2019 Skytrax World Airline Awards: Who are the real winners?

It’s that time of the year when the airline industry is abuzz with the Skytrax World Airline Awards announced recently at the Paris Air Show.

There are surveys and there are surveys, if you know what I mean. Skytrax, which launched its survey back in 1999 (according to its website) is generally viewed with some regard. It is said that more than 21 million respondents participated in the 2019 survey.

But what can we read of the results?

Which is the real winner: Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines?

Qatar Airways switched places with last year winner Singapore Airlines (SIA) to be the world’s best airline.

As far back as 2010 until now, the two airlines have been ranked one behind the other in the top three spots, except in 2012 when Asiana came in second place between Qatar the winner and SIA in third position. In the ten year period, SIA came behind Qatar in eight years, except in 2010 when SIA was second and Qatar third, and last year when the Singapore carrier became the world’s best ahead of Qatar in second placing.

It looks like a tight race between Qatar and SIA for the top spot, and going by the survey results, Qatar has outranked SIA. It has become the first airline to have won the award five times, one more in the history of the awards.

But SIA is still ranked ahead of Qatar for first class and economy class.

In the first class category, Qatar is not even a close second to SIA in first placing but fifth behind Lufthansa, Air France and Etihad as well

In the economy class category, Japan Airlines is tops followed by SIA and Qatar in second and third placing respectively.

Besides SIA has the best premium economy in Asia, second only to Virgin Atlantic worldwide. But,of course, Qatar does not offer that class of travel.

Additionally SIA tops for cabin crew, and Qatar is farther down the list in 9th position.

But Qatar wins for business class, followed by ANA and SIA in second and third placing respectively. So it seems there is heavier weightage for this segment which has become probably the fiercest battleground for the airlines. First class included, it also suggests the halo effect of the premium product, but it is the business class that is the primary focus in today’s business.

It also attests to the impact of the recency factor. Qatar obviously impresses with its cubicle-like Qsuite that comes with its own door to provide maximum privacy. Quad configurations allow businessmen to engage in conference as if they were in a meeting room and families to share their own private space. And there is a double bed option.

Which brings up the importance of having to continually innovate and upgrade the product to stay ahead in the race.

The top ten listing: Consistency equals excellence

The ranking does not shift much from year to year. Besides Qatar and SIA, there are some familiar names: All Nippon Airways (3rd this year), Cathay Pacific (4th), Emirates (5th), EVA Air (6th) and Lufthansa (9th). So there is not much of a big deal as airlines switch places so long as they remain in the premier list.

Hainan Airlines (7th) is making good progress, moving up one notch every year since 2017. Qantas (8th) is less consistent, moving in and out of the top ten list, Thai Airways retained its 10th spot for a second year.

It is no surprise that the list continues to be dominated by Asian carriers which are generally reputed for service. You only need to look at the winners for best cabin crew: Besides SIA, the list is made up of Garuda Indonesia, ANA, Thai Airways, EVA Air, Cathay Pacific, Hainan Airlines, Japan Airlines and China Airlines. With the exception of Qatar, no other airline outside Asia is listed.

If you to look to find out how the United States carriers are performing, scroll down the extended list of the 100 best and you will see JetBlue Airways (40th), Delta Air Lines (41st), Southwest Airlines (47th), Alaska Airlines (54th), United Airlines (68th) and American Airlines (74th).

Home and regional rivalry

Rivalry between major home airlines or among competing regional carriers is often closely watched.

Air Canada, placed 31st ahead of rival WestJet at 55th can boast it is the best in North America. That’s how you can work the survey results to your advantage.

ANA (3rd) has consistently outdone arch rival JAL (11th). In fact, ANA has been the favoured airline in the past decade till now. It has Japan’s best airline staff and best cabin crew. Across Asia, it provides the best business class. Internationally, it provides the best airport services and business class onboard catering.

Asiana (28th) is favoured over Korean Air (35th ).

