Consistency defines Skytrax best airlines

The 2017 Skytrax list of the top ten airlines is as in previous years hardly changed of note. Only two airlines dropped out of the list – Turkish Airlines and Qantas, making way for Garuda which was listed in 2015 and 2014, and Hainan Airlines which in 2014 was commended for clean cabins and amenities in business class.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

year’s champion Emirates Airlines went down to fourth place, followed by Cathay in fifth, making way for All Nippon Airways (ANA) in third.

This speaks of the consistency that makes these airlines the travellers’ perennial favourites. SIA has long been reputed for premium service and emulated by the Middle East carriers making them fierce competitors in the field.

However, it is more interesting to look at the movements into and out of the top ten list. Turkish Airlines which was included in the last three years dropped to 12th position this year, and Qantas moved further down from 9th last year to 15th this year. What is most noticeably absent is Asiana Airlines, which was voted the best in 2010 and continued to be one of the best since then until last year when it dropped to 11th and this year ranks 20th. If the Skytrax ranking is anything to go by, then Asiana should be concerned, perhaps not as much about the quality of its service as being surpassed by the competition.

On a more positive note, Hainan Airlines becomes the first China carrier to be ranked in the top ten, and Garuda re-entered the list boosted by its best cabin crew win.

Not surprisingly, the top ten list is dominated by Asian carriers with the exception of Lufthansa. Just a dash shy of that honour and ranked 11th is Thai Airways International.

No US airline has made it to the top ten, and don’t bother asking if they were really concerned,

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.

Competing to be the best: How reliable are survey readings?

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific


SKYTRAX has named Cathay Pacific as the world’s best airline in 2014, displacing last year’s winner, Emirates. In second and third place are Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines (SIA) respectively. Asian and Middle East carriers dominated the ranks of the top ten: Emirates (4th), Turkish Airlines (5th), All Nippon Airways (6th), Garuda Indonesia (7th), Asiana Airlines (8th), Etihad Airways (9th) and Lufthansa (10th). No American carrier was placed.

Are those really the world’s best airlines?

The winning airlines are unlikely to question the validity of any survey, as you can see how many of them are listing awards from all and sundry like a laundry list as endorsement of their good reputation. The corollary must be that if you accept the accolade willy nilly, so must you recognize one and all sideswipes.

Which leads to the next question: Is Skytrax the standard?

Skytrax claims its World Airline Awards to be “the global benchmarks of airline excellence”. The winners are decided by 18.85 million travellers from over 160 countries, and that should take care of any misgiving about the survey having an inadequate population and most importantly, the bias factor or its susceptibility to political influence.

Cathay CEO Ivan Chiu said: “The World’s Best Airline award is particularly important to us because it was decided by the votes of close to 19 million travellers from around the world.” Cathay was placed sixth last year and has won the award four times, previously in 2003, 2005 and 2009.

Emirates president Tim Clark said: “These awards are widely regarded as the industry’s benchmark for excellence. To be voted ‘World’s Best Airline’ by millions of discerning travellers is something… to be proud of.”

Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker said: “These awards are highly rewarding as they are judiciously voted by passengers a true account of the overall experience felt by customers who have travelled with the airline.” Qatar won in 2011 and 2012.

Courtesy Etihad Airways

Courtesy Etihad Airways


However, Etihad’s withdrawal from participation apparently over differences in the methodology may tell a different story. Although it had never won, Etihad was consistently placed in the top ten in the past five years, ahead of Emirates in some years. Despite its withdrawal, Etihad was still ranked in this year’s survey because according to Skytrax, “an airline cannot be withdrawn from the World Airline Awards since these results are directly decided by customers.” That statement should add to the survey’s credibility, yet without taking sides and arguing the toss about fairness, one can only suspect and understand that the subjective nature of the survey (and of any survey) is naturally exposed to dissatisfaction, whether baseless or with reasons which may well be valid, the way that the Oscars results do not sit as squarely with a lot of people. Now and then you get an outstanding actor declaring his or her disinterest in the awards.

