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.

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Ultra-long flights: The competition heats up

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways has clinched the honour of operating the longest non-stop commercial flight when it commenced operations from Doha to Auckland on February 6. The inaugural flight, using a Boeing 777-200LR aircraft, clocked 16 hours and 23 minutes for a distance of 14,535 km.

Qatar edged out rival Emirates Airlines which also operates to Auckland but from Dubai, and Air India which interestingly flew over a longer distance of 15,127 km from New Delhi to San Francisco across the Pacific (rather than the Atlantic) but advantaged by tailwinds clocked a shorter flying time.

Ultra-long flights are a boon to travellers, particularly corporate executives, who want to skip long transit stopovers or the hassle of connections. But there are others who prefer an intermediate stop to stretch their legs. They work excellently for end-to-end traffic where there is demand between these destinations. But airlines will find it does not make economic sense to connect two points for the sake of flying the distance. One may ask, in the case of Qatar’s new launch, is there adequate traffic between Doha and Auckland – the same question that would have been posed to Emirates?

Clearly Qatar is thinking network connections – not catering to just traffic from Auckland but to encourage travel beyond Doha to Africa, Europe and the Americas, in much the same way that Emirates has built a viable Dubai hub for connecting traffic challenging long-standing hubs such as Singapore Changi. Qantas, which has traditionally used Changi as the hop from Australia to Europe vv has contributed to the growth of Dubai to which it has shifted its hub operations. Now Qantas is rethinking its strategy to make Perth the hub when new technology enables the flying kangaroo to one-hop from London to Perth vv.

The competition has heated up in recent years with more airlines mounting such ultra-long flights. The strategy goes beyond tapping end-point, particularly home, markets, pointing to the importance of developing strong home and secondary hubs, and onward network connections. The squeeze on the competition may ironically persuade more airlines to intercross their networks to make ends meet.

Qantas to fly non-stop Perth to London: Shifting the markets

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

FROM four days and nine stops when Qantas first launched its Kangaroo Route from Australia to London to just 17 hours when the airline introduces a non-stop service from Perth in March 2018. The 14,498 km route will be operated by Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner jets, making the world’s longest commercial flights until Singapore Airlines (SIA) launches its 18-hour non-stop service from Singapore to New York’s Newark Airport.

Until Qantas switched to using Dubai International as the hub for its Kangaroo runs in 2013 as part of a mega alliance arrangement with Emirates Airlines, Singapore (Changi Airport and its predecessor) was its traditional stopover point. Now the possibility of non-stop flights raises the relevance of Dubai in the equation, but a Qantas spokesman assured its partner that “Dubai will remain an important hub for onward services into Europe.” Presently Qantas flights from Sydney and Melbourne stop in Dubai for onward connections on Emirates to the rest of Europe with the exception of London.

But at the same time, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, referring to the new service as “a game-changing route”, said “the opportunities this opens up are huge.” Dubai will likely feel the same pinch that Singapore once felt as Perth becomes the hub for passengers from eastern Australia to Britain, even beyond. This too may hurt Singapore as a transit point for passengers from Perth. Mr Joyce also expected other direct-to-Europe flights from Australia to follow. The shifts can be significant considering that the UK is a major source of international visitors for Australia. According to Australian tourism minister Steven Ciobo, the UK ranked third with 660,000 visitors in 2015.

Qantas’ new Perth-London non-stop once again demonstrates how the geographical aviation map continues to shift as airlines re-strategize taking advantage of the capability of new technology.

Singapore Changi is world’s best airport according to Conde Nast

Courtesy Alamy

Courtesy Alamy

IT is no surprise that Singapore Changi is voted yet again the world’s best airport by readers of Conde Nast. The airport has long been a darling of transit travellers, particularly those who needed a refreshing break for recharge on a long haul or those who wanted to waste no time in connecting to their final destination

If you consider Conde Nast readers’ choice of the top ten airports, Changi gets top marks for its facilities and amenities which contribute to its ideal of being a destination in itself, complete with indoor gardens and a waterfall, open-air decks and variety of restaurants, numerous shops, various lounges for all classes of travellers, a swimming pool and even a free 24-hour cinema. There are also quite nap areas to catch forty winks.

