Some airlines may not survive Covid-19

Anxiety is gripping the airline industry, the concern that some airlines may not survive Covid-19.

Particularly vulnerable are airlines laden with debt and are already struggling to stay afloat as well as small carriers which rely on seasonal traffic.

The dip in oil prices cannot make up for the drastic fall in demand for seats as people refrain from flying and as more countries impose travel restrictions and close their borders.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global airline revenue losses would rise above US113bn following the announcement of restrictions on travel from Europe into the United States.

Poland for one is suspending all international flights, and many other European countries are expected to take similar action to reduce travel.

Cathay Pacific has warned of financial losses ahead because of the coronavirus outbreak, adding to its woes of plunging profits in 2019 resulting from political unrest in Hong Kong.

Courtesy Getty Images

Korean Air has already sounded the alarm. The airline’s president Woo Kee-hong said: “If the situation continues for a longer period, we may reach the threshold where we cannot guarantee the company’s survival.”

Like many other airlines, Korean Air has suspended flights – as much as 80 per cent – and is asking staff to take voluntary leave. Ryanair may force staff to take unpaid leave.

Norwegian Air Shuttle CEO Jacob Schram said the airline has started talking to the unions about “temporary layoffs for flying crew members as well as employees on the ground in the offices.”

British Airways (BA) too is not ruling out cutting jobs. BA chief Alex Cruz said: “We can no longer sustain our current level of employment and jobs would be lost – perhaps for a short term, perhaps longer term.”

Uncertainty is the word. And that makes it all the more onerous for some airlines not knowing for how much longer they can afford keep their planes on the ground.

A bleak year for airlines

It looks quite certainly a bleak year for airlines as Covid-19 keeps people away from travelling. The outbreak has become more extensive than anticipated, short of being classified as pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Cutting capacity

Many airlines are cutting back or suspending services not only to destinations in China where the outbreak started but also across the world.

Among them are:

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines, which has cancelled almost 700 flights across its network through to May. Its low-cost subsidiary Scoot has cancelled all flights to China.

Cathay Pacific, which so far has seen flights reduced by more than 75 per cent till the end of March, with hints of more to be scrapped.

Qantas, which has reduced capacity to Hong Kong and suspended flights to Shanghai and Beijing. It is also reporting weak demand for seats on flights to Singapore and Japan as well. Capacity to Asian destinations will be reduced by 15 per cent until the end of May. Its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar is also adjusting capacity as a result of the weaker domestic market.

Air France, which has taken out flights to China until the end of March.

British Airways, which has cancelled not only flights to China but also more than 200 flights from London to destinations in the United States, Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Ireland in the latter half of March.

Ryanair, which will cut up to 25% of flights in and out of Italy from 17 March to 8 April..Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary said: “There has been a notable drop in forward bookings towards the end of March, into early April.”

EasyJet, which is cancelling some flights because of “a significant softening of demand and load factors into and out of our Northern Italian bases”.

United Airlines, which has suspended flights to China and axed flights to South Korea, Japan and Singapore as demand across the Pacific has fallen by as much as 75 per cent. Delta Air Lines has also cancelled flights to China.

Air Canada, which has cancelled all flights from Toronto to Hong Kong until the end of April.

Middle-east airlines, which are affected by action taken by the Gulf authorities. Iran as the epicentre of the outbreak in the region has seen flights to its airports cancelled by neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Events cancelled

The threat of the disease spreading easily at public events has led to many of them being cancelled, which in turn will affect the airlines which would have enjoyed a boon in carriage numbers.

Courtesy United Airlines

United Airlines for one has scaled back additional flights between San Francisco/Newark and Barcelona planned for the Mobile World Congress which has been cancelled.

Now all eyes are on the 2020 Summer Olympics to be staged in Tokyo.

Business travel, as noted by British Airways chief Willie Walsh, has been affected by the cancellation of large conferences. Some large corporations are also restricting executive travel.

International cruises, which pose a similar threat following the outbreak of the disease on the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama, have also suffered from reduced patronage or cancellations, and this in turn reduces feeds from airlines from across the globe to the ports of call.

Reduced profitability

Expectedly airlines are predicting reduced profitability although some of them are optimistic about the impact as not being as drastic as it seems.

Air France-KLM warned its earnings would be affected by as much as €200 million (US$224 million).

Qantas said the COVID-19 outbreak would cost the airline up to A$150m (US$99m).

Air New Zealand expects the impact to be in the range from NZ$35 million (US$22 million) to NZ$75 million as travel demand to Asia drops.

Finnair is expecting a significant drop in operating profit this year.

