Malaysia Airlines: Waiting for the white knight

Courtesy Reuters

IN July, there was much excitement about Qatar Airways’ interest in acquiring Malaysia Airlines (MAS), being one of four proposals received by the ailing flag carrier of Malaysia. It seems that has as quickly dissipated.

According to sources, apparently only one proposal from local investors Jentayu Danaraksha Sdn Bhd (JDSB) is left on the table. The consulting firm is fronted by former MAS chief executive officer Tan Sri Abdul Azia who retired in 1991.

But MAS’ owner Khazanah does not seem to favour JDSB which in 2014 said it was keen to revive the carrier but was snubbed.

There has been ambiguity as to whether MAS prefers a local or foreign investor. But there is now new excitement about the possibility that Japan Airlines (JAL) might be that white knight. Much has been hyped about JAL being a good fit for MAS since it had only not too long ago pulled through a difficult time of near collapse and would therefore know what’s needed to rescue MAS.

JAL has earlier tied up with MAS to operate joint flights between Japan and Malaysia, and it looks like a natural step forward to take on a bigger role. Besides, both airlines belong to the OneWorld Alliance (and so too Qatar Airways).

And while the powers that be at Khazanah are gushing with excitement about that prospect, JAL president Yuji Asaka said it was too early to consider an equity investment in MAS but future discussions were possible.

Extending its reach internationally may be a strategy for JAL in competing with rival All Nippon Airways. So far it has partnered with airlines which include China Eastern Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Garuda Indonesia in commercial agreements. But equity acquisition is so far not on the card. So it may be a long road, so patience may just be what MAS needs right now.

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Caution keeps B737 Max jet grounded

Courtesy Getty Images

Carriers which had been hopeful that the Boeing B737 Max jet would return to the skies as early as next month have deferred scheduled dates to operate the aircraft.

Earlier in August, Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenburg was hopeful that this would happen in the fourth quarter of the year and the airlines could look forward to capturing the peak holiday season traffic.

American Airlines which owns 24 of the Max jet is pushing the date to Dec 3. United Airlines with a fleet of 14 is moving it further down the road to Dec 19. It looks like both carriers are still hoping to cash in on what shall remain of the peak season including the Christmas holiday. But Southwest Airlines, the largest of the Max operators worldwide with 34 aircraft has moved the scheduled date to Jan 5 next year.

North of the border, Air Canada (which owns 24 Max jets) and Sunwing (with 4 aircraft) are not expecting the aircraft to be operational until next year. For Air Canada, it is Jan 8. And for Sunwing, even later in May. WestJet (with a fleet of 13 Max jets) too is not scheduling Max flights during the year-end holiday season, but said the company might consider an occasional flight to ease the demand should the ban be lifted then.

WestJet’s vice-president in charge of scheduling said: “It’s a little harder to unmix the cake at that point, but we would look at peak days, the Friday before Christmas (for example) where we can still sell seats and we’ll put the airplane back in.”

Elsewhere across the world, affected carriers remain non-committal on their plans. Other major operators until the jet was grounded include Norwegian Air Shuttle (18 aircraft), China Southern Airlines (16), TUI Group (15), China Eastern Airlines (14), Lion Air (14), FlyDubai (14), Turkish Airlines (12), and XiamenAir (10).

The B737 Max jet was grounded globally following two fatal incidents, one involving Indonesian carrier Lion Air in Oct last year and the other involving Ethiopian Airlines in Mar this year, both crashes claiming a total of 346 lives.

Quite naturally, carriers which own the Max jet are keen to see its early return to the skies. Many of them have cut back capacity to cope with the shortage of aircraft and are reporting losses as a consequence. United which took out 70 flights a day in its September schedule will see the number increased to 90 in December. Together, the three airlines – American, United and Southwest – have cancelled 30,000 flights. Delta Air Lines, however, stands to gain from these airlines’ disadvantage as it does not own any Max aircraft.

Budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle which plies the ultra-long haul is said to be on the brink of collapse, and the grounding of the B737 Max jet isn’t helping. According to former CEO Bjorn Kjos, the restriction has cost the airline US$58 million. Norwegian, which took the US by storm with its low fares, raising objection from American carriers, has cancelled numerous flights between Europe and the U.S.

Both the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing have suffered some loss of credibility in the wake of the two crashes. Stories about Boeing’s shoddy work at is plants and allegations of FAA’s relegating its oversight role to the manufacturer had hit hard. FAA’s delayed action to ground the Max jet after a number of authorities across the globe had done so also called into question FAA’s leadership role in the field.

However, FAA may have learnt its lesson. Following meetings between Boeing and various industry players where disagreement on the readiness of the Max jet was apparent, FAA had said, “Our first priority is safety, and we have set no timeframe for when the work will be complete. Each government will make its own decision to return the aircraft to service, based on a thorough safety assessment.”

Europe’s aviation safety watchdog – the European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) – for one will not rely entirely on a US verdict on whether the Max jet is safe to resume flying. It will instead additionally conduct its own tests on the plane before giving its final approval.

Transport Canada has insisted on the need for essential simulator training in early discussions when Boeing said it was not necessary since the Max jet was a variation of the B737 master model. The authority said it “will not lift the current flight restriction… until it is fully satisfied that all concerns have been addressed by the manufacturer and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and adequate flight crew procedures and training are in place.”

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, multiple regulatory bodies around the world were not satisfied with Boeing’s briefing on the Max software update. They contended that Boeing “failed to provide technical details and answer specific questions about (the) modifications.” Boeing is expected to resubmit documents providing more details, and that these should be first approved by FAA before a follow-up meeting is convened. This in a way reminds FAA of its oversight role.

While affected airlines are looking forward to normalising their operations with the return of the B737 Max jet, what happens post-ban is another story. In fact, it may present a more difficult problem to handle than the technical aspects of the saga as the carriers try to win back the trust of travellers. If, indeed time is the healer, then taking the time to be absolutely convinced of the jet’s airworthiness before lifting the ban may be a good thing for the airlines.

Is the Boeing Max ready to fly?

Courtesy Boeing

Airlines looking forward to fly their fleet of Boeing B737 Max 8 aircraft have just got their planned schedules jiggered up by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s announcement that it may take up to a year before the jet is cleared again for commercial flights.

According to the BBC, FAA chief Daniel Elwell said: “If it takes a year to find everything we need to give us the confidence to lift the (grounding) order so be it.”

It may be read that underlying this is the FAA’s understanding that time is needed to regain the world’s trust – in both the aircraft and the FAA as regulator. While Boeing seems ready to sign off the improved jet, saying it has finished updating the pertinent flight-control software, FAA in an apparent redeeming move following censure of its lax oversight is assuming control as the final authority to certify the jet’s safety.

According to Bloomberg, Mr Elwell added at a meeting with representation from across the globe, “If there is a crisis in confidence, we hope this will help to show the world that the world still talks together about aviation safety issues.”

In Boeing’s favour, some airlines have voiced their support of the Max. Understandably so, particularly if the airline owns a sizeable fleet of the jet. American Airlines (AA) for one is confident of an “absolute fix” but CEO Doug Parker was also quick to add, “But…it’s not for us to decide whether or not the aircraft flies. It needs to be safe for everyone.” The airline, which has a fleet of 24 Max jets, has cancelled thousands of flights and has now cancelled Max schedules through mid-August.

Another airline which has pledged its commitment to Boeing is Singapore Airlines (SIA). The airline is pledging its commitment to purchase 39 Dreamliner jets and its re-commitment for a previous order of 30 planes. Although this is not related to the Max aircraft of which its subsidiary SilkAir has six of them, it gives Boeing a boost of confidence after reports of shoddy production and poor oversight at the Boeing plant in North Charleston surfaced, and following grounding of some Dreamliner jets because of problems with the Rolls Royce Trent engine fitted to the aircraft.

