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.”

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Can Boeing regain travellers’ confidence in its B737 Max 8 jet?

Courtesy Reuters

Now that the world’s entire fleet of the B737 Max 8 jet has been grounded, the big question for Boeing must be whether it can regain travellers’ confidence when the suspension is lifted, presumably with its promised software enhancement in place. Of course, much will depend on the conclusions of the investigations into both the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes.

The grounding is expected to last through May, but it could be longer.

Some airlines are already considering cancellation of their orders, among them Garuda Indonesia which has an order for 20 planes. Kenya Airways may switch to Airbus and VietJet will await the findings of the investigations before deciding. Boeing itself has temporarily halted deliveries of the new aircraft, but said it has no plans to slow production.

When the all-clear signal is finally given for the service to resume, the airlines may not immediately regain full confidence of the traveller. Following the Ethiopian Airlines crash, many passengers cancelled their bookings or switched flights to avoid flying the jet. It will take a while.

Air crew may not have the choice, although workers’ unions representing them had said their members should not be forced to fly the aircraft if they had safety concerns. With corrective measures in place, they would have no cause to protest.

Travellers on the other hand can always avoid booking a flight operated by the Max 8 jet. However, that may not always be the case as airlines do switch planes according to operational needs. It is likely that airlines may now be more cautious about protecting their right to do so. The traveller’s only option then is to avoid altogether airlines that operate the jet. This may not be possible in some markets.

There were some 370 Max 8 jets in service around the world before the grounding, and because this constitutes a small number of the world’s total fleet, some analysts wrongly point out that the impact would not be significant. What really matters is where the majority of the Max 8 jet is used – mainly the short-haul, and for some airlines that might make up a high percentage of their flights,

Airlines that have the most Max 8 jets in their fleet include Southwest Airlines (34), American Airlines (24), Air Canada (24), China Southern Airlines (24), Norwegian Air Shuttle and WestJet (13).

Time heals. People forgive and forget, and they become more receptive after some time, convinced that the new Max 8 jet is safe to fly. That’s Boeing’s and their airline customers’ best hope.

CAAS’ quick suspension of Boeing 737 MAX 8 a right call, but could SilkAir have done better?

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/quick-suspension-boeing-737-max-8-right-call-caas-could-silkair-have-done-better

Making sense of flying the world’s longest flight

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines


ONCE upon a time, the honour of flying the world’s longest nonstop commercial flight belonged to Singapore Airlines (SIA). That was in June 2004 when SIA launched its non-stop service from Singapore to New York (Newark), a journey of 19 hours on the Airbus A340-500 jet covering a distance of 9,535 miles. SIA had earlier in February of the same year inaugurated a non-stop service to Los Angeles, flying 8,770 miles in 18 hours.

Both services had been terminated by SIA, to Los Angeles in October 2013 and to New York a month later. Looking back, SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong cited the unsuitability of equipment for such a long flight that contributed to the unprofitability of both routes and their eventual discontinuation. He said: “There isn’t really a commercially viable aircraft that could fly nonstop.” The airline is said to be talking with Airbus Group SE and Boeing Co. on developing a plane with new technology that would make flying non-stop to the US profitable. In Mr Goh’s words, “We, of course, want it as soon as possible.”

With SIA out of the race, the world’s longest flight today is operated by Australian flag carrier Qantas, from Dallas-Fort Worth in the US to Sydney in Australia over a distance of 8,578 miles and taking up to 17 hours. But that record will soon be broken when Emirates Airlines mounts a service from Dubai to Panama City, Panama in February next year. The journey of 8,588 miles will take 17 hours and 35 minutes. And yet again the title will pass on to another carrier when Air India flies from Bangalore in India to San Francisco as planned, a distance of 8,701 miles that would take up to 18 hours of flight time.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Surely there is more to the business of flying such a long route than the media hype that comes with it. In truth a flight of more than 15 hours is hardly an exception. Middle East carriers are aggressively connecting US destinations directly with their home bases. Emirates is already operating from Dubai to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. Etihad Airways flies from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas Fort Worth. Saudi Arabian Airlines has a service from Jeddah to Los Angeles. Qatar Airways operates from Doha to Houston and Dallas Fort Worth.

