The isolation of Qatar Airways

Courtesy Alamy

AT a time when its neighbours – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Libya and Yemen – cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, winning the Skytrax world’s best airline award could not have tasted sweeter to the Qatari flag carrier. It displaced last year’s winner, Emirates Airlines, which fell to 4th ranking.(See Consistency defines Skytrax best airlines, Jun 21, 2017)

The Gulf countries are stopping flights between them and Qatar, and closing their airspace to Qatar Airways. According to Qatar’s chief executive Akbar Al Baker, this has resulted in the cancellation of 52 routes and adding flying routes to others. He was quoted as saying at the Paris Air Show where the award was announced: “At these difficult times of illegal bans on flights out of my country by big bullies, this is an award not to me, not to my airline, but to my country.”

Now Qatar Airways is setting eyes on getting a slice of OneWorld partner American Airlines. It is hoping to buy up to 10 per cent of the US carrier. Investing in foreign carriers is not something entirely new to Qatar Airways. In 2015, the Gulf carrier acquired 10 ten per cent of the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. This was subsequently increased to 20 per cent.

Qatar Airways also owns 10 per cent of South American carrier LATAM and is finalizing a deal to acquire 49 per cent stake of Italy’s Meridiana Fly. It has also expressed interest in Royal Air Maroc and setting up a joint venture in India.
Mr Al Baker has hinted at more acquisitions in the pipeline, but said the airline“is not going to collect crap.”

The timing of Qatar Airways’ interest in American Airlines smacks of more than just part of an expanding acquisition program although it is just as obvious being so. While other Gulf carriers may see the Trump’s restrictions on travel from the region and ban on in-flight carriage of electronic gadgets as a setback, Qatar Airways is keen to expand further into the United States. The isolation by the Gulf neighbours has made it all the more imperative for it to seek stronger relations elsewhere across the globe.

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Reviving airlines’ customer care

US carriers are earning a bad name for customer service. Now it is American Airlines’ turn to have a brush with its customers. A pram forcibly removed by an employee struck a mother and almost hurt her baby. When a passenger intervened, the employee told him to “stay out of this” and then challenged him, “Hit me! Come on, bring it on.”

In a statement issued by the airline, American said: “This does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident.”

Admittedly there are rules and regulations to be complied with, but enforcement may be handled in different manners. So said American in its statement: “The actions of our team member do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care.”

The employee was suspended and the affected passenger upgraded to first class on another flight.

It is encouraging to see fellow passengers standing up to the mistreatment. And if there is a good side to all the nastiness, it is the message sent to the airlines of the importance of good customer care in the competition.

An earlier incident on United Airlines triggered a call on social media to boycott the airline. In the aftermath of the incident, United said its management and board “take recent events extremely seriously and are in the process of developing targeted compensation program design adjustments to ensure that employees’ incentive opportunities for 2017 are directly and meaningfully tied to progress in improving the customer experience.”

US & UK ban laptops on board: Will this become the security standard?

Courtesy Emirates

SOON after the United States bars passengers on foreign airlines taking off at ten airports in Africa and the Middle East from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone, the United Kingdom announced a similar ban although the list of airlines and airports may be different.

The ban will affect items such as laptops, tablets, e-readers, cameras, printers, electronic games and portable DVD players. However, these articles may be carried in checked baggage.

Affected airlines and airports

The US restriction affects nine airlines: EgyptAir, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and the Gulf big three of Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. The airports affected are sited in Amman (Jordan), Cairo (Egypt), Casablanca (Morocco), Doha (Qatar), Dubai and Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Istanbul (Turkey), Jeddah and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), and Kuwait City (Kuwait). It is estimated about 50 flights daily would be affected.

The British ban affects 14 airlines arriving from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon,Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey. While the US ruling exempts US carriers flying from the listed airports, the British restriction applies as well to home-based airlines British Airways and EasyJet.

Why the restrictions?

The reason for the bans is of course one of security, aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on commercial airlines. The US Department of Homeland Security said: “Terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”

The British government said it recognised the inconvenience these measures may cause but “our top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals.”

Few air travellers, if any, will take issue with enhanced security measures since it means a safe flight. Any averse reaction is to be expected, as when full-body x-ray and search became mandatory at US airports. The inordinately long wait to clear security at US airports has since then become an accepted practice.

However, it will do well not to ignore the arguments put forth by experts who may not yet be fully convinced. Technology experts have questioned the premises which in their mind appear to be at odds with basic computer science.

What goes with the ban?

The ban on laptops means no one will be able to work during a flight, something that businessmen and women will sorely miss. Keeping yourself or your kids entertained with electronic games of your personal selection will be a thing of the past if you do not like what the airline offers in its system. What about that novel you thought you might at last be reading during the long journey, having loaded it in your e-book?