Airlines which rely heavily on Asian traffic are naturally more affected, even more so budget carriers such as AirAsia and its long-haul arm AirAsiaX. Particularly vulnerable are airlines which are struggling to stay afloat, such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, which is cutting back on long-haul operations, and Hong Kong Airlines, which is 45 per cent owned by Hainan Airlines of the HNA Group, which itself is facing a sell-off by the Chinese government.

Cost cutting

Besides reducing or cutting capacity, expectedly many airlines are looking at cutting cost.

EasyJet is looking into reducing administrative budgets, offering unpaid leave, and freezing recruitment, promotion and pay rises.

Singapore Airlines is implementing paycuts of 10 to 15 per cent for senior executive management. General staff will be offered a voluntary no-pay leave scheme.

Cathay Pacific is asking employees to take unpaid leave.

Courtesy Airbus

Perhaps the impact is most felt at Hong Kong Airlines which has slashed in-flight services to a bare minimum and dismissed staff, targeting 400 of them.

What’s next?

While the industry contnues to grapple with the prolonged saga of the B737 Max jet predicament, the coronavirus outbreak could not have come at a worse time on its heels. In both cases, it is the uncertainty that poses the biggest problem. Soem airlines are pessimistic that the threat will blow over by the end of March, which is unlikely, while others are more cautious in their forecast, looking at the end of May. It is this uncertainty that makes one wonder if any of them might not survive the wait.

Malaysia Airlines can’t make up its mind

Courtesy Reuters

While beleaguered Malaysia Airlines (MAS) gets deeper into the red and is looking for a strategic partner to prop it up, it seems not to be in any real hurry to accept any of the proposals it is said to have received. It has been reported that MAS needs up to RM21 billion (USD5.17 billion) to stay afloat until 2025.

A new slate of potential white knights made known recently, one different from the initial list, include AirAsia Group Berhad, Japan Airlines, Air France-KLM and Malindo Airways. No mention was made of four other local companies and Qatar Airways which subsequently clarified that it was not considering equity participation but interested in helping MAS get back on its feet. The proposals by the local companies apparently didn’t sell as they had limited or no aviation experience.

What has since changed? AirAsia which had previously insisted it was not interested has now emerged as a front-runner, which industry observers had at the onset said would be the best bet of success for the ailing MAS. AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes had proposed a merger to include budget long-haul AirAsia X. It is however understandable that the powers that be may not be too enthusiastic about being taken over by a rival compatriot which is a budget carrier and which has grown bigger than the national flag carrier.

Japan Airlines seems lukewarm about its interest which has been fanned by a commercial partnership with MAS to open access to each other’s destinations in their respective countries. The Japanese carrier continues to maintain its interest in expanding that partnership but steers clear of a firm potential investment in MAS. If at all it is interested, it is believed the stake would be small.

Air France-KLM on the other hand is said to have proposed a 49-percent take-up. However, that too has become an “iffy” judging by a statement released by the Euorpean conglomerate: “Air France-KLM had previously been in contact with Malaysia Airlines’ shareholders, but at this stage Air France-KLM is not a current party to the sales process of Malaysia Airlines.”

Malindo Airways is unlikely to be able to stand up against AirAsia in the run-in.

Why is MAS hesitant or is it pussy-footing, hoping for a better deal? Over time, the interest has shifted. It seems there is division within the company. The proposals by foreign companies are said to be better than those by local contenders, but there is reservation about selling out to an alien entity.

However, the saga holds a mystery card. Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahatir Mohamad said “there are about five proposals but of course some of them are just no go.” The fifth proposal is not known. Is it a “no go” or could this be the surprise choice, and who could it be?

Previous speculation had thrown up names like British Airways which seems more interested in expanding its stronghold in Europe while preferring a wider commercial arrangement elsewhere.

More recently there was suggestion that Singapore Airlines might be interested to work with MAS to support each other in the region and world-wide. But the deep rivalry between the close neighbours which goes back a long way to when they split and became competitors is not something that is easily forgotten.

Apparently, Dr Mahatir was said to be unhappy with how the ongoing evaluation was proceeding, so it may not be long when MAS finally accepts the hand of one of the suitors, whether already named or yet to be known.

Are airlines treating passengers of disrupted flights fairly?

Courtesy Reuters

IF you were travelling on Singapore Airlines (SIA) out of London and your flight is delayed or cancelled, you may be compensated up to €600 according to European Union (EU) regulations. However, if it is an outbound flight from Singapore, what compensation a passenger may receive, if any, will depend on the policy of the airline.

