2018 Skytrax airline awards: Largely the same winners

Top airlines remain largely the same ones as last year’s.

Yet again we note how the top ten airlines remained largely the same ones as last year’s. If you’re good, you’re good, so it seems, and consistency won the day.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) which was second last year switched places with last year’s winner Qatar Airways. All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Emirates Airlines held steady in 3rd and 4th position. Cathay Pacific moved down one rung to 6th,, exchanging places with EVA Air. Lufthansa held its 7th position. Garuda Indonesian followed Hainan Airlines up one notch to 8th and 9th position respectively. The only new entrant to the list was Thai Airways International, which actually only moved up one rung from 11th last year, edging out Etihad Airways as it fell from 8th to 15th position.

So much for the excitement as the winning airlines, going by the result of the survey, continued to please their customers who found no reason to think otherwise of them.

Unlike some high-brow surveys whose results lean heavily on the premium class, Skytrax does readings across all classes.

Best for First Class was SIA followed by Etihad and Air France. This used to be the realm of Asian and Middle-East carriers, and let it not be a surprise to see two European carriers in the ranking. Lufthansa took 4th place.

Best for Business Class was Qatar followed by SIA and ANA. You would imagine that if an airline is good in First, it should not be too far off in Business. However, Air France was not placed in the top ten list and Lufthansa ranked 8th.

Best for Premium Economy was Air New Zealand followed by Qantas and SIA. It looks like the Pacific airlines are pretty good with this product. Lufthansa and Air France ranked 4th and 5th.. There was an absence of Middle-east carriers because they didn’t believe in such a class. Qatar chief CEO Akbar Al Baker had said: “We won’t roll out premium economy… I don’t think there is room for premium economy in our region, and of course in Qatar Airways. We give you a premium economy seat with an economy class price.” Sounds familiar if you recall the early days when SIA too expressed the same skepticism. However, Emirates has said its new Airbus A380 expected to be delivered in 2020 will feature premium economy.

Courtesy Star Alliance

Best for Economy Class was Thai Airways followed by SIA and Qatar. This category was dominated by Asian carriers with the exception of Lufthansa in 9th position.

Only these six airlines were placed in all three categories of First, Business and Economy (excluding premium Economy since not all airlines offer this sub-class): ANA, Cathay, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar and SIA. You can then rest comforted that whatever class you travel with these airlines, you will be treated without discrimination.

But is the Skytrax survey a good guide in choosing which carrier to fly with? Generally people can agree on makes a good airline. What matters when you travel with an airline? For the long haul, seat comfort is an important feature. Inflight entertainment, if you look for some distraction and are not otherwise doing something else or trying to catch up on shuteye. A good meal, if you are not one who will not eat airline food no matter what (unfortunately this is not featured in the Skytrax survey). Cabin cleanliness, of course, and that includes the condition of the washrooms. How often do you see the crew give it a clean-up and spraying some kind of deodorant to try and make it as pleasant as it possibly can be? Above all, the service provided by the cabin crew, to be treated in a friendly manner and with respect. Not forgetting service on the ground in the event that you may need assistance, as when your bag is damaged or has not arrived with you.

Perhaps the ranking for some of these more specific services may be of some help:

Best Economy seat (First and Business should be way better anyway): 1st Japan Airlines, 2nd SIA and 3rd Thai Airways.

Best cabin crew: 1st Garuda, 2nd SIA and 3rd ANA.

Best inflight entertainment: 1st Emirates, 2nd SIA and 3rd Qatar.

Cleanest cabin: 1st ANA, 2nd EVA and 3rd Asiana Airlines.

Best airport service: 1st EVA, 2nd ANA and 3rd Cathay.

But, of course, you can’t expect a single airline to be best in all categories, but you get a pretty good idea of where they all stand, perhaps with exceptions.

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Will Singapore Airlines, competing with United Airlines, have the last laugh?

Courtesy Getty Images

Two years ago, United Airlines stole a march on Singapore Airlines (SIA) when it launched a non-stop service between Singapore and San Francisco four months ahead of its rival.

Then it did it again last year when it started flying non-stop between Singapore and Los Angeles while SIA awaits delivery of an ultra long range jet to ply the route probably by next year. However, this second service, barely a year old, will cease operations at the end of October.

