And then there are three

From four to three (if you exclude SIA Cargo which will be absorbed as a division of the parent airline in 2018), Singapore Airlines (SIA) will now have three carriers in its stable as sister budget subsidiaries Scoot and Tigerair announced the completion of their merger come July 25, 2017. SilkAir, defined as a regional carrier, makes up the trio.

Both Scoot and Tigerair will henceforth operate under the Scoot brand. It seems logical, considering the poor reputation of Tigerair and the plans to expand Scoot into the long-haul. Unlike Tigerair, Scoot was launched as a medium-haul budget carrier.

The merger was long anticipated as the operations of the two carriers began to overlap with Scoot operating the short-haul as well. At the same time, loss-making Tigerair’s days were numbered as it struggled through a period of difficult times both financially and operationally, scarred with customer complaints of poor service.

While it certainly makes sense for the two carriers to eliminate intra-competition and pool their resources, it also opens the field for Scoot to expand its network. Already it is trailing behind Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia, whose chief Tony Fernandes is known to be testing new boundaries beyond the four-to-five hour limitation of the budget model. While AirAsia is not always guaranteed success, it has enjoyed headstart advantages.

Courtesy AirAsia

Scoot has announced a service to Honolulu by the end of the year, six months after AirAsia launches its service from Kuala Lumpur. Both carriers will operate via Osaka. It will be interesting to see how the competition plays out.

Scoot may be advantaged by its hub connections at Changi Airport while AirAsia will rely on its wide regional network to take advantage of Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s lower costs in a price-sensitive leisure market.

Scoot will benefit from the reputation of the SIA brand association, but somehow that has not rubbed off on the beleaguered Tigerair.

The competition is set to redefine the budget game as Scoot and AirAsia battle it out to be the region’s leading carrier not only for the short-haul but also beyond.

AirAsia completes Asian conquest

Courtesy AirAsia

AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes said the latest agreement to set up a joint venture in China with Everbright Group “closes the loop” in the region. He added that AirAsia China “represents the final piece of the AirAsia puzzle.”

The Chinese joint venture came on the heels of the agreement with Gumin Company Limited, businessman Tran Trong Kien and Hai Au Aviation Joint Stock Company to set up AirAsia Vietnam, which is expected to commence operations in the first half of 2018.

These two ventures add to an impressive list that already includes Thai AirAsia, Indonesia AirAsia, Philippines AirAsia and AirAsia India, giving the Malaysian budget carrier a base in almost every major country in the region from India and across Southeast Asia to China. The exception is Japan when an earlier joint venture with All Nippon Airways – AirAsia Japan – was disbanded just over a year after it commenced operations in August 2012.

Notwithstanding that, AirAsia’s ambition to be the region’s main player remains unthwarted, capitalising on Asia’s growing middle class and its propensity for air travel, particularly in populous China, India and Indonesia. Headquartered in Kulala Lumpur, it is now larger than flag carrier Malaysia Airlines and is Asia’ largest budget carrier.

But Mr Fernandes enjoys wrestling with the big boys. AirAsia’s strategy is not confined to the domestic market, which will place it in good stead to compete beyond the borders in time. Not content to be just Asia’s largest budget carrier, AirAsia is once again trying to prove sceptics wrong about the viability of the long haul as it launches flights from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu in June – this, despite its failure to sustain services to Paris and London five years ago. If success seemed elusive in the past – the same fate that had dealt similar blows to others such as Hong Kong’s Oasis Airlines who dare go where others fear to tread – Mr Fernandes deserves credit at least for trying.

AirAsia to launch Honolulu services: Revisiting the sustainability of budget long haul

Courtesy AirAsia

Courtesy AirAsia

Malaysian carrier AirAsia will be introducing four weekly services from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu in June, becoming the first budget airline approved for operations between the United States and Asia. Flight time is anything from 16 to 18 hours.

This is yet another attempt by founder Tony Fernandes to launch a budget long haul, despite the failure to sustain earlier operations under the AirAsia X banner to London in 2009 and Paris in 2011, which were suspended in 2012. However, Mr Fernandes said operations to London will resume in 2018 when the airline receives its new more economical long-range Airbus A330-900neo jets.