The issue is usually one of weightage and relevance of selection. However designed, the respondents may to some degree be steered by what is being asked. Take, as matter of curiosity, the 2014 Skytrax survey readings for the top ten. SIA is ranked ahead of Cathay for inflight entertainment, cabin cleanliness, First Class amenities, First Class cabin overall, seats in First, Business and Economy, and First Class meals; but close behind Cathay in other areas except for its noted absence for airport services, Business Class amenities and Business Class meals. Yet Cathay takes the cake.

It is encouraging to see breakthroughs by airlines such as Turkish and Garuda in a game dominated by the familiar big names. Interestingly, Turkish ranks above everyone else except Emirates and SIA for inflight entertainment. It is no surprise that Garuda tops for cabin crew, the epitome of Asian service culture, in a category swept by Qatar (6th) and nine other Asian carriers: Cathay (2nd), SIA (3rd), Asiana (4th), Malaysia Airlines (5th), EVA Air (7th), ANA (8th), Thai Airways (9th) and Hainan Airlines (10th). In like fashion, with the exception of KLM (8th) and Qantas (9th), the airport services category belonged to Asian carriers: ANA (1st), EVA (2nd), Thai (3rd), Asiana (4th), Cathay (5th), Korean Air (6th), Garuda (7th) and Dragonair (10th).

Yet, giving credit where it is due, one may question the appropriateness of comparing a carrier having limited global presence with others that are more exposed in the global arena, and how a population of largely local respondents compares with the wider global population. Hence it may be more meaningful to look at niche rankings, but we all love the sweeping titles of the best overall, don’t we? Even regionalized readings must be viewed in their proper context. The Qantas Group went ga-ga over Jetstar Airways’ win as best low-cost airlines in Australia/Pacific over AirAsia X (2nd), Scoot (3rd) and Tiger Airways (4th), but the world’s best is AirAsia followed by AirAsia X in second place ahead of Jetstar Airways (4th). Note how the preferences change when the population mix changes.

Who then really is the best overall? It may be difficult to say for sure one definite airline, and under the circumstances a wider reading of the top three or five or up to ten may be a more sensible assessment. The contest is to get into that magic circle of the elite.

Courtesy TODAY

Courtesy TODAY


Equally significant is the consistency over time. Airlines such as Cathay, Emirates, Qatar and SIA may pat themselves on the back for being there long enough to deserve their stripes. Narrow that down further, and you will see that only two airlines – Qatar and SIA – have been consistently placed in the top three in the past five years. Asiana had a good run from 2010 to 2012. Cathay was just outside in 4th place until it tumbled to 6th last year and bounced back to be this year’s winner. The wider reading should lead some airlines such as Qantas to ask why it has dropped out of the respectable club.

One survey alone cannot be definitive, hence winning across notable surveys may strengthen the reading. Compare the Skytrax results with Conde Nast Traveler’s assessment by its readers – based on the same principle of uninfluenced feedback – and you will begin to understand why. In its ranking for foreign carriers (outside America), Etihad is placed 4th behind Emirates (2nd) and ahead of Qatar (7th). Cathay is 7th, and the winner is SIA. Korean Air (8th) did better than rival Asiana (18th), and so did Japan Airlines (16th) over ANA (21st). The Conde Nast top ten includes Virgin Atlantic (3rd), Air New Zealand (5th) and Swiss International (10th).

Then there is the annual Airline of the Year award given by the Air Transport World (ATW) magazine. The criteria take into consideration financial performance (which debunks the myth that the world’s favourite airline is not necessarily the most profitable or even profitable) and visible leaps forward in services. However, naming only one winner can often lead to suspicions of political influence (the way that some beauty pageants are said to be when a winner is crowned) and the tendency to pass the honour around although airlines such as ANA (2007 and 2013) and Air New Zealand (2010 and 2012) had been named twice. Cathay (2006), SIA (2008) and Asiana (2009) had all had their turns. Delta Air Lines is ATW’s Airline of the Year 2014.

Several other magazines also dish out their own annual awards, which may be based on their readers’ feedback, or assessed by a panel of judges or arrived at combining the two methods. Some of them target niche markets such as awards that recognize the best airline for business travel. That in a way avoids spillover or halo effects and sectarian prejudices as, for example, an airline that impresses in First and Business Class may pay scant attention to what happens in Economy.

