2019 Skytrax World Airline Awards: Who are the real winners?

It’s that time of the year when the airline industry is abuzz with the Skytrax World Airline Awards announced recently at the Paris Air Show.

There are surveys and there are surveys, if you know what I mean. Skytrax, which launched its survey back in 1999 (according to its website) is generally viewed with some regard. It is said that more than 21 million respondents participated in the 2019 survey.

But what can we read of the results?

Which is the real winner: Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines?

Qatar Airways switched places with last year winner Singapore Airlines (SIA) to be the world’s best airline.

As far back as 2010 until now, the two airlines have been ranked one behind the other in the top three spots, except in 2012 when Asiana came in second place between Qatar the winner and SIA in third position. In the ten year period, SIA came behind Qatar in eight years, except in 2010 when SIA was second and Qatar third, and last year when the Singapore carrier became the world’s best ahead of Qatar in second placing.

It looks like a tight race between Qatar and SIA for the top spot, and going by the survey results, Qatar has outranked SIA. It has become the first airline to have won the award five times, one more in the history of the awards.

But SIA is still ranked ahead of Qatar for first class and economy class.

In the first class category, Qatar is not even a close second to SIA in first placing but fifth behind Lufthansa, Air France and Etihad as well

In the economy class category, Japan Airlines is tops followed by SIA and Qatar in second and third placing respectively.

Besides SIA has the best premium economy in Asia, second only to Virgin Atlantic worldwide. But,of course, Qatar does not offer that class of travel.

Additionally SIA tops for cabin crew, and Qatar is farther down the list in 9th position.

But Qatar wins for business class, followed by ANA and SIA in second and third placing respectively. So it seems there is heavier weightage for this segment which has become probably the fiercest battleground for the airlines. First class included, it also suggests the halo effect of the premium product, but it is the business class that is the primary focus in today’s business.

It also attests to the impact of the recency factor. Qatar obviously impresses with its cubicle-like Qsuite that comes with its own door to provide maximum privacy. Quad configurations allow businessmen to engage in conference as if they were in a meeting room and families to share their own private space. And there is a double bed option.

Which brings up the importance of having to continually innovate and upgrade the product to stay ahead in the race.

The top ten listing: Consistency equals excellence

The ranking does not shift much from year to year. Besides Qatar and SIA, there are some familiar names: All Nippon Airways (3rd this year), Cathay Pacific (4th), Emirates (5th), EVA Air (6th) and Lufthansa (9th). So there is not much of a big deal as airlines switch places so long as they remain in the premier list.

Hainan Airlines (7th) is making good progress, moving up one notch every year since 2017. Qantas (8th) is less consistent, moving in and out of the top ten list, Thai Airways retained its 10th spot for a second year.

It is no surprise that the list continues to be dominated by Asian carriers which are generally reputed for service. You only need to look at the winners for best cabin crew: Besides SIA, the list is made up of Garuda Indonesia, ANA, Thai Airways, EVA Air, Cathay Pacific, Hainan Airlines, Japan Airlines and China Airlines. With the exception of Qatar, no other airline outside Asia is listed.

If you to look to find out how the United States carriers are performing, scroll down the extended list of the 100 best and you will see JetBlue Airways (40th), Delta Air Lines (41st), Southwest Airlines (47th), Alaska Airlines (54th), United Airlines (68th) and American Airlines (74th).

Home and regional rivalry

Rivalry between major home airlines or among competing regional carriers is often closely watched.

Air Canada, placed 31st ahead of rival WestJet at 55th can boast it is the best in North America. That’s how you can work the survey results to your advantage.

ANA (3rd) has consistently outdone arch rival JAL (11th). In fact, ANA has been the favoured airline in the past decade till now. It has Japan’s best airline staff and best cabin crew. Across Asia, it provides the best business class. Internationally, it provides the best airport services and business class onboard catering.

Asiana (28th) is favoured over Korean Air (35th ).

The big three Gulf carriers are ranked Qatar first, followed by Emirates (5th) and Etihad (29th).

Among the European carriers, Lufthansa (9th) leads the field, followed by Swiss International Air Lines (13th), Austrian Airlines (15th), KLM (18th), British Airways (19th), Virgin Atlantic (21st), Aeroflot (22nd), Air France (23rd), Iberia (26th) and Finnair (32nd).