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

Besides Dallas Fort Worth, Qantas also operates from Melbourne to Los Angeles. Air India already flies from Mumbai to New York (Newark). American carriers are not left out of the game. Delta Air Lines operates from Atlanta to Johannesburg. American Airlines has a service from Dallas Fort Worth to Hong Kong. United Airlines also has a non-stop service to Hong Kong from New York (Newark) and from Chicago, and to Mumbai from New York (Newark) as well as to Melbourne from Dallas Fort Worth.

Other carriers that operate similarly long routes nonstop include Cathay Pacific (from Hong Kong to New York, Boston, Chicago in US and Toronto in Canada); China Southern Airlines (from Guangzhou to New York), EVA Air (from Taipei to Houston and New York), South African Airways (from Johannesburg to New York), and Air Canada (from Toronto to Hong Kong).

It is clear that the operations of such a flight have in the past been hampered by the limitations of an aircraft’s range. With advanced technology, gone are the days of the milk run of an airline hopping from port to port, making the n3ecessary technical stops, to reach its final destination. Take, for example, an airline such as SIA flying from Singapore to London in the 70s stopping en route at Bangkok or Mumbai, then Bahrain, and then Rome and Amsterdam to drop but not pick up passengers. The flying time (including time spent in transit) has been cut down drastically today for a non-stop between Singapore and London, taking only 13 hours.

Additionally what has opened the windows for long distance non-stop flights is the onset of a more liberal open skies aviation policy adopted by like-minded nations around the world. A major problem facing many airlines that are operating services over a long distance with stopovers is the hurdle of the absence of fifth freedom rights. SIA’s Goh recognised this in the case of SIA. He said, with specific reference to SIA’s interest in the US: “There is a lack of viable intermediate points. That’s largely because the countries concerned are not really giving us the rights to operate what we call the fifth freedom from those points to the U.S.” This may be pushing SIA to consider not only putting back its nonstop services to New York and Los Angeles but also adding other points. SIA’s withdrawal is largely seen to have benefitted rival Cathay Pacific which introduced a nonstop service between Hong Kong and New York on the heels of SIA’s termination of its service between Singapore and New York.

Ultimately it is all about filling up the plane. Nonstop services thrive on demand for seats point to point. In an earlier piece that I wrote, a reader commented on how American carriers are losing out by not operating nonstop services from the US to Singapore. The same “how” question may be asked of them as of SIA: Is there enough traffic to justify SIA’s nonstop services to the US? Presently SIA operates from Singapore to New York via Frankfurt, and to San Francisco or Los Angeles via Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo. Its services are popular in the markets of the intermediate points. Yet it would be presumptuous to think that Singapore’s lack of a hinterland market, compared to, say, Hong Kong situated at the doorstep of the huge China mainland, may not do as well for a nonstop service to the US. The market is as wide as how you define it and make it work. Clever and effective marketing supported by an excellent product and a strong network of connectivity entailing growing partnerships with other airlines can overcome germane geographical issues, the reason why SIA flights to North America continue to be popular among Indian travellers even if they had to connect at Singapore with a layover, the way that the numbers are also increasing in competition on Cathay Pacific connections out of Hong Kong.

But the aviation landscape is constantly shifting and changing. Timing is everything but can also surprise. Emirates’ planned flight to Panama City is premised on what it noted of the Latin American city’s advantageous location, burgeoning business environment and gateway for tourism. Similarly, Singapore too is noted for its strategic geographical location as a gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond, and as a centre for global business, the way that Dubai too has grown in geographical importance as a gateway to not just the Middle East but also the rest of Africa and Europe. There is a hint of the early bird advantage in Emirates’ strategy. The Middle East carrier has so far been quite successful expanding its network across the globe, and its penetration into the US territory has recently caused the big three of American carriers (United, American and Delta) to cry foul alluding to an unfair advantage it enjoyed from state subsidies.

