Air New Zealand leads the pack

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is the world’s best airline according to AirlineRatings.com based on criteria that include fleet age, safety, profitability and leadership in innovation for passenger comfort. The agency’s Airline Excellence Awards program which lists the winning airlines is endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Many travellers would recognize ANZ for its attention-grabbing in-flight safety video that takes them into Middle Earth, the kind of out-of-the-aircraft features that a few other airlines have tried to imitate but fared only poorly. AirlineRatings.com Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Thomas said: “Air New Zealand came out number one in virtually all of our audit criteria, which is an exceptional performance.” The airline was favoured for its record-breaking financial performance, award-winning in-flight innovations, operational safety, environmental leadership and motivation of its staff.

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

But, of course, there are surveys and there are surveys that publish their own lists of favourites. Some airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific have a ubiquitous presence, and there also notable absences. This is where it is most telling, bearing in mind that the ranking is dependent on several factors such as the excellence-defining criteria and the population surveyed.

The other nine airlines ranked behind ANZ in the top ten list by AirlineRatings.com are in descending order: Qantas, SIA, Cathay, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways (BA), Etihad, All Nippon Airways, EVA Air and Lufthansa.

It is interesting to note that the top two airlines come from the remote Southwest Pacific. Qantas has in recent years been working on upgrading its product offerings, winning accolades for catering and airport lounges. Not surprisingly, innovation along with good service seem to be the driving winning streak going down the list – SIA and Cathay for their premium economy and revamped business classes, Virgin for its cabin ambience and friendly crew, BA for its leadership in in-flight entertainment, and Etihad for its equally impressive service in front and at the back of the aircraft.

Notable absences in the list are US carriers (no surprise there) and two of the big three Middle-East carriers (Emirates and Qatar).

Many survey rankings are skewed by the weight they place on service in the premium classes. However, Mr Thomas of AirlineRatings.com said: “We are looking for leadership and airlines that innovate to make a real difference to the passenger experience particularly in economy class.” Considering that the majority of travellers are seated in coach, it is time that airlines crowned with the halo of excellence pay more attention at the back of the aircraft, for this may well make the difference as the competition intensifies. And, it is where the differentiation becomes even more challenging. Perhaps too, this could be the reason why Emirates and Qatar, known for their lavish premium service, did not make it to the top ten of the list.

Advertisements

A conscionable call as oil price plummets: Will airlines reduce airfares?

AS the oil price plummets – some 55 per cent since June last year – the question topmost in the mind of the consumer must be: Will airlines reduce airfares?

Many of them have chosen to be silent on the subject, the excuse being that the historical volatility of the market is such that the trend can turn any time. But it has taken a while, and long enough for some conviction from the airlines, now that analysts are convinced that the cost of fuel is likely to stay low for at least another year.

Travellers on American carriers can stop wishing to share in the bounty, even as US carriers are reporting hefty savings as a consequence. Southwest Airlines estimated it would save US$1.7 billion on fuel in the current year, and Delta Air Lines more than US$2.0 billion. Other airlines that include Untied Airlines and Alaska Airlines are forecasting similar cost reductions. But, say the airlines, fare reduction is not on the card. Instead, shareholders will reap the benefits while the airlines themselves see this as a well deserved windfall and respite to recoup past losses and pare down debts.

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

United Airlines spokesperson Megan McCarthy delivered the cold reality of the business when she said: “It has been our position all along that fares are not cost-driven. They are demand-driven.”

That, we all know, is the simple economics of the law of supply and demand. So consumers have themselves to blame. Airlines are enjoying near-full loads that there is no incentive for them to want to lower the fare. In Europe, even budget carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair are looking forward to even higher profits from not only savings on fuel costs but also higher fares. So McCarthy was darn right there. But airlines too have learnt to make the formula work better for them, ceteris paribus, as they reduce capacity particularly in the US with merged operations to hold up demand and maintain airfares.

The consumer’s best hope lies in competition as how it should work in the liberal world, but with consolidation which has seen the merger of big entities in the US, raising questions about the assumed competition itself. Today four airline companies control more than 80 per cent of the US market. Little wonder how US carriers have collectively signalled that airfares will not fall in response to the falling fuel cost.

