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).

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Does Air Berlin’s demise signal end of the road for budget carriers?

Courtesy Reuters

Air Berlin is folding up its wings, caused by falling pasxsenger numbers. Last month alone saw a dip of 25 per cent compared to July last year. Its biggest shareholder, Gulf carrier Etihad Airways which owns a 29.2 per cent stake, is not forthcoming with the needed financial support.

Does Air Berlin’s demise signal the end of the road for unaffiliated budget carriers, many of whom are benefitting from the currtent low price of jet fuel? Or that it is at least a forewarning of a more difficult time ahead for them in the continuing battle between them and legacy airlines which are at the same time supported by their own budget offhsoots?

That’s what Ryanair fears, accusing the German government and national carrier Lufthansa of conspiring to carve up Air Berlin. Ryanair said: “This manufactured insolvency is clearly beign set up to allow Lufthansa to take over a debt-free Air Berlin which will be in breach of all known German and EU competition rules.” A Lufthansa-led monopoly, it said, would drive up domestic fares.

How then will the game play out after Air Berlin?

Ryanair’s apprehension as a competitor is real. Air Berlin’s exit will mean a stronger Lufthansa and its budget offshoot Eurowings. Yet already Lufthansa is a dominant player with 76 per cent of its capacity focused on the German market. The Lufthansa Group posted record earnings for the first six months of 2017, increasing revenue by 12.7 per cent to €17 billion and net profit by 56.6 per cent to €672 million. Eurowings and other airlines in the Group including Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines and Swiss Interantional Airlines, also posted positive results. So as a group, Lufthansa has quite some msucle to flex in Europe, and the vacuum left by Air Berlin is likely to be filled by Eurowings.

On the other hand, it may be countered that competition is all but dead since airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet also have access to the German market. However, comparatively, their market share is small; Germany represents only 7 per cent of Ryanair’s capacity and 9 per cent of EasyJet’s. There is possibility that Air berlin’s demise may mean more demand for seats on these carriers, if not opening up the market for more competition. Hence the German government has denied Ryanair’s accusation that it had breached anti-trust rules.

Clearly the competition will intensify, whether it is a battle between legacy airlines and unaffiliated low-cost carriers or one between budget airlines themselves is not any more a matter of note. The competition has levelled, with budget carriers attempting to do more and legacy airlines even adjusting down to match. Legacy airlines including Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France are fighting back, and the old strategy of doing it through a subsidiary equivalent is receivign a revival. Besides Lufthansa, British Airways (as part of the International Airlines Group which is already supported by Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling) has introduced Level, and Air France annoucned plans to launch Joon which, however, it says, is not a low-cost carrier.

The competition does not stay the same for long in the aviation business. Little surprise that Etihad has decided to step back from its acquisition spree.

Joon: Basic yet chic

Courtesy Air France

What’s basic yet chic? That, says Air France, is the design of the uniform for cabin crew of its new subsidiary airline, Joon. You can expect to serve flight attendants in trendy casuals that include blazers, polos, ankle pants and sneakers. Apparently it is Silicon Valley inspired.

A statement issued by Air France said: “Its visual identity is based on an electric blue colour code symbolizing the airline’s dynamic attitude, as well as the sky, space and travel.”

Believe it, the colour has much to do with the kind of image projected by the airlines. Targeting millennials, Joon moves away from the convention of a neutral and sedate hue for something more in line with the outgoing disposition of younger jet-setters.

Many years ago when Singapore Airlines (SIA) launched a regional carrier called Tradewinds, there was much ado about the crew uniform to project the more casual mood of leisure travel – something you might wear on a vacation. That changed when its successor SilkAir took over to target business travel and other more serious travellers as well.

Courtesy Scoot

But it is Joon that is going completely millennial, right down to white trainers.

Courtesy Air Canada

Meantime, Air Canada is going retro. Its maple leaf logo design returns to the airline’s look 24 years ago, incorporating the circle loop. Black replaces red in the letterings on the aircraft, and flight attendantswill match with black uniform highlighted with a red tie or scarf.

Looks like you either go hip or nostalgic if you want to make a statement.

What do millennials want?