Sure, you can pack these (and your camera) in your checked baggage to loaded in the aircraft hold, but it defeats the purpose if they are intended for use during the flight. Also, if these are expensive equipment, passengers are often reluctant to pack them in checked baggage for fear of losing them or having them damaged. Some observers are predicting a rise in incidents of theft in the baggage holding area and cargo hold, and airlines will be confronted with the messy business of handling claims. Apparently baggage theft skyrocketed when Britain imposed a similar ban in 2006.

Laptops, tablets, cellphones and cameras are among the items that are already being subjected to additional security checks before they are cleared as carry-ons. It can only point to the suspicion that the current procedures are not robust enough.

Looking at the bigger picture, some experts fear the ban seems lopsided. First, if a laptop as an example may be used as an incendiary device, it is equally dangerous in the cabin as it is stowed in the baggage hold. Second, the ban targets named originating airports, but a terrorist suspect could always connect a flight from a presumed safe airport or fly on a presumed safe airline. Third, in the case of the US, to make exceptions for flights originating in the US is turning a blind eye to the possibility that mischief could also be traced to a home source.

Some airlines may benefit from the ban

It looks like an unexpected turn of events for the US big three of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines in their quest to get the US government to act against the perceived unfair competition by the Gulf big three (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar). The ban may well benefit the American trio as travellers are likely to want to travel with their electronic devices on board than to have them stowed in the baggage hold. A pertinent question would be how the US carriers would ensure the devices brought on board are safe the way that other carriers may not be able to do so?

Similarly, in the case of the UK ruling which covers also budget carriers, legacy airlines will have the edge if, unlike budget carriers, they do not charge for checked baggage. Easyjet, for example, will be challenged to think up an innovative approach to this issue.

And will airlines across the industry introduce loans of security-screened laptops on board for a fee?

The future

Although the ban is said to be temporary (as indicated by the US), will there be a change of mind to make it permanent, like the ban on liquid obtained before security clearance? Amuse yourself about a future when all you are allowed to bring on board are the clothes you are wearing and a wallet. Everything else needed or desired for the journey as determined by the authorities and the airlines may be purchased after take-off.

For now, some airlines may mull over the use or disuse of a happy passenger working on his or her laptop in their ads.

Things are getting better for Economy travel

Courtesy Getty Images

American Airlines is not going to let rival Delta Air Lines go it alone in bringing back free meals for their flights. (See Delta Air Lines ups the ante, reintroducing free meals in Economy, 19 Feb 2017) However, American will for a start reinstate the freebie only two domestic routes – New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco. Nevertheless it is an indication of how the competition is heating up, and how the game has come a full circle. It is only to be expected that United Airlines (and others) will follow suit.

In the end, it is not a matter of the meals but one of being ahead in the game, doing something different. Interestingly, across the pond in Europe, British Airways (BA) is doing away with free meals and has announced plans to add more seats in Economy, thus reducing the pitch. (See British Airways is becoming more “budget” than Ryanair, 7 Mar 2017) Here the critical question is whether BA is a leader or a follower in the European context, although it appears it is somewhat of a Johnny-Come-Lately and what Delta and American are doing may force it to re-think its strategy.

At no time than now is coach travel getting more attention from the airlines, which understandably have been paying lots more attention to the premium product because of the higher yield. (See Cathay’s loss is a sign of the times, 16 Mar 2017) And that’s good news for the majority of travellers.

Budget and transatlantic competition heat up

Courtesy Vueling Airlines

Courtesy Vueling Airlines

International Airlines Group (IAG) announced plans to commence low-cost transatlantic flights from Barcelona to the United States by budget carrier Vueling. IAG also owns British Airways (BA), Iberia and Aer Lingus.

Legacy airlines (and airline groups) are increasingly recognizing the competition posed by budget carriers, and it is not new that some of them have set up budget operations such as Lufthansa’s Eurowings, Qantas’ Jetstar, and Singapore Airlines’ Scoot. In the US, the Big Three airlines of American, United and Delta are introducing no-frills fares on normal services to compete with low-cost counterparts such as Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier.

Where the competition is most felt is the transatlantic sector, which has seen a surge of cheap fares offered by operators such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and Iceland’s WOW Air, discomforting both US and European counterparts.

WOW Air is well-known for its $99 fare for travel between the US and Europe – destinations such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Edinburgh and Bristol – with a free stopover in Reykjavik. It has begun enticing US Westcoasters with fares as low as $65.

Norwegian also offers $99 fares with promotional offers as low as $69.

Budget doyen Ryanair has long announced its ambition to also ply the transatlantic routes.