The big three Gulf carriers are ranked Qatar first, followed by Emirates (5th) and Etihad (29th).

Among the European carriers, Lufthansa (9th) leads the field, followed by Swiss International Air Lines (13th), Austrian Airlines (15th), KLM (18th), British Airways (19th), Virgin Atlantic (21st), Aeroflot (22nd), Air France (23rd), Iberia (26th) and Finnair (32nd).

What about low-cost carriers?

Worthy of note is how some budget carriers are ranked not far behind legacy airlines. AirAsia (20th) is best among cohorts. EasyJet (37th) and Norwegian Air Shuttle (39th) are not far behind the big guys in Europe. Among US carriers, Southwest Airlines (47th) is third after JetBlue (40th) and Delta (41st).

Also, pedigree parents do not necessarily produce top-ranked offshoots. Placed farther down the list are SIA’s subsidiary Scoot (64th) and the two Jetstar subsidiaries of Qantas – Jetstar Airways (53rd) and Jetstar Asia (81st). So too may be said of so-called regional arms. Cathay Pacific’s Cathay Dragon is ranked 33rd, but SIA’s SilkAir is way down at 62nd.

Pioneer of the modern budget model Ryanair is ranked 59th.

Down the slippery road of decline: Aisana Airlines and Etihad Airways

If it is difficult to stay at the top, it is easy to slip down the slippery road of decline. Asiana and Etihad are two examples.

Asiana was ranked world’s best airline in 2010 and became a familiar name in the top ten list up to 2014, after which its ranking kept falling: 11th (2015), 16th (2016), 20th (2017), 24th (2018) and 28th (2019). Its erstwhile glory has been whittled down to being just best cabin crew in South Korea.

Etihad did reasonably well for eight years until 2018 when it was ranked 15th, and a year later suffered a dramatic decline to the 29th spot. That, despite beating Qatar to be this year’s best first class in the Middle East.

As I stated at the onset that there are surveys and there are surveys. Some are not specifically targeted , whether its interest is business or leisure for example. There is always an element of subjectivity and bias in the composition and weightage, and this renders no one reading as being definitive. At best, we can read across several creditable surveys to know with some conviction how the airlines really measure against each other.

Read also:

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/can-singapore-airlines-overtake-qatar-worlds-best-airline

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Size matters in the air

Courtesy Getty Images

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary predicted that “within the next four to five years you are seeing the emergence of four or five large European airline groups.” He even named the airlines, Ryanair among them in a mix of full-service and low-cost operators: Lufthansa, IAG (International Airlines Group which owns British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and Level), Air France-KLM and, probably, Easyjet.

This sentiment has been opined before by others at a time when mergers, assimilations and acquisitions across the industry were trending as competition broke barriers of entry and intensified, and so-called safe niche markets became every player’s game.

Air France-KLM as the name suggests is a merger of the two European airlines in 2004. Rival British Airways (BA) viewed it as a step in the expected direction, predicting further consolidation within Europe. And in 2011 IAG came into being when BA and Iberia merged. BA chief executive Willie Walsh said at the time that the merger would enable the airline to compete effectively with low-cost carriers.

So there came a time when budget carriers began to pose a threat to full-service airlines, with Ryanair leading the pack. Many of the legacy airlines today have adopted the budget model of charging for ancillaries, and introducing a basic economy class to keep cost-conscious travellers from switching. However, many low-cost carriers have become victims of the competition – the reason why Mr O’Leary named only one other carrier, EasyJet, as a probable survivor.

EasyJet, founded in 1995 and headquartered in London Luton, UK, is Ryanair’s closest rival which has grown and spread its wings across Europe. It too has made a number of acquisitions which include Swiss TEA-Basle and Go.
Elsewhere around the world, the vibes are not unfamiliar, New in the circuit is Air Canada’s interest in Sunwing and Cathay Pacific’s interest in Air Hong Kong Express, And where acquisitions and mergers are not on the plate, airlines are working to form alliances that are more than mere code-sharing. Qantas did it in 2013 with its tie-up with Emirates, and now Malaysia Airlines and Japan Airlines have applied for waiver of government restrictions to form an alliance that will enable easier connections between the two carriers.

