Will Qatar Airways be Malaysia Airlines’ white knight?

Some three to four months after Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohamad said ailing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) may shut down or be sold, he revealed he had received four proposals to take over the national flag carrier.

The first known interest came from former AirAsia non-executive chairman Pahamin Ab Rajab and five partners, whose consortium is looking at scooping up a 49 per cent stake in MAS. Whether AirAsia is part of the consortium is not clear, but the budget carrier’s chief Tony Fernandes had said he was not interested as it would be a mistake for a low-cost operator to want to go full-service. (See Can AirAsia save Malaysia Airlines, 8 July 2019)

Qatar Airways now emerged as the second prospective white knight come to the rescue of MAS following a meeting between Dr Mahatir and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamin Hamad al-Thani. Both Qatar and MAS belong to the OneWorld alliance. At least that’s common ground for a start, unless geopolitical problems Qatar faces with its neighbours that lead to its isolation in the region stand in the way.

But, of course, no doubt Qatar has the funds to shore up the loss-making MAS. There are good competitive reasons for doing so. The tie-up will certainly boost Qatar’s standing in Southeast Asia and the extended Asian region. Dr Mahatir has recognised that MAS suffers from fierce competition, and Qatar’s aggressive strategy in the international arena may well also push the Malaysian carrier in the same direction.

The acquisition will complement Qatar’s investment in Europe, where it is already a major shareholder of the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. With a share of 20.01 per cent, it s IAG’s largest single stakeholder.

It is interesting that of the four proposals received by MAS, Qatar is the only foreign company. It is not known if the other proposals are from industry players apart from the suggestion that Mr Pahamin had an aviation link in a non-executive capacity. That probably explains how many industry experts think MAS’ best bet is AirAsia, once a carrier heavily indebted and now Asia’s leading budget operator.

Qatar’s credentials as the world’s best airline voted by Skytrax respondents are impressive, but national pride to keep the flag carrier in local hands may present a hurdle. Yet one only has to look at Swiss International Air Lines now owned by the Lufthansa Group and the merger between Air France and KLM to appreciate how in business, the desire to survive will dictate the course. Already Dr Mahatir has assured his people MAS will retain its name.

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2019 Skytrax World Airline Awards: Who are the real winners?

It’s that time of the year when the airline industry is abuzz with the Skytrax World Airline Awards announced recently at the Paris Air Show.

There are surveys and there are surveys, if you know what I mean. Skytrax, which launched its survey back in 1999 (according to its website) is generally viewed with some regard. It is said that more than 21 million respondents participated in the 2019 survey.

But what can we read of the results?

Which is the real winner: Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines?

Qatar Airways switched places with last year winner Singapore Airlines (SIA) to be the world’s best airline.

As far back as 2010 until now, the two airlines have been ranked one behind the other in the top three spots, except in 2012 when Asiana came in second place between Qatar the winner and SIA in third position. In the ten year period, SIA came behind Qatar in eight years, except in 2010 when SIA was second and Qatar third, and last year when the Singapore carrier became the world’s best ahead of Qatar in second placing.

It looks like a tight race between Qatar and SIA for the top spot, and going by the survey results, Qatar has outranked SIA. It has become the first airline to have won the award five times, one more in the history of the awards.

But SIA is still ranked ahead of Qatar for first class and economy class.

In the first class category, Qatar is not even a close second to SIA in first placing but fifth behind Lufthansa, Air France and Etihad as well

In the economy class category, Japan Airlines is tops followed by SIA and Qatar in second and third placing respectively.

Besides SIA has the best premium economy in Asia, second only to Virgin Atlantic worldwide. But,of course, Qatar does not offer that class of travel.

Additionally SIA tops for cabin crew, and Qatar is farther down the list in 9th position.

But Qatar wins for business class, followed by ANA and SIA in second and third placing respectively. So it seems there is heavier weightage for this segment which has become probably the fiercest battleground for the airlines. First class included, it also suggests the halo effect of the premium product, but it is the business class that is the primary focus in today’s business.

It also attests to the impact of the recency factor. Qatar obviously impresses with its cubicle-like Qsuite that comes with its own door to provide maximum privacy. Quad configurations allow businessmen to engage in conference as if they were in a meeting room and families to share their own private space. And there is a double bed option.

Which brings up the importance of having to continually innovate and upgrade the product to stay ahead in the race.

The top ten listing: Consistency equals excellence

The ranking does not shift much from year to year. Besides Qatar and SIA, there are some familiar names: All Nippon Airways (3rd this year), Cathay Pacific (4th), Emirates (5th), EVA Air (6th) and Lufthansa (9th). So there is not much of a big deal as airlines switch places so long as they remain in the premier list.