Where competition does not work, the consumer can hope that some conscionable authority will be able to address the fair fare issue. On that second score, you might fault McCarthy for turning a blind eye, but United, like any other, would contend with some validity that it cannot be both operator and watchdog. Company with conscience is a preacher’s prerogative, more idealistic than operative.

Still, the likes of United may be reminded that back in the days not too long ago when the fuel price reached giddy heights, airlines were raising fuel surcharges as many as four times within a year. Strange as it sounds, they have always maintained that the surcharge is not part of the fare, but not as far as the consumer is concerned. Even so, the corollary must apply as the fuel price dips. No lesser a person than Toby Tyler, director general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), has said that airline fuel surcharges should begin falling as the drop in oil price works its way through the aviation fuel system. Tyler said: “In many cases, airlines operates now with a basic fare and a fuel surcharge of some kind and the fuel surcharge in many airlines is directly linked to the price they’re paying for fuel.”

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

But it looks like it is not happening quite as quickly as Mr Tyler was convinced that it would when he said in October last year: “You’ll see the fuel surcharge very quickly come down.” Still, better late than never. Better somewhere else if not in the United States. Japan Airlines (JAL) announced lower fuel surcharges for international flights from February 1, recognizing the genesis of introducing such levies back in February 2005 in response to rises in the cost of fuel. Now that is one conscionable airline. JAL said it would revise the surcharge, whether upward or downward, if the fuel price fluctuates further. Fair enough. American and other carriers waiting on the sideline, take note.

Qatar Airlines has also announced it will reduce the fuel surcharge although it has not committed to a date for implementation.

Courtesy flyertalk

Courtesy flyertalk

Australian airlines are among the first to drop airfares in response to the falling oil price. Two forces are at work: competition and the authority. Nowhere else in the world is there more bitter rivalry than that between the two Australian carriers of Qantas and Virgin Australia. Virgin took the lead, and Qantas followed suit. Virgin said it would not get rid of the fuel surcharge altogether, but incorporate it into the fares; however it is packaged, the bottom line should see a reduction. Virgin said the “reductions reflect the benefits of the decline in global oil prices” following monitoring over recent months and “in anticipation that fuel costs will continue to remain at lower levels than the record highs seen in recent years.”

At the same time, the Australian government is putting pressure on the airlines to respond to the drop in fuel costs. Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said: “It is not against the law to introduce a surcharge – what is against the law is to mislead customers.” The ACCC announced it was investigating the matter. In a statement that it released, it said: “The ACCC has confirmed that it is considering whether representations made by airlines imposing fuel surcharges, following the fall in wholesale aviation fuel prices, are misleading. Under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 businesses must not make misleading, deceptive or false representations about the price of goods or services. This includes when making representations about the reasons for rising fuel costs.”

In this connection, Qantas said: “The bottom line for consumers is that Qantas fares already in the market are some of the cheapest in years. Fuel surcharges are already included in the advertised price and those fares remain extremely competitive.”

The issue is not about the fares already being the cheapest in the market but rather whether they should be even cheaper as a result of lower fuel costs that have saved the airlines millions to billions of dollars.

Meantime the British government is studying the need for intervention. British Airways circumvents the issue with no clear commitment, saying it has launched several sale initiatives. Virgin Atlantic said it has reduced the fuel surcharge before last Christmas and will “continue to monitor the situation and fuel surcharges under review to make them as affordable as possible.”

Courtesy Delta Airlines

Courtesy Delta Airlines

It is a world of ironies. The consumer may as well confront the hard truths about the market. The door does not always swing both ways. As the global economy improves, the demand for seats picks up. And when demand exceeds supply, the game belongs to the airlines so much so that Delta CEO Richard Anderson has suggested to passengers who are looking at reduced fares to “shop around”. He said: “The marketplace is incredibly competitive, and there are always differences in fares.” The consumer can only hope that competition is well and alive without the need for state intervention. If Anderson had come across as being somewhat arrogant, he probably knew he could afford it. But heed his advice anyway.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Virgin Atlantic exits Australian market, not a surprise

Courtesy Virgin Atlantic

Courtesy Virgin Atlantic

IS anyone at all surprised that Virgin Atlantic is ceasing its operations between Sydney and Hong Kong come May 5?

Virgin issued a statement to say that “the route is no longer considered profitable” due to “increasing costs and a challenging economic environment.” CEO Craig Kreeger added that “external factors such as increasing costs and a weakening Australian dollar have affected our profitability.”

