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).

What some airlines say about themselves

United Airlines used to “fly the friendly skies”, which have proven to be far from being so for competing airlines as more of them spread their wings. The sky may not be the limit after all. In 2010, United merged with Continental Airlines which has promised its customers: “We really move our tail for you.” Well, it’d better be, as no airline can afford to sit idle on the tarmac. The partnership realized a dream of United to “fly united”, professed through the depiction of two mating geese in the air.

BA to fly to serve
British Airways (BA) prides itself as “the world’s favourite airline”. But is it really, even when no one bothers to challenge the claim? Little wonder that Iberia Airlines, which has merged with BA, claims it is “one of the world’s best airlines”. There is no jostling with the dominant partner. The UK carrier says it swears by four words which have “always been at the heart of everything we do”: To Fly. To Serve. Isn’t that what is expected, you may ask. Trust the Brits to go nano on the language they own and to assume that foreigners do not quite understand the finer or deeper meaning of words as simple as “fly” and ”serve”. BA explains: “It’s what we do. It’s who we are.” Apparently those four words were painted on the tailfins of early aircraft and the pilots still wear them in the lining of their jackets and on the peaks of their hats. Do they even need to be reminded of their jobs? BA has said that will never change. It is after all British tradition.

qantas2
It is distant cousin Qantas that puts it better: “You’re the reason we fly”. It goes on to say: “While you might fly for many different reasons, we fly for one. You’re the reason we fly.” The attention shifts from the flyer of the airplane to the rider in the plane, and from the server to the person who is being served. Qantas clearly demonstrates a better understanding of marketing principles.

But Cathay Pacific Airways decided it might rephrase BA’s pride in reaching out to its customers when it rolled out a series of ads in 2011 under the banner: “People. They make an airline.” The campaign intended to showcase a team that would go the extra mile to assist someone, who, by implication, could be a customer. But when a scandal involving flying crew on board an aircraft began circulating on the internet, it had to curb its enthusiasm in extolling its staff.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines


Does the crew make it a great way to fly? Yes, very much so. Yet no one makes a better case of the ambiguity than Singapore Airlines (SIA) whose tagline – “Singapore Girl, You’re a great way to fly” – has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The sarong-clad stewardess has become synonymous with the airline and everything that it represents; its name might well be Singapore Girl. Feminist activists have derided it as being sexist, but it has done the airline wonders. However, the Singapore flag carrier’s latest ad campaign, which draws on the theme of “the lengths we go to” to demonstrate its commitment to the customer, pales by comparison to the early poetic catch phrases such as “You’re as young as you feel” and “It’s the journey, not the destination”. While SIA insists that the Singapore Girl remains the protagonist in its latest ads, sometimes you wonder if you need to go to that length to drive home the point. When the Singapore Girl smiles, enough is said.

Lufthansa tries to go one-up. It says, “There’s no better way to fly.” But don’t we want to know why, if not how? But listen to American Airlines: “We know why you fly. We’re American Airlines.” That sounds a bit too arrogant, doesn’t it? In the same vein, the Northwest Airlines tagline: “Northwest Airlines. Some people just know how to fly.” Maybe it is an American thing; modesty has no place on the world stage. Yet Delta Air Lines simply promises: “Delta gets you there.” We certainly hope so, as says Air New Zealand: “Being there is everything.” Southwest Airlines wants to be known as “a symbol of freedom”, whatever that means – another American thing?

By comparison, European airlines are more down to earth. Austrian Airlines is “the most friendly (sic) airline” and Virgin Atlantic “no ordinary airline.” Or, they are simply factual. Alitalia is “the wings of Italy” the way that EVA Air in Asia is “the wings of Taiwan” but not quite what Cathay Pacific claims to be “the heart of Asia.” Cut the French some slack about “making the sky the best place on Earth.” They have the airs. But when Swiss becomes “the most refreshing airline in the world”, it suggests a toothpaste-like struggle to impress anew. Sadly, speaking the truth may be detrimental to one’s fate, as when British Caledonian Airlines confessed before it was bought by BA: “We never forget you have a choice.”

Many of the airlines pay big bucks to have those words coined and put into their mouths. Yet does it matter what airlines say or how they say it when the test of the pudding is in the eating? Think it this way – it dresses the pudding to make it look more palatable. In advertising, it is referred to as “recall”. What happens after is reinforcement or disappointment. That is why SIA has for a long time become a great way to fly and BA, whether proven or not, the world’s favourite airline, but Austrian Airlines is forgettable as one of the world’s best airlines, an epithet that is universally applicable to one and many in fluid time. You do wonder though whether for some airlines, considering the cost of their words, what has been said may best be left unsaid.