Hainan Airlines (7th) is making good progress, moving up one notch every year since 2017. Qantas (8th) is less consistent, moving in and out of the top ten list, Thai Airways retained its 10th spot for a second year.

It is no surprise that the list continues to be dominated by Asian carriers which are generally reputed for service. You only need to look at the winners for best cabin crew: Besides SIA, the list is made up of Garuda Indonesia, ANA, Thai Airways, EVA Air, Cathay Pacific, Hainan Airlines, Japan Airlines and China Airlines. With the exception of Qatar, no other airline outside Asia is listed.

If you to look to find out how the United States carriers are performing, scroll down the extended list of the 100 best and you will see JetBlue Airways (40th), Delta Air Lines (41st), Southwest Airlines (47th), Alaska Airlines (54th), United Airlines (68th) and American Airlines (74th).

Home and regional rivalry

Rivalry between major home airlines or among competing regional carriers is often closely watched.

Air Canada, placed 31st ahead of rival WestJet at 55th can boast it is the best in North America. That’s how you can work the survey results to your advantage.

ANA (3rd) has consistently outdone arch rival JAL (11th). In fact, ANA has been the favoured airline in the past decade till now. It has Japan’s best airline staff and best cabin crew. Across Asia, it provides the best business class. Internationally, it provides the best airport services and business class onboard catering.

Asiana (28th) is favoured over Korean Air (35th ).

The big three Gulf carriers are ranked Qatar first, followed by Emirates (5th) and Etihad (29th).

Among the European carriers, Lufthansa (9th) leads the field, followed by Swiss International Air Lines (13th), Austrian Airlines (15th), KLM (18th), British Airways (19th), Virgin Atlantic (21st), Aeroflot (22nd), Air France (23rd), Iberia (26th) and Finnair (32nd).

What about low-cost carriers?

Worthy of note is how some budget carriers are ranked not far behind legacy airlines. AirAsia (20th) is best among cohorts. EasyJet (37th) and Norwegian Air Shuttle (39th) are not far behind the big guys in Europe. Among US carriers, Southwest Airlines (47th) is third after JetBlue (40th) and Delta (41st).

Also, pedigree parents do not necessarily produce top-ranked offshoots. Placed farther down the list are SIA’s subsidiary Scoot (64th) and the two Jetstar subsidiaries of Qantas – Jetstar Airways (53rd) and Jetstar Asia (81st). So too may be said of so-called regional arms. Cathay Pacific’s Cathay Dragon is ranked 33rd, but SIA’s SilkAir is way down at 62nd.

Pioneer of the modern budget model Ryanair is ranked 59th.

Down the slippery road of decline: Aisana Airlines and Etihad Airways

If it is difficult to stay at the top, it is easy to slip down the slippery road of decline. Asiana and Etihad are two examples.

Asiana was ranked world’s best airline in 2010 and became a familiar name in the top ten list up to 2014, after which its ranking kept falling: 11th (2015), 16th (2016), 20th (2017), 24th (2018) and 28th (2019). Its erstwhile glory has been whittled down to being just best cabin crew in South Korea.

Etihad did reasonably well for eight years until 2018 when it was ranked 15th, and a year later suffered a dramatic decline to the 29th spot. That, despite beating Qatar to be this year’s best first class in the Middle East.

As I stated at the onset that there are surveys and there are surveys. Some are not specifically targeted , whether its interest is business or leisure for example. There is always an element of subjectivity and bias in the composition and weightage, and this renders no one reading as being definitive. At best, we can read across several creditable surveys to know with some conviction how the airlines really measure against each other.

Read also:

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/can-singapore-airlines-overtake-qatar-worlds-best-airline

IAG Boost for Boeing

Courtesy Boeing

British Airways owner IAG made a bold decision at the Paris Air Show when it announced a tentative order of 200 Boeing B737 MAX jet. It must have surprised quite a number of industry folk to come so soon after the fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines incidents, and that the aircraft is still being grounded. After all, Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg had said participation at the Paris Air Show for Boeing was not about getting new aircraft orders but to restore confidence in the MAX jet. IAG’s support has certainly given Boeing that much needed boost.

Now, is IAG being too hasty at a time when many people are still not comfortable about thinking of flying the MAX as it stays grounded? Clearly the European airline group which also operates Iberia, Aer Lingus and budget carriers Vueling and Level is convinced the time will come, and when it does, IAG partners are ready ahead of others. It is not as if the aircraft will be delivered to IAG’s doorsteps the following morning. And with that conviction, now may be an excellent time to cut a good deal when Boeing is hungry to regain customers’ favour.