Nevertheless, surveys are useful tools in maintaining competition. Everyone loves to win, unless you do not give a hoot about how the world sees it and how that may affect your bottom line. So too, everybody loves a winner; but that is no guarantee that the traveller will necessarily fly with the named best airline. Without downplaying their influence on the market, such awards probably mean more to the airlines than the travellers.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Air India joins Star Alliance: How will it benefit?

Logo_Star_AllianceNO more pussy-footing. Air India becomes a member of Star Alliance from July 11, 2014, joining a global network of 26 airlines that include founders Air Canada, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Thai Airways International and Untied Airlines. Other airlines that have since joined the alliance include Air China, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Singapore Airlines and South African Airways.

Welcoming the Indian flag carrier to the club, Star Alliance COO Jeffrey Goh said Air India would enjoy “Alliance’s benefits” while other member airlines would benefit from “improved access to a region which includes the world’s fifth largest domestic aviation market.”

Courtesy Star Alliance

Courtesy Star Alliance


At the same time, an elated Air India chairman and managing director Rohit Nandan said: “We eagerly look forward to extending the benefits and privileges of Star Alliance to (our) passengers.” The benefits are assumed, often touted from the perspective of the air traveller with “connectivity” and “seamless travel” listed at the top of the list. Air India’s admission to the club can only mean more flights and more destinations added to the alliance’s network, which will boosted by an additional 400 daily flights and 35 new destinations in India.

Yes, indeed, it is only to be expected that membership must come with benefits. What does Air India – as an airline – hope to gain from the induction?

If it works good for the passengers, it should work well for the airlines. That, after all, is the encapsulation of the alliance’s goal to grow the market share collectively in a way that individual members may not be able to do as effectively and as efficiently because of costs and the limitations of market access. Member airlines are increasingly moving towards more code share flights, shared facilities such as airport lounges and even pooled management at some ports. The launch of a dedicated Star Alliance terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport will strengthen the cooperation among member airlines and enhance the connectivity between them. Alliances (including OneWorld and SkyTeam) will have to introduce more of such initiatives to convert doubters like Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson; except for the scale, membership otherwise is not much difference as commercial tie-ups between individual airlines that may even benefit from the flexibility of cross-alliance arrangements. However, airlines such as resource-rich Emirates which are single-handedly successful thus far may not be as easily convinced. Suffice that it be suggested that Air India is not quite Emirates.

On the home front, India is currently being served by 13 Star Alliance members flying to 10 destinations, making up a total of 13% market share. It is expected that with Air India, the market share of the alliance will increase to 30%. However, is the alliance benefiting at Air India’s expense? The inducement for Air India must be the international market which will increase to 28% for Star Alliance. Through the alliance, Air India will be able to serve more than 10 destinations additionally in China, Africa and Europe over and above its own 33 international destinations. Since its main focus is the Middle East, through the alliance, Air India may be able to check the competition posed by the big three Middle east carriers of Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. Interestingly, Air India’s seat share is only 18% compared to Emirates’ 20% between India and the Middle East.

In the same way that Emirates (although not a OneWorld member) has increased Qantas’ access to more destinations in the Middle East besides Europe and Africa, Air India could latch on to Star Alliance partners such as Turkish Airlines for the same extension. In fact, some observers have primed Turkey’s TAV Istanbul Ataturk Airport as a veritable competitor that may one day usurp the hub status of Dubai. In that connection, Turkish Airlines will also grow in importance.

Yet another school opines that India has that same hub potential to connect Asia and Australiasia with Europe and Africa and beyond. Mumbai could be a convenient one-stop between Sydney and London with feeds to the region. Access by Star Alliance members to India’s domestic market and the improved standing of Air India in the global market will, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hoped, revive economic growth in India under his leadership.

So much has already been said about India’s potential with a population of 1.2 billion for both domestic and international traffic. That almost suggests an imbalance in the equation in favour of Star Alliance members outside India waiting to tap into that potential. But granted that the benefits are mutual as they are supposed to be, it cannot be denied that there remains still a lot of intra-competition. Yes, membership has its benefits, but Air India cannot be blind to the competition. If it is not about the greater good, it has to be about the lesser evil.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

SIA Cargo stops shark’s fins carriage: About time

sharkfinSINGAPORE AIRLINES (SIA) Cargo should be congratulated for its decision to stop carriage of shark’s fins. This is a significant move considering that Singapore is a trading hub for the product which is a delicacy much sought after in the region.