Little wonder that Qatar’s Hamad International (ranked 3rd), Dubai International (5th) and Hong Kong International (6th) are also noted for their shops and lounges. Hamad International has a hotel inside the terminal, which is a boon for travellers with long layovers needing to rest for half or a full day. Dubai International is the world’s third busiest airport but number one in terms of international travellers, and is long known to have the world’s biggest duty-free shop.

A wide network and quick connections are significant features of these airports. Hong Kong International, for example, is a popular regional hub with connections to some 50 destinations in China. This airport is often ranked as one of the top three airports in the region along with Changi and Seoul International, which took second place in the Conde Nast survey.

Proximity to the city and quick access seem to also swing the decision of Conde Nast readers in the airport’s favour.  Tokyo Haneda (8th) is only a 13-minute ride via rail to the city, compared to Narita. It s popularity has increased with more direct services offered by both Japanese and American carriers between Japan and the US. Denmark’s Copenhagen Airport is also a short ride of 12 minutes via train from the airport. And if you are travelling to or from Canada’s Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (4th), it is an even shorter 6-minute walk via a pedestrian tunnel.

Other airports ranked in the top ten by Conde Nast are Helsinki Airport (9th) and Zurich Airport (10th).

Soekarno-Hatta International Airport ready to take on regional competition

Photograph by Gunawan Kartapranato, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photograph by Gunawan Kartapranato, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Last week a new 5-trillion rupiah (US$382 million) terminal opened at Indonesia’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport – also known as Cengkareng Airport (CGK) – in Jakarta, capable of handling about 25 million passengers a year when fully operational by March next year.

The airport is already handling more than 60 million passengers annually, almost three times the 22 million originally planned for. The capacity was subsequently expanded to 38 million. With a large domestic market, CGK ranked as the world’s 17th busiest airport.

Indonesian officials said CGK would be able to rival the neighbouring airports of Changi (Singapore) and Kuala Lumpur International (KLIA) (Malaysia) in attracting international passengers to transit at Jakarta. Rivalry in the region is to be expected. Changi has long been the indisputable airport of choice for transit and transfer traffic, and CGK is increasingly looking at retaining traffic out of Indonesia for the long haul direct from its base. Why, for example, should an Indonesian travel to London via Changi and not direct from CGK?

Changi has the edge in cutting edge technology, a reputation for efficiency and excellent customer service, and a wide spectrum of connectivity. Whereas in the past, its closest rivals in the region used to be KLIA and Bangkok’s Suvernabhumi (Don Muang before that), the challenge today comes from farther afield in Hong Kong International (HKIA) and Dubai International. It tells one things: the home-based carrier plays an important role in enhancing the advantage of the airport – Singapore Airlines in the case of Changi, Cathay in the case of HKIA and Emirates, Dubai International. So CGK may get a boost from Indonesian flag carrier Garuda as it continues to renew and grow.

Changi for one does not rest on its laurels as it continually upgrades and expands its facilities. But make no bones about CGK’s ambition. To put it more modestly, Ituk Herarindri, director of facilities of Angkasa Pura 2 which operates CGK, said: “We are planning it to be a hub like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.”

Changi boosts capacity to combat competition

Courtesy CAG

Courtesy CAG

Singapore Changi Airport does not hide its ambition to be the region’s hub airport, and it is not sparing any effort including spending lots in holding on to that dream. Works are in progress for a fourth terminal, costing S$1.3 billion (US$949 million), to be completed by the last quarter of 2017, and this will be followed by the construction of a fifth terminal to be fully operational by 2025.