Virgin has never quite made it in this part of the world and prefers to focus on the direct traffic from London Heathrow to Hong Kong and Tokyo Narita. Even Singapore Changi and Bangkok Suvarnabhumi as stopover hubs present no real attraction. For onward traffic the competition is tough. Out of Hong Kong, Qantas and Cathay Pacific dominate. Virgin is also feeling the pinch with more passengers flying London to Australia direct on the back of the Qantas-Emirates alliance instead of routing through Hong Kong.

Exiting the Australian market may pose more a concern to Australian tourism as demand lags capacity. As for Virgin, there is speculation that the void may be filled by Virgin Australia which would find it more efficient operating the medium-range Airbus A330. Even then the Australian carrier prefers to be cautious, weighing the advantages of code-sharing with partners that include Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways and Air New Zealand for international operations while it works at its domestic market.

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.

Scoot in silence: Going where the big boys dare not go

Courtesy Scoot

Courtesy Scoot


Scoot in silence. Not quite the image, it would appear, of an airline that was so-named supposedly because it was bold enough to break away from convention. The expression sounds somewhat anomalous. Yet, perhaps, it is but only being bold, treading where few fear to go.

Scoot, the wholly-owned budget carrier of Singapore Airlines (SIA), has demarcated a quiet cabin zone on board that would keep out children under the age of 12. The “ScootinSilence” zone, said the carrier’s chief executive Scott Campbell, would cater to “guests seeking an exclusive cabin, extra legroom and confidence that under 12s will be seated in another part of the aircraft.” As if in consolation, Mr Campbell added, risking conveying condescension although most likely he did not mean it, that young children “still have the rest of the aircraft.”

Had the initiative been introduced by SIA, there might be less of a perplexity. So, one wonders, why is Scoot introducing a restriction that even an airline like SIA which may be more interested in attracting the serious business traveller (not necessarily those travelling in the upper classes) is so far not prepared to consider? The budget market is largely characterised by leisure travel and by little differentiation; indeed, if the “silence cabin” works to attract more travellers (as different from demand by customers who would fly budget anyway), it would top as a high-value privilege at no additional charge.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Apparently, Scoot is doing what Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia’s subsidiary AirAsia X has already done early in the year when it introduced a “Quiet Zone” of some 7 rows just behind the premium section. Children under the age of 12 will be banned from the zone, which will feature more conducive “soft ambient” lighting which, it may be implied, is not something that young children would want or enjoy. As someone quickly points out, considering the smallness of the aircraft, you will still catch the wails of babies but for consolation farther away, but you will at least not get children running up and down the aisle, rocking in their seats and peering over your shoulders. Suffer the little children, so they say. AirAsia X chief executive Azran Osman-Rani described his carrier’s “Quiet Zone” as a “heavenly package for those who want peace of mind.”

Suffice to say that every traveller wants that “peace of mind” when they fly. It is often a matter of luck as you try to pick a seat that you hope is not next to a family of kids or away from the bulkhead where the bassinets are normally fixed. Noise is noise and it is disruptive, whether up front or in the rear end of the aircraft. AirAsia X and Scoot may be taking a step to improve a situation that is prone to elicit complaints, something that has been mulled over before by the big boys but reservations loom large.

Some two years ago when the issue was a hot industry topic, Virgin Atlantic had said it had no plans to introduce such zoning that bans children. Former Virgin Atlantic director Paul Charles said: “It would be a bad decision by an airline to ban children. Once you did, would you start banning other types of traveller? It would be a mistake.”

Yes, indeed. What about “fat or smelly people”, as one respondent to a survey asked? It could get nasty and become offensive. There were others who said adults who drank too much and became rowdy made a worse nuisance, so too groups of travellers who moved about between seats frequently, gathered to play cards and chatted loudly and ceaselessly. Where do you draw the line?

In fact, providing good “family” service is the pride of many full-service airlines. Japan Airlines provides exclusive Family Service counters and lounges at both Narita and Kansai International Airport that even well wishers may use.

A British Airways (BA) spokesperson had said: “We do a lot of research into what our customers want and are always looking into new ways of making their journey as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.” BA wanted it to be known that “we’re a full service airline that caters for both business travellers and family and leisure customers.” The last thing it would do is to suggest discrimination and make family with children the pariah of air travellers to be seated away from a self-assumed elitist class (and this is not referring to travellers in First and Business).

