Airlines dangle the premium economy carrot

IT looks like the traditional economy class may be heading toward a split between premium economy and basic economy, with the in-between normal economy not quite as exciting in terms of perks or costs.

While basic economy as already introduced by American carriers (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines) and Asian rivals such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in an attempt to stamp a potential loss of the business to low-cost carriers, the premium economy in a way will make up for reduced profit at the very bottom of the scale.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

United Airlines may be Johnny-come-lately, but it promises to be as good as the slew of airlines that are already in the game. Its version of the class to be known as United Premium Plus will have more spacious seats, and customers according to its spokesperson will “enjoy upgraded dining on china dinnerware, free alcoholic beverages, a Saks Fifth Avenue blanket and pillow, an amenity kit, and more.”

EVA Air may be said to be a pioneer of such seats, but it is Cathay that has created an exclusive class with its own cabin that has propelled the popularity of a product that is better than economy but not quite business class, particularly for long-haul flights.

But airlines, which have been cautious about hopping on the premium economy bandwagon are not going to abandon the old workhorse but will instead make it work harder. A number of them are already making plans to increase more seats at the back of the aircraft,with British Airways announcing recently that economy seats in its new planes will no longer be able to recline.

More space in the forward sections of the plane can mean less legroom at the rear as airlines dangle the premium economy carrot to entice customers to upgrade.


What defines a best airline?

What defines a best airline, considering the different surveys that rank them? Conde Nast Travel has just released its readers’ choice of the best in 2017, and it is no surprise the list is made up of Asian, Middle East, European and SW Pacific carriers.

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Of course, it depends on the readership, but recognizing that, it also points to what really makes these airlines stand out. It is clear that the premium class service weighs heavily – the seat comfort and the fine food.

Etihad Airways (ranked #16) offers “the future of first-class comfort: a three-room “residence” with a bedroom, private bath with shower, and lounge.” Emirates (#4) offers “posh perks for premium fliers – cocktail lounges, in-flight showers… part of the reason it scores so high among travellers.” And the suites on Singapore Airlines (#3) offer “a pair of fully flat recliners that can be combined into a double bed.”

Mention is made of the premium economy class in almost all the ranked airlines” KLM (#20), Lufthansa (#19), Japan Airlines (#17), All Nippon Airways (#13), Qantas (#12), Cathay Pacific (#10), Virgin Atlantic (#7), Virgin Australia (#6), Singapore Airlines (#3) and Air New Zealand (#1).

So it may appear to be the voice of the premium travellers that is being heard. Maybe coach travellers aren’t too concerned about the ranking, more driven by price and less frilly factors, although to be fair, the Conde Nast report did mention of at least one airline, i.e. Etihad Airways (#16), not ignoring “those sitting in the back.” While many travellers may resign to the belief that the economy class is about the same across the industry, it is reasonable to assume that an airline that strives to please its customers in the front cabins will most probably carry that culture or at least part of it to the rear.

Although you may draw consensus across many of the surveys, it is best best to treat each one of them in isolation. It is more meaningful to try and draw intra conclusions within the findings of the particular survey.

You will note in the Conde Nast findings, there is an absence of American (including Canadian) carriers, never mind that of African and South American carriers.

Asiana Airlines (#8) is ranked ahead of Korean Air (#11).

All Nippon Airways (#13) is ranked ahead of Japan Airlines (#17). V

Virgin Australia (#6) is ranked ahead of Qantas (#12).

The order of the “Big 3” Gulf carriers is as follows: Qatar Airways (#2), Emirates (#4) and Etihad Airways (#16).

Of European carriers, there is the conspicuous absence of the big names of British Airways (compare Virgin Atlantic #7) and Air France, and the pleasant surprise of Aegean Airlines (#9) while SWISS seems to be regaining its erstwhile status years ago as being the industry standard.

The best belongs to Air New Zealand as the quiet achiever.

Ultimately, the results also depend on the group of respondents whose experiences may be limited to certain airlines.

Other airlines ranked in the top 20 of the Conde Nast survey: Finnair (#14), Turkish Airlines (#15), EVA Air (#18).

Consistency defines Skytrax best airlines

The 2017 Skytrax list of the top ten airlines is as in previous years hardly changed of note. Only two airlines dropped out of the list – Turkish Airlines and Qantas, making way for Garuda which was listed in 2015 and 2014, and Hainan Airlines which in 2014 was commended for clean cabins and amenities in business class.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

year’s champion Emirates Airlines went down to fourth place, followed by Cathay in fifth, making way for All Nippon Airways (ANA) in third.

This speaks of the consistency that makes these airlines the travellers’ perennial favourites. SIA has long been reputed for premium service and emulated by the Middle East carriers making them fierce competitors in the field.