Courtesy Air France

Air France may have struck it right in launching Joon as a “lifestyle brand” targeting millennials, designed to meet the requirements and aspirations of a young working clientele whose lifestyles revolve around digital technology.

Goodbye baby boomers, hello millennials!

Air France defines the new generation of travellers as aged between 18 and 35 years. Quite aptly, the name Joon is a play on the French word “jeune”, which means “young”.

What do millennials want, travelling?

Millennials are IT-savvy and rely on electronic tools and applications going about doing the things they do. For them, for example, a paper boarding pass is a thing of the past when a smart phone can do the job. Social media is very much a part of their lives.

Millenials value immersion in cultural experiences more than mere sightseeing and collecting souvenirs of the places where they have been. Instead of popular tourist destinations, they prefer adventures to exotic places that are usually off-the-beaten-track.

While millennials are not particularly thrilled by frivolous frills, that does not mean they travel cheap. Far from it. They are in fact brand conscious, and would pay for something that they fancy or must try. But they will not spend on stuff that do not value-add their experiences. That way, they can afford more experiences, travelling more frequently.

Millennials are the NOW generation, who are prepared to rough it out if they had to. For them, travel is more a means to an end. They are therefore less likely to complain about not being pampered by the crew on board, but they do expect efficiency and immediacy of result. Hence, the absence of fuss, boosted by technology capability that allows room for them to exercise some degree of control of what they need and want, appeals to them.

It is this new generation of travellers, says Air France, who inspired the formation of Joon which will take to the sky in fall.

Air France to “boost” performance with new low-cost carrier

Legacy airlines in Europe have long been feeling the pinch from low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet. Now it looks like Norwegian Air Shuttle and WOW Air are pushing them to look farther before they lose more ground.
Lufthansa already offers a low-cost trans-Atlantic option from Europe to Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami and Seattle in the United States.

The International Airlines Group which owns British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingusm and Vueling has just added another low-cost carrier – Level – to its stable. Level, based in Barcelona, will fly to Los Angeles and Oakland in California USA, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, and Buenos Aires in Argentina. Fares start at the familiar €99 reminiscent of the Norwegian and WOW Air’s promotions.

Courtesy Air France

Following in their footsteps is Air France, which announces the formation of a new subsidiary low-cost airline – Boost as its working name – planned to commence operations in winter. The airline will fly from the main hubs of the Air France/KLM group to destinations in Italy, Spain and Turkey initially, and then farther to destinations in Asia. Norwegian is already flying to Bangkok and will in October connect London with Singapore.

But Boost will be taking on full-service airlines as well, such as the Middle East carriers of Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways which are already ruffling the feathers of the regional big birds of Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

The developments point to a gradual convergence of the low-cost and full-service product perceived value wise. It’s the antithetical success of low-cost carriers pushing to bridge the gulf and the failure of legacy airlines not being able to maintain if not increase the differentiation. It looks like the European tug-of-war is pulling the legacy airlines towards the centre line.

What conclusions can you draw in an airlines survey?

SIA courtesy SIA

WE continue to be fascinated by rankings of the world`s best airlines, although the results of most surveys – take away some bias here and there – are quite predictable and almost similar across the board. The winners by and large boast excellent cabin service, great food, comprehensive in-flight entertainment and innumerable choices, more generous legroom than what their competitors offer, and frills such as complimentary champagne and brand name overnight kit. It is all about creature comforts. And the impressions are understandably almost always skewed by the luxuries of the upper classes.

Traveller magazine Conde Nast has just posted its list of the world’s best airlines, surveyed among some 128,000 readers. Of course this is not the definitive list of excellence to the detail, in the same way that no other list can be as definitive without considering factors such as the type of respondents involved, the scope of the survey and the criteria adopted, but there are nevertheless interesting conclusions to be drawn from them. So often it is more interesting to look at the omissions.

Long haul can impress or disappoint

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is a perennial favorite of Conde Nast readers, ranking top for 27 of 28 years. It is hardly surprising, which to be saying it seems even redundant. The airline has long earned the reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, and is frequently celebrated in other surveys as well. It was ranked second after Qatar Airways in the last Skytrax survey. It is hard to find a match that depicts consistency in excellence. The real clincher seems to be in its long haul operations – such flights that are likely to elicit the flaks when passengers are apt to become more stressed and demanding. Here is where SIA is able to make the difference by a well-trained crew that anticipates a passenger’s needs, always mindful the passenger’s comfort first and foremost in the service.

