Basic economy set to become the norm as more airlines adopt budget model

TO face off competition from low-cost carriers, more legacy airlines are rebranding their economy class. Basic economy, as different from the normal economy, looks set to be the mode of travel for many of its customers.

This has been introduced for quite some time now in the United States, and by other carriers for the long haul including Cathay Pacific nad Singapore Airlines. In some way, many other carriers are already taking steps in the same direction as they begin to adopt the budget model of charging additionally for services now considered as ancillaries, such as checked baggage, seat selection and meals.

Courtesy British Airways

British Airways, which has since done away with complementary in-flight meals and is implementing non-reclining seats in the economy cabin, has announced it will be offering basic economy for the long haul from April 2018. Passengers will not be able to pre-select seats at the time pf booking, and checked baggage is subject to a fee. The fare is expected to be some 10 to 20 per cent less than the normal economy.

It goes to show how the threat by low-cost operators isn’t something that legacy airlines can dismiss as easily as it was once thought as they continue to feel the squeeze of the competition.

Over the years, the class configuration of air travel has evolved from a single luxury class to a two-class of first and economy to a three-class division to include a business class, which, when first introduced, was dismissed as redundant by then successful airlines such as Swissair.

In the same way, the budget model was viewed by legacy airlines as a non-threat because they catered to a different market, which today proves to be not entirely the case.

The blip in the global economy that caused a decline in the demand for premium travel led to a new economy subclass of premium economy, which again was initially scoffed by some airlines including Singapore Airlines, which today is aggressively promoting it. Premium economy is increasingly taking on an identity of its own, and may well be considered a fourth class in its own right, squeezed between business and economy, in the gamut of classes.

Now comes basic economy, and you wonder where the normal economy is heading.


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.

What do Conde Nast best airports have in common?

Yet again – and again – no surprise who tops Conde Nast’s pick of the best airport, or even the top five which are located either in Asia or the Middle East What do these airports have in common?

According to Conde Nast, they stand out “with enough amenities and time-wasters that you might be a little late boarding that flight.” Such frills include indoor waterfalls and great restaurants. In other words, they have to be more than just a fucntional facility for air transportation – however efficient although one must assume efficiency is a key consideration.

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Top in the ranks is Singapore Changi, followed by Seoul’s Incheon, Dubai International, Hong Kong International and Doha’s Hamad International.

Size matters. They are all huge airports. Changi has a handling capacity of 82 million passengers a year. Incheon is adding a second terminal which will double capacity to 100 million passengers annually, and Dubai Intl is aiming for 200 million passengers yearly. Hong Kong Intl handled more than 70 million passengers last year. Opened only in 2014, Hamad Intl is fast growing, recording a throughput of 37 million passengers last year, an increase of 20%.

They are hub airports. Dubai is now the world’s largest airport for international passenger throughput, edging out London Heathrow. Hong Kong Intl is positioning itself as a gateway to Asia in competition with Changi, with connections to some 50 destinations in China.

They are supported by strong home airlines with extensive connections: Qatar Airways (Hamad Intl), Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong Intl), Emirates Airlines (Dubai Intl), Korean Air and Asiana Airlines (Incheon) and Singapore Airlines (Changi).

They are modern with state-of-the-art infrastructure, and are constantly upgrading. Changi has recently added a fourth terminal where passengers can expect hassle-free processes from check-in to boarding without the need of any human contact.

The Asian airports offer fast rail connections to the city.

And, they are all competing to provide the most alluring “time-wasters”. Changi made news when it offered a swimming pool where passengers with time on their hand could relax and soak int he tropical sun. Now that’s also available at Hamad Intl, where you may even play a game of squash too. While Dubai is known to be one of the world’s biggest duty-free shopping centres, Hong Kong Intl is reputed for its great restaurants. Incheon is uniquely Korean with its “Cultural Street” that showcases local cuisine, dance performances, and arts and craft workshops. It also boasts an indoor skating rink and a spa. Hamad Intl too has an exhibit hall for that cultural touch.

Changi comes closest to being a destination in itself where it is said a passenger wouldn’t mind a flight delay. Besides the swimming pool, there are: an indoor waterfall, a butterfly garden, a swimming pool, vast play areas for families with children, and an array of restaurants and shops. And for passengers with at least a transit of six hours, you can hope on a free city tour.

But, of course, all these would not mean much if they are not supported by efficiency and friendly service.

Qatar Airways acquires stake in Cathay Pacific: Is there a strategy in place?

IT is not surprising to see cash-rich Qatar Airways buying stakes in other carriers. It already has stakes in International Airlines Group (20%) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus; South America’s LATAM Airlines Group (10%) and Italian airline Meridiana (49%). It was however rebuffed by American Airlines.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

The Middle East airline’s latest buy is a 9.6% stake in one Asia’s leading airlines, namely Cathay Pacific, for HK$6.5bn (US$662m). Now that might not have come as expected, although both airlines which are OneWorld partners have publicly acknowledged the outcome as a positive one. Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker was pleased with “massive potential for the future” and Cathay chief executive Rupert Hogg looked forward to “a continued constructive relationship.”

Unlike Gulf rival Emirates Airlines, Qatar has seen acquisitions in key partners as a way to access the wider market. Tying up with Cathay would open up opportunities to tap into the wide and growing China market. That depends on how much influence Qatar can assert on Cathay’s China channels, quite unlike the Qantas-Emirates’ relationship although the latter was merely a commercial arrangement. Yet too the way that the aviation business is shaped by the somewhat promiscuous relationships across the industry, it may well be a sitting investment for profit, albeit Cathay’s recent poorer performance.

Perhaps Qatar’s move may be telling more of Cathay, which in fact is a rival airline. Things may not be looking as good at the Hong Kong-based carrier as it embarked on stringent cost-cutting measures to turn its fortune around. Interestingly, news of Qatar’s interest was met with a 5% dip in the price of Cathay’s stock.

Air New Zealand tops again

Courtesy Air New Zealand has named Air New Zealand as the world’s best airline for 2018. Other airlines that make the top ten in descending order are Qantas, Singapore Airlines (SIA), Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Etihad Airways, All Nippon Airways (ANA), Korean Air, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

According to the editorial team, airlines must achieve a seven-star safety rating (developed in consultation with the International Civil Aviation Organization) and demonstrate leadership in innovation for passenger comfort to be named in the top ten.

The evaluation team also looks at customer feedback on sites that include CN which perhaps explain little surprise in both AirlineRatings and Conde Nast Travel naming Air New Zealand as their favourite. (See What defines a best airline? Oct 19, 2017) Four airlines, namely SIA, Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific are ranked in the top ten of both lists. These look like consistently global favourites.

Notable absences from the AirlineRatings list are Middle east carriers Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines. While these airlines scored for service in other surveys, they may have lost the lead in product innovation for which most of the airlines ranked by AirlineRatings are commended. Virgin Australia’s new business class is said to be “turning heads” and Etihad is said to provide a “magnificent product throughout the cabins.” Looking ahead, Air New Zealand will feel the pressure from Qantas and SIA for the top spot. (See Singapore Airlines steps up to reclaim past glory, Nov 3, 2017) In the same survey, Qantas is selected for best lounges and best catering services, and SIA for best first class and best cabin crew.

For those who think best airline surveys are often skewed by the halo effect of service provided in the upper classes, AirlineRatings has named Korean Air as best economy airline.