What about low-cost carriers?

Worthy of note is how some budget carriers are ranked not far behind legacy airlines. AirAsia (20th) is best among cohorts. EasyJet (37th) and Norwegian Air Shuttle (39th) are not far behind the big guys in Europe. Among US carriers, Southwest Airlines (47th) is third after JetBlue (40th) and Delta (41st).

Also, pedigree parents do not necessarily produce top-ranked offshoots. Placed farther down the list are SIA’s subsidiary Scoot (64th) and the two Jetstar subsidiaries of Qantas – Jetstar Airways (53rd) and Jetstar Asia (81st). So too may be said of so-called regional arms. Cathay Pacific’s Cathay Dragon is ranked 33rd, but SIA’s SilkAir is way down at 62nd.

Pioneer of the modern budget model Ryanair is ranked 59th.

Down the slippery road of decline: Aisana Airlines and Etihad Airways

If it is difficult to stay at the top, it is easy to slip down the slippery road of decline. Asiana and Etihad are two examples.

Asiana was ranked world’s best airline in 2010 and became a familiar name in the top ten list up to 2014, after which its ranking kept falling: 11th (2015), 16th (2016), 20th (2017), 24th (2018) and 28th (2019). Its erstwhile glory has been whittled down to being just best cabin crew in South Korea.

Etihad did reasonably well for eight years until 2018 when it was ranked 15th, and a year later suffered a dramatic decline to the 29th spot. That, despite beating Qatar to be this year’s best first class in the Middle East.

As I stated at the onset that there are surveys and there are surveys. Some are not specifically targeted , whether its interest is business or leisure for example. There is always an element of subjectivity and bias in the composition and weightage, and this renders no one reading as being definitive. At best, we can read across several creditable surveys to know with some conviction how the airlines really measure against each other.

Read also:

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/can-singapore-airlines-overtake-qatar-worlds-best-airline

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Size matters in the air

Courtesy Getty Images

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary predicted that “within the next four to five years you are seeing the emergence of four or five large European airline groups.” He even named the airlines, Ryanair among them in a mix of full-service and low-cost operators: Lufthansa, IAG (International Airlines Group which owns British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and Level), Air France-KLM and, probably, Easyjet.

This sentiment has been opined before by others at a time when mergers, assimilations and acquisitions across the industry were trending as competition broke barriers of entry and intensified, and so-called safe niche markets became every player’s game.

Air France-KLM as the name suggests is a merger of the two European airlines in 2004. Rival British Airways (BA) viewed it as a step in the expected direction, predicting further consolidation within Europe. And in 2011 IAG came into being when BA and Iberia merged. BA chief executive Willie Walsh said at the time that the merger would enable the airline to compete effectively with low-cost carriers.

So there came a time when budget carriers began to pose a threat to full-service airlines, with Ryanair leading the pack. Many of the legacy airlines today have adopted the budget model of charging for ancillaries, and introducing a basic economy class to keep cost-conscious travellers from switching. However, many low-cost carriers have become victims of the competition – the reason why Mr O’Leary named only one other carrier, EasyJet, as a probable survivor.

EasyJet, founded in 1995 and headquartered in London Luton, UK, is Ryanair’s closest rival which has grown and spread its wings across Europe. It too has made a number of acquisitions which include Swiss TEA-Basle and Go.
Elsewhere around the world, the vibes are not unfamiliar, New in the circuit is Air Canada’s interest in Sunwing and Cathay Pacific’s interest in Air Hong Kong Express, And where acquisitions and mergers are not on the plate, airlines are working to form alliances that are more than mere code-sharing. Qantas did it in 2013 with its tie-up with Emirates, and now Malaysia Airlines and Japan Airlines have applied for waiver of government restrictions to form an alliance that will enable easier connections between the two carriers.

It looks like size matters in the air.

Etihad Airways goes green: Working towards zero single-use plastic

Courtesy Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways marked Earth Day (22 April) by becoming the first Middle East airline to operate a flight without any single-use plastic item on board. This is commendable considering that the carrier uses some 27 million single-use plastic coffee cup lids every year. So on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Brisbane, passengers got to eat their coffee cups as well.