Read also:

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/grounding-boeing-max-and-dreamliner-planes-how-can-singapores-airlines-reassure-customers

It’s good to have friends, indeed. But while it’s not yet known if airlines such as AA and SIA have sought or will seek compensation from Boeing, others which have made known their intention include Norwegian Air Shuttle, Ryanair and the big three Chinese carriers of Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines. A strongly worded report from the Chinese Global Times newspaper said: “We must use punishment and tell the Americans their practice of using concealment and fraud to extract benefits from others, while benefiting themselves, is unfair.”

Never say never: Cathay Pacific enters budget market

Courtesy AFP

In 2015, Cathay Pacific together with Hong Kong Airlines opposed Qantas’ application to set up Jetstar Hong Kong Airways – co-owned with China Eastern Airlines and billionaire Stanley Ho’s Shun Tak Holdings Ltd. Cathay was particularly vehement about there being no room or need for budget travel in Hong Kong. The authorities were convinced and Jetstar HKG never took off.

Today, Cathay announced its decision to buy Hong Kong’s only budget carrier, Hong Kong Express Airways, for HK$4.93 billion (US$628 million). This expands Cathay’s stable of airlines to three, which includes regional carrier Cathay Dragon. It will boost Cathay’s market share to 50 per cent in Hong Kong.

A Cathay spokesperson said: “We intend to continue to operate Hong Kong Express as a stand-alone airline using the low-cost carrier business model.”

Now what caused Cathay to change its mind?

Cathay is not alone in facing stiff competition in the long-haul and premium market, from not only neighbouring rivals such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) but also Middle east carriers such as Dubai Airlines. Besides, Chinese carriers from mainland China are also fast expanding, flying direct and more services to Europe and North America.

At the same time, Cathay can no longer ignore the encroachment by the flourish of budget carriers in the region, particularly those operating out of mainland China. The Hong Kong authorities too may begin to realise how all this may be reducing Hong Kong International Airport’s hub status, particularly when limited options are resulting in Hong Kong being bypassed.

It could be a matter of timing. In 2017 Cathay reported its first annual net loss in eight years and introduced a three-year transformation program. It was later in that same year that Cathay CEO Rupert Hogg affirmed that Cathay had no plans to start a low-cost carrier. But the debt-ridden HNA Group which owns Hong Kong Express offers a timely opportunity not to be missed even as Cathay posted its first full year profit in 2018 of US$299 million.

The business climate can change fairly quickly, but unfortunately airlines may be slow in catching up with the changes because of the huge investment and lead time to implement many of the changes, apart from a host of other reasons, some of which could be largely circumstantial.

Many legacy airlines pooh-poohed the threat of budget airlines to their traditional market when it was first mooted, and as many of the carriers fell by the wayside before they could assert any impact.

SIA for one came on the scene later than most others, setting up Tigerair jointly with Ryanair, and then Scoot. Its strategy has changed yet again with the merger of Tigerair and Scoot, and now SIA is in the process of assimilating SilkAir into the parent airline.

One wonders if this is the path that Cathay may take should Hong Kong Express and Cathay Dragon find their services overlap as they expand.

Whatever the reading, it would be discreet to never say never. The question is always if so, when?

SIA’s transformation is long overdue

Courtesy Bloomberg

Singapore Airlines (SIA) announced it will be taking “bold radical measures” in a major business transformation plan after the parent airline incurred a fourth-quarter operating loss of S$41 million (US$30 million). SilkAir and Budget Aviation Holdings (Scoot and Tiger Airways) reported lower profits for the same quarter: the former down 19 per cent to S$27 million and the latter more than 50 per cent to S$22 million.

Full-year operating profit for SIA was S$386 million, a decline of S$99 million or 20 per cent year-on-year. For SilkAir it was a fall of 11 per cent and for Scoot and Tiger a combined drop of 60 per cent.

SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said: “The transformation is not just about how we can cut cost but also how we can generate more revenue for the group, how we can improve our processes more efficiently, …so that we can be lot more competitive going forward.”