As competition among regional airports intensifies – the region being redefined in this age of long range aircraft to include Middle East airports such as Dubai International – it looks like creating capacity within impressive architectural structures complete with the ultimate in creature comfort and distractions (or attractions, so to speak) is the answer to staying ahead of the competition. That has been evidenced to a degree by Changi consistently winning awards as one of the world’s best airports.

Indeed, no airport is more passionately engaged in continually expanding and upgrading its facilities than Changi. Terminal 4 will add another 16 million passengers per year to existing capacity at three terminals of 66 million passengers. With the planned capacity of Terminal 5 to handle up to 50 million passengers, this will give Changi a total capacity of 132 million passengers by 2020. Terminal 5, according to Changi Airport Group (CAG), is set to be one of the largest terminals in the world if not third after Dubai and Beijing. And it looks like the project does not end there in land scarce Singapore. CAG said in its statement: “There will be land for subsequent expansion.”

There’s a lot of conviction there, and optimism no less. Last year Changi handled 55.4 million passengers, which means the airport was operating under capacity of close to 20 per cent. But that is not an issue of concern; viewed positively, Changi is well equipped to assimilate any unprecedented growth surge without bursting at its seams. The numbers for December looked good, and it is an optimistic 2016 ahead. Not having enough capacity to net the growth would be the greater evil. Besides, planning ahead, the extra room is to be expected. Then again there is the argument that capacity creates growth, and considering the lead time in airport development, Changi will not be caught short on supply. Of no lesser influence are the plans of competing airports such as Dubai to increase its capacity from 80 million to 250 million passengers, and Korea’s Incheon Airport similarly from 80 million to 145 million passengers.

The real issue, however, is whether the excess capacity is realistic vis-à-vis without creating uneconomical white elephant space. Historical data show Changi growing at an average rate of 2.85 per cent from 2011 to 2015.
Of course, convenient straight line extrapolation can be off the mark when the near term is expected to perform above average. Going forward, Changi’s growth is likely to be higher as demand for seats rises on the back of an improved global economy. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), air travel will continue to accelerate and expand by an average of 5.3 per cent this year, which is higher than Changi’s best year in recent times. Asia-Pacific along with Latin America and the Middle East will see the strongest passenger growth, with China leading the field, growing above the global average. Changi will need to target an annual growth rate of about nine per cent over the next two years to maintain its current level of overcapacity by the time Terminal 4 is operational. Whether that is a reasonable buffer is a different issue and dependent upon how CAG visualises the competition, but consider how Terminal 5 will add another 50 million passengers less than a decade down the road.

By comparison, close rival Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) grew 8.1 per cent last year to reach 68.5 million passengers, which is 23.6 per cent higher than Changi’s number. HKIA is expected to continue to grow at the same rate, particularly with the rising demand for air travel in China, which, according to IATA, will account for 193 million (of which 34 million will be travelling internationally) or nearly a quarter of the 831 million new passengers in its forecast. Situated at the doorstep of mainland China, HKIA has the edge over Changi, which will also benefit from the Chinese yen to travel abroad with Singapore as an attractive destination and a convenient stopover hop to other destinations. What has become more challenging for Changi is HKIA’s increased positioning as the gateway to Asia for trans-Pacific traffic.

The Asia-Pacific region itself is expected to add some 380 million passengers both domestically and internationally. Changi, which has experienced double-digit growth in budget traffic in recent years that outperformed full-service airlines, will benefit from regional traffic particularly with the long overdue full implementation of the Asean Open Skies. Connections with secondary airports will boost the number through Changi, whose top ten city links by passenger traffic in 2015 were all within Asia with the exception of Sydney at the bottom of the list (unless as some Australian politicians would have preferred it to be considered more appropriately aligned to the Asian economic bloc). Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Manila are ranked the top five in that order.