It looks like good news for SIA, but is it really?

It seems United might have sprinted too soon only to lose stamina to sustain the race. Yet it is anyone’s guess as to when the timing is right, and United stood to gain first-mover advantage, benefitting from the early start to build up brand loyalty.

Courtesy Reuters

SIA itself used to fly non-stop to Los Angeles and New York before the flights, introduced in 2004, were suspended in 2013 because of poor yields against the backdrop of a declining world economy and unfavourable fuel prices.

But things have since changed – the global economy has recovered from the 2007/2008 financial meltdown, fuel prices have steadied, and more fuel-efficient aircraft are reviving interest in the ultra-long range.

A big problem faced by airlines though is anticipating the change and making timely adjustment, failing which may mean lost opportunities or sunk costs depending on how the market is trending.

If there is a lesson that United has learnt from operating the non-stop Los Angeles run, it is the constant need to re-strategise. In terminating the service, it is hoping to replace it with a second non-stop San Francisco service, thus upping the ante in competition with SIA.

United said in a media statement that the changes were in response to “customers’ desire for alternative departure and arrival times.”

Travellers will now have a choice of three non-stop flights between Singapore and San Francisco, the number leaning in favour of United which is said to be also offering cheaper fares. While SIA, having earned the reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, will leverage on its superior service, the pressure on fares cannot be ignored.

Clearly, both airlines, which are Star Alliance partners, are not thinking of end-to-end traffic alone. Certainly in the case of SIA, the sole Singapore market will not have the volume to support the operations. Connecting traffic therefore is a key component.

In this respect, United boasts an extensive domestic network in the US and numerous connections to other cities in North and South America. For SIA, Changi Airport is the region’s major hub.

The game plan is explicit in the words of United’s senior vice president Worldwide Sales Dave Hilfman when he said at the launch of the Los Angeles service: “United is making travel to Singapore easier and even more convenient than ever before and customers arriving in Los Angeles will have multiple opportunities to connect to hundreds of United destinations in the US, Canada and Latin America.”

As United wraps up its Los Angeles operations, the main driver for its San Francisco service remains unchanged.

SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong expressed the same sentiment when he announced plans to once again fly non-stop to New York in October ahead of the Los Angeles service. He said that “the flights will help boost connectivity to and through the Singapore hub.”

Rivalry between SIA and United is expected to intensify. The US has been traditionally a strong market for SIA, and United is the leading American carrier in Asia. But it would be a mistake to think that the competition is confined to only these two airlines as many Asia-Pacific carriers are also well connected directly to the US.

When SIA suspended its non-stop New York services in 2013, Cathay Pacific filled that void with connections out of Hong Kong.

With more ultra-long range services connecting major cities directly, airlines thriving on connecting traffic such as SIA will be challenged to make it worth the traveller’s while to fly via their home ports to the final destinations.

Mr Goh said at the recent annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association in Sydney that SIA was looking into more non-stop services to other US destinations. Besides New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the airline currently also serves Houston via Manchester in the UK.

This will set the stage for a different ball game altogether if SIA moves increasingly to feed directly into US destinations, chipping away at United’s domestic strength. The question is whether there is enough load to justify more non-stop flights.

In tandem, SIA is said to be reassessing its stopover flights to the US, but it is unlikely it will skip stopovers altogether in favour of non-stop flights. While it is true that some passengers may prefer a break in their long journeys to get off the plane and stretch their legs, SIA is also able to tap into the traffic that originates or ends at stopover airports. It therefore makes economic sense to continue operating some flights via Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo.

United’s cessation of the Los Angeles-Singapore service will not deter SIA from mounting a similar non-stop flight, although New York takes precedence when the new Airbus A350-900ULR aircraft joins its fleet in September. What SIA has now is lead time to build up demand for the service. On the other hand, if United succeeds in mounting a second non-stop service to San Francisco and it becomes a threat, this may hasten plans for an earlier launch to promote Los Angeles as an alternative gateway to the US.

Where United has failed, SIA may succeed since it had been down that road before. Only then can SIA confidently have the last laugh.

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.