So too would SIA have enjoyed that early bird advantage when it launched its nonstop services to Los Angeles and New York, and becoming the first legacy airline to operate an all-business class service, which indicates the market segment that SIA was after. In fact, SIA was not the only Southeast Asian carrier to operate nonstop to the US. Thai Airways International introduced nonstop services to New York and Los Angeles in 2005. The New York run was short lived, ending in 2008. The nonstop Los Angeles service followed much late in 2012. The spiralling cost of fuel was cited as a reason.

Courtesy AP

Courtesy AP

But for Air India, there could not a better time than now in the context of the low fuel price that airlines are enjoying. The carrier’s planned service from Bangalore to San Francisco is a dream stolen from erstwhile Indian competitor Kingfisher Airlines which went under a heap of debts before it could realise its ambition. The new link appears to be a logical move particularly when there is a significant Indian population in Silicon Valley and there is increasing demand for travel between the two cities which are cyber hubs on opposite sides of the world. Besides, India has a large population base to justify more nonstop flights, unlike Singapore but like China, which has seen more nonstop flights from China to countries like Australia. Air India’s first challenge would be to attract Indian passengers back to flying with them non-stop where the options are available instead of connecting on other carriers. The record for flying the world’s longest flight is good only when the plane has the load to make it profitable.

This article (alternatively titled “Making sense of ultra long-haul flights” was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Qantas’ Asianisation thrust

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

Qantas is adding more flights between Australia and Hong Kong as well as Manila. From October 26, there will be four weekly services between Sydney and Hong Kong added to the current daily services from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Services between Sydney and Manila will increase from four to five weekly services, commencing early December to last until late March next year.

This is nothing quite surprising. It may even be said to be expected in response to increasing demand from travellers. But moving resources across the network to meet demands may not be as simple as it seems; it’s not as if there are spare aircraft sitting on the tarmac waiting to be assigned. But Qantas seems to have found a formula to work round the complications, or so it seems, particularly when it comes to seasonal demands.

Qantas International Gareth Evans said: “We’re pleased to add to the seasonal services we’re set to operate to Asia later this year, with the fifth weekly Manila flight again representing the dynamic nature of our network, which has the flexibility to offer our customers more flights during peak seasons.”

This apparently has been made possible by the airline’s continued focus on more efficient use of aircraft across its fleet. And the agility, one may add, in making adjustment to the schedule. To be not only reactive but also proactive ahead of change and the competition, so as to stay lean and mean

That aside, the operations in the last few years demonstrate Qantas’ increased focus on Asia. The airline has earlier announced an additional 140 services to Singapore, Jakarta (Indonesia), and Wellington and Christchurch (New Zealand) over the summer holiday.

Services between Perth and Singapore will be daily, competing directly with Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s four flights daily. It was only in June this year that Qantas resumed direct services between the two cities, operating five times a week. Mr Evans said: “Our customers told us they missed us.” So that forebodes well for Qantas, which is also looking beyond Singapore with connections on partner airlines to destinations such as Koh Samui and Phuket in Thailand, and even Tokyo in Japan, which testifies to the continuing importance of Singapore as a transfer hub. For travellers arriving from Singapore, Qantas will be offering direct onward services from Perth to Auckland from October to April 2016, the third year in a row that it is doing this.

Qantas executive manager international sales Stephen Thompson said: “A key part of our strategy is listening to and responding to our customers’ needs and developing an agile and flexible network which offers more options during peak periods.”

Good work there, and one then asks: What after that? There is a possibility that a temporary operation may become permanent, subject to regulatory approval, particularly if you believe in the industry wisdom that capacity creates demand or as a way to gain approval when demand justifies the case. Yet when you consider the short duration of the fifth weekly service between Sydney and Jakarta – from 2 December to 10 January 2016 – you may be persuaded to believe that Qantas is unlikely to sit its aircraft idle. Qantas has also announced additional services to Bali, a popular destination for Australian holiday travellers – four additional weekly during December this year and January next year, making a total of 33 return services between Sydney and Bali, adding to 65 services per week by Jetstar from Australia. Operating across the northern and southern hemispheres has given it a geographical advantage; it means catering to different peak seasons.