Etihad says it is committed to improving its environmental policies beyond the Earth Day flight. The carrier hopes to be able to reduce usage of single-use plastic by 80 per cent by the end of 2022. No fewer than 95 such items will be replaced.

Tony Douglas, Group chief executive officer, said “as a leading airline, it’s our responsibility to act on this, to challenge industry standards and work with suppliers who provide lower impact alternatives.”

H.E. Mohamed Mubarak Fadhel Al Mazriuei, Group chairman, said: “This step is an extension of Etihad’s pioneering environmental efforts. Inaugurating 2019 with the locally sourced biofuel flight and the operation of the longest single-use plastic free flight are testament to our commitment to leading effective change towards sustainability.”

Now that should set an example for other airlines to emulate if they are serious about saving the environment. In fact, some airlines are already doing their part.

Portuguese charter airline Hi Fly is already flying plastic-free since December.

Alaska Airlines, which in 2011 declared a policy to go green when it launched 75 commercial flights using biofuel and replaced traditional holiday card with e-cards, has ceased using plastic straws.

And Ryanair has pledged to scrap single-use plastic by 2023.

We wait to hear what other airlines will do. Action speaks louder than words.

How Ryanair thrives despite being voted the worst airline

Courtesy Getty Images

For six consecutive years, Ryanair has earned the dubious honour of being the United Kingdom\s least-liked short-haul airline according to the Which survey.

Not surprisingly, as the airline was plagued by its crew’s strike action in 2018 which resulted in a slate of flight disruptions. To top it, Ryanair has refused to compensate affected passengers, arguing that the industrial action was an exceptional circumstance.

The Irish budget carrier has also introduced new baggage rules that could mean additional costs to its customers.

Ryanair said the survey did not reflect the airline’s success, and ironically so it could be right.

While respondents were not impressed with its boarding processes, seat comfort and refreshments offered at a fee – and thousands of them purportedly vowing never to fly the airline again – Ryanair said its passenger numbers have grown by 80% in the past six years and it expects to carry 141m passengers up to March this year, higher than the 130m last year.

Why is this so?

Ryanair understands how the low-end market is driven by price, so too the short-haul more than the long-haul when frills and creature comforts become less important if the savings are substantial.

And, not to be under-estimated, how nobody books a flight in the belief that their travel plans would be disrupted despite an airline’s history. That, when it happens, becomes a different story.

We learn, but only after. And soon all is forgotten.

Virgin Atlantic faces strike action, reassures customers: What next?

While the UK Civil Aviation Authority is mulling over the issue of compensation for Ryanair passengers whose flights had been cancelled or delayed because of strike action by the carrier’s crew (Is strike action by airline crew an extraordinary circumstance? Dec 6, 2018), the Professional Pilots Union representing some Virgin Atlantic pilots announced a series of strike to take place from December 22 to Christmas Day, December 30 to January 2, and January 4 to 7.

Courtesy PA

Virgin Atlantic issued a statement to reassure its customers: “Our absolute priority is to ensure that all of our customers can continue their journeys as planned this Christmas, and we’re working hard to protect all of their trips.”

Well and good, some comfort there, but many if not all those customer who have booked to fly on those dates are likely to be already hit with anxiety because of the uncertainty of their flights. Even if they didn’t want to take the chance of having their plans disrupted, it may be too late to make alternative arrangements.

They probably would have more faith in Virgin Atlantic than Ryanair on the issue of compensation, but that’s likely to be the least of their immediate concerns. What they want most is the assurance that in the event the industrial action affects their flights, the airline has alternative arrangements in place to ensure that their holiday plans are not badly disrupted, as promised in its statement while noting a likely shortage of seats during the holiday season.

This harks back to Ryanair’s argument that strike action by its crew amounts to “extraordinary circumstances” and therefore it is not obliged to compensate passengers whose flights were cancelled or delayed. Does it hold water since industrial action may be anticipated? There again, time is a factor and recovery is limited, hence some form of compensation after the fact.

Ultimately, whatever the cause and circumstance (with the exception of the “act of God”), it is a case of non deliverance. And while the customer frets about the absence of customer service, the painful lesson in the end is how they will have to live with their choice of carrier, whatever they base that decision on.