It would be a tad too altruistic to think IAG’s decision was a deliberate move for the benefit of the airline community, so as to keep the competition between Boeing and Airbus alive. As it is, Airbus which announced a new version of the A321 at the Paris Air Show, is not hiding its disappointment over the IAG-Boeing deal, noting that IAG had not issued a formal tender and staring Airbus’ interest in bidding for the order.

“We would like a chance to compete for that business,” Airbus chief commercial officer Christian Scherer told reporters at the show.

Now, given the boost by IAG, Boeing said it was in talks with a number of other airlines for sales of its MAX jet. It needed to keep up the momentum.

The big question still remains as to when the MAX jet will get off the ground. IAG may be right that time heals, and many travellers will eventually get back to flying the MAX jet whether out of necessity or expedience. Obviously the traveller doesn’t figure in the equation. After all, how many people are actually finicky about the make of the aircraft that they are flying? There will be some, but will the number be material enough to make the airlines think twice?

Size matters in the air

Courtesy Getty Images

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary predicted that “within the next four to five years you are seeing the emergence of four or five large European airline groups.” He even named the airlines, Ryanair among them in a mix of full-service and low-cost operators: Lufthansa, IAG (International Airlines Group which owns British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and Level), Air France-KLM and, probably, Easyjet.

This sentiment has been opined before by others at a time when mergers, assimilations and acquisitions across the industry were trending as competition broke barriers of entry and intensified, and so-called safe niche markets became every player’s game.

Air France-KLM as the name suggests is a merger of the two European airlines in 2004. Rival British Airways (BA) viewed it as a step in the expected direction, predicting further consolidation within Europe. And in 2011 IAG came into being when BA and Iberia merged. BA chief executive Willie Walsh said at the time that the merger would enable the airline to compete effectively with low-cost carriers.

So there came a time when budget carriers began to pose a threat to full-service airlines, with Ryanair leading the pack. Many of the legacy airlines today have adopted the budget model of charging for ancillaries, and introducing a basic economy class to keep cost-conscious travellers from switching. However, many low-cost carriers have become victims of the competition – the reason why Mr O’Leary named only one other carrier, EasyJet, as a probable survivor.

EasyJet, founded in 1995 and headquartered in London Luton, UK, is Ryanair’s closest rival which has grown and spread its wings across Europe. It too has made a number of acquisitions which include Swiss TEA-Basle and Go.
Elsewhere around the world, the vibes are not unfamiliar, New in the circuit is Air Canada’s interest in Sunwing and Cathay Pacific’s interest in Air Hong Kong Express, And where acquisitions and mergers are not on the plate, airlines are working to form alliances that are more than mere code-sharing. Qantas did it in 2013 with its tie-up with Emirates, and now Malaysia Airlines and Japan Airlines have applied for waiver of government restrictions to form an alliance that will enable easier connections between the two carriers.

It looks like size matters in the air.

More Boeing woes: Singapore Airlines grounds B787 jets

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines (SIA) has grounded two of its eight Boeing 787-10 jets which are found to have premature blade deterioration. The aircraft with an average age of only 1.11 years are fitted with Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.

In truth this is not a new issue. Other airlines such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Norwegian Air Shuttle have also grounded their affected aircraft. As of late February, Rolls-Royce said 35 787s across the industry were grounded due to engine blades corroding or cracking prematurely. It aimed to reduce the number to 10 by the end of the year.

While grounding an aircraft can be costly, airlines are not taking chances. In the present cliamte following the fatal crashes of two B737 Max 8 jets operated by Lion Air and Ethiopian Airways, the mood must be one of caution. Being open as SIA did, helps to reassure customers of the diligence the airline gives to its maintenance program.

A for Boeing, although the issue relates to the Rolls-Royce engine, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Airbus A380: Big is not necessarily beautiful

Courtesy Airbus

BIG is not necessarily beautiful. Now that Qantas has cancelled its order for eight Airbus A380 superjumbo jets while Emirates, the largest operator of the double-decker jet, is also considering switching some orders to the smaller A350, the future of the world’s biggest aircraft hangs in the balance.

A Qantas spokesman said: “These aircraft have not been part of the airline’s fleet and network plans for some time.”

Clearly things are changing and the preference is trending towards a smaller but more fuel efficient aircraft.

The A380, which can carry as many 850 passengers, is supposed to cater to the rising demand for seats and at the same time relieve airport congestion. However, ten years after its inauguration, the industry is yet again shifting. It may seem the ideal solution moving more people at the same time. But as more airlines compete with non-stop flights, filling to capacity becomes increasingly challenging.

Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker said: “As an aircraft, it is very well suited for routes that require high capacity. We have successfully deployed it in markets where we see this large volume of passengers and operate to slot-restricted airports.” However, he was of the opinion that “this aircraft is very heavy (and) has very high fuel consumption.”

