SIA’s transformation is long overdue

Courtesy Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

What then has changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end draws near for Tigerair

ScootTigerThe announced assimilation of Tigerair into Scoot by the end of next year does not come as a surprise. In fact, it has long been anticipated.

The two airlines will operate under the single identity of Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s youngest subsidiary airline Scoot which was originally intended as a medium-to-long haul budget carrier in contrast to Tigerair’s short-haul status. To be expected, Scoot is performing much better than Tigerair, which has been plagued by an ill-gotten past. Faced with stiff regional competition, the lines soon blur between the networks of the two brands as they lapse into each other’s domain. The intra-competition does not make economic sense, which led to a policy of co-operating rather than competing.

A new company Budget Aviation Holdings (BAH) was formed in May to manage the two carriers. So said SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong: “The integration has already led to commercial and operational synergies between Scoot and Tigerair that are providing growth opportunities for both airlines. Following a review, we have determined that the logical next step is to pursue a common operating licence and common brand identity to enable a more seamless travel experience for customers.”
BAH chief executive Lee Lik Hsin added: “A single brand is less confusing for consumers and more effective to build brand loyalty and affinity.”

Multiple branding within a family is not a new economic phenomenon. But it has not worked for the Scoot-Tigerair differentiation when the market becomes restricted by its defined limits that may hurt both carriers in their pursuit of growth, particularly for Scoot in its own right to tap into source markets to grow beyond those confines. Besides, the poor reputation of Tigerair does not help. More than that, what really is happening in the big picture is that the aviation landscape has shifted drastically. The so-called niche budget market has extended beyond its boundaries. Tigerair seems a lame and superfluous appendage when Scoot could do the job better, and the neater structure will better position the Group in an integrative strategy rather one that is segmented overall.

Scoot and Tigerair go where it makes sense

ScootTigerSingapore Airlines (SIA)’s decision to bring its budget subsidiaries Tigerair and Scoot under the control of a common holding company – Budget Aviation Holdings – is no surprise. Expected and long predicted. It just didn’t make sense for the two carriers to be competing for the same market in apparent collaboration although the initial division is for one to operate the short haul and the other the medium haul. The lines soon blurred.

The new entity will be headed by Tigerair CEO Lee Lik Hsin.

SIA chief executive Goh Choon Phong said: “The holding company structure will drive a deep integration of our low-cost subsidiaries, which are important parts of our portfolio strategy in which we have investments in both the full-service and budget aspects of the airline business.”

Indeed, as the aviation landscape keeps shifting, one may even wonder why this has not happened much earlier with Tigerair’s poor performance and Scoot competing in the same market. While major airlines are consolidating their strengths, SIA may be finding it one too many on its plate to try and catch-all but risks dilution of its core strategy. Well, as it has always been said, better late than never, and better now than later.

This may be the prelude to the merger of the two carriers with one identity although SIA has said there may be difficulties with traffic rights, airline/aircraft registration and licensing. But it can happen. “We would not rule it out,” said Mr Goh. “But for the moment, we do see a benefit in them having their own separate identities.”

Optimism and more good news

IT’s been a long time coming, the optimism and good news that the industry badly misses as more airlines report better, even record, performances as fuel prices show no certainty of bottoming out. From Chicago to London, Singapore and Sydney, the mood is celebratory.

American carriers were the first to celebrate. The US big three– American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines – all reported record recovery last year, and are reintroducing snacks on domestic services (instead of lowering the fuel surcharge) as a way of giving back to their customers. (As the price of crude oil plummets, fuel surcharge holds sway, Jan 23 2016)

This article takes a look at four major airlines in three other different regions (Australia, Europe and Asia) that recently posted their report cards, and see how they measure up to the mood.

Courtesy Bloomberg

Courtesy Bloomberg

Qantas

The good run continues with Australian flag carrier Qantas’ record performance for the first half of its current financial year (Jun-Dec 2015). The airline reported an underlying profit before tax of A$921 million (US$685 million), which is A$554 million more than last year’s first half. Revenue was up 5 per cent. Chief executive officer Alan Joyce announced that every part of the Qantas Group contributed strongly to the result, with record profits reported by Qantas Domestic and the Jetstar Group.

Qantas Domestic reported earnings of A$387 million, compared to A$227 million last year, maintaining a strong market share of 80 per cent. The Jetstar Group’s earnings were A$262 million, compared to A$81 million last year. Revenue for the Australian market went up 10 per cent, and for the first time, Jetstar Japan contributed positively to the profit of the Asian network since its start-up in 2012.

Qantas International which used to be the bleeding arm of the Qantas Group reported earnings of A$279 million, compared to $59 million last year. This was its best performance since before the global financial crisis. The airline has benefitted from the weak Australian dollar which has helped boost inbound tourism for Australia. Qantas’ cornerstone alliance partnership with Emirates, American Airlines and China Eastern has strategically strengthened its global network, overcoming an apparent geographical disadvantage of its home base in a far corner of the world.

All this, Mr Joyce would be the first to tell anyone, is not a matter of luck or necessarily a given in today’s more favourable economic climate. He said: “This record result reflects a stronger, leaner, more agile Qantas. Without a focus on revenue, costs and balance sheet strength, today’s result would not have been possible. Both globally and domestically, the aviation industry is intensely competitive. That’s why it’s so important that we maintain our cost discipline, invest to grow revenue, and continue innovating with new ventures and technology.”

Give credit where it’s due. Sceptics may finally admit that Mr Joyce’s “transformation program” is not only bearing fruit but producing a good crop and reshaping Qantas into a more agile and innovative business. “Our transformation program has allowed us to save significant costs,” said Mr Joyce. “It’s never been a simple cost cutting agenda.”