If anyone is surprised at all, it is not because it is happening but that it has taken so long coming. The writing has been on the wall since the global financial crisis when the airline suffered a loss of S$38.6 million in FY 2008/09, and from then onward the margin has averaged less than three per cent compared to seven per cent in the five years leading to it.

SIA cited intense competition that is affecting its fortune. Lower fuel costs that contracted by S$780 million (down 17.2 per cent) didn’t help. Capacity reduction trailed the reduction in passenger carriage, and passenger load factor as a result dipped lower to 79.0 per cent.

While details of the transformation are yet to be announced, it will do SIA well to recognise that the aviation landscape has changed dramatically over the years and will continue to shift. Competition in the business is a given, and we cannot help but recall how the fledgling airline from a tiny nation leapfrogged its more experienced rivals in its early days to become the world’s best airline and one of the most profitable in the industry. No doubt the competition has intensified, but the salient point here is that it can never be business as usual.

What then has changed?

Low-cost carriers are growing at a faster rate than full-service airlines and are now competing in the same market, and while SIA may have answered that threat with setting up its own budget subsidiaries, the parent airline is not guaranteed it is spared. Until the merger of Scoot and Tiger under one umbrella, there had been much intra-competition. And while the subsidiaries compete with other low-cost carriers, the concern should be that they are not growing at the expense of the parent airline. That calls for clearly defined product and route differentiation such that they are not substitutes at lower fares.

Low-cost carriers are also venturing into the long-haul, aided by the current low fuel price and technologically advanced and more fuel-efficient aircraft. The launch of Norwegian Air Shuttle’s service between Singapore and London in October at drastically lower fares poses a challenge to SIA on one of its most lucrative routes.

The market is becoming increasingly more price sensitive since the global financial crisis, and that favours the low-cost model of paying for only what a passenger needs. Dwindling may be the days when one is more willing to pay a higher fare for SIA’s reputable in-flight service as other carriers improve their products and services, often the reason cited for the competition laid on by the big three Middle East airlines of Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways.

These rivals are also offering a slew of connections out of their home bases and reduced layover times which are the forte of the SIA network. The growing importance of airports such as Dubai and Hong Kong as regional gateways may disadvantage not only Changi Airport but also SIA in the competition against airlines such as Emirates and Cathay Pacific. In 2013, Qantas shifted its hub on the Kangaroo Route from Singapore to Dubai, and is now planning to build a hub out of Perth for the same route. SIA will have to heed the geographical shift that may affect the air traveller’s preference for an alternative route.

Along with this is also the increased number of non-stop services between destinations, particularly out of the huge, growing Chinese market. This may eliminate the need for travellers to fly SIA to connect out of Singapore, say from Shanghai to Sydney when there are direct alternatives offered by Qantas and China Eastern Airlines. It has thus become all the more imperative for SIA and Changi to work even closer together.

Well and good that SIA is constantly looking at improving cost efficiency and productivity. But more has to be done. As Mr Goh had said, it calls for a “comprehensive review on whatever we are doing and how we can better position ourselves for growth.”

The key word is “transformation”, in the same way that Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce went about restructuring the Australian flag carrier following the airline’s hefty losses four years ago. Drastic measures were introduced that include the split between international and domestic operations for greater autonomy and accountability, and concrete targets were set over a specific timeline. The continuing programme seems to have worked for Qantas as it bucks the trend reporting record profits while other airlines such as Cathay are hurting.

SIA will have to look beyond its own strengths at the strengths of others. It has thrived on the reputation of its premium product, but that has taken a toll as business travellers downgrade to cheaper options. Although that business segment is slowly recovering, other airlines have moved ahead to introduce innovative options, such as the premium economy which Cathay revitalised as a class of its own and which SIA was slow in embracing, reminiscent of how SIA too did not foresee the increased competition posed by low-cost carriers. It is a pity that SIA, once a leader in innovation, has lost much of that edge.