It’s the age of mega carriers: Will Air France-KLM raise its stake in ailing Alitalia?

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons


Alitalia is fighting bankruptcy as its shareholders initiate efforts to raise funds in light of its main fuel supplier threatening to cut off supply. The Italian postal service will contribute 75m euros (US$101.6m) to the rescue package of 500m euros.

Meantime, Air France-KLM – already the biggest shareholder of the beleaguered airline – waits to see if it should increase, possibly double, its stake of 25 per cent. Air France-KLM chief executive Alexandre de Juniac is in favour of the takeover to gain greater access to the Italian market, but the Franco-Dutch board is cautious about the debt incurred by Alitalia. The Italian flag carrier last made a profit in 2002 and has so far lost 294m euros in the first half of this year. Air France once made a bid in 2008 to take over the airline but was thwarted by a consortium led by then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The timing today may not be right as the new Air France-KLM is itself struggling with restructuring and cost issues.

The age of the mega carriers has long arrived and it appears the trend, predicted in as early as the ‘80s, looks set to continue. In Europe, besides the Air France-KLM merger, there is the International Airline Group comprising British Airways and Iberia. Lufthansa wholly owns Austrian Airlines and Swiss, and owns 45 per cent of Brussels Airlines, 14.44 per cent of Luxair, and varying interests in a string of other airlines. The competitive field – not only in Europe but also in the United States and to a lesser extent elsewhere – has narrowed to a few mega groups of airlines with fiscal partner interests beyond mere marketing alliances.

In the United States, United Airlines is merged with Continental Airlines under United Continental Holdings; Northwest Airlines is merged with Delta Air Lines; and American Airlines is merged with US Airways. Delta made news when it acquired a 49-per-cent stake in Virgin Atlantic, the stake bought from Singapore Airlines (SIA) which until then had maintained a passive interest in its holding. For Delta, more than for SIA, it would materially increase its presence across the Atlantic.

In South America, LAN Airlines of Chile absorbed TAM Airlines of Brazil to form LATAM.

Somehow the trend is less prominent in Asia and the extended region where flag competing flag carriers generally prefer marketing alliances such as the partnership between Qantas and Emirates, and that between Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Virgin Australia. But it is changing as the competition intensifies in a tight market and as blocs begin to form to make bigger bites, and as countries relax their rules on foreign ownership. SIA now owns 19.9 per cent of Virgin, which is also 19.9 per cent owned by Etihad Airways and 23 per cent owned by Air New Zealand (ANZ). ANZ has announced it will increase its stake to 25.9 per cent, and thus continues to be Virgin’s largest shareholder outside the Virgin Group.

Cash-rich Middle-East carrier Etihad seems to be particularly active on this front, picking up stakes in Air Berlin, Air Seychelles and Aer Lingus, and targeting to complete a 49-per-cent acquisition of Air Serbia in January next year.

Yet the interest seems more as a matter of pure investment or hedging against a shifting competitive landscape. There is no white knight appearing in the horizon to rescue ailing Kingfisher Airlines while many foreign carriers have expressed interest to enter the large and growing Indian market now that India has relaxed its policy on foreign ownership. Etihad is more interested in the less vulnerable Jet Airways. Malaysian budget operator AirAsia and SIA have initiated separate deals with local investors to start new airlines. There is really no valid reason to buy into debts unless the potential for recoup plus growth is visible, almost tangible. But the Indian market has been somewhat of a come-and-go melee, susceptible to changing regulations.

Yet what should make the Alitalia case different for Air France-KLM? It is probably one of market proximity, where the impact may be more immediately felt by the suitors. It goes beyond passive investment – a case in point as mentioned earlier is the SIA/Virgin deal compared with Delta/Virgin deal – to more strategic considerations of how the acquisition would advance the Air France-KLM cause vis-à-vis its competitors within the same region. It becomes an issue of survival in itself.

Interestingly, Etihad was asked if it would be interested to buy into Alitalia, and chief executive James Hogan sidestepped the issue, telling AFP: “At the moment I’m focussed on India, transactions in India. We look at many businesses but we are primarily focused on Jet Airways.” Yet it is rumoured that Hogan has been meeting up with Air France-KLM to discuss the matter, purportedly to persuade Air France-KLM to raise its stake or let someone take its place. Does it appear obvious enough who that “someone” may be? You make a guess.