Cathay Pacific was the first airline to ban carriage of shark’s fins in 2012. Other airlines that include Korean Air, Asiana Airlines, Qantas and Air New Zealand have already followed suit. SIA’s move could have come earlier, but as it has often been said, better today than tomorrow, better late than never.

A report by local press Today (Jn 30, 2014) suggested that SIA yielded to pressure by animal welfare groups. An online petition calling for SIA to cease carrying shark’s fins launched last year attracted more than 45,000 signatures. Another campaign initiated via Facebook by WildLifeRisk called on activists to conglomerate at SIA check-in counters in Manila, Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Los Angeles on August 10 to protest against the airline’s erstwhile policy. Fortunately for SIA, its “no shark’s fins” takes effect on August 1.

WildLifeRisk’s next target: Thai Airways International.

Emirates’ Airbus order cancellation raises questions

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus


THE cancellation of an order for 70 Airbus A350 aircraft amounting to US$16 billion (based on 2007 list prices) by Emirates Airlines has turned the focus on the Airbus company. In an obvious attempt to play down the drama, Airbus chief operating officer (customers) John Leahy said: “It is not the world’s greatest news.” That did not check Airbus shares from falling 3.7 per cent and engine maker Rolls-Royce by 1.7 per cent on the back of Emirates’ decision. Mr Leahy even brushed it aside as if it was something to be expected, adding that Emirates president Tim Clark “does change his mind from time to time.”

In truth, airlines do change their mind about aircraft orders. In 2012, Qantas cancelled orders for 35 Boeing Dreamliner jets worth US$8 billion following a net loss of US$256 million – its first annual loss since 1995 when it was privatised – and expected lower growth requirements. The Australian flag carrier is keeping its fleet options open. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said: “We will maintain complete flexibility over the fleet.” He explained: “In this business there is always potential for great headwinds and tailwinds… there is no intention that every aircraft is guaranteed to come or that it’s not going to come.”

Only very recently did budget carrier Tigerair – which is 40-per-cent owned by Singapore Airlines – also cancel orders for nine Airbus A320 aircraft in light of perceived overcapacity in the region of its operations.

But a decision by Emirates which is not in the same financial straits as Qantas and Tigerair must raise questions even as Mr Leahy insisted that he was “not particularly worried at all.” To suggest that it was a whim of Mr Clark was quite unwarranted. But Airbus did express its disappointment. Apparently, Emirates’ decision followed ongoing discussions between the two parties as the airline reviewed its fleet requirement. In fact, Emirates has ordered an additional 50 A380 aircraft.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

So, naturally, we ask the big “Why?” and speculate on the ramifications of that decision.

Is Emirates dissatisfied with the aircraft model?

Allegedly Emirates is unhappy with particularly the performance of the A350-1000 model, which makes up 20 of the 70 aircraft orders, the others being the A350-900 model. Even as Airbus said Rolls-Royce was working on the upgrade, the writing was already on the wall when in November 2012, Mr Clark told Aviation Week that Emirates’ order for the aircraft was in limbo, and that the A350-900 “is starting to look a bit marginal to us because of its size.” That provided another perspective to the issue – one of suitability. Mr Clark explained: “Gauge is the way we grow, you cannot get any more aircraft into the Dubai hub.”

Has Emirates over-estimated its growth capacity?

The focus is so much on Airbus that it has become convenient to not ask any question that may suggest that Emirates’ decision is driven by more an internal than an external situation, or at least in part due to it. It is almost unthinkable in light of Emirates’ sterling performance when it posted a 43-per-cent increase in profit to Dh3.3 billion (US) for financial year 2013-14. According to Emirates chairman and chief executive officer Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the airline’s profit margin was more than double that of the industry, the result of flying 44.5 million passengers – up 13 per cent – and close to a 80-per-cent load factor. It was a year of expansion as the airline increased its capacity for both passenger and cargo, and as it added new destinations across the globe.