The transformation program that Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said was the reason for the airline’s dramatic turnaround in profitability had identified Asia as its best bet for growth and expansion. (See Qantas is Asia Pacific’s new star performer, 27 Aug 2017). Australian politicians have long debated the toss of aligning their country with Asia (instead of Europe), at least economically. While the proposal to set up an Asia-based premium carrier never took off, that did not stop Qantas from expanding its reach into the Asian hinterland by other means.

No foreign carrier calling at Singapore more than Qantas has taken advantage of Singapore’s strategic location at the crossroads of international routes. For years until 2013, Singapore has been an important hub for Qantas flights. Although the airline has since shifted its hub for the kangaroo route to Dubai, in an alliance with Emirate Airlines, it continues to retain, even growing, the Singapore hub for connections to the rest of Asia, a strategy that Virgin Australia tries to replicate in a three-way tie-up with SIA and Air China.

However, the game continues to shift. In recent years, Qantas has been introducing more direct services between Asian and Australian destinations. This makes sense particularly when these destinations become tourist attractions in their own right and attract more traffic to justify direct routings. China for one has become Australia’s biggest inbound tourism market, projected to contribute up to A$9 billion (US$6.4 billion) annually to the Australian economy by 2020. Chinese carriers too have increased their frequencies to Australia.

In this connection, Qantas has strengthened its alliance with major Chinese carriers such as China Southern and China Eastern Airlines to deliver expanded services, better departure and arrival schedules, shorter transit times, increased frequent flyer benefits and a wider range of onward connections within China and Australia. Commencing April last year, customers on both Qantas and China Southern could travel on each other’s flights to the four destinations of Xiamen, Kunming, Fuzhou and Urumqi within China, connecting at Guangzhou, from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, and on the Qantas Domestic network as well as on services between Sydney and Auckland.

More recently, a codeshare agreement with China Eastern not only further increases capacity between the two countries but also maximises Qantas’ presence within China. Mr Joyce said:
“We cannot fly to every destination in China. However, our deepened relationship with China Eastern supports our successful strategy to work with key partners around the world to offer the most comprehensive network and world class travel experiences for our customers.”

Being visible helps; Chinese travellers voted Qantas as having the “Best Cabin Crew” in the 2014 iDEAL Shanghai Awards, judged by more than 100,000 people in Shanghai across all categories, and evaluated by a jury of reporters, columnists and lifestyle writers.

Underscoring how partnerships are at the core of the Qantas strategy in Asia, the airline announced in Mar last year a codeshare agreement with Bangkok Airways which will significantly improve travel options for its customers travelling across South East Asia. Customers will be able to fly from Bangkok and Singapore to six new destinations including Ko Samui, Chiang Mai and Phuket. (See Air New Zealand poised for growth, Sep 10, 2015)

Qantas’ Asianisation thrust is not confined to the operations of the parent airline alone. The budget brand of Jetstar adds to its reach across the region, as can be seen in the set up of the Jetstar Group’s ventures in different locations – Jetstar Airways (Australia and New Zealand), Jetstar Asia Airways (Singapore), Jetstar Pacific Airlines (Vietnam), and Jetstar Japan. The only setback it experienced so far was the Hong Kong Air Transport Licensing Authority (ATLA)’s rejection of its application for Jetstar Hong Kong’s low-cost alternative at the doorstep of the large China hinterland, a move that met with strong objection from Hong Kong based carriers led by Cathay Pacific. (See The real battle behind Jetstar HK’s rejection, Jun 30, 2015)

Optimistically, however, Jetstar Hong Kong’s rejection may be compensated by the increased flights by Qantas between Sydney and Hong Kong. While stating the obvious that “customers travelling from Sydney will have the choice of double daily flights to Hong Kong on peak days of the week for business travel,” Mr Evans hinted that “we’ll look at expanding beyond that if the opportunity is available.”