However, as a hub airport which is highly dependent on connecting traffic, Changi is challenged by increased non-stop flights between destinations for the long haul and by alternative hubs, its most notable loss being the shift in 2013 by Qantas for its Kangaroo Route flights to stop at Dubai instead of Changi. Dubai has gained significant hub status for connections to not only Gulf destinations but also airports in Europe, Africa and the Americas. Changi’s competition used to be limited to nearby airports such as Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (since Don Muang) and Kuala Lumpur International (since Subang), not even including then Hong Kong Kai Tak (before its successor at chap lap Kok), the competition has widened to as far away as Dubai, which has emerged as Changi’s biggest threat. The Middle East airport, which is home to Emirates Airlines, boasted to have surpassed London Heathrow when it reported 11-month passenger traffic of 70.96 million passengers last year. That feat embraced an earlier victory in surpassing Changi. Notably, both HKIA and Dubai are handling more passengers than Changi.

To meet the challenges, Changi announced it has launched several initiatives to boost air traffic management capabilities and capacity. Indeed, as Singapore Senior Minister of State for Transport said, “It is not going to be enough just to build airport capacity and have lots of room for airlines to move in and out, because if you don’t have the air traffic management capabilities, you won’t be able to deal with the capacity.”As an example, Changi reduces the separation between airlines to allow more flights to land and take off. By the end of the next decade, Changi could handle 700, 000 flights a year, twice as many as it is handling presently.

CAG chief executive Lee Seow Hiang said: “2015 was a year of two halves for Changi Airport. Following 2014, which saw a number of airline incidents in the region and depressed yields for many regional carriers, we had a relatively weak first six months with flat growth for the period. Nevertheless, we pressed on to actively woo new airlines and seek growth opportunities with existing ones, and our efforts have yielded some positive outcomes.”

Last year Changi welcomed eight new carriers which are largely regional and no-frill operators, including Batik Air, Thai Lion Air and Myanmar National Airlines. Ten new points including Lucknow in India and Luang Prabang in Laos were also added to its network. More links including Nadi by Fiji Airways and Dusseldorf by Singapore Airlines are in the offing.

Mr Lee added: “Changi Airport is well placed to capture future growth with our expanding network, including many secondary cities, to key markets like China, India and Indonesia. We will continue to work closely with our airline partners to establish new connections to develop the Singapore air hub and better serve our passengers.”

So much for the optimism and with the industry blessed with favourable economic factors such as the low fuel price and the region’s growing affluence and its untapped tourism potential, this year and the next leading to the opening of the new Terminal 4 certainly look like exciting times of expectations for Changi. With so much money sunk into the projects, naturally there will be concerns about costs among users. Budget carrier Jetstar Asia CEO Barathan Pasupathi said: In 2016, even though fuel prices have come off in the market, our paramount challenge in Singapore is cost relative to Southeast Asia. For Singapore which is putting so much of investment in capital expenditure and in investments into airports – with Terminal 4, Terminal 5 (and) Runway 3, it’s going to be very important to find a model where Singapore is cost competitive as a hub.”

However you view Changi’s ambition, the airport will be an aviation jewel of showcase reputation. Not difficult to figure out if that in itself is a significant driver in the race to be the world’s best.

Can Emirates tie-up save Malaysia Airlines?

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has signed a mega codeshare deal with Emirates Airlines. The commercial partnership will allow the former access to more than 90 locations in the United States, Europe, the Middle-East and Africa via Emirates’ Dubai hub. MAS will terminate its own direct flights to Paris and Amsterdam along with codeshare agreements with existing partners. In exchange, Emirates passengers can connect MAS flights within the Asia Pacific region.

Sounds familiar? Indeed, this looks like new man Christoph Mueller at the helm of the loss-making Malaysian flag carrier doing what Qantas chief Alan Joyce did in 2013 when a mega alliance with Emirates allows Qantas passengers similar extensive access to a host of destinations out of Dubai. Hired to makeover and turn MAS around, Mr Mueller said of the Emirates tie-up: “Our network architecture is largely complete with this move. It’s a very, very big and important piece in our puzzle.”

But can the tie-up replicate the success of Qantas and contribute immensely to saving MAS? Lest we be too hasty here, it should be noted that though the move is similar, the circumstances aren’t exactly the same.

