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.


Time to get tough on unruly airline passengers

Can Seletar grow as Singapore’s second commercial airport?

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

A new S$80 (US$59million) passenger terminal equipped with four check-in counters, six immigration lanes and two security screening stations in a straight line formation leading to a holding room capable of accommodating three flights (hence three aircraft parking bays but no aerobridges) or 200 passengers, one food and beverage kiosk but no duty-free outlet, and being some 20 km away from the current international airport: are these enough to make or unmake Seletar Airport the number two Singapore airport as a commerically viable alternative to Changi Airport?

The facility, designed to serve turboprop flights, is expected to open for operations by the end of the year, following a decision to free up capacity at Changi for use by jet aircraft now that the budget terminal has been replaced by another full-fledged terminal. Seletar is therefore likely to be used by small regional budget carriers carrying end-to-end traffic.

Firefly, a low-cost subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines, is slated to be among the first customers, moving from Changi. The carrier operates 20 daily turboprop flights to and from Subang, Ipoh and Kuantan. Already it has expressed concerns about the lack of public transport to access the airport, much less an issue about the absence of transportation between Seletar and Changi.

While the Changi Airport Group (CAG) is looking into introducing a bus service to assist passengers who need to make connections between the two airports, it is more critical to work on convenient public access if carriers were to be encouraged to use Seletar.

Travellers who choose to make the transfer between the two airports should be well aware of the inconvenience; consider the use of Gatwick or Stansted in relation to London Heathrow.

There are carriers that may be interested to switch from Changi to Seletar because of the lower costs. AirAsia for one has always expressed interest to operate out of the secondary airport. Adding a couple more retail outlets or eateries will certainly help, as these too can help the airport grow.

It looks like CAG may be more interested to grow Seletar for chartered business flights and private jets. The new terminal will have a business aviation centre with its own amenities such as a waiting lounge, dedicated immigration and a private drop-off area. While there is potential in these businesses, CAG will do well to at the same time prepare Seletar for more low-cost flights the likes of Firefly as Asean skies become more liberalised.

Changi Airport’s T4 suffers from reduced inter-terminal connectivity

Photo by DLeo

On its own, Singapore Changi Airport’s new Terminal 4 (T4) is a gem, adding another feather to the airport’s cap for comfort, architecture and luxury. The terminal boasts cutting-edge technology that makes the process of checking-in for a flight, dropping the bags, clearing through immigration and gate boarding a breeze without human interaction although there are staff positioned at every juncture to direct and assist. The processes are speedier.

However, T4 suffers from reduced inter-terminal connectivity. If, for some reason, you need to move between it and any of the other older three terminals, the lack of ease of movement makes it cumbersome and quite stressful if you do not have the luxury of time – much, much more than you would have provided under normal circumstances.

To begin with, the subway station is not linked to T4 (unlike the other terminals). But that’s not the problem, as you can ride the complimentary bus shuttle to the terminal at intervals of ten minutes from the station exit at T2. The real hassle comes when you want to go to another terminal after clearing immigration.

For one thing, there are too many check points, along the way, but one cannot legitimately complain when it is a security requirement. Often you are reminded to allow yourself sufficient buffer time, particularly when you need to return to T4 for your flight. Then you understand why since the shuttle bus that runs between T4 and T2 operates at an interval of 27 minutes, and that does not include walking time within the two terminals, and if you wish to go farther from T2 to T1 or T3.

That means, why even bother to leave T4 to, say, use a facility in another terminal, unless you need to connect a flight there on transit? Many travellers in any case would stay within the terminal of their flight, and T4, though smaller, is not worse off in its amenities. There again, why the big fuss when at some other airports you will have to check out of one terminal completely and check in again at another terminal to make a connection?

But when you are used to the ease of movement that an airport like Changi provides at its older terminals, the restrictions at the new terminal can be somewhat frustrating. It seems something is missing from the otherwise excellent order of things. Perception matters. And for many Changi fans familiar with its setup, they may wonder if some day the skytrain would connect T4 to the other terminals as well.

Changi Airport’s off-schedule penalty is a bitter pill

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

To cope with the growing number of flights and ease the pressure on runway capacity and other facilities, Singapore Changi Airport is introducing a penalty for airlines that misuse their alloted slots, arriving or departing outside the scheduled times. It is a fine of up to S$100,000 (US$75,798) including the risk of losing the slot.

According to the authorities, this will “allow for optimal use of airport capacity”. It is good news for air travellers since it will mean flights will arrive and depart on time. However, while known for its efficiency, Changi Airport may find this tough policy a bitter pill for the airlines to swallow if it is strictly enforced as defined.