Timing is everything in this business to cash in on early bird advantages, but this is not made easy by abrupt geopolitical changes and new aviation rules and the long lead time in product innovation and implementation. All said, SIA may begin by looking at what worked for it in the past and ask why it is no longer relevant.

Cathay Pacific losing grip of China card

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific reported plunging profits of 82 per cent for half-year results up to 30 June. Revenue fell 9.2 per cent to HK$45.68 billion (US$569 million). For an airline that had boasted record margins in previous reports, it demonstrates the volatility of the airline business today in spite of the continuing low fuel prices.

While Cathay chairman John Slosar put the blame on competition and the slowdown of the China economy – what’s new, indeed? – it is worthy of note that Cathay also suffered hedging losses in the spot market. Many airlines are apt to extol their ability to gain from fuel hedging but will remain reticent when the reading goes awry.

Mr Slosar said: “The operating environment in the first half of 2016 was affected by economic fragility and intense competition.” Apparently premium economy, which since its introduction has been Cathay’s pride, and the long hauls were not performing to expectations, confronted by competition from Middle East carriers Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, and from China carriers such as Air China and China Eastern which are offering direct flights thus doing away with the need for Chinese travellers to fly through Hong Kong.

Competition from foreign carriers in a reciprocally open market is to be expected, and which may be augmented by those carriers offering an improved product. Cathay’s main woe is probably the falling China market on two counts: the reduced demand for premium travel and the diversion away from Hong Kong as the gateway to the region. Cathay and Hong Kong International Airport have benefitted from the growing China market, but while it was able to prevent Qantas from setting up Jetstar Hong Kong, it can do little to stem the growth of China carriers.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

It would be more meaningful to compare Cathay’s performance with its major regional competitors. Singapore Airlines (SIA) reported Q1 (Apr-Jun) profit of S$197 million (US$144 million) (up from S$108 million) while the other carriers in the Group – SilkAir, Scoot and Tigerair – also did better on the back of lower fuel prices. But group revenue declined by 2.1 per cent because of lower contribution by parent airline SIA. In July passenger load was down 1.2 per cent (1.676 million from 1.697 million), and the load factor by 2.2 pts at 82.4 per cent from 84.6 per cent. Except for East Asia (with flat performance), all other regions suffered declining loads.

This may be indicative of the global economic trend. Like Cathay, SIA’s fortune has shifted from the longer haul to the regional routes. Europe suffered the highest decline (4.5 pts) followed by Americas (3.1 pts). The picture will become clearer when it reports Q2 (making up the first half year) results. According to Mr Slosar of Cathay, the business outlook “remains challenging”.

Courtesy APP

Courtesy APP

However, it is good news downunder as Qantas reported record profit of A$1.53 billion (US$1.15 billion) for the year ending June 2016, up 57 per cent – the best result in its 95-year history. Qantas Domestic, Qantas International and the Jetstar Group all reported record results: the domestic market chalked up a record A$820 million, up A$191 million, and the international division A$722 million, up A$374 million. The Qantas Transformation program seemed to have continued working its magic to “reshape the Group’s base and ability to generate revenue” according to its report. CEO Alan Joyce said: “Transformation has made us a more agile business.” And, unlike Cathay, effective fuel hedging saw the Group secure an A$664 million benefit from lower global fuel prices, leaving us to wonder what Cathay would say to that.

It is once again a feather in Mr Joyce’s cap. He added: “The Qantas Group expects to continue its strong financial performance in the first half of financial year 2017, in a more competitive revenue environment. We are focused on preserving high operating margins through the delivery of the Qantas Transformation program, careful capacity management, and the benefit of low fuel prices locked in through our hedging.” He believed the long-term outlook for the Group to be positive.

The contrasting fortunes of airlines may prompt one to ask how in the end that as much attribution of an airline’s performance is attributed to global influences, so too as much is balanced by its self-discipline in adjusting to the vicissitudes of the times, its astuteness in seizing shifting opportunities and, of course, its ability to read global and regional trends as unpredictable as they are.