Although sceptics continue to doubt the viability of budget long hauls and there have been many who tried and failed, the entrepreneurial spirit to push the boundary is still very much alive. The current slate includes Norwegian Air Shuttle which commenced services from Oslo to New York and to Bangkok in 2013, and Lufthansa’s Eurowings which and operates nonstop from Cologne and Bonn to US destinations such as Seattle, Orlando, Miami and Las Vegas. Budget doyen Ryanair is also looking at crossing the Atlantic. Singapore Airlines’ budget offshoot Scoot has announced plans to connect Singapore and Athens in June.

A number of factors have contributed to the trend.Bu dget carriers are beginning to eye distant destinations dominated by legacy airlines as they expand, and this is now made possible by technologically advanced and more fuel efficient aircraft. The budget model is changing, and the line between budget and full-service carriers is increasingly blurring as the former upgrades customer service and facilities and the latter adopting some of the practices such as product unbundling and charging for add-ons. Legacy airlines no longer view budget carriers as operating in their own niche markets but a real threat. (See Ultra-long flights: The competition heats up, Feb 7, 2017)

Whether Mr Fernandes’ Honolulu venture is sustainable or not in the long run, he has earned his feather. As a stand-alone, it will be a challenge for AirAsia, which will have to tap feeds from its regional connections – as will Scoot when it commences services to Athens. It will be a test, considering the nature of the leisure traffic and the competition posed by several airlines in the region that are already plying the route direct form their home bases or in code-share arrangements.

Garuda Indonesia poised to expand

IT came so timely that following the opening of the new Terminal 3 at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and its declared ambition to rival Singapore Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport in attracting international traffic, Indonesian carriers have been cleared to resume flights to the United States after an absence of nine years.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is satisfied that Indonesia is complying with International Civil Aviation Civil Organization (ICAO) safety standards. Formal final approval from Department of Transport (DOT) and FAA is expected soon.

Indonesia has been plagued by a number of air mishaps involving home-based airlines Lion Air, Mandala Airlines and Garuda, particularly in the years before 2007 when the US imposed a ban on its operations on its soil. More recently in 2014, Indonesia AirAsia crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.

The US lift of the ban came after the European Union had lifted its ban on three other Indonesia airlines – Lion Air, Batik Air and Citilink – in June this year.

Garuda AFP

With the US and Europe open, Garuda for one, if not the other Indonesian carriers as yet, is poised to expand. The Indonesian flag carrier has launched direct services to London (Gatwick) and is planning to launch services to New York (JFK) and Los Angeles next year. And if the Sytrax survey for the last two years (2014 and 2015) is anything to go by for its success, the airline was ranked among the world`s top ten airlines which include other Asian airlines namely Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and EVA Air.

Which Asian airlines might be interested to buy into Virgin America?

Photo courtesy Virgin America

Photo courtesy Virgin America

UP for sale, Virgin America has some suitors lining up. It has received takeover bids from JetBlue Airways Corp and Alaska Air Group Inc. In this era of the mega carriers (consider the mergers of United Airlines and Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, and American Airlines and USAir), a tie-up with another carrier strengthen Virgin’s competitive ability. And while it is almost certain that the merger would be with another American carrier, with analysts placing bets on JetBlue as the best fit, apparently some unidentified Asian carriers have also expressed interest. Still, be that as a remote possibility, one cannot help but be curious and speculate who the likely candidates might be.

Two big names come to mind immediately because of their successes, networks and financial capability, namely Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines. Both airlines are keen on expanding their US market. Cathay flies to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco while Singapore Airlines (SIA) operates to Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Both airlines have codeshare access to several other destinations. Cathay’s codeshare partners include Alaska Airlines and American Airlines while SIA already codeshares with Virgin and with JetBlue.

So it looks like SIA more than Cathay would be favoured on relationships alone. Since foreign ownership rules governing US airlines require the bid to be submitted jointly with a US partner. It would be convenient for SIA to join hands with JetBlue. Of course, Cathay may partner Alaska Airways, but historically Cathay is not quite interested in equity participation. Although it has a 20.3% stake in Air China and 49% in Air China Cargo, that could be a matter of expedience to secure its market in the growing China mainland market.