An aircraft arriving or departing outside the scheduled times is a common occurrence, hence the reference to the ATA/ATD (actual time of arrival/departure) against the STA/STD (scheduled time of arrival/departure). It appears somewhat puzzling to treat an early arrival the same as a departure delay. Passengers generally welcome an earlier ATA to STA, but any time gained may be lost waiting for clearance for disembarkation. On the other hand, they dread a departure delay, which may be due to a host of reasons, some of which are unforeseeable.

And where the airlines are concerned, it suffices to say that no operator wants the aircraft to sit longer than necessary on the tarmac because it costs money. Some airlines are said to have expressed their concern. Budget carrier AirAsia’s CEO for Singapore Logan Velaitham said: “When you fly between airports that are not equally efficient, delays can and do occur.”

Added to that, flights that cross several time zones and calling at stops en route are more prone to delays.

Inevitably, the question of whether such a policy will hurt Changi Airport’s competitiveness arises. Has Changi reached a point where it can afford to turn away airlines until a third runway becomes operational in the 2020s? It looks like the world’s best airport is confident that the penalty, which acts as a deterrent for slot misuse, will improve efficiency and optimize the use of the airport facilities to accommodate the increase in traffic. It is believed the fine will apply only to habitual flouters which intentionally hog the facilities.

Same airports in Skytrax’s best ten 2018

The 2018 Skytrax list of world’s top 10 airports is a gentle rejuggling of last year’s list which may be divided into three parts. The top three airports remain the same as the next three, and so too the last three with Chubu Central in the same 7th position.

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Singapore Changi tops the list for six consecutive years, a remarkable feat that according to Skytrax “is the first time in the history of the awards that an airport has won this prestige.” Its closest rival is Seoul’s Incheon International in second place, followed by Tokyo Haneda, which has been making impressive stride in recent years. In fact, Haneda was 2nd last year, and Incheon third.

The other airports in the top ten list are Hong Kong International (4th ), Hamad International (5th), Munich (6th), London Heathrow (8th), Zurich (9th) and Frankfurt (10th).

Changi scored with the best amenities, enhanced by the addition of a new terminal (T4) and the upgrading of Terminal 1. With continual upgrading works and the opening of the aptly named Jewel Changi Airport facility next year – a complex of gardens and more leisure activities – it looks like it may yet again achieve the top honour.

However, Changi is second to Hong Kong for transit and dining, and second to London Heathrow for shopping. It ranks behind Taiwan Taoyuan (1st), Incheon (2nd) and Tokyo Haneda (3rd) for customer service, and much lower in 7th position for baggage delivery. Incheon and Japanese airports score high in these areas. Not surprisingly, Japanese airports score top marks for cleanliness.

Don’t bet on the list changing much next year. Airports are massive investments that take time to materialise, and many of the existing ones are quite content to be functional and hopefully efficient than to be wowing! Yet note that Beijing Captial, which was one of the ten best from 2012 to 2015 has dropped to 34th position.

As appeared to be the order of the day, there is a noticeable absence of US airports with the first mention in Denver airport, ranked 29th. Canadian airports fared a little better, with Vancouver International which was among the ten best for three consecutive years 2012-2014 now ranked 14th but still the best in North America, and Toronto Pearson ranked 41st.

Airports are going silent

Changi Airport T3/Photo by D Leo

Since Jan 1, Singapore Changi Airport no longer air final calls for passengers to board or page for missing passengers. Only annoucnements considered essential and warranted by an emergency will be allowed.

However, this is not the first time that Changi has considered the option. In fact, when the airport opened on July 1, 1981, it was considered but circumstances did not favour its implementation. Nor is Changi the first airport to go silent.

Airports that have gone silent include Helsinki Airport, Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg) and India’s Mumbai as well as Chennai Airport (domestic terminal).

Finavia Corp which operates the Helsinki Airport, which has since June 2015 discontinued flight information announcements and passenger paging made throughout the terminals, said: “The aim is to improve the comfotability of the waiting areas and to reduce the stress caused by traveling.” It believes that reducing the number of announcements will “minimize the background noise and sense of hurry at the terminal.”

The increased attention given to noise pollution particularly within confined areas is likely to influence more airports to adopt the “silent” mode. Busy airports during peak horus are often inundated with announcements on the heel of one another. It remains an open question as to whether people actually heed them. With improved signboards, checking travel information has become quite simple. While there continues to be some concern about late boarding of passengers who have lost track of time, the majority of travellers are quite on the ball for fear of offloading or losing their seats, and missing out on overhead compartment space. It’s a matter of getting used to the silent treatment.