Will Singapore Airlines, competing with United Airlines, have the last laugh?

Courtesy Getty Images

Two years ago, United Airlines stole a march on Singapore Airlines (SIA) when it launched a non-stop service between Singapore and San Francisco four months ahead of its rival.

Then it did it again last year when it started flying non-stop between Singapore and Los Angeles while SIA awaits delivery of an ultra long range jet to ply the route probably by next year. However, this second service, barely a year old, will cease operations at the end of October.

It looks like good news for SIA, but is it really?

It seems United might have sprinted too soon only to lose stamina to sustain the race. Yet it is anyone’s guess as to when the timing is right, and United stood to gain first-mover advantage, benefitting from the early start to build up brand loyalty.

Courtesy Reuters

SIA itself used to fly non-stop to Los Angeles and New York before the flights, introduced in 2004, were suspended in 2013 because of poor yields against the backdrop of a declining world economy and unfavourable fuel prices.

But things have since changed – the global economy has recovered from the 2007/2008 financial meltdown, fuel prices have steadied, and more fuel-efficient aircraft are reviving interest in the ultra-long range.

A big problem faced by airlines though is anticipating the change and making timely adjustment, failing which may mean lost opportunities or sunk costs depending on how the market is trending.

If there is a lesson that United has learnt from operating the non-stop Los Angeles run, it is the constant need to re-strategise. In terminating the service, it is hoping to replace it with a second non-stop San Francisco service, thus upping the ante in competition with SIA.

United said in a media statement that the changes were in response to “customers’ desire for alternative departure and arrival times.”

Travellers will now have a choice of three non-stop flights between Singapore and San Francisco, the number leaning in favour of United which is said to be also offering cheaper fares. While SIA, having earned the reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, will leverage on its superior service, the pressure on fares cannot be ignored.

Clearly, both airlines, which are Star Alliance partners, are not thinking of end-to-end traffic alone. Certainly in the case of SIA, the sole Singapore market will not have the volume to support the operations. Connecting traffic therefore is a key component.

In this respect, United boasts an extensive domestic network in the US and numerous connections to other cities in North and South America. For SIA, Changi Airport is the region’s major hub.

The game plan is explicit in the words of United’s senior vice president Worldwide Sales Dave Hilfman when he said at the launch of the Los Angeles service: “United is making travel to Singapore easier and even more convenient than ever before and customers arriving in Los Angeles will have multiple opportunities to connect to hundreds of United destinations in the US, Canada and Latin America.”

As United wraps up its Los Angeles operations, the main driver for its San Francisco service remains unchanged.

SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong expressed the same sentiment when he announced plans to once again fly non-stop to New York in October ahead of the Los Angeles service. He said that “the flights will help boost connectivity to and through the Singapore hub.”

Rivalry between SIA and United is expected to intensify. The US has been traditionally a strong market for SIA, and United is the leading American carrier in Asia. But it would be a mistake to think that the competition is confined to only these two airlines as many Asia-Pacific carriers are also well connected directly to the US.

When SIA suspended its non-stop New York services in 2013, Cathay Pacific filled that void with connections out of Hong Kong.

With more ultra-long range services connecting major cities directly, airlines thriving on connecting traffic such as SIA will be challenged to make it worth the traveller’s while to fly via their home ports to the final destinations.

Mr Goh said at the recent annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association in Sydney that SIA was looking into more non-stop services to other US destinations. Besides New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the airline currently also serves Houston via Manchester in the UK.

This will set the stage for a different ball game altogether if SIA moves increasingly to feed directly into US destinations, chipping away at United’s domestic strength. The question is whether there is enough load to justify more non-stop flights.

In tandem, SIA is said to be reassessing its stopover flights to the US, but it is unlikely it will skip stopovers altogether in favour of non-stop flights. While it is true that some passengers may prefer a break in their long journeys to get off the plane and stretch their legs, SIA is also able to tap into the traffic that originates or ends at stopover airports. It therefore makes economic sense to continue operating some flights via Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo.

United’s cessation of the Los Angeles-Singapore service will not deter SIA from mounting a similar non-stop flight, although New York takes precedence when the new Airbus A350-900ULR aircraft joins its fleet in September. What SIA has now is lead time to build up demand for the service. On the other hand, if United succeeds in mounting a second non-stop service to San Francisco and it becomes a threat, this may hasten plans for an earlier launch to promote Los Angeles as an alternative gateway to the US.