Hong Kong will have more to be concerned about. As in the case of Singapore which has thrived as a transfer hub, more direct flights between Australian and Chinese destinations do not spell good news for it.

For an airline like Qantas based in a far corner of the world, it is blessed that geography has not deprived it of opportunities in other parts of the world. The ATLA’s rejection aside, while Mr Joyce prided himself as the master of a transformation program that has driven the airline’s dramatic recovery, Qantas too has much to be thankful for the largely liberal skies that loom over Asia. Something for Australia to consider when called upon to open its doors to foreign carriers that wish to mount transpacific operations from its ports to the Americas.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Air New Zealand poised for growth

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand (ANZ) is probably best known for its innovative approach in its in-flight safety video presentation. Drawing inspiration from the Men In Black to Hobbits of the Middle Kingdom, what used to be or is supposed to be a staid, no-nonsense delivery of critical information that is often ignored by many travellers, particularly repeat fliers, the presentation has become entertainment. Though not without controversy, the videos show how ANZ is not only innovative but also bold enough to break tradition. While the initiative cannot be said to be a marketing strategy to attract more customers, one is tempted to ask if ANZ is in like manner finally emerging, albeit slowly, from a lacklustre past and turning heads across the industry.

The kiwi airline has just reported an impressive full-year performance. Operating revenue as at end-June 2015 was NZ$4.92 billion (US$3.01 billion), increasing by 6% over last year. But annualised earnings before taxation rose by 32% to NZ$496 million, and the statutory net profit after taxation was NZ$327 million, up 24%. The results were released right after Qantas’ announcement of a dramatic turnaround and were not surprisingly overshadowed by the hype drummed up by the flying kangaroo’s performance and no less the outspoken personality of its chief executive Alan Joyce (See Qantas is Asia Pacific’s New Star Performer, Aug 27, 2015).

In their part of the world, ANZ and Qantas are major rivals. Indeed, considering that ANZ’s short-haul load makes up 88% of the 14.3 million passengers carried for the full year, the kiwi airline is more a regional than international airline. Australia was its biggest membership base for ANZ loyalty program Airpoints, with growth in that market exceeding 20% during the year. ANZ chief executive officer Christopher Luxon said: “This doesn’t surprise us as more Australian than ever are embracing the Air New Zealand product and service offering whether it be on the Tasman, to the Pacific Islands, North America or South America.”

Obviously Australia is an important market which is critical to ANZ’s growth as an international airline, perhaps an ironic corollary to how Qantas probably sees New Zealand as a necessary appendage by offering a one-dollar fare for onward travel through Australian gateways. Both airlines have enlarged their interest bases in each other’s land – Qantas through its budget subsidiary Jetstar Airways and ANZ its investment in Virgin Australia. And both airlines, situated at the far end of the kangaroo (and beyond) route, face competition beyond their shores from a slew of airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA), Cathay Pacific and Middle East carriers.

Mr Luxon said: “We remain focused on the Pacific Rim as our growth strategy and will continue to provide the best connections, product and service at competitive prices, to maintain and grow our market share in these regions. Next year will see further capacity growth in international markets as we look forward to new routes starting in December 2015 to Houston and Buenos Aires. And while we are gearing up to launch these exiting new routes we have a team assessing potential new opportunities in Australia, Asia and the Americas.”

Can ANZ overcome an apparent geographical disadvantage and turn it into a strategic marketing benefit, and identify new windows of opportunities?

