invited to retrofit an aircraft that will fly the distance, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce expected a launch by 2020.

This is set to be a game changer, continuing the momentum set by the Perth non-stop which, according to the Australian flag carrier, is performing well, and in fact, exceeding expectations. Mr Joyce himself said early signs were positive, and that the new route “is the highest rating service on our network.”

The task now is how to make the ultra-long haul comfortable enough to influence the pattern of travel and get non-believers on board. According to the Independent, a Twitter poll with over 1,200 responses showed that 40 per cent would prefer a non-stop flight, 30 per cent would want a break in the journey, and the remaining 30 per cent said it would depend on the fare.

“We’re challenging ourselves to think outside the box,” said Mr Joyce. “Would you have the space used for other activities – exercise, bar, creche, sleeping areas and berths?”

Maybe think, along the line of a cruise?

One suggestion put forth was converting the plane’s cargo hold into sleeping pods.

With more non-stop ultra-long haul flights from Australia – Perth now, Sydney next and most likely Melbourne to follow suit – to London and possibly other European destinations such as Paris and Athens (and further down the road to key destinations in Africa and the Americas as well), how will this affect the competition?

The Kangaroo Route has been a lucrative route for Qantas and rivals that include Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Middle East carriers, notably Emirates Airlines (despite its alliance with Qantas), Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, flying via their home airports. Even Cathay Pacific may be counted as a veritable competitor.

However, these airlines are themselves also operating the ultra-long haul, so they are not unaware of how the game may be changing. Take, for example, the Middle East: Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are all operating non-stop to Los Angeles, albeit from their different home airports of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha respectively, in close proximity, and this is besides Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) flying from Jeddah. Both Emirates and Qatar are also flying non-stop to Auckland.

Asian rivals Cathay Pacific and Philippines airlines both fly non-stop from New York to Hong Kong and Manila respectively, and will soon be joined by SIA connecting the Big Apple with Singapore. Cathay and Philippines are also competing on the non-stop option from Toronto, while SIA and United Airlines are taking on each other flying non-stop between San Francisco and Singapore.

Perhaps to the relief of Qantas, British Airways (BA) has expressed no interest in mounting non-stop flights between Australia and the UK. In fact, over the years, BA has reduced its interest in Australia, currently operating only one service from London to Sydney via Singapore.

It seems that the ultra-long haul aims at narrowing the rivalry on key routes where point-to-point traffic is the target, and is perhaps also an attempt to claim native rights, cutting out third parties jumping on the bandwagon. The question is whether there is adequate traffic to justify the operations.

The fortunes of some airlines may shift, so too those of some airports which rely on transit traffic with no real attraction other than being a convenient stop en route. One only needs to look back at how Bahrain Airport quickly lost its status when new technologically advanced aircraft able to fly a longer distance without refuelling emerged on the horizon.

Dubai International and Singapore Changi are two popular hubs on the Kangaroo Route. How will their fortunes change?

Yes, they may lose some traffic with Qantas flying direct from Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, but all is not lost so long as there continues to be up to 70 per cent of travellers who are yet convinced the ultra-long haul is the way to fly. The airlines themselves understand the dynamics, hence the dual strategy, offering the options. Qantas may reduce some flights, but it is unlikely to completely stop flying via Dubai or Singapore. Similarly, SUA will not cease making a stop at an Asian port just because it has introduced non-stop flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Again, if one sees how Dubai International does what Bahrain could not do, reviving the importance of a Middle East hub with convenient connections to Europe and Africa, no less owing to the vast network of Emirates, and how Changi has enticed transit and transfer passengers with being more than just another airport, one can be hopeful of their future. They may even flourish as important regional hubs, feeding traffic from and into the ultra-long haul flights.

And don’t forget, non-stop flights cost more. People spend their dollar in different ways.

2018 Skytrax airline awards: Largely the same winners

Top airlines remain largely the same ones as last year’s.

Yet again we note how the top ten airlines remained largely the same ones as last year’s. If you’re good, you’re good, so it seems, and consistency won the day.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) which was second last year switched places with last year’s winner Qatar Airways. All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Emirates Airlines held steady in 3rd and 4th position. Cathay Pacific moved down one rung to 6th,, exchanging places with EVA Air. Lufthansa held its 7th position. Garuda Indonesian followed Hainan Airlines up one notch to 8th and 9th position respectively. The only new entrant to the list was Thai Airways International, which actually only moved up one rung from 11th last year, edging out Etihad Airways as it fell from 8th to 15th position.

So much for the excitement as the winning airlines, going by the result of the survey, continued to please their customers who found no reason to think otherwise of them.

Unlike some high-brow surveys whose results lean heavily on the premium class, Skytrax does readings across all classes.

Best for First Class was SIA followed by Etihad and Air France. This used to be the realm of Asian and Middle-East carriers, and let it not be a surprise to see two European carriers in the ranking. Lufthansa took 4th place.

Best for Business Class was Qatar followed by SIA and ANA. You would imagine that if an airline is good in First, it should not be too far off in Business. However, Air France was not placed in the top ten list and Lufthansa ranked 8th.

Best for Premium Economy was Air New Zealand followed by Qantas and SIA. It looks like the Pacific airlines are pretty good with this product. Lufthansa and Air France ranked 4th and 5th.. There was an absence of Middle-east carriers because they didn’t believe in such a class. Qatar chief CEO Akbar Al Baker had said: “We won’t roll out premium economy… I don’t think there is room for premium economy in our region, and of course in Qatar Airways. We give you a premium economy seat with an economy class price.” Sounds familiar if you recall the early days when SIA too expressed the same skepticism. However, Emirates has said its new Airbus A380 expected to be delivered in 2020 will feature premium economy.

Courtesy Star Alliance

Best for Economy Class was Thai Airways followed by SIA and Qatar. This category was dominated by Asian carriers with the exception of Lufthansa in 9th position.

Only these six airlines were placed in all three categories of First, Business and Economy (excluding premium Economy since not all airlines offer this sub-class): ANA, Cathay, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar and SIA. You can then rest comforted that whatever class you travel with these airlines, you will be treated without discrimination.

But is the Skytrax survey a good guide in choosing which carrier to fly with? Generally people can agree on makes a good airline. What matters when you travel with an airline? For the long haul, seat comfort is an important feature. Inflight entertainment, if you look for some distraction and are not otherwise doing something else or trying to catch up on shuteye. A good meal, if you are not one who will not eat airline food no matter what (unfortunately this is not featured in the Skytrax survey). Cabin cleanliness, of course, and that includes the condition of the washrooms. How often do you see the crew give it a clean-up and spraying some kind of deodorant to try and make it as pleasant as it possibly can be? Above all, the service provided by the cabin crew, to be treated in a friendly manner and with respect. Not forgetting service on the ground in the event that you may need assistance, as when your bag is damaged or has not arrived with you.

Perhaps the ranking for some of these more specific services may be of some help:

Best Economy seat (First and Business should be way better anyway): 1st Japan Airlines, 2nd SIA and 3rd Thai Airways.

Best cabin crew: 1st Garuda, 2nd SIA and 3rd ANA.

Best inflight entertainment: 1st Emirates, 2nd SIA and 3rd Qatar.

Cleanest cabin: 1st ANA, 2nd EVA and 3rd Asiana Airlines.

Best airport service: 1st EVA, 2nd ANA and 3rd Cathay.

But, of course, you can’t expect a single airline to be best in all categories, but you get a pretty good idea of where they all stand, perhaps with exceptions.

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.