All the airlines in Conde Nast’s top ten are long haul operators, with the exception of Porter Airlines which is more a city shuttle that flies between Toronto in Canada and US destinations such as Boston, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

While the long haul impresses, it can also take apart an airline’s reputation, which explains why some airlines are inundated with complaints about being handled like a can of sardines. Interestingly, the Conde Nast list of best American carriers is made up of short-haul operators to the exclusion of the big three of United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Virgin America is ranked first followed by JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf Carriers

Again, it is not surprising that Conde Nast’s top ten ranks are dominated by Asian and Gulf carriers, which together were placed in not only in the top three ranks but also seven of the top ten positions. The Gulf big three of Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways were second, third and fifth respectively. Qatar was tops in the earlier Skytrax survey, ahead of Emirates (5th) and Etihad (6th). Other Asian airlines in the Conde Nast list are Japan Airlines (6th), Korean Air (7th) and Cathay Pacific (10th). Both SIA and Cathay were also ranked among Skytrax’s top ten airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf carriers means the stark exclusion of airlines of other regions. Only one European airline – Virgin Atlantic – was listed, and in fourth placing. One asks: Where are British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa although going further down the list you will find Swiss International Air Lines (17th) and Finnair (20th)?

That and the marked absence of US carriers demonstrate the superior service culture of Asian and Gulf carriers and their growing popularity that continue to put pressure on their rivals in the competition. The US big recently accused the Gulf big three of unfair competition supported by state subsidies. In truth, North American airlines are not inefficient, but they lack the soft pampering touches of their competitors. There is a host of pertinent questions. Can US carriers be as friendly or, to go one further, do better? And, ultimately, do they even see the need?

Luxury improves image

Etihad boasts the “residence” suite that comes with a bedroom, private bath with shower and lounge. That is for now the forerunner in the race for the ultimate luxury in the air, leaps ahead of SIA’s first class suites and all the other airlines’ flat bed allures. There are also the extras: Etihad provides a concierge service that will make a dinner reservation for you when you land, and some airlines offer door-to-airport limousine services. The slant towards premium classes is to be expected, for that is what makes news even as the perks are limited to a smaller but more lucrative market of the travelling population. If there is one airline that seems to be doing much more for coach than many others, it is Air New Zealand, which offers “Skycouch” in economy – seats that can be converted into a lie-flat double bed – but then again, this is limited to only three seats in the cabin, reminiscent of the days when EVA designates a small number of seats as the ill-defined premium economy before the subclass takes on an identity of its own today.

Comparison is the crux

In any survey, the crux is the comparison, particularly when they are all said to be providing good cabin service and excellent food amongst the creature comforts. The Conde Nast survey again surfaces the rivalry between SIA and Cathay Pacific in the top ten, favoring the former. Interestingly, Japan Airlines (6th) is ranked ahead of All Nippon Airways (11th), and Korean Air (7th) ahead of Asiana Airlines. That indicates a reversal of order that has been the reading of many past surveys, and may well portend how the competition may be trending.

In the case of Gulf carriers, the ranking rivalry among Emirates, Qatar and Etihad is very much a close call going by several international surveys. At the same time, we cannot ignore the inclusion of Turkish Airlines in Conde Nast’s top 20. Turkish was fourth in the Skytrax survey.

In the close rivalry between Qantas (15th) and Virgin Australia (19th), the former continues to enjoy an advantage over the latter.

What else matters? All the hype about going green as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the impact of climate change? That Korean Air prepares its food from humanely raised and organically grown produce. That El Al offers an iPad rental program. That Virgin Atlantic has a stand-up bar. That Qantas offers Select on Q-Eat that allows you to pre-order your meal. That Air New Zealand makes its safety presentation more entertaining than others. That British Airways allows you to log on to a movie as soon as you board and stay with it until the aircraft is docked at the gate on arrival. The list goes on. And one wonders.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

US airlines vs Gulf carriers: Redefining Open Skies

THE new American mantra for aviation is fair skies, not open skies. With the rise of the Gulf carriers and their increased presence in the US, home carriers are banding to press the Department of Transportation (DOT) to review the long-standing Open Skies policy and the agreements executed thus far. Their grouse: Unfair competition because of large government subsidies received by Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways that place US carriers at a disadvantage.