Mr Luxon has identified the Pacific Rim as its focus. So, fly west. The Americas are much closer and offer room for growth. Qantas too in recent years has been ramping up its connections westward, penetrating deeper into the US. It operates the world’s longest non-stop flight, between Sydney and Dallas (the record will go to Emirates when it introduces a service between Dubai and Panama City in February 2016). The challenge remains whether ANZ has enough hinterland traffic to sustain that initiative, and whether this will hinge on how successfully it can challenge Qantas on market share for the region. To turn a geographical advantage into a benefit demands a lot of the innovative spirit to make it work. ANZ is already flying onward from Los Angeles to London with fifth freedom rights.

Meantime Qantas has not only strengthened its alliances with American Airlines but also entered into partnerships with airlines in other regions, especially China having identified Asia as a potential area of growth in its restructuring plans. While still maintaining a hub for Asian connections in Singapore (after moving the hub on the kangaroo route from Singapore to Dubai in partnership with Emirates Airlines), it has been active in mounting direct flights between Australian and Chinese destinations. This, of course, makes sense when China has become Australia’s biggest inbound tourism market. The Qantas/China eastern connection now commands 87% of the market share on the Sydney-Pudong (Shanghai) sector. Qantas would have commanded a strong presence in Hong Kong in a tie-up with China Southern Airlines had the Hong Kong administration not rejected the Jetstar Hong Kong’s application.

Qantas offers a ready lesson since Mr Luxon had expressed ANZ’s interest to grow in Asia although, to be noted, Virgin Australia which is 26% owned by ANZ has also entered into an alliance with Air China for flights between China and Australia. Just that it seems a couple of steps behind. However, there are situational differences between Qantas and ANZ although the challenges may be similar. Among the factors for ANZ’s success, ANZ chairman Tony Carter cited “the continued development of our alliance partner relationships”. ANZ and Air China will jointly launch a Peking-Auckland service in December.

Mr Carter is optimistic about ANZ’s immediate future. He said, “Given the current known operating environment, along with our increased capacity and improved operating efficiencies, we expect to achieve significant earnings growth in the coming year.” How “significant” that will be is to be seen, but Mr Carter seemed encouraged by “current sales momentum”. Of course, the lower fuel prices help, but then as Qantas Joyce said, “Every airline gets the benefit.” What lifted Qantas above the rest, according to Mr Joyce, was its transformation program. This does not mean ANZ should roll out a similar program. Far from it. We’d rather be surprised by ANZ’s knack for innovation a la Lord of the Rings.

This is an abridged version of the article which was first published in Aspire Aviation, titled “Partnership is Air New Zealand’s answer to litmus test” .

Qantas-China Eastern partnership: Dressing up an old arrangement

qf logocea logoQantas and China Eastern Airlines announced a new agreement that the airlines said will enlarge their existing codeshare arrangement signed in 2008 for a deeper level of commercial cooperation on flights between Australia and China. A statement issued by Qantas referred to the new relationship as a “joint venture”. In the application to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), it was referenced as a “Joint Coordination Agreement”. Whatever the terminology, one wonders if this agreement is any different from the usual run-of-the-mill alliances that are not much more than a formal handshake.

There is the standard co-ordination and sharing of facilities such as airport lounges. A key feature is the co-location of both carriers’ operations within the same terminal at Shanghai International Airport. This reduces transit times by about an hour to facilitate a wider range of onward connections. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said: “Coordination means the opportunity to improve schedules and connection times, and to deliver improved products such as a joint lounge and streamlined check-in facilities in Shanghai.” The Australian flag carrier is banking on more of its customers opting to fly to not only Shanghai but also beyond from there, in a region where it is much weaker compared to Asian carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA).

Many codeshare partners are already making similar arrangements. Star Alliance airlines, for example, operate out of a dedicated terminal at London Heathrow. So what’s the big deal about the Qantas-China Eastern agreement which, subject to regulatory approval, will commence in the middle of next year and be effective for five years?