It looks like size matters in the air.

Joon’s failure re-validates old lessons

Courtesy Getty Images

In just a year after its launch, Air France is shutting down its low-cost subsidiary airline Joon which promised to carve out a new niche market among millennials. The reason, said Air France, is because the brand had been “difficult to understand from the outset.”

Strange as that may sound, it shows how a major player like Air France itself has failed to understand the market forces at play. Or, an ill-timed miscalculation of the market trend.

A little history is appropriate here. When budget travel first emerged on the scene, legacy airlines were inclined to dismiss the upstarts as unlikely competitors, believing their markets to be markedly different. The established carriers, so to speak, were not interested in the budget market and were quite happy to let low-cost operators be.

The failure of many an ambitious budget carrier supported that view, particularly at a time when the volatile fuel price moved like a yo-yo but largely trending upwards. That hit the budget carriers hard since fuel is a significant component of their cost, and cost is all that budget travel is about.

But some like Ryanair and easyJet survived the storm and made good progress. That was when the big boys decided they too wanted in on a flourishing market. A number of them set up their own budget arms, such as United Airlines’ Ted and Delta Air Lines’ Song. They didn’t last long.

As the line of competition began to blur with low-cost carriers soon attracting business away from the traditional sources, more legacy airlines carried the battle cry into the fray. Among them, British Airways which started Go, which it later sold; Singapore Airlines (SIA) which went into partnership with Ryanair to start Tigerair; and Qantas which set up Jetstar.

The budget threat heightened with low-cost carriers venturing into the long-haul. There were casualties along the way, a notable one being Oasis Airlines which flew from Hong Kong to London as well as Vancouver. Hailed as a trail blazer for good service on a shoe-string budget, it could not survive the barrage of rising costs.

But that didn’t stop others to boldly go into a domain dominated by full-service airlines, a move which many observers thought was foolhardy. Today, low-cost carriers such as Norwegian Air Shuttles, Wow! Air and AirAsia continue to rattle the hitherto safe market of the Goliaths.

It seems independent low-cost carriers are more successful than budget offshoots of legacy airlines with few exceptions such as Jetstar. Why so is this? The failure of Joon only serves to revalidate the lessons of past failures.

The overall market has shifted from one distinct full-service vs budget scenario to a common market for all airlines. For many travellers, it is a conscious choice between legacy and budget carriers, the consideration not so much in name as in value for what it costs. For many travellers, the comfort and convenience of full-service still outweigh the savings of flying budget, particularly for the long haul. But for a growing number too, despite the higher risk of flight disruptions by low-cost carriers, why not?

Studies have shown that millennials have different priorities, and the budget model of paying for only what you want may have some appeal as it means control over how you spend your money. The new and younger travellers are more adventurous and not averse to taking chances.

The shift in the market is becoming more evident in how legacy airlines are in fact no longer completely full-service as they used to be, adopting increasingly the budget pricing model in charging for ancillary services what used to be part of the package deal, such as seat selection, priority boarding, and checked baggage.

It is not a given that a successful legacy airline will be as successful in operating a budget subsidiary. On the contrary, it faces the challenge of separating the two entities to operate them on their own terms. Too often this may be compromised with the parent airline subsidising the struggling offshoot. At the same time, the parent’s product may be diluted.

Much as the parent airline likes to maintain its distance and many of them have declared that their budget offshoots are running on their own steam, the reality is far from being so. Their influence is inevitable, however indirect and unintended. That may lead to tweaking the low-cost model to be less budget and more a copy of the old block, resulting in higher costs.

This is also not helped by the expectations of the customer when the budget offshoot carries the association with the reputable parent’s brand name. For example, while SIA has earned the reputation of being one of the world’s best airline, the same could not be said of Tigerair whose customers were sadly disappointed when the carrier ran into frequent bad patches.