By all accounts it does not look like Emirates is about to stop expanding, or even slowing down, despite the revised forecast by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that showed astagnation in profitability for the industry in Africa and a dip for all the other regions with the exception of North America. Of course, the state of the industry does not necessarily reflect the fortune of Emirates, which in the past year has experienced healthy growth in all the regions that it operates. Still, the question must be asked: Has Emirates over-estimated its growth capacity, noting too the limitations of Dubai Airport? To be sure, the airline will continue to expand, having announced plans to add five new routes to Abuja, Brussels, Chicago, Kano and Oslo, but perhaps at a slower rate. It could be in this context that Shaikh Ahmad recognized the need for “efficient new aircraft” amongst other things to sustain profitability,

Will Emirates’ decision affect other airlines’ orders?

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Emirates’ decision raises questions on the impact it may have on other airlines with similar orders, more notably the Gulf carriers namely Etihad Airways (with an order for 40 A350-900s + 22 A350-1000s) and Qatar Airways (43 + 37). Besides Etihad and Qatar, airlines that have placed orders include Air France-KLM (25 A350-900s), Aer Lingus (9 A350-900s + 9 A350-1000s), Aeroflot (14 + 22), Air China (10 + 10), AirAsia X (10 + 10), Asiana Airlines (12 +10), Cathay Pacific (20 + 26) and Japan Airlines (18 + 13). But Mr Leahy of Airbus was confident that other airlines would take up the slots vacated by Emirates. He maintained that there would “no hole in production” and therefore no impact financially since the first deliveries were only planned for 2019 and spanned out to 2034.

Is Emirates setting the stage for heightened competition between Airbus and Boeing?

This is not a new story about the rivalry between Airbus and Boeing, but more a reminder of it. It is all the more significant when Emirates is the world’s largest operator of the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 in a fleet of 217 aircraft. In 2013-14, it received 24 new aircraft including 16 A380s, six Boeing 777-300ERs and two Boeing 777Fs. If there is a customer that both manufacturers want to please most, it has to be Emirates. Airbus is unlikely to let Emirates’ concerns go unattended even though the latter had cancelled its order; that will become history. For Airbus, it is more than just about losing an order. More importantly, it is about the competition with Boeing. Clearly, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

It was by the size of Emirates’ order a big deal after all, and Emirates is one of the world’s leading airlines. Mr Tim Clark may well have the last laugh.

A hub airport needs a strong home-base carrier – but does it really?

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

INCOMING Cathay Pacific Chief Operating Officer Rupert Hogg who will be taking up his new position in March loses no time in marking his presence as one with a voice and views to be heard. At a recent meeting in Vancouver, Canada with officials from Vancouver International Airport (VIA), he offered a piece of advice that might not sit too well with his host but certainly something that Air Canada in its battle to check VIA’s enthusiasm to open its doors to foreign carriers willy-nilly might use to support its case.

Mr Hogg emphasized the need of a strong home-base airline to anchor an airport’s hub operations. He said: “Only a home-base carrier has the wherewithal to create the banks of incoming flights and make them connect to the banks of outgoing flights.”

There is much truth in Mr Hogg’s statement. No one, including Mr Hogg, can resist citing the opposing fate of Dubai and Bahrain as an example. Both airports are quite on par in terms of an advantageous geographical location and the capability to provide good facilities, but Bahrain today is unable to achieve the kind of success that Dubai is enjoying because it lacks a strong home-base carrier like Dubai’s Emirates Airlines. Gulf Air, once the leading airline of the Middle East and which was expanding rapidly in the ‘80s and becoming the first airline from the region to fly to Australia, has succumbed to the competition posed largely by rival Emirates and by other younger airlines such as Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi) and Qatar Airways (Doha). Gulf Air has since ceased operations to major airports such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney. So too spelt the decline of Bahrain as a major Middle East hub.

There is more to the story of the decline of Bahrain, which did enjoy brisk business in its early days when Dubai and Emirates were relatively little known; it became badly affected when new jets plying the kangaroo and east-west routes no longer needed a technical stop in a city that offered little else and their operators preferred airports in Asian cities such as Bangkok and Singapore. Bangkok offered the shortest route from Sydney to European cities and the additional attraction as a touristy stopover, and Singapore topped the efficiency table for best connectivity and the lowest probability of a costly disruption.