According to Qantas, the agreement is designed to complement the Qantas-Emirates partnership for Europe, Middle East and North Africa, and the Qantas-American partnership for the United States. That covers almost the whole world and makes Qantas truly a global airline. But to what avail? Interestingly, Qantas itself has limited operations to some of the regions. It operates to only London in Europe, Dubai in the Middle East, Johannesburg in Africa and Santiago in South America. The airline’s presence in North America is limited to Dallas/Fort Worth, New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu.aa logo

The Qantas-American agreement signed in 2011 is a codeshare arrangement for transpacific flights between the US and Australia to also include New Zealand. It does little more than what the global alliances, in this case OneWorld of which Qantas and American are members, have been set up to achieve. American does not operate to Australia.

emiratesThe Qantas-Emirates alliance caused a stir when it was announced in 2013 because of changes made to the traditional kangaroo route when Qantas shifted its operations hub from Singapore to Dubai. While Qantas is leveraging on Emirates’ extensive networks in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, it looked like the move was aimed at checking the competition posed by SIA. However, the real winner is not Qantas but Emirates, which is aggressively making inroads into the Asia-Pacific market. More than a year after, Qantas continues to make losses. It posted the biggest loss in its history of A$2.84 billion (US$2.66 billion) for the last financial year ending June 30.

How different from these other agreements is the new partnership between Qantas and China Eastern, and how will it play out for Qantas?cathay2

The flying kangaroo has long eyed the growing China market as a way to improve its bottom line. A partnership with a Chinese carrier makes sense for a quick and easy penetration into the large market in addition to its current daily service between Sydney and Shanghai. The agreement is also supposed to complement Qantas’ existing services to mainland China via Hong Kong, competing with Cathay Pacific and Dragonair. In its application to the ACCC, Qantas says it “does not consider the Hong Kong and Shanghai gateways to be mutually exclusive” the way that Dubai has replaced Singapore as the hub for its European flights. Quite clearly, Cathay which has a stake in Air China Cargo is a veritable rival to reckon. The rivalry has heightened in the Jetstar Hong Kong saga. China Eastern’s participation as partner in the budget joint venture does not seem to be able to do much to facilitate its application for approval to fly. After two years of its launch, approval is still pending.

siaThen there is SIA, the other competitor with a strong presence in the region, mentioned in the Qantas-China Eastern application to ACCC. Qantas notes how SIA’s subsidiaries Tigerair and Scoot are flying from Australia to Singapore with onward connections to China. As if pre-emptory to the new agreement, the existing Qantas-China Eastern codeshare already covers flights out of Singapore.

While Qantas will gain wider access across China, so will China Eastern within Australia. Passenger air services between Australia and China have been growing at an average rate of 11% for the four years to April 2014. In the past 12 months to June 2014, passenger numbers grew by 8%. In the application to ACCC, Qantas expresses fear of being “marginalised”. On its own, it says it “will not be able to keep pace with the capacity growth being driven by carriers such as China Southern and Sichuan Airlines.” ACCC will have to decide whether the case is about Qantas or Australia, notwithstanding the former`s status as the country`s flag carrier. Yet Qantas has argued that the proposed agreement is far from being anti-competitive, though clearly that fear has been exacerbated by the growing importance of Chinese carriers if only the competition could be limited to a single but partner airline, other strong regional carriers, and rival Virgin Australia’s reciprocity with Delta, Air New Zealand, Etihad and SIA in the wider network.

As with the American and Emirates alliances, the agreement with China Eastern once again is a case of Qantas needing its partner more than the other way round. The partners continue to retain their distinct identity vis-à-vis brand, product and pricing differences. Qantas runs the risk of its customers switching loyalty to its partner by the lure of lower fare, better facilities and services. Emirates, for example, may offer more than just a convenient hop from Dubai to other destinations for Qantas customers when it also competes on the kangaroo route. Before Emirates, there was speculation that Qantas might form the alliance with Cathay instead. That would make a formidable force, but Qantas would have faced the same risk. Besides, a partnership between giants is apt to be paved with problems unless the advantages to one partner are worth its compliance, if not silence.

Will China Eastern similarly flip the game for Qantas? The China carrier has much to gain. Qantas desperately seeking to check competition and new growth may find its prowess neutralized, dressing up an old arrangement.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.