What can be worse is when the budget subsidiary begins to compete with the parent company for the same low-end business.

American carriers however have found a solution to that: instead of operating separate budget offshoots to compete with independent low-cost carriers, they have introduced basic economy fares with similar terms to be accommodated within the same aircraft. The practice of offering different fare types even within the same class of travel is not new, but basic economy is aimed at keeping customers who may switch to budget carriers. And the model is gaining popularity across the industry.

Some observers may think Air France’s decision to shut down Joon premature as it has not allowed the latter time to grow. But not being clear about the product or the direction it is heading, it would be a hazy road ahead. It might as well nip the problem in the bud.

As fuel prices go up, so will fares

IT looks like the good times are running out. Airlines, faced with rising fuel costs, are raising fares. Delta Air Lines for one is expecting its fuel costs for 2018 to be US$2 billion higher than they were a year ago. Its CEO Ed Bastian warned travellers that “with higher fuel prices, you;re going to expect to see ticket prices go up as well.”

And Delta is not the only airline heading in that direction. Other carriers are likely to follow suit if they have not already done so.

On the other side of the Pacific, Air New Zealand (Air NZ) and Jetstar have raised domestic fares by five per cent, and Air NZ is reviewing fares for international routes. According to Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon, every dollar increase for a barrel of fuel “adds $10 million of costs to Air New Zealand’s bottom line.”

Mr Christopher Luxon, Photo courtesy Air New Zealand

International Air Transport Association (IATA) chief executive officer Alexandre de Juniac warned that against this background, “next year will be less positive.”

Mr Luxon of Air NZ painted this picture of the likely scenario: ”The normal cycle in aviation is that fuel goes up, prices rise, demand may fall and capacity gets reduced.”

So what are airlines doing about it, apart from raising fares because that alone has its limitations in view of the competition and the impact it may have on the consumer’s propensity to travel?

Delta has already made known its intention to withdraw flights serving the less popular destinations. So too will other carriers after the summer peak.

Beyond that, many airlines are ramping up hedging. Major European airlines including budget carriers Ryanair and EasyJet, for example, are increasing the ratio of hedged fuel to as high as 90 per cent of needs. Low cost carriers especially, because of their limited ability to hedge, were badly hit the last times when fuel prices careened upwards. But hedging is not a completely safe bet. Equally so, many airlines also reported significant losses when fuel prices came down.

The good news is that with more fuel-efficient aircraft in operation, the impact of the increased fuel costs may not be as hard on the airlines. Higher fares are as good as being ready to be rolled out, but the question is how far can the airlines go without losing customers, particularly at a time when the price of the fare is likely to matter more than allegiance?

Again, to quote Mr Luxon, ”All airlines, whether you’re in Australia or around the world are working hard to see how they can take prices up and ultimately how much of that cost increase can you recover through pricing.”

IAG levels up

Courtesy Level

International Airlines Group (IAG) which also owns British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus is expanding the scope of its new low-cost carrier Level. Originally intended to be a long-haul budget operator, it will now also offer short-haul services from Austria.

The Europeans may not be aware of how Scoot, set up as a budget carrier by Singapore Airlines (SIA) for the long-haul, soon took on the short-haul as well and ended up assimilating its short-haul budget sibling Tigerair. (See After the merger of Scoot and Tigerair, will it be Singaproe Airlines and SilkAir next? Aug 29, 2017)

While IAG’s move is motivated by the competition with rivals such as Ryanair and EasdyJet, we note that IAG already owns a short-haul bydget carrier namely Vueling which operates out of Barcelona, which is also the springboard for Level’s long-haul. Will this lead to intra-competition? But, of course, there is only so much one may suggest of the comparison between IAG and SIA since Europe is a much bigger arena than Singapore.