Malaysia Airlines may be the only full-service airline in the region to have introduced a kid-free zone in economy class. Children under 12 are not allowed to sit in the upper deck of its Airbus A380. The aim is to provide a more restful and enjoyable trip for business travellers flying in economy – again, as if that need for rest and enjoyment is exclusive to that category of travellers and not the rest. However, the airline said (as an afterthought, it would appear by the timing of this being issued subsequent to the earlier instruction): “Where there is overwhelming demand for seats in economy class from families with children and infants, resulting in full load in the main deck, we will still accommodate such demand in the 70-seat upper deck economy class zone.” Informatively, Malaysia Airlines does not allow infants in the first class cabin of its A380 and B747 aircraft.

To a certain degree, there may be more justification to apply the restriction in Business Class, purely on the basis of it being a different class – the underlying message being that there is a price to be paid for a different privilege. In fact, price alone may do the “weeding” job, whether intended or unintended. Even then, to declare it openly speaks of indiscretion. The lesson here is that there may be ways to achieve certain goals without turning it into a controversial issue and raising a furore. For example, airlines can consciously seat families with children in a certain zone without making it known it is an unspoken policy, but travellers may circumvent this or be none the wiser these days with internet seat selection and check-in. Then again, is it all that big a deal, really?

Of course, Scoot and AirAsia X would want to capitalise on the new feature as a draw, and why should it not be when it is offered at no extra charge? While deep down in the subconscious human heart one may abhor the discrimination, let’s face it, the unaffected adult traveller is but only normal to be selfish enough, given the opportunity, to be seated away from potentially disruptive children. Yet it may all come to naught if the select minority’s expectations are not met – say, for example, a child immediately behind the zoned row starts kicking the chair in front or some baby starts bawling – or if the less privileged majority feel a sense of unfair treatment since they do not pay any less for the same ride, or if families with children are turned off by the seeming discrimination. It is a more rewarding feeling to be seated a row immediately behind a higher paying class than knowing that a fellow same-class traveller is enjoying the perks that could have been yours.

The competition between budget carriers is even more intense than that between legacy airlines, in that there is little margin for differentiation. So the creation of a “no-kid division” should place Scoot and AirAsia X a cut above the rest. Will Jetstar be the next to announce such a feature? Considering the profile of the budget traveller and the business attitude and philosophy of budget carriers themselves, it may in the end all be much ado about nothing. By targeting what they perceive to be a special group of passengers, Scoot and AirAsia X may be looking to building loyalty of a certain group of travellers. However, brand loyalty in the budget market is not a major determinant in the choice of airline. So, the “quiet” or “silent” option is good only post factum and if available; in other words, a bonus to be enjoyed that one lucky time, as you might say.

But give Scoot and AirAsia credit if they additionally think of outplaying the big boys who are increasingly facing the threat of even loyal customers downgrading to take advantage of the much lower costs offered by budget carriers, all that in spite of the perks they dish out. Why then are these bigger airlines vacillating if at all they have thought about the strategic potential of a silent cabin? Or, is it a matter of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread?

Singapore Airlines disappoints

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines


Singapore Airlines (SIA) prefaced its report on its annual performance (2012/13) with attribution to high fuel prices and lower yields owing to a weak global economy for its lacklustre results. The announcement concluded with an equally dismal outlook, saying very much the same thing, warning that “the global economic outlook remains uncertain with the ongoing weakness in the Eurozone and sluggish recovery in the United States” and that “yields are likely to remain under pressure amid weak economic sentiment.”

So what’s new, indeed?

While the results per se disappoint, the presentation disappoints even more so, simply because it does not provide any excitement going forward, almost in resignation to whatever the circumstances that will decide its fate. Perhaps it is because we have come to expect so much more from an airline that has for a long time been considered one of the world’s most profitable, most innovative and most gungho airlines.

Group operating profit fell 19.8% to S$229 million (US$184 million) with only the parent company registering an increase of 3% from S$181 million to $187 million on the back of a growth of 7.3% in passenger carriage, and cushioned by the surplus on sale of aircraft spares and spare engines. SIA Engineering and SilkAir reported lower profits, the former from S$130 million to S$128 million (1.6%) and the latter from S$105 million to S$97 million (7.6%). Losses for SIA Cargo deepened by more than 40% from S$119 million to S$167 million.