Is strike action by airline crew an extraordinary circumstance?

Courtesy Reuters

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is taking legal action against budget carrier Ryanair for refusing to compensate its customers for flights cancelled or delayed in the summer because of strikes by its pilots and cabin crew. This, according to the CAA, is in compliance with EY regulations.

However, Ryanair argues that the industrial action by its staff amounts to “extraordinary circumstances” and therefore the carrier is not obliged to compensate affected passengers. It added that courts in Germany, Spain and Italy have already upheld that view and expects the CAA to adopt the same position.

Generally, a carrier is shielded from what is often termed as “an act of God”, which covers among other unforeseen circumstances weather conditions such as a snowstorm or a volcanic eruption which makes flying in a cloud of ash inadvisable. So the question is whether strike action by airline staff that contribute to flight delays and cancellations come under the same definition.

Consumer rights advocates are likely to further question whether such action is controllable and if it may be anticipated and prevented or ameliorated in some way for he carrier to responsibly fulfill its obligations of carriage which its customers have paid for.

Industrial action by a carrier’s crew is not uncommon particularly in Europe, and passengers often find themselves holding the short end of the stick, caught in the crossfire between the airline and its employees. One thing for sure, they would rather fly as booked than be compensated.

Baggage Woes

Courtesy Ryanair

Ryanair

Ryanair flew into a rough patch with Italian antitrust lobbyists following its decision to levy new fees for hand luggage. Unless you pay €6 (US$7) for priority boarding, you will be allowed to carry only one piece of hand luggage, which must be able to fit the space under the seat in front. Any second piece (up to 10 kg) to be checked in will be at a cost of €8.

Antitrust advocates said this could amount to unfair commercial practice as hand luggage should be “an essential element of transport”. It would distort fares and make it difficult for comparison across the industry.

In defence Ryanair said its policy was intended to “improve punctuality and reduce boarding gate delays”. In fact, it maintained that it would not make any money out of it and may in fact lose revenue when more passengers switched to carrying smaller bags instead of the the normally larger suitcases which must be checked in at a higher fee.

However, research by US travel consultancy IdeaWorks suggests that a third of the airline’s profits came from so-called “ancillary revenue” comprising £1.7 billion (US$2.2 billion) from charges for add-ons such as checked baggage and seat selection last year.

Swoop

Across the pond in Canada, new Calgary-based budget carrier by WestJet is also facing complaints about fees charged for a carry-on bag. The fee is C$35 (US$27) if paid in advance, C$50 if paid at the time of check-in at the airport, and C$80 at the gate.

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs has filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency, claiming that this is unlawful since the Canada Transportation Act requires domestic airlines to offer a basic fare for travel within the country that has no restrictions with “reasonable baggage”.

As in the Italian argument, Lukacs finds Swoop’s practice “deceptive”. While what constitutes “reasonable” may be debatable, the general rule thus far has been that the allowable one piece has to fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat. Ryanair has restricted the carriage at no fee to the space under the seat, but Swoop is not even considering that. In defence, Swoop says it is “confident that Canadians are appreciative of the ability to be in control of what they pay for.”

American carriers

Meantime south of the border, American carriers are taking turns to up their checked baggage fees. American Airlines joined JetBlue, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines in raising their fees from US$25 to US$30 for the first bag, and from US$35 to US$40 for the second bag. Budget carriers Spirit and Frontier are already charging between US$40 and US$50 per bag. For now, Alaska Airlines has kept its fees at US$25 for the first and second bags, while Southwest Airlines still allows passengers to check in two bags for free.

These fees generally apply to travel within North America and to destinations in the Caribbean. Internationally, the likes of United Airlines cannot afford to ignore the competition especially in Asia where many legacy airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are still generous with free carriage of two checked bags.

Indeed, ancillary services have become a significant billion dollar business world-wide in an airline’s portfolio as more operators including legacy airlines go “a la carte” to keep the fare seemingly low but charge extra for features that used to be part and parcel of the normal ticket price. And the list is getting longer to include also priority check-in, priority seats (with more leg room), meals and headsets. It will not stop growing as the permutation multiplies, as can be seen in the different ways charges are applied even within the same service category, such as the baggage fees imposed by Ryanair.