In the bigger picture, IAG’s new focus on budget travel yet again testifies to the thriving low-end market and the competition that it poses to legacy airlines. (See Ryanair affirms market for budget travel, May 22, 2018) Level, which commenced operations last year, was intended to check the aggression of other low-cost long-haul operators such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and WowAir. Interestingly, IAG tried but failed to acquire Norwegian, and expanding Level may be a strategy to boost its viability in a wider market, foster brand familiarity and promote intra-connectivity.

IAG chief executive Willie Walsh said: “We are launching this new short-haul subsidiary to provide Austrian consumers with more flight choices across Europe. These flights will be branded as Level to build upon the huge success of our new long-haul low-cost operation.”

Read between the lines.

Big Mess at Ryanair

Courtesy Getty Images

The world’s biggest budget airline has found itself floundering in a big mess. An apaprent mistake in leave schedulign of pilots as it claimed has led the airline to cancel 2,100 flights over six weeks until November – 40 to 50 flights a day. That means inconveniencing some some 300,000 customers who would receive or had already received emails informing them of the cancellations.

Ryanair said it would arrange alternative flights or refund the fares. Under the European Passenger Rights legislation, passengers are entitled to compensation for flight cancellations. Ryanair estimates it will cost the carrier 20m euros (US$24m).

The unpredented slew of cancellations may also subject Ryanair to penalties imposed by the authorities. Italy’s competition regulator – Italian Competition and Market Authority – has started a probe into the matter, on whether the cancellations could have been prevented. It is hard to believe that Ryanair had nto anticipated the problem and, if found guilty, could be fined as much as 5m euros.

Ryanair chose to cancel flights first at its busiest airports so that it would be eassier to arrange alternative flights. But, of course, in the mess of events, this has a knock-on effect.

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary denied the airline was experieicning a shortage of pilots, even as many as 140 of them have left to join new rival Norwegian Air Shuttle. Mr O’Leary insisted it was because the airline had “messed up” the rosters which left it without enough pilots to operate all the scheduled flights.

One thing for sure, Ryanair will certainly feel the heat of the competition brought on by Norwegian and other carriers such as EasyJet, if advanced bookings for October at 70 per cent comapred to September at 90 per cent are any indications.

Will this mess cause Ryanair any further loss of customers in the future? The airline has a dotted history of going from zero customer service to attempting improving that aspect in the face of rising competition. Much depends on how it handles the current crisis. In a price sensitive market, people’s memories tend to be short while most people are actually more forgiving than expected under the circumstances. The real threat for Ryanair remains the competition particularly if the rivals are seen to be more reliable.

EasyJet to shake up market

Courtesy EasyJet

EasyJet “will shake up the market,” said the low-cost carrier’s chief commercial officer Peter Duffy. The airline operating out of London Gatwick has entered into an arrangement with Norwegian Air Shuttle and WestJet to allow booking of connecting flights to Singapore and destinations in North America that include New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and Toronto on its website.

This is another indication of how LCCs are no longer content with just the so-called niche market as they enter into the arena of the big boys. Such connections are usually forged among legacy airlines competing with each other, an advantage compared to stand-alone LCCs confined to point-to-point traffic. So EasyJet’s initiative – said to be the first global airline connections service by a European low fares carrier – is set to change the rules of the game.

Already Norwegian, encouraged by the prospect of an increased number of passengers through the partnership that will help it expand its wings, is talking about the possibility of linking up with Ryanair. EasyJet also said the tripartite arrangement will expand to include more airlines.

The agreement is not completely an LCC club as it includes WestJet, Canada’s second largest airline after Air Canada. This is breaking new ground, challenging the advantage enjoyed by legacy airlines which are supported by subsidiary or joint-venture LCCs, among them Lufthansa/Eurowings, British Airways/Level/Vueling, Qantas/JetStar, and Singapore Airlines/Scoot.

It is interesting how the modus operandi of the LCC keeps evolving, and consumers stand to benefit from the increased competition. For now, EasyJet customers connecting partner flights will have to collect their bags in transit, to be handled via the Gatwick Connects desk in the baggage reclaim area. No reason why this will not improve in time.