Airlines dangle the premium economy carrot

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

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

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

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

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

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

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


Legacy airlines go the budget way

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

Courtesy Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same class, different fare conditions

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

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

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

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

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

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

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

Benefits come with a price, so British Airways is boarding cheap fares last

Gate boarding procedures vary across the industry, from an open system of “anyone can board at any time” to specific policies that assign the order of who get on first. This only becomes an issue with economy passengers as premium classes as has been their privilege may board on their own time.

Because of limited overhead bin space, economy passengers may compete to board early. Traditionally most airlines board passengers from the rear so as to avoid bottlenecks in the aisle. The idea is to hasten the process that may cause a delay in take-off if it becomes problematic. From the perspective of efficiency, that seems to make a lot of sense.

Courtesy British Airways

That, until some airlines hit on the opportunity to make boarding a benefit to be purchased in a bucket of ancilliary charges. Now British Airways (BA) has announced that it will board passengers who have paid cheaper economy fares last. BA said the new procedures aim to “speed up the process and make it simpler for customers to understand.” Really? That’s a hard pill to swallow.

BA’s defence is that this is already a procedure practised by some other carriers. Yes, US carriers such as the Big Three of American, United and Delta have introduced basic economy fares – their version of budget fare to counter the no-frills competition – which do just that besides other non-entitlements such as no seat assignment until boarding at the gate.

But there is one difference – passengers are made aware of that sub-class before they amke the choice. However, most airlines sell different fares for the same economy seats, designed to help them sell the seats. One wonders if you purchase a ticket during a promotion period and become committed to flying maybe a year later, will you now be penalised for not paying a higher fare that is usually the case closer to the date of the flight? It is only fair that customers know and understand what they are paying for.

Of course, BA’s new procedures have already raised a lot of ire among its customers. Some of them feel that while they may have purchased cheap fares, they do not deserve to be made to feel cheap or to be treated as such. Oh well, as some people may say, you have the choice. Or, take it with a pinch of salt as Banjobob@scottishcringe says: “Nothing quite like a British class system to let you know your place!” Or, punch back with a new challenge, as Martin Lovatt wrote on Twitter: “I wonder if disembarkation will be in the reverse order then?” Now, that will be quite a task managing the process in economy based on fare.

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.

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.