While home-based US airlines are protesting the entry of Norwegian, European airlines are taking a more active approach to compete head-on. IAG will be able to advantage Vueling with the network of partner airlines. Eurowings is already operating nonstop from Cologne and Bonn to the US, and it has plans to add more destinations.

In a price-sensitive market for as long as the current situation holds, budget carriers may be driving the trend. Legacy airlines will be challenged to make their advertised difference in product worth the additional dollars in fares, at the same time keeping their budget rivals at bay in a two-prong approach to the competition.

Is Singapore Airlines liable for misconnections?

sia-logoamericanemirates-logoetihad-logoturkish-airliens-logoSingapore Airlines (SIA) is among five major carriers taken to task by the British Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) for not compensating their customers for flight delays that resulted in missed connections. Emirates Airlines is said to be the worst offender. The other three carriers are American Airlines, Etihad Airways and Turkish Airlines.

According to BCAA Director of Consumers and Markets, Richard Moriarty, the five carriers have “systematically” denied the passengers their rights. He said: “Airlines’ first responsibility should be looking after their passengers, not finding ways in which they can prevent passengers upholding their rights. So it’s disappointing to see a small number of airlines continuing to let a number of their passengers down by refusing to pay them the compensation they are entitled to.”

Under EU regulations, which apply to airlines even if they are not based in the EU, a delay of more than three hours becomes compensable, unless caused by “extraordinary circumstances”. An airline is off the hook if the delay is caused by factors outside their control, such as inclement weather, but not if it is due to poor performance resulting from, say, the lack of maintenance, procedural hiccups or staff negligence.

This is not the first time an airline has been charged with not giving their customers their dues. Protecting air passengers’ rights has been a long running battle between regulators and the airlines, and the matter is far from being satisfactorily concluded. Nor is it as widely pursued as in the EU, United States and Canada. Even then, monitoring is not an easy task, and as arduous is the arbitration to decide if an airline should be held accountable. Ever since the EU ruling came into force, many airlines have been fighting the cases in court, and this can mean unduly long delays of compensatory payments if ever they are ruled in favour of the passengers.

Singapore airlines is putting compensation claims “on hold” if they involve connecting flights. This is a contentious issue as the delivering carrier has no control over a passenger’s choice of onward journey if he or she makes separate bookings. The question hinges on what is considered a reasonable connecting time. If an airline arranges the entire journey including the connection, it is usually obliged to look after the passenger who misses the connection as a result of a flight delay. This may cover a stopover stay at a hotel, meals, rebooking on the next flight or an alternative flight, and other related expenses. Some airlines have leveraged on short-connecting times as a marketing strength.

Following the US Department of Transportation final ruling on protecting passengers’ rights, SIA published a customer service plan for tickets purchased in the US for flights to and from that country. The plan stipulates: “In the event that Singapore Airlines cancels, diverts or delays a flight, Singapore Airlines will, to the best of our ability, provide meals, accommodation, assistance in rebooking and transportation to the accommodation to mitigate inconveniences experienced by passengers resulting from such flight cancellations, delays and misconnections. Singapore Airlines will not be liable to carry out these mitigating efforts in cases where the flight cancellations, delays and misconnections arise due to factors beyond the airline’s control, for example, acts of God, acts of war, terrorism etc., but will do so on a best effort basis.”

While an airline like SIA is unlikely to put its reputation on the line (the airline has often been commended by its customers for going the extra mile), there is always the caveat that it can only do so much to the best of its ability and on a best effort basis. In response to BCAA, SIA pointed out “a lack of clarity in the law” which it hoped would be resolved in the ongoing discussion with the British authority.

Virgin America tops, according to Conde Nast

Courtesy Virgin America

Courtesy Virgin America

Virgin America is the best airlines in the US according to a readers survey by Conde Nast. It is a credible list.

The top five airlines are as follows:

1. Virgin America, for its service and roomy cabins that include such features as touch-screen menus ordering, seat-to-seat messaging, no shortage of power outlets, Netflix streaming and mood lighting.

2. JetBlue Airways, for its ten-inch seatback screens, entertainment streaming options, free internet, unlimited blue chips and snacks.

3. Hawaiian Airlines, for its lie-flat seating in the premium cabin, welcome mai tais and guava cookies, and reputation for punctuality.

4. Alaska Airways, for its friendly staff, comfortable seats, reliability and guarantee that checked luggage will arrive no later than 20 minutes after touchdown.

5. Southwest Airlines, for its fun staff, affordable fare, two free checked bags allowance and any change of ticket without penalty.

Worthy of note is the ranking in the top five positions of both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, which have since merged but continue to operate under their different names for the time being. Their merged identity is set to be a major aviation powerhouse in the US,

Also worthy of note is the absence of the big three US airlines: American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Size is not a plus in this case, it seems.