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

But Mr Hogg’s advice to VIA, as it appeared to be intended, might be incidental. He was actually talking about Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), and their symbiotic relationship. Mr Hogg cited the synonymous growth of both Cathay and HKIA in support of his argument. Similarly, as another example, we can look at the relationship between Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Singapore Changi Airport. In fact, in many of the recent surveys such as those conducted by Skytrax, the awards for the best airline and for the best airport seem to go hand-in-hand: SIA/Changi, Cathay/HKIA, Asiana/Incheon and Emirates/Dubai amongst them. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine London Heathrow without British Airways, Frankfurt without Lufthansa, Sydney without Qantas, Tokyo Narita without Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways, and major American hubs without the spoke patterns of resident American airlines.

Mr Hogg’s argument may therefore come across as being self-serving in the interest of Cathay, which has protested Qantas setting up Jetstar Hong Kong jointly with China Eastern Airlines and a local company. In that respect, his view is one-sided, to think that it is the airline that grows the airport (and not the other way round) although one definitely cannot deny the airline’s contribution to an airport’s success. The question is: Does an airport similarly contribute to the success of its home-base airline (or for that matter a visiting airline)? More specifically, how much of Cathay’s success can be attributed to HKIA’s positioning (and for the sake of comparison that of SIA to Changi’s)?

Mr Hogg said: “As you can see in the case of Dubai, you need geographical location, but if you don’t have a successful home-base carrier, you have nothing,”

Those were strong words, which led us to the next question: Can an airport and its home-base airline succeed independently or one without the other?

While geography is not everything, it cannot be denied that it is an important factor. Mr Hogg would not refute that, as he did say that airports and airlines must leverage their geographical advantages. But as the world shrinks with technological advances, this importance can shift, as when Bahrain lost its geographical advantage with the introduction of modern jets that allows airlines to overfly it. In the same way, Mr Hogg did not think that SIA poses a threat to Cathay in the North American market. He reasoned: “If you look at the Great Circle Route, Hong Kong is directly on the route. The reality is, with current technology, Singapore is too far south to effectively serve North America. If you are travelling to India, you are not going to go all the way south, then come back up north to Delhi.”

Changi has often been cited for its geographical advantage over its regional rivals, and no doubt this advantage has contributed to SIA’s success. But the lesson of Bahrain continues to hold true, in yet another example when Qantas decided to move its hub for European flights from Changi to Dubai. So Mr Hogg was right here to think that geography is not everything but a starter’s advantage. Qantas’ exit from Changi has more to do with a shift in marketing strategy. So in the same way, hypothetically, can SIA do a Qantas on Cathay in the case of Indian traffic, even though logically the shorter flight distance favours Hong Kong but not that much more considering the close proximity of HKIA and Changi to each other?

Indeed, Cathay should be grateful for HKIA’s growing popularity as an Asian gateway, advantaged by its location at the doorstep of the huge Chinese market. That, while not denying Cathay’s contribution, Mr Hogg might accede, has to do with geography too.

We have come round a full circle to recognizing that Mr Hogg’s view cannot be viewed as the definitive scenario of things to come. At best, it was pre-emptive. In spite of the setback caused by the Qantas rerouting of its kangaroo runs, Changi continues to register higher passenger volumes. In 2013, it handled a record 53.7 million passengers, an increase of 5.0% attributed to growth in regional travel, fuelled particularly by the burgeoning budget business. As a hub airport, it is confronted by growth issues of the airport per se vis-à-vis the interest of its home-base carrier. So it is with HKIA and VIA. Changi boasts an open skies policy that may intensify the competition for SIA. HKIA will face the pressure of allowing more airlines to call at its port in view of its proximity to the growing market of the Chinese hinterland and its promotion as an alternative Asian gateway, but this has disturbed Cathay somewhat. VIA sees its future in connecting with more Asian carriers across the Pacific, positioning itself as the western gateway to the rest of North America, the initiative meeting with objection from Air Canada. How then will the airlines figure in their growth plans?

Although it was in Vancouver that Mr Hogg spoke, his message to HKIA on Cathay’s position is clear. His view was hardly a new one, but it was a timely reminder of how as the competition among hub airports and that among airlines begin to move divergently, the concerned parties may increasingly lock horns over whose interests are more important.