SIA on the other hand, limited by a hinterland market, tried in its early years to grow through acquisitions. In 1999, it bought 49% of Virgin Atlantic and subsequently 25% of Air New Zealand. Although both buys subsequently proved to be lemons, resulting in heavy losses, the misstep might be less strategic than circumstantial. Unfortunately that has hurt SIA deeply more psychologically than financially as the airline became more cautious about such moves. In subsequent years it failed in its seemingly reluctant bid for a stake in China Eastern Airlines, and the SIA Group was plagued by the poor decisions of its budget subsidiary Tigerair in joint ventures in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Oct 2012 SIA bought a 10% stake in Virgin Australia, joining tow other foreign partners namely Air New Zealand and Etihad Airways. In much the same way that Cathay needed to secure its market in China partnering with Air China, SIA needed to secure its Australian market against the competition by Qantas. Six months after, SIA increased its stake to 19.9%.

But is SIA even interested in a stake in Virgin when its codeshare partnership with JetBlue already places it in an advantageous position to benefit from a JetBlue takeover of Virgin? Would a bid jointly with an Asian partner jeopardise JetBlue’s chances if the powers that be preferred an all-American merger a la the big three of United, Delta and American?

Besides Cathay and SIA, one should not ignore the voracious appetite of the China carriers in the national trend to acquire foreign assets. And why must it be premised on full-service carriers that are already serving destinations in the US? What about a budget carrier with dreams of new frontiers? Maverick AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes who models himself after Virgin guru Richard Branson and who had been where others were hesitant, even afraid, to go may yet surprise with an expression of interest even if it is no more than just that. He is one of the few airline chiefs who, like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Qantas’ Alan Joyce, understood what an opportune good dose of publicity could do.

All this, of course, is speculative. Asian carriers are likely to be less concerned this time than when the mergers of the American big three took place. Together with Southwest Airlines, the big three control 80% of the American market. Virgin and its alleged interested parties JetBlue and Alaska are all largely domestic carriers. Even if Southwest throws in a bid (but for its size that may not pass the antitrust law as easily), it is still the same scenario. SIA’s connections with JetBlue and Virgin will continue to stand it in good stead, but if it’s Alaska that carries the day, then it is Cathay that stands to benefit from the new, extended connection. Or does it really matter when there are already subset agreements across partnership lines that allow you to fly an airline of one alliance and connect on another in a rival group? That’s how complex today’s aviation has become.

AirAsia woes

Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

On Dec 28 last year, AirAsia suffered the loss of an Airbus A320-200 jet which crashed after taking off from Surabaya in Indonesia for Singapore, killing 162 people on board. Then there was talk about the weather being a factor and allegations about the lack of adequate measures governing flying permits.

A report by Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) now points a finger at “the maintenance regime of AirAsia, as well as the actions of the pilots at the controls of Flight QZ8501 when it crashed.” The KNKT found inadequacies in the plane’s maintenance system, which may have overlooked the worrying trend of a recurring technical fault with the Rudder Travel Limiter, an inflight system that helps pilots control the aircraft rudder. Apparently the ill-fated aircraft showed a fault in the system 23 times in 12 months. And the recovered flight data recorder showed that the fault occurred four times within 40 minutes of take-off.

According to KNKT, the pilots managed to deal with all but the last warning alert, after which they apparently tried to reboot the system manually against protocol, causing a power trip that disengaged the autopilot and sending the aircraft into a violent roll or “upset condition”.

In response, AirAsia said its line maintenance crew had “rectified the fault messages at the time of occurrence in accordance with the Airbus maintenance manual and troubleshooting manual, which is why it never qualified as a repetitive fault.” But the KNTK said the carrier’s maintenance systems “did not optimise the post-flight reports.”

There is a second issue – the suspicion that the pilots of Flight QZ8501 might not have been trained to handle the A320-300 in “upset conditions”, such training that might even be considered not required because of the unlikely event of it happening. But Mr Jean-Paul Troadec, former director of France’s aviation authority BEA, said AirAsia had not followed the agency’s rules on training.