However, it is more interesting to look at the movements into and out of the top ten list. Turkish Airlines which was included in the last three years dropped to 12th position this year, and Qantas moved further down from 9th last year to 15th this year. What is most noticeably absent is Asiana Airlines, which was voted the best in 2010 and continued to be one of the best since then until last year when it dropped to 11th and this year ranks 20th. If the Skytrax ranking is anything to go by, then Asiana should be concerned, perhaps not as much about the quality of its service as being surpassed by the competition.

On a more positive note, Hainan Airlines becomes the first China carrier to be ranked in the top ten, and Garuda re-entered the list boosted by its best cabin crew win.

Not surprisingly, the top ten list is dominated by Asian carriers with the exception of Lufthansa. Just a dash shy of that honour and ranked 11th is Thai Airways International.

No US airline has made it to the top ten, and don’t bother asking if they were really concerned,

Air New Zealand leads the pack

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is the world’s best airline according to based on criteria that include fleet age, safety, profitability and leadership in innovation for passenger comfort. The agency’s Airline Excellence Awards program which lists the winning airlines is endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Many travellers would recognize ANZ for its attention-grabbing in-flight safety video that takes them into Middle Earth, the kind of out-of-the-aircraft features that a few other airlines have tried to imitate but fared only poorly. Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Thomas said: “Air New Zealand came out number one in virtually all of our audit criteria, which is an exceptional performance.” The airline was favoured for its record-breaking financial performance, award-winning in-flight innovations, operational safety, environmental leadership and motivation of its staff.

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

But, of course, there are surveys and there are surveys that publish their own lists of favourites. Some airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific have a ubiquitous presence, and there also notable absences. This is where it is most telling, bearing in mind that the ranking is dependent on several factors such as the excellence-defining criteria and the population surveyed.

The other nine airlines ranked behind ANZ in the top ten list by are in descending order: Qantas, SIA, Cathay, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways (BA), Etihad, All Nippon Airways, EVA Air and Lufthansa.

It is interesting to note that the top two airlines come from the remote Southwest Pacific. Qantas has in recent years been working on upgrading its product offerings, winning accolades for catering and airport lounges. Not surprisingly, innovation along with good service seem to be the driving winning streak going down the list – SIA and Cathay for their premium economy and revamped business classes, Virgin for its cabin ambience and friendly crew, BA for its leadership in in-flight entertainment, and Etihad for its equally impressive service in front and at the back of the aircraft.

Notable absences in the list are US carriers (no surprise there) and two of the big three Middle-East carriers (Emirates and Qatar).

Many survey rankings are skewed by the weight they place on service in the premium classes. However, Mr Thomas of said: “We are looking for leadership and airlines that innovate to make a real difference to the passenger experience particularly in economy class.” Considering that the majority of travellers are seated in coach, it is time that airlines crowned with the halo of excellence pay more attention at the back of the aircraft, for this may well make the difference as the competition intensifies. And, it is where the differentiation becomes even more challenging. Perhaps too, this could be the reason why Emirates and Qatar, known for their lavish premium service, did not make it to the top ten of the list.

Garuda Indonesia poised to expand

IT came so timely that following the opening of the new Terminal 3 at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and its declared ambition to rival Singapore Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport in attracting international traffic, Indonesian carriers have been cleared to resume flights to the United States after an absence of nine years.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is satisfied that Indonesia is complying with International Civil Aviation Civil Organization (ICAO) safety standards. Formal final approval from Department of Transport (DOT) and FAA is expected soon.

Indonesia has been plagued by a number of air mishaps involving home-based airlines Lion Air, Mandala Airlines and Garuda, particularly in the years before 2007 when the US imposed a ban on its operations on its soil. More recently in 2014, Indonesia AirAsia crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.

The US lift of the ban came after the European Union had lifted its ban on three other Indonesia airlines – Lion Air, Batik Air and Citilink – in June this year.

Garuda AFP

With the US and Europe open, Garuda for one, if not the other Indonesian carriers as yet, is poised to expand. The Indonesian flag carrier has launched direct services to London (Gatwick) and is planning to launch services to New York (JFK) and Los Angeles next year. And if the Sytrax survey for the last two years (2014 and 2015) is anything to go by for its success, the airline was ranked among the world`s top ten airlines which include other Asian airlines namely Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and EVA Air.

What conclusions can you draw in an airlines survey?

SIA courtesy SIA

WE continue to be fascinated by rankings of the world`s best airlines, although the results of most surveys – take away some bias here and there – are quite predictable and almost similar across the board. The winners by and large boast excellent cabin service, great food, comprehensive in-flight entertainment and innumerable choices, more generous legroom than what their competitors offer, and frills such as complimentary champagne and brand name overnight kit. It is all about creature comforts. And the impressions are understandably almost always skewed by the luxuries of the upper classes.