Mr Mueller’s task is focused largely on cutting costs for a tighter ship, and he has since becoming chief executive in March this year cut thousands of jobs. Another measure involves cutting back on unprofitable routes, and the carrier has so far trimmed capacity by 30 per cent. Mr Mueller was set to shift the focus from operating long haul routes to beefing up regional routes, literally downsizing the carrier; routes that had been dropped include flights to Istanbul and Frankfurt, a precursor of its withdrawal from continental Europe with the exception to London (as in the case of Qantas). This creates a gap in its network which Mr Mueller hopes will be compensated by its tie-up with Emirates, moving away from what he referred to as the traditional ‘kangaroo-route-centric approach”.

The codeshare makes sense since MAS is not making money on its long haul flights. Cost aside, in truth, MAS is just not able to measure up to the competition of regional rivals that ply the same routes, most notably its closest rival Singapore Airlines (SIA). Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) where MAS is based and Singapore Changi Airport are less than an hour apart, but Changi outperforms KLIA in attracting hub traffic. Here lies the difference between Qantas and MAS. The Australian flag carrier’s move involves a critical shift of its kangaroo route hub from Changi to Dubai, advantaging the latter in the hub competition. Unlike Qantas, MAS does not enjoy a similar base market out of KLIA. Qantas’ shift is also an attempt to lure more traffic away from its rival SIA to connect through Dubai. It is unlikely that MAS will be able to lure hub traffic away from Changi to fly out of KLIA and connect onward from Dubai. MAS’ tie-up with Emirates is best seen as a necessary cost-cutting measure.

Quite clearly Mr Mueller who is often credited as the man who turned around Aer Lingus before joining MAS understands the criticality of the beleaguered carrier recovering strength before competing. He is building a strong regional network which can at the same time feed the longer routes. But the competition in this arena is just as tough. Besides legacy airline competitors such as SIA and Cathay Pacific, there is also an array of budget carriers that are becoming a real threat to full-service airlines. On home ground, MAS faces challenges from AirAsia, which is Asia’s largest budget carrier. The competition will intensify as Asean moves towards a more liberal open skies policy. (See The Elusive Asean Open Skies Dream. Dec 17, 2015).

When Qantas and Emirates inked their agreement, some sceptics cast doubt about its benefits to the former and in fact believed that the latter would gain more by it. But it was Qantas that needed it more as it introduced a transformation program to turn round its bleeding international arm, which Mr Joyce had said in subsequent reports of the airline’s financial performance that the arrangement has boosted the flying kangaroo’s bottom line.

If the Emirates tie-up was a lifeline thrown to Qantas, surely it is all the more so to MAS. In exchange for allowing MAS access to 38 destinations in Europe, 15 in the US and 38 in the Gulf region, Africa and Indian Ocean, Emirates will gain access to some 300 daily MAS flights in its Asian network. The question is: Does Emirates really need it? Perhaps selectively, to tap into the growing markets in countries such as China and Vietnam.

In the bigger picture, Emirates has been forging codeshare agreements around the world. In Asia, besides MAS it already has arrangements with Bangkok Airways, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Jetstar Asia, Korean Air and Thai Airways International. Outside that region, it has entered into codeshare agreements with Air Malta, Air Mauritius, Alaska Airlines (pending government approval), Flybe, Jetblue Airways, Jetstar Airways, Oman Air, Qantas, South African Airways and TAP Portugal. Although there appears to be a low count of codesharing with European carriers, Emirates being strong in the competition provides good connections to the region. While the withdrawal of airlines of Qantas and MAS from Europe may be welcome news as seeming reduced competition for European carriers (and other international carriers as well), the feed from those partner airlines into Emirates will actually further strengthen Emirates’ position.

As far as MAS is concerned, riding on the back of another strong carrier may yet be its best bet for recovery.

This is a version of an article that was first published in Aspire Aviation.