This is not a new argument presented by opposing airlines; even in the days of restrictive bilateral negotiations, it was a hurdle many airlines from the less developed countries in Asia faced as they expanded into the more lucrative markets of the western hemisphere. Their successes from delivering a product reputed for excellent customer service and operated on high productivity had been clouded by accusations of payouts by their home governments that enabled them to compete on cost.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Emirates president and CEO Tim Clark warned: “If you go down this minefield, you must ask yourself to what extent all the foreign carriers serving the US are subsidised. Take China, take Thailand, take Malaysia, take Japan, take New Zealand. I could go on forever.”

Mr Clark may have unwittingly in his defence roped in other carriers into the contentious ring. But the US is unlikely to be interested in the reference, at least not for now. Broad brush strokes do not work; just because one person is not censured does not guarantee immunity for another person in a similar situation. Having said that, this does not necessarily mean the US has a case. The issue is much more complex than that. For one thing, the success of the Gulf carriers makes them more noticeable.

Note, however, Mr Clark is not saying Emirates is similarly subsidised by the UAE government. On the contrary, he insisted the airline did not receive any, rejecting the report produced by the American carriers that the three named Gulf carriers received US$42 billion in subsidies. Mr Clark said: “The requirement from the government of Dubai has been and remains the same. There will be no support for your operations, you will be required to make money.”

All the arguments for and against in the debate – depending on which side of the wall you stand – seem to centre on the issue of government subsidies, complicated by political affiliation and extending beyond support for the airlines to other related businesses including the funding of home airport development that is viewed as directly benefitting them. Where do you draw the line when ownership of several projects is traced to a common designator? In many countries, airport development is undertaken by the government as a national project and the facilities are viewed as common to all users.

Refuting the American accusation, Gulf carriers are pointing out how American carriers have also received government support. All the major airlines have sought refuge in the bankruptcy laws at some point. There were government bailouts after the 911 attacks. In some ways the US aviation policy is protectionist: The domestic market is not widely open to foreign carriers, and the government’s approval of consolidation to create mega entities only serve to limit competition. Etihad chief executive James Hogan countered that American carriers have been granted antitrust immunity (ATI) to protect lucrative transatlantic routes operated jointly with European carriers: American Airlines with British Airways, Delta Airlines with Air France, and United Airlines with Lufthansa. Mr Hogan said: “I think this is a protectionist move to protect the ATI routes across the Atlantic; that’s the irony.
Etihad courtesy etihad

The debate must bring us back to the genesis of Open Skies. For more than twenty years, the US has been championing open and greater competition that has resulted in lower airfares and more choices for travellers of airlines and destinations. US airlines themselves have supported the push, benefitting from new markets outside the US. Since 1992, the US has signed more than 100 open skies agreements. But the playing field is changing as global competition intensifies with the growth of more successful foreign carriers reaching into the heart of the US. It is fair to expect a customary review when circumstances change, but any compromise on the principle of competition may be a step back.

Mr Clark warned that the agenda of the American carriers is threatening “the bedrock of the modern day aviation system. By challenging open skies, you are not just challenging the aero-political situation, you are challenging the very essence of economic liberalization the US has championed for decades.” He expressed hope that the US administration “will not stand for this nonsense.” The American carriers on the other hand insisted that they “welcome robust competition provided the playing field is level. A reopening of those open-skies agreements is the first step and the right step to ensure competition is preserved and enhanced.”