Besides, its size does not allow the flexibility to use it on other less populated routes which are dependent on seasonal demands.

Qatar has 10 A380s in its fleet. Other major operators include Singapore Airlines (24), Lufthansa (14), Qantas (12) and British Airways (12). But none comes near Emirates’ fleet of 109 with more than 50 on order.

Joon’s failure re-validates old lessons

Courtesy Getty Images

In just a year after its launch, Air France is shutting down its low-cost subsidiary airline Joon which promised to carve out a new niche market among millennials. The reason, said Air France, is because the brand had been “difficult to understand from the outset.”

Strange as that may sound, it shows how a major player like Air France itself has failed to understand the market forces at play. Or, an ill-timed miscalculation of the market trend.

A little history is appropriate here. When budget travel first emerged on the scene, legacy airlines were inclined to dismiss the upstarts as unlikely competitors, believing their markets to be markedly different. The established carriers, so to speak, were not interested in the budget market and were quite happy to let low-cost operators be.

The failure of many an ambitious budget carrier supported that view, particularly at a time when the volatile fuel price moved like a yo-yo but largely trending upwards. That hit the budget carriers hard since fuel is a significant component of their cost, and cost is all that budget travel is about.

But some like Ryanair and easyJet survived the storm and made good progress. That was when the big boys decided they too wanted in on a flourishing market. A number of them set up their own budget arms, such as United Airlines’ Ted and Delta Air Lines’ Song. They didn’t last long.

As the line of competition began to blur with low-cost carriers soon attracting business away from the traditional sources, more legacy airlines carried the battle cry into the fray. Among them, British Airways which started Go, which it later sold; Singapore Airlines (SIA) which went into partnership with Ryanair to start Tigerair; and Qantas which set up Jetstar.

The budget threat heightened with low-cost carriers venturing into the long-haul. There were casualties along the way, a notable one being Oasis Airlines which flew from Hong Kong to London as well as Vancouver. Hailed as a trail blazer for good service on a shoe-string budget, it could not survive the barrage of rising costs.

But that didn’t stop others to boldly go into a domain dominated by full-service airlines, a move which many observers thought was foolhardy. Today, low-cost carriers such as Norwegian Air Shuttles, Wow! Air and AirAsia continue to rattle the hitherto safe market of the Goliaths.

It seems independent low-cost carriers are more successful than budget offshoots of legacy airlines with few exceptions such as Jetstar. Why so is this? The failure of Joon only serves to revalidate the lessons of past failures.

The overall market has shifted from one distinct full-service vs budget scenario to a common market for all airlines. For many travellers, it is a conscious choice between legacy and budget carriers, the consideration not so much in name as in value for what it costs. For many travellers, the comfort and convenience of full-service still outweigh the savings of flying budget, particularly for the long haul. But for a growing number too, despite the higher risk of flight disruptions by low-cost carriers, why not?

Studies have shown that millennials have different priorities, and the budget model of paying for only what you want may have some appeal as it means control over how you spend your money. The new and younger travellers are more adventurous and not averse to taking chances.

The shift in the market is becoming more evident in how legacy airlines are in fact no longer completely full-service as they used to be, adopting increasingly the budget pricing model in charging for ancillary services what used to be part of the package deal, such as seat selection, priority boarding, and checked baggage.

It is not a given that a successful legacy airline will be as successful in operating a budget subsidiary. On the contrary, it faces the challenge of separating the two entities to operate them on their own terms. Too often this may be compromised with the parent airline subsidising the struggling offshoot. At the same time, the parent’s product may be diluted.

Much as the parent airline likes to maintain its distance and many of them have declared that their budget offshoots are running on their own steam, the reality is far from being so. Their influence is inevitable, however indirect and unintended. That may lead to tweaking the low-cost model to be less budget and more a copy of the old block, resulting in higher costs.

This is also not helped by the expectations of the customer when the budget offshoot carries the association with the reputable parent’s brand name. For example, while SIA has earned the reputation of being one of the world’s best airline, the same could not be said of Tigerair whose customers were sadly disappointed when the carrier ran into frequent bad patches.

What can be worse is when the budget subsidiary begins to compete with the parent company for the same low-end business.

American carriers however have found a solution to that: instead of operating separate budget offshoots to compete with independent low-cost carriers, they have introduced basic economy fares with similar terms to be accommodated within the same aircraft. The practice of offering different fare types even within the same class of travel is not new, but basic economy is aimed at keeping customers who may switch to budget carriers. And the model is gaining popularity across the industry.

Some observers may think Air France’s decision to shut down Joon premature as it has not allowed the latter time to grow. But not being clear about the product or the direction it is heading, it would be a hazy road ahead. It might as well nip the problem in the bud.