Where United has failed, SIA may succeed since it had been down that road before. Only then can SIA confidently have the last laugh.

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Much Ado About China’s Geography

Since the United States (USA) have recognized the one-China policy (following a resolution of the United Nations in the early 1970s that legitimized the sole representation of the People’s Republic of China), it would appear groundless, even against logic, that it should protest the Chinese demand for US carriers to reflect Taiwan as a Chinese territory (this applies also to the autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau) on their websites.

While many airlines including British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have reflected the change in their booking itnerfaces to comply with the ruling, US carriers – United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines – have yet to agree, apparently at the urging of the Trump administration. But China is not budging while extending the deadline from May 25 to July 25, at the same time rejecting the US request to discuss the issue.

It may be said that there’s a fine line between politics and business, that it is difficult to separate the two. Yet it seems only expected that any company that wishes to engage in business with a country should respect its sovereignty. A way out – even if it means turning a blind eye – is to recognize the independence of business operations, that the decision of the airlines concerned is purely commercial.

So it is with Qantas, which has decided to comply with Beijing’s request after the initial resistance. As with the USA, the Australian government, while embracing the one-China policy, was critical of the Chinese ruling, but conceded that how Qantas structured its website was a matter for the company. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “Private companies should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure of governments.”

So, will US carriers comply or be prepared to stop flying to China?

Airlines dangle the premium economy carrot

IT looks like the traditional economy class may be heading toward a split between premium economy and basic economy, with the in-between normal economy not quite as exciting in terms of perks or costs.

While basic economy as already introduced by American carriers (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines) and Asian rivals such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in an attempt to stamp a potential loss of the business to low-cost carriers, the premium economy in a way will make up for reduced profit at the very bottom of the scale.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

United Airlines may be Johnny-come-lately, but it promises to be as good as the slew of airlines that are already in the game. Its version of the class to be known as United Premium Plus will have more spacious seats, and customers according to its spokesperson will “enjoy upgraded dining on china dinnerware, free alcoholic beverages, a Saks Fifth Avenue blanket and pillow, an amenity kit, and more.”

EVA Air may be said to be a pioneer of such seats, but it is Cathay that has created an exclusive class with its own cabin that has propelled the popularity of a product that is better than economy but not quite business class, particularly for long-haul flights.

But airlines, which have been cautious about hopping on the premium economy bandwagon are not going to abandon the old workhorse but will instead make it work harder. A number of them are already making plans to increase more seats at the back of the aircraft,with British Airways announcing recently that economy seats in its new planes will no longer be able to recline.

More space in the forward sections of the plane can mean less legroom at the rear as airlines dangle the premium economy carrot to entice customers to upgrade.

Legacy airlines go the budget way

It’s yet another sign of how legacy airlines are feeling the heat of the competition posed by budget carriers.

Courtesy Getty Images

British Airways (BA) will operate planes for the short haul with seats in economy that cannot recline. The airline said the seats will be “pre-reclined at a comfortable angle”. Affected flights up to four hours include runs from Heathrow to Rome, Madrid and Paris.

BA which already ceased providing complimentary booze and meals for the short haul last year admitted to the pressure. It said the move will allow the airline to “be more competitive” as it will then be able to “offer more low fares”.

Many legacy airlines are already adopting the “pay for what you want” model of budget carriers, charging for extras such as checked luggage and seat selection at booking.

The big three US carriers of American, United and Delta have introduced “basic economy” fares which will board such ticket holders last with seat assignment only at boarding. There may be other restrictions.

Asian rivals Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA) are also moving in the same direction. Cathay’s economy supersaver and SIA’s economy lite do not permit seat selection at booking and do not accrue full mileage perks. SIA is also charging additionally a credit card service fee for tickets purchased out of certain ports. (See Same class, different fare conditions, Jan 5, 2018)

While legacy airlines are finding ways to cut costs to offer lower fares, this can be a double-edged sword that only serves to narrow the gap between them and budget carriers. What price, therefore, the differentiation? But, good news for travellers not too fussy about brands.

Same class, different fare conditions

Legacy airlines, faced with increased competition from no-frills operators, are going the budget way by restructuring their economy fares.