The KNKT report has opened the floodgates for potential legal suits by families of the victims. Already 11 families – and others are expected to join them – have filed a collective lawsuit against Airbus. US-based aviation lawyer Floyd Wisner who is representing them told The Straits Times: “We believe the recent report by the Indonesian authorities confirms our position that this tragic crash was caused, at least in part, by a mechanical defect in the aircraft and certain of its components.” The claims alleged that aircraft concerned was “defectively and unreasonably dangerous” in part because Airbus had “negligently breached its duty of care” in the design, manufacturing and assembling of the plane.

Mr Wisner is expected to make hay of the fact that Airbus was aware of the recurring problem, yet took no action to check the trend despite its many reported incidents.

AirAsia too may not be spared. Mr Wisner has lampooned AirAsia for “not handling the claims of its passengers pursuant to international standards.” He added, “Despite the promises of AirAsia’s owner, Tony Fernandes, that the victims’ families would be treated fairly, AirAsia is proving that it is a low fare, low compensation airline.”

Any air disaster of this magnitude is bad news for the carrier concerned. For as long as the memory stays fresh in the mind of would-be travellers, demand for seats to fly that same carrier is likely to suffer. It takes time to heal as the airline repairs its image. Between the time of Flight QZ8501’s fatal accident and the KNKT report, AirAsia might have regained some ground with Mr Fernandes himself spearheading the road to recovery. At the time of the incident, Mr Fernandes was quick to offer his sympathies and assistance to families of the victims. He was personally present to take charge of the situation and manage the media publicity. One year later responding to the KNKT report, Mr Fernandes graciously thanked the KNKT for its “very thorough investigations” and reiterated that his thoughts were with the families and crew of the ill-fated flight. He tweeted: “These are scars that are left on me forever but I remain committed to make Airasia the very best.”

However, as much as Mr Fernandes understands the business, the KNKT report is reopening the wounds of the fatal accident and setting the recovery back a few steps. At the time that the KNKT report was released, AirAsia experienced several flight delays out of Kuala Lumpur International Airport (budget terminal) that left hundreds of passengers stranded and angry. Call it a coincidence. Eleven pilots (some reports had the number as 13) called in sick and while there was speculation that this looked like a revolt by pilots unhappy with working hours and conditions, Mr Fernandes dismissed it as a “freak day” when a new rostering system was introduced. Echoing him, an AirAsia spokesman said: “We have over a thousand pilots. 13 is a small number.”

Sure, a small number per se but not in the context of what happened. If that response was not uttered in jest, it smacked of arrogance. Right now, AirAsia can do with a little less disruption but a little more positive reinforcement. Even in small doses.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation, titled “Air Asia loses altitude”.

Scoot to go where others failed

Courtesy AFP

Courtesy AFP

IT will happen, as it must. So it seems, but a matter of time. Scoot, the medium to long-haul low-cost subsidiary of Singapore Airlines (SIA) has made known its intention to extend its network to possibly include a destination as far away as London from Singapore. After all, London is a prime destination for SIA, and one that has helped it flourish in its early days, so it should be an encouraging start for Scoot to test the budget long-haul.

Scoot chief executive Campbell Wilson said: “The West is definitely on our cards.” Lest, you forget by definition it is a medium to long haul low-cost operator and think its fortune is confined to regional flights. It is eyeing the Middle East up to London.

Never mind the failure of others that tried, most memorably Hong Kong’s Oasis Airlines that inaugurated its route from Hong Kong to London in October 2006. The budget airline added Vancouver in June 2007, and won several awards that year including “World’s Leading New Airlines: and “Asia’s Leading Budget Airline” at the Annual world Travel Awards. But barely into its third year, it folded its wings in April 2008.

Another low-cost carrier that faced a similar fate was Canada’s Harmony Airways that ventured beyond North America from Vancouver to Manchester (UK) and planned to expand into Asia, eyeing in particular the China market. That was not to be, when the airline collapsed in 2007, three years after it repositioned itself for the long-haul.