The not so-good-signs for SIA the airline are falling yields, a weak fourth quarter of losses and relatively flat demand in forward booking for the next few months. In fact, SIA’s last quarter performance ran contrary to industry performance which, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata), saw air passenger travel growing by 5.9%, boosted by emerging markets. Iata chief Tony Tyler added: “Strong demand for air travel is consistent with improving business conditions.” However, developed markets were experiencing relatively low growth. That could explain SIA’s limited growth – operating largely in mature markets that are highly competitive.

The pressure on yield will continue to be a challenge – and with time, a bigger challenge – as SIA faces increased competition from rival airlines for not only the long haul but also regional routes. Middle-East airlines such as Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways in particular have become very aggressive in the premium air travel segment, investing heavily in the product and forging strategic partnerships with other operators. Their increased popularity is likely to also shift hub airport activity to the Middle East, threatening Singapore Changi Airport’s hub status in east-west connections between Asia-Pacific and the regions of Europe and Africa. No doubt SIA will benefit from Changi’s ability to remain a favourite hub among airlines and their customers.

At the lower end, SIA also faces exposure to cheaper options from regional and budget operators that in pre-economic crisis days would have been scoffed at. Consequently SIA is adopting a broad catch-all strategy – that saw the launch of budget subsidiary Scoot last year – which may not necessarily work in its favour as it dilutes its premium product and compromises yield. The other airlines in its fold are not exactly star performers: Little has been reported of Scoot’s performance to date; Tiger Airways in which SIA has a 33% stake is losing money; and SilkAir is operating below capacity growth.

SIA needs a more robust and focussed strategy than that – to lead, rather than follow, and to pro-act, rather than react. In a highly competitive environment, the player that sets the rules wins. High fuel prices and the continuing sluggish state of the global economy are by now givens since they are woes that cut across the industry, and they should be viewed as challenges and not as excuses for poorer performances. The success story of Japan Airlines’ turnaround in spite of these circumstances provides a lesson on not accepting things as they are; the Japanese carrier emerged from bankruptcy to become the world’s most profitable carrier in 2011. Certainly the credit must go to the man at the helm – honorary chairman Kazuo Inamori, who very humbly attributed his success to hardworking employees.

Some observers think that SIA is hugely disadvantaged by its lack of strong partners, but the airline has a speckled history of failed relationships, notably its acquisition of stakes in Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand in 1999/2000. Both stakes were later relinquished at a loss. SIA also failed to buy into China Eastern Airlines, which today has entered into a codeshare arrangement with Qantas. To be fair to SIA, a number of other airlines have also bought lemons. The International Airlines Group which owns British Airways and Iberia has reported a first-quarter loss of 630 million euros (US$808 million) – almost five times more than the 129 million euros loss in the same quarter last year – attributed to the poor performance of the Spanish partner.

The choice of the right partner is key to success. SIA has recently increased its stake in Virgin Australia from 10% to 19.9%, added to extensive marketing cooperation in schedule meshing and the use of each other’s premium lounges int heir networks. While there is potential in Virgin making big forays in the international arena, the alliance at best will present a stronger domestic presence for SIA in Australia for now and pales by comparison with the mega alliance (albeit a non-equity partnership) between Qantas and Emirates which is an attempt to shift the traditional competition to a new playing field such as replacing Changi with Dubai as Qantas’ hub for flights on the kangaroo route.

It is always with great interest and perhaps somewhat unfortunately with high expectations that the industry awaits moves by SIA to regain its lead in the business of flying. But the introductory and closing remarks of its latest result announcement provide little to excite the imagination. Somehow it seems SIA prefers to bide its time. SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said at the results briefing: “We think at some point there’ll be a recovery, and we’ll be well positioned to tap the recovery with the growth and the partnerships that we’ve established within Asia and other parts of the world.”

However, telling the same bleak story may be consoling, but it can also be dangerously self-fulfilling in resignation. The good neBut it seems SIA prefers to bide its time. SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said at the results briefing: “We think at some point there’ll be a recovery, and we’ll be well positioned to tap the recovery with the growth and the partnerships that we’ve established within Asia and other parts of the world.”ws is that many still believe in the airline’s ability to do better, in spite of gloomy weather. Backed by a strong balance sheet, not many of its rivals have the privilege of believing still that the game is theirs to lose.