Traveller magazine Conde Nast has just posted its list of the world’s best airlines, surveyed among some 128,000 readers. Of course this is not the definitive list of excellence to the detail, in the same way that no other list can be as definitive without considering factors such as the type of respondents involved, the scope of the survey and the criteria adopted, but there are nevertheless interesting conclusions to be drawn from them. So often it is more interesting to look at the omissions.

Long haul can impress or disappoint

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is a perennial favorite of Conde Nast readers, ranking top for 27 of 28 years. It is hardly surprising, which to be saying it seems even redundant. The airline has long earned the reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, and is frequently celebrated in other surveys as well. It was ranked second after Qatar Airways in the last Skytrax survey. It is hard to find a match that depicts consistency in excellence. The real clincher seems to be in its long haul operations – such flights that are likely to elicit the flaks when passengers are apt to become more stressed and demanding. Here is where SIA is able to make the difference by a well-trained crew that anticipates a passenger’s needs, always mindful the passenger’s comfort first and foremost in the service.

All the airlines in Conde Nast’s top ten are long haul operators, with the exception of Porter Airlines which is more a city shuttle that flies between Toronto in Canada and US destinations such as Boston, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

While the long haul impresses, it can also take apart an airline’s reputation, which explains why some airlines are inundated with complaints about being handled like a can of sardines. Interestingly, the Conde Nast list of best American carriers is made up of short-haul operators to the exclusion of the big three of United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Virgin America is ranked first followed by JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf Carriers

Again, it is not surprising that Conde Nast’s top ten ranks are dominated by Asian and Gulf carriers, which together were placed in not only in the top three ranks but also seven of the top ten positions. The Gulf big three of Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways were second, third and fifth respectively. Qatar was tops in the earlier Skytrax survey, ahead of Emirates (5th) and Etihad (6th). Other Asian airlines in the Conde Nast list are Japan Airlines (6th), Korean Air (7th) and Cathay Pacific (10th). Both SIA and Cathay were also ranked among Skytrax’s top ten airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf carriers means the stark exclusion of airlines of other regions. Only one European airline – Virgin Atlantic – was listed, and in fourth placing. One asks: Where are British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa although going further down the list you will find Swiss International Air Lines (17th) and Finnair (20th)?

That and the marked absence of US carriers demonstrate the superior service culture of Asian and Gulf carriers and their growing popularity that continue to put pressure on their rivals in the competition. The US big recently accused the Gulf big three of unfair competition supported by state subsidies. In truth, North American airlines are not inefficient, but they lack the soft pampering touches of their competitors. There is a host of pertinent questions. Can US carriers be as friendly or, to go one further, do better? And, ultimately, do they even see the need?

Luxury improves image

Etihad boasts the “residence” suite that comes with a bedroom, private bath with shower and lounge. That is for now the forerunner in the race for the ultimate luxury in the air, leaps ahead of SIA’s first class suites and all the other airlines’ flat bed allures. There are also the extras: Etihad provides a concierge service that will make a dinner reservation for you when you land, and some airlines offer door-to-airport limousine services. The slant towards premium classes is to be expected, for that is what makes news even as the perks are limited to a smaller but more lucrative market of the travelling population. If there is one airline that seems to be doing much more for coach than many others, it is Air New Zealand, which offers “Skycouch” in economy – seats that can be converted into a lie-flat double bed – but then again, this is limited to only three seats in the cabin, reminiscent of the days when EVA designates a small number of seats as the ill-defined premium economy before the subclass takes on an identity of its own today.

Comparison is the crux

In any survey, the crux is the comparison, particularly when they are all said to be providing good cabin service and excellent food amongst the creature comforts. The Conde Nast survey again surfaces the rivalry between SIA and Cathay Pacific in the top ten, favoring the former. Interestingly, Japan Airlines (6th) is ranked ahead of All Nippon Airways (11th), and Korean Air (7th) ahead of Asiana Airlines. That indicates a reversal of order that has been the reading of many past surveys, and may well portend how the competition may be trending.

In the case of Gulf carriers, the ranking rivalry among Emirates, Qatar and Etihad is very much a close call going by several international surveys. At the same time, we cannot ignore the inclusion of Turkish Airlines in Conde Nast’s top 20. Turkish was fourth in the Skytrax survey.

In the close rivalry between Qantas (15th) and Virgin Australia (19th), the former continues to enjoy an advantage over the latter.

What else matters? All the hype about going green as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the impact of climate change? That Korean Air prepares its food from humanely raised and organically grown produce. That El Al offers an iPad rental program. That Virgin Atlantic has a stand-up bar. That Qantas offers Select on Q-Eat that allows you to pre-order your meal. That Air New Zealand makes its safety presentation more entertaining than others. That British Airways allows you to log on to a movie as soon as you board and stay with it until the aircraft is docked at the gate on arrival. The list goes on. And one wonders.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

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.