In the United States, the big three carriers of American, Delta and United have introduced basic economy fares, which are quite akin to the budget fare. Conditions include no pre-seat selection at the time of booking, seat assignment only at the gate, last to board and other restrictions that may concern baggage allowance and flight changes.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

In Asia, rivals Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA) too have revised their fare structures. At the lowest level, Cathay’s economy supersaver and SIA’s economy lite may seem attractive, but travellers should check out the restrictions so as not to be disappointed or surprised by hidden costs. Such fares do not permit pre-seat selection at the time of booking, unless you are prepared to pay a fee for the privilege. Mile accruage has also been reduced – 50% in the case of SIA and 25% in the case of Cathay.

There may be other charges. Earlier in the week, SIA announced that it would levy a 1.3% credit card service fee maxing at S$50 for outgoing flights from Singapore from January 20 only to retract the policy before its implementation, following a public outcry. However, this fee has already been introduced for flights departing Australia since November 2016 and others departing New Zealand, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom since April last year. SIA referred the fees to as “costs relating to the acceptance of credit cards” when really it is not a fee imposed directly on the consumer but rather the vendor. It brings to mind how airlines faced with rising fuel costs so adroitly levy additionally a fuel surcharge as if it was something between the fuel companies and the consumers.

True, whatever the costs incurred by the airlines, they are likely to be passed on to the consumer. How much is reasonable will be decided by the competition, given that there is indeed fair and open competition.

Many travellers may not be aware of the different tiers of fare and their conditions, and are consequently unhappy if they had to top up what they had initially thought was an attractive offer. Same class, but different fare conditions. So, as always, caveat emptor.

United Airlines moves ahead of Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Getty Images

United Airlines does it again, stealing march on rival Singapore Airlines launching its nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Singapore – now the world’s longest nonstop flight – on Oct 28. The flight covers a distance of 8,700 miles and may take as long as 18 hours.

SIA plans to introduce a similar service next year.

Back in February last year, United started a nonstop from San Francisco to Singapore, ahead of SIA’s introduction which came months later in October.

Demand for United’s Los Angeles flight seems healthy, considering the low launch fares for a round trip as low as US$384 which no doubt boosted the sale. No doubt it is good publicity to raise awareness, and it looks like the competition will benefit travellers when SIA joins the race next year. Meantime, United enjoys the run-in to build loyalty.

In Singapore, United’s Vice President of Atlantic and Pacific Sales Marcel Fuchs said: “United is proud to launch the long-awaited Singapore-Los Angeles route for our customers in Singapore.”

In the bigger picture, United must be looking at the initiative as being “the leading US carrier to Asia” as mentioned by its senior vice president of worldwide sales Dave Hilfman, who added that the new route would consolidate the airline’s position in Asia. Conversely, Mr Fuchs said: “The addition of this new exclusive service gives more options for our customers to conveniently connect to our extensive US network.”

United Airlines repairs image, ups compensation for passengers

In the aftermath of an ugly incident when a passenger on an United Airlines flight was forcibly removed to seat a positioning crew employee, the airline is taking the cue from rival Delta Air Lines’ offer of up to US$9,950 for passengers who volunteer to give up their seats in an overbooked situation. United said it would offer up to US$10,000.

In an effort to repair its damaged image, United made a few promises. It would no longer require police personnel to remove seated passengers in an overbooked flight while taking action at the same time to reduce such flights. Positioning crew members would be required to book into a flight at least an hour ahead of a flight. It would all in all improve customer satisfaction which will be a yardstick to assess staff’s performance.

In a statement, Untied said: “Our goal is to reduce incidents of involuntary denial of boarding to as close to zero as possible and become a more customer-focused airline.”

Incidentally, it has been argued that the David Dao incident was not a case of an overbooked flight but that United was bumping off passengers to make room for their crew members. Dao’s lawyers are likely to argue that it cannot be said that he was denied boarding as he was seated in the plane.

While it appears that US carriers are beginning to compete with each other to attract customers with the generous offer, it is only fair that passengers who are inconvenienced are amply compensated for more than just the cost of a ticket, never mind that there may be a small number who are on the lookout for a windfall which they rightly deserve. The issue is not who will be taking advantage of the offer but that there be takers.

Notwithstanding too that it may well be academic if the airlines better manage the booking, there will be still be calls for volunteers as airlines weigh in on the option as the situation arises. They are unlikely to stop overselling if that favours the bottom line.

Come June, United will want to be seen to be even more generous, paying passengers whose bags are permanently lost an amount of US$1,500 for the value of the bag and its contents. There will be “no questions asked”.