This is because EU regulations do not apply to non-EU carriers arriving at an airport in member countries although it covers all departing flights of both EU and non-EU carriers.

The regulations have recently been extended to include connections even if these are operated outside the EU by non-EU airlines. The ruling states that “an operating air carrier that has performed the first flight cannot take refuge behind a claim that the performance of a subsequent flight operated by another air carrier was imperfect.” It is therefore obliged to offer passengers alternative transport for the disrupted flight, in addition to monetary compensation.

Over in Canada, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations introduced by the Canada Transportation Agency require airlines affected by flight disruptions to meet certain obligations which will apply to all flights to, from and within Canada, including connecting flights. Passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled will be compensated up to C$1,000 depending on the size of the airline and length of the disruption. Non-compliance carries a fine of up to C$25,000.

Countries elsewhere do not generally legislate on mandatory fiduciary compensation of a stipulated amount for flight disruptions. In the United States, airlines are obliged to compensate passengers who are bumped off a flight due to an overbooking situation (as in the EU and Canada), but there are no federal regulations requiring them to do the same thing for passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.

Consumer rights groups have long been pushing for fairer treatment of travellers under these circumstances. Besides arranging meals and hotel accommodation in the event of a long delay, some airlines hand out in-flight gift vouchers, but most do not make any form of financial payment. In many cases the affected passengers get not much more than an apology while they wait to be put on the next available flight.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recognises the vulnerability of passengers and supports “due attention… (which) could include rerouting, refund, care and/or compensation”, but it stops short of spelling out specifics and making them industry standards. The International Air Transport Association is however concerned that airlines may be adversely affected, advocating “an appropriate balance between protection of consumers and industry competitiveness.”

Affected passengers therefore by and large can only rely on the goodwill of the airlines, whose policies differ across the industry. Many of them have come to realise that to take the matter further on their own – including bringing an airline to court – can be tedious, frustrating and, more often than not, futile. What they need is the support of an authority who can enforce compliance within a legal framework.

Yes, even with mandatory compensation in place in the EU and Canada, there have been complaints that the airlines are not forthcoming in meeting their obligations, citing extraordinary circumstances that do not render them liable or delaying payment indefinitely. Still, in the context of good governance, what the EU and Canada have introduced is a significant step forward in recognition of the uphill challenge passengers face in their battle with the airlines for fair compensation.

Some airport authorities fine airlines for flight delays or operating off-schedule because it disrupts and causes less-than-optimal resource allocation that can be costly to the airport’s operations. By the same argument, passengers of disrupted flights deserve to be fairly compensated. The disruption can be costly in terms of making alternative arrangements, staying in some place longer than planned, and losing opportunities as in failing to make a business deadline. Above all, it causes anguish and distress.

The amounts recommended by the EU and Canada are miniscule compared to the fines of up to US$27,500 per passenger imposed by the US Transportation Department for planes left on the tarmac for more than three hours (or four hours for international flights) without taking off. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines share the honour of holding the record fine of US$1.6 million, the former in 2016 and the latter in 2015.

Non-US airlines that have been penalised by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) include Japan Airlines which was fined US$300,000 for two incidents in 2018 in which passengers were made to wait more than four hours on the tarmac before they could deplane.

All these measures serve the common goal of encouraging airlines to ensure their flights operate as scheduled and hopefully too that they become more conscientious about how they treat their customers. However, the fines imposed by DOT do not directly benefit the passengers who are the very reason why an airline is in business.

An example of how an airline may take the EU regulations seriously is when British Airways, faced with the threat of strike action by its pilots recently, informed its customers as early as two weeks of cancellations of some flights to avoid paying compensation.

However, do not expect similar regulations to be introduced any time soon in other parts of the world. For one thing, consumer rights groups do not appear to be as aggressive, and many countries especially Asia are less prone to industrial action. Besides major Asian carriers known for good customer service are more responsive to feedback and complaints and may already be offering some form of compensation even if they are not as generous.

But as the number rises, there is a greater need to ensure that affected passengers are fairly treated. The powers that be can ensure that. According to aviation data and analytics experts at Cirium, about 3.9 million flights or 10,700 a day were delayed by over 30 minutes or cancelled worldwide in 2018. Take a typical day on 5 August 2019.there were 22,386 delays and 1,107 cancellations globally, of which 29 per cent of the combined total occurred in the United States, 26 per cent in Europe, and 34 per cent in Asia Pacific.

Until then, here’s a poser for SIA and the likes: Will they accord the same level of comnpensation to all passengers even if they are not bound by regulations, for no better reason than simply one in the name of fairness?

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.

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?