More recent and closer to home is AirAsia’s subsidiary AirAsia X in yet another attempt to keep budget pioneer Freddie Laker’s dream alive. In fact, its first aircraft was named “Semangat Sir Freddie” (“Spirit of Sir Freddie”). The budget carrier operated from Kuala Lumpur to two European destinations – London and Paris, connecting traffic from other destinations such as Melbourne – which it has since suspended, together with others, but it continues to operate some shorter hauls. Parent airline AirAsia is unlikely to admit to its offshoot’s failure as being final as its chief Tony Fernandes had said it planned to return some day.

So is Scoot going where angels fear to tread or where the brave dare not go to prove it is not an impossible dream after all?

On a more optimistic note, it is certainly a welcome breath of the erstwhile spirit and vigor that characterised the success of SIA when as a new airline it quickly became the world’s most envied operator that could do things that others were reluctant or afraid to consider. Indeed, it is difficult to think of Scoot without parent SIA – a quiet overshadowing that sibling SilkAir has for years tried and still does to dispel, and into which increasingly 55-per-cent owned Tigerair is moving. While pedigree connections cannot guarantee success, experiential wisdom is not something to be scoffed at. The issue is also one of relevance. SIA is very much a premium carrier that has been pushed into venturing into the lower end by increased competition from low-cost carriers and by peer rivals that have sprouted budget subsidiaries, a good example being Qantas and its budget subsidiary Jetstar.

There are questions: Is the SIA stable getting a little crowded with intra competition even as Scoot and Tigerair now claim they are performing better with cooperation? Scoot and Tigerair will soon be combining their reservations systems. Can SIA define the market such that they do not overlap and that it merely shifts the business from one pocket to the other? The move seems to be towards more commonality. SIA’s Krisflyer perks are now open to customers of subsidiary carriers.

And the big question: Is it Scoot in its own right flying to London or is the operation under the SIA banner, the way it is so difficult to tell AirAsia X from parent AirAsia? But then, AirAsia is itself a budget carrier. Nevertheless, the bet is likely to favour the probability of SIA (driving Scoot) succeeding if anyone should finally succeed in the budget long-haul.

This is not forgetting that SIA itself has not had lemons in its basket – its failed stake in Air New Zealand, its lacklustre investment in Virgin Atlantic, and the premature termination of its all-business class flights. While its slow entry (or re-entry if you consider the short-lived non-stop Los Angeles and New York runs) into the premium economy (PEY) market may have been the result of an over-cautious retreat, its performance thus far may have also emboldened it to take a more adventurous approach. Additionally, the PEY is doing well on the Vistara joint-venture in India, even as Cathay Pacific, a forerunner of the new PEY, has decided to take it off Indian routes.

Besides, the climate for expansion is encouraging. Mr Wilson said: “We are on an upward slope towards profitability. We see yield maturity building over time and we are observing that across our routes.” The SIA Group has just announced Q1 (Apr-Jun) profit of S$111 million (US$81 million), an increase of S$72 million. Parent SIA made a profit of S$108 million compared to S$45 a year ago. Tigerair broke even. And Scoot recorded an operating loss of S$20 million, an improvement of S$5 million over last year. Passenger load factor for Scoot increased 2.9 percentage points to 81.4% on the back of increased passenger carriage by 11.0%, far exceeding the 6.9% capacity injection. And, of course, the industry is blessed with the continuing low costs of jet fuel.

What about the competition? Without any indication of AirAsia X’s resumption of the long haul services, Scoot has a pretty much open field although Norwegian Air Shuttle operates from Oslo and Stockholm to Bangkok. In fact, with airlines such as Garuda Indonesia offering low fares to London in the attempt to retain direct traffic between Indonesia and the UK, Scoot may become the alternative SIA in the competition. Mr Wilson said: “We might be a bit more niche when it comes to long-haul operations.” Generally, the budget market is driven by the dollar, and the niche factor, whatever Mr Wilson meant by it, may make the difference. But note how many a budget operator that came and went had always maintained that they were not like the others, and that too may be predicated on the expectations of long-haul travellers.

Nevertheless, it is invigorating news although Mr Wilson said the plan “is not immediate but it is not something we are closed to.” It has been almost 50 years since Sir Freddie founded Laker Airways in 1966, and it is still a field where few dare venture. We wish Scoot good luck when it finally happens, and hope it succeeds.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.