Air Canada introduces premium economy: Is the trend finally catching on?

air caqnada

Photo courtesy Air Canada

IS the premium economy trend slowly catching on? Air Canada becomes the latest airline to announce its introduction as “a new class of travel”, starting with the Montreal-Paris non-stop in July 2013. New, perhaps for the Canadian carrier, but not quite globally.

EVA Air of Taiwan was one of the first carriers to introduce the premium economy, when it launched its operations in 1991. There was a limited number of seats, that boasted more legroom. Since then, a number of airlines have dabbled with the idea and more of them started to introduce an expanded “middle” class particularly when it became clear that the global financial ciriss has taken a toll on business (and first) class travel.

The concept has taken on an international dimension, with many major airlines pushing the trend. They include British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Qantas and Air New Zealand.

There are noticable exceptions. Singapore Airlines introduced the class on non-stop flights between Singapore and Los Angeles but did away with it when it upgraded the flights to an all-business class configuration. Since then the airline has insisted that it has no plans to revisit the concept anywhere in its network. Some analysts think it may be a mistake for SIA to not go with the flow as it banks upon recovery of the business class traffic.

Noticeably too, one may wonder why there is no premium economy on Emirates Airlines which may have prided itself as providing an economy class that is as good as any other airline’s premium economy. In the same way, one may ask: Do you fly legacy economy or budget business class?

Indeed, what makes the premium economy any better than the normal economy? The early model was not that much visibly different, and that probably explained why it was slow in catching on.

Air Canada offers:

  • priority check-in with personalized service. It is not clear what “personalized service” entails, but priority check-in can assuage the nerves if the line for the normal economy means an inordinately long wait.
  • priority boarding. It means getting to your seat before others and assessing the overhead compartment for your hand luggage before space runs out.
  • priority baggage handling, which entails up to two free pieces of checked baggage and amonmg-the-first placement on the arrival belt. While Air Canada restricts free carriage to only one piece for economy, many other airlines such as Cathay, SIA and Emirates still allow up to two pieces (or equivalent). First on the arrival belt? There is no guranatee; much depends on what happens at the airport where you arrive. Reputable Asian airports such as Hong Kong and even Beijing are known for speedy delivery of arriving baggage even for economy, whereas many airports in the west have questionable standards even for priority-tagged baggage.
  • wider cabin seat with more recline and legroom. This has been the main selling point for premium economy, offering more comfort for the long-haul. Increasingly, airlines are competing on the comfort factor even for economy.
  • a larger screen for in-flight entertainment. This is a good-to-have but not critical feature, especially when you may prefer to squeeze in some hours of sleep and good only if the airline offers a wide range of programs.
  • power outlet at the seat for electronic gadgets. Many travellers are already powering their gadgets with portable battery.
  • premium meal service served on china dishware with complimentary wine and spirits. Does it really matter the kind of dishware? If you do not know, you get complimentary wine with meals in economy on Air Canada, perhaps not the premium brand.
  • hot towel service. No big deal. SIA hands out hot towels in economy as well.
  • a larger pillow. Some people do not need pillows. You can get two in economy if you are resourceful enough.
  • a handy amenity kit. Some airlines such as Qantas and Cathay boast brand-name amenity kits for their premium economy passengers. You will find even business class passengers leaving behind the kits on disembarkation.
  • earn higher mileage. This may be the best deal, depending on how generous is the specific airline’s frequent flyer program.

For the premium economy to sell, downgraders from business and upgraders from economy must be adequately tempted with visible advantages to make the trade-off vis-à-vis the cost, whether it is saving on the otherwise higher fare or paying the difference additionally. As the name suggests, premium economy is more an economy than a business class product. Thisa could be the reason why airlines such as SIA and Emirates probably prefer to market a superior economy and at the same time not be detracted from the truly premium product of the upper classes.

 But it may all be a case of nomenclature. The early days of the business class was really an upgrade of the economy status. Swissair (the predecessor of Swiss International) swore it would not bow to the fad, believing there was no room for a three-class configuration. But it did in the end. In the same way, today’s premium economy looks set to take on an exclusivity of its own, though it is unlikely to evovle to the same degree as the business class which, for some airlines, has in fact replaced the first class product. Quite on the contrary, carriers that susbcribe to the concept may be compelled to do even more for their business class to maintain an enviable difference.