The crux of the matter appears to be what constitutes a level playing field. Will a revised Open Skies policy be qualified by an attempt to box it in? The thrust of the policy has been competition, but makes true competition? Is the US being anti-competition in opposing the entry of Norwegian Air Shuttle, even with nary a hint of government subsidy? As Mr Clark warned, “Once you talk about fair skies, you enter into a quagmire of definition, and you have to be very careful how you go.” Indeed, is there such a thing as truly fair skies? Even as more countries have declared their support of liberalisation, many of them are still protective of their turf, rightly or wrongly. A case in point: Singapore Airlines (SIA) has tried and failed to gain access across the Pacific from London Heathrow to the US east coast, and across the Pacific from Sydney to the US west coast. Yet other airlines that came lately were granted those rights, which is anomalous to the often cited fear of overcapacity that would hurt the industry.

In 2011, Emirates tussled with Canada which rejected its application to operate more flights to Toronto. The Canadian government was concerned that UAE carriers (including Etihad which was also applying for access to Canada) would enjoy an unfair advantage over Air Canada in tapping into its international traffic, the outcome of which would be the loss of Canadian jobs; the unfair advantage was similarly pinned down to subsidies Emirates received from the UAE government. In apparent retaliation, the UAE evicted Canada from its military base near Dubai and imposed a hefty visa fee for visiting Canadians. It is so easy for what is a commercial matter to be politicised, adding to its complexity.

The industry is divided. An organization known as Americans for Fair Skies is campaigning in support of the US government. It says: “This is an important first step towards restoring fairness to our skies and stopping the largest trade violation in history.” Outside the US, not surprisingly, Lufthansa had openly stated its support of the US carriers. When Carsten Spohr assumed appointment to helm the German carrier, he expressed concerns about encroachment by Gulf carriers in Europe and set himself the task of tackling that issue. Interestingly even Etihad, an affected party to the dispute, actually “applauds” the US government “for setting up a transparent process to deal fairly and responsibly with the claims. Etihad Airways is committed to setting the record straight regarding these unsubstantiated allegations.” While Emirates argues in defence, Etihad is issuing DOT a challenge.

Conversely, not everyone in the US is supporting the US carriers’ pressure on its administration to review its Open Skies policy, if not specifically the agreements executed with the Gulf carriers. US airlines may feel the pinch of competition by foreign carriers, but US airports are welcoming of the increased traffic that those carriers bring. Then there are consumer groups who are benefitting from lower airfares, better service and wider consumer choice. Business Travel Coalition chairman Kevin Mitchell wrote in a letter to the government: “Now that US airlines have secured antitrust immunity, industry consolidation and concomitantly rising airfares and ancillary fees, and are achieving record unprecedented profits, some carriers shamelessly seek to close off US markets to competition from foreign carriers.” JetBlue chief executive Robin Hayes for one is not joining the protesters.

Mr Clark would remind the US government how Gulf carriers have contributed to not only the growth of traffic but also providing access to markets not previously served by any US carrier. An example was the connection between Seattle and Hyderabab in India via Dubai. He said: “Look at where these people are going and ask yourself where was Delta, where was Untied, where was American when the world was becoming more globalized?”

While DOT said it would address the concerns raised by the US carriers, its spokesman Brian Farber qualified that the administration “remains committed to the open skies policy which has greatly benefitted the travelling public, the US aviation industry, American cities and the broader US economy through increased travel and trade, and job growth.” There will be wide ramifications, no doubt. Open Skies is not just about a specific airline’s bottom line. In defending the case for Gulf carriers, Mr Hogan had said: “We make no apologies for offering new competitive choice for travellers. Open skies should be about customer choice.” But is it really, one wonders, in practice?

It is unlikely that the US government will turn the Open Skies policy topsy turvy and go for a clean slate, renegotiating the agreements with the Gulf carriers. One can anticipate new restrictions in the road ahead, and tweaks where ambiguity permits. Its impact will be global. Some European parties are already watching closely moves by Gulf carriers to gain a bigger slice of the European pie, not just the competition in offering seats but also in the bold acquisition of stakes in European carriers. In Australia, Etihad is a co-owner of Virgin Australia. Emirates operates a mega alliance with Qantas. It would be interesting if the Australian government grants Emirates, but not SIA, rights to fly transpacific from its ports.

Unbeknownst to many, there may be a price to pay for success. The Gulf carriers may have become victims of their own successes, in the same way that it is once said of SIA in its heyday.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.