Which Asian airlines might be interested to buy into Virgin America?

Photo courtesy Virgin America

Photo courtesy Virgin America

UP for sale, Virgin America has some suitors lining up. It has received takeover bids from JetBlue Airways Corp and Alaska Air Group Inc. In this era of the mega carriers (consider the mergers of United Airlines and Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, and American Airlines and USAir), a tie-up with another carrier strengthen Virgin’s competitive ability. And while it is almost certain that the merger would be with another American carrier, with analysts placing bets on JetBlue as the best fit, apparently some unidentified Asian carriers have also expressed interest. Still, be that as a remote possibility, one cannot help but be curious and speculate who the likely candidates might be.

Two big names come to mind immediately because of their successes, networks and financial capability, namely Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines. Both airlines are keen on expanding their US market. Cathay flies to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco while Singapore Airlines (SIA) operates to Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Both airlines have codeshare access to several other destinations. Cathay’s codeshare partners include Alaska Airlines and American Airlines while SIA already codeshares with Virgin and with JetBlue.

So it looks like SIA more than Cathay would be favoured on relationships alone. Since foreign ownership rules governing US airlines require the bid to be submitted jointly with a US partner. It would be convenient for SIA to join hands with JetBlue. Of course, Cathay may partner Alaska Airways, but historically Cathay is not quite interested in equity participation. Although it has a 20.3% stake in Air China and 49% in Air China Cargo, that could be a matter of expedience to secure its market in the growing China mainland market.

SIA on the other hand, limited by a hinterland market, tried in its early years to grow through acquisitions. In 1999, it bought 49% of Virgin Atlantic and subsequently 25% of Air New Zealand. Although both buys subsequently proved to be lemons, resulting in heavy losses, the misstep might be less strategic than circumstantial. Unfortunately that has hurt SIA deeply more psychologically than financially as the airline became more cautious about such moves. In subsequent years it failed in its seemingly reluctant bid for a stake in China Eastern Airlines, and the SIA Group was plagued by the poor decisions of its budget subsidiary Tigerair in joint ventures in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Oct 2012 SIA bought a 10% stake in Virgin Australia, joining tow other foreign partners namely Air New Zealand and Etihad Airways. In much the same way that Cathay needed to secure its market in China partnering with Air China, SIA needed to secure its Australian market against the competition by Qantas. Six months after, SIA increased its stake to 19.9%.

But is SIA even interested in a stake in Virgin when its codeshare partnership with JetBlue already places it in an advantageous position to benefit from a JetBlue takeover of Virgin? Would a bid jointly with an Asian partner jeopardise JetBlue’s chances if the powers that be preferred an all-American merger a la the big three of United, Delta and American?

Besides Cathay and SIA, one should not ignore the voracious appetite of the China carriers in the national trend to acquire foreign assets. And why must it be premised on full-service carriers that are already serving destinations in the US? What about a budget carrier with dreams of new frontiers? Maverick AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes who models himself after Virgin guru Richard Branson and who had been where others were hesitant, even afraid, to go may yet surprise with an expression of interest even if it is no more than just that. He is one of the few airline chiefs who, like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Qantas’ Alan Joyce, understood what an opportune good dose of publicity could do.

All this, of course, is speculative. Asian carriers are likely to be less concerned this time than when the mergers of the American big three took place. Together with Southwest Airlines, the big three control 80% of the American market. Virgin and its alleged interested parties JetBlue and Alaska are all largely domestic carriers. Even if Southwest throws in a bid (but for its size that may not pass the antitrust law as easily), it is still the same scenario. SIA’s connections with JetBlue and Virgin will continue to stand it in good stead, but if it’s Alaska that carries the day, then it is Cathay that stands to benefit from the new, extended connection. Or does it really matter when there are already subset agreements across partnership lines that allow you to fly an airline of one alliance and connect on another in a rival group? That’s how complex today’s aviation has become.