Qantas expects to increase domestic capacity by 2 per cent, international by 9 per cent and Jetstar International by 12 per cent in the second half, averaging 5 per cent for the full year for the Group.

Courtesy Bloomberg

Courtesy Bloomberg

International Airlines Group

At the other end of the Kangaroo route is the unmatched success of the International Airlines Group (IAG) of which British Airways is a partner along with Iberia, Vueling and, more recently, Aer Lingus. IAG’s profits increased by almost 65 per cent to €1.8bn (US$1.98 billion) in 2015, which IAG chief Willie Walsh said had “undoubtedly been a good year”. The Group carried 88.3 million passengers last year, an increase of 14 per cent, overtaking Lufthansa to become second only to Air France-KLM in Europe.

In very much the same way that Mr Joyce was able to turn round the loss-making international division of Qantas, Mr Walsh could pride himself as the man who steered Iberia into profitability following its merger with BA in 2011. The Spanish carrier underwent a painful restructuring but it has paid off. . Unlike Qantas which prefers commercial alliances, IAG adopts a more aggressive strategy of acquisitions. The consortium of BA, Iberia and Aer Lingus stands the Group in good stead to grow trans-Atlantic traffic which forms the largest part of its business.

IAG expects similar growth next year, targeting an operating profit of €3.2bn

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Singapore Airlines

In Asia
, Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group reported a third quarter (Oct-Dec 2015) profit of S$275 million (US$200 million), 35 per cent higher than that of last year’s third quarter. However Group revenue declined by 4 per cent to S3.9 billion because of lower passenger yields and the continuing lacklustre performance of its cargo operations. Parent airline SIA faces stiff competition from Middle East carriers, and its subsidiaries SilkAir, Scoot and Tigerair are not spared the rivalry from regional budget carriers. Still it is good news that falling oil prices had resulted in a reduction of the fuel costs by S$354 million, a drop of more than 40 per cent.

Characteristically diffident and not as confident as either Qantas or BA, SIA said it expects travel demand to remain volatile, citing the increased competition and the pressure that it will continue to exert on yields and loads. But all three airline groups have experienced increased loads, driven by discounted fares as a result of of intense competition and made possible by the lower fuel costs. According to International Air Transport Association (IATA), breakeven load factors are highest in Europe because of low yields from the open competition and high regulatory costs, yet the region is achieving the second highest load factor after North America and generating solid growth.

It is going to be a rosier 2016. IATA forecast air travel to grow 6.9 per cent, the best since 2010 and well above the 5.5 per cent of the past 20 years. Demand is fueled by stronger economic growth and made attractive by lower fares. It is unlikely that the oil price will rise and airlines may even expect smaller fuel bills, making up 20 per cent of an airline’s total operating costs compared to what it used to be at 40 per cent. This will be further enhanced by the acquisition of new aircraft that are more fuel efficient.

In this connection, SIA has something to crow about as it took delivery last week of the first of 63 Airbus A350 firm orders after a long wait of 10 years. The first tranche of ten aircraft which it hopes to take complete delivery by the end of the year have a seat configuration of 42 business, 24 premium economy and 187 economy. An ultra-long range version of the model will be used to resume SIA’s non-stop services from Singapore to Los Angeles and New York in 2017. The modified A350 is said to be more fuel efficient than the A340 previously used. It will be configured premium-bias.

SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said: “The A350 will be a game-changer for us, allowing for flights to more long-haul destinations on a non-stop basis, which will help us boost our network competitiveness and further develop the important Singapore hub.”

Opinions are divided as to whether SIA has moved a little too slowly and as a result is playing catch up when once it used to lead the field. By all indications of the good times finally rolling back for the industry, it is not too late to leapfrog the competition to make up for lost time. SIA is banking on the rejuvenation of the demand for premium travel, the product it has always been reputed for.

The IATA forecast points to weak markets in South America and Africa – two regions that are of little interest to SIA – but continuing robust growth for North America which has been a key market for SIA since it commenced operations thereBut the competition will be tough, particularly from Middle East carriers tapping traffic in Asia-Pacific and redirecting it through their Gulf hubs. Already United Airlines has announced its launch of a non-stop flight between San Francisco and Singapore in June this year, ahead of SIA. (United Airliens steals a march on Singapore Airlines, Feb 15 2016)

According to IATA, consumers will see a substantial increase in the value they derive from air transport this year. Indeed, air travellers will benefit from the optimism as airlines become more inclined to improve their product, and the increased competition will likely see the airlines introducing more creature comforts beyond the snacks and peanuts. Qantas for one is upgrading its airport lounge at London Heathrow as part of a program to create a flagship global lounge at important destinations started three years ago. Hong Kong, Singapore and Los Angeles are already enjoying the new facility. Qantas is also developing across its domestic network an industry-leading wi-fi service that has the ability to deliver the same speeds in flight that people expect on the ground.

Mr Joyce said: “Our record performance is the platform to keep investing in the experiences that matter to our customers and take Qantas’ service to new levels.”

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Thai Airways International

Positive signs of the times are best presented by the performance of Thai Airways which posted a quarterly profit of 5.1 billion (US$141.7 million) baht ending Dec 31, 2015 reversing a loss-making trend. This compared to a 6.4 billion baht a year ago, and softened the full year’s loss to 13.05 billion baht, 16 per cent lower than 15.57 billion baht last year, partly attributed to a decrease in fuel costs of 20 per cent. The airline introduced a program “to stop the bleeding” last year aimed at introducing cost-saving measures, cutting unprofitable routes and down-sizing the fleet.

Plagued by political problems at home and safety concerns based on the findings of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Thai Airways has been struggling to stay afloat amidst increased competition from regional carriers. It is to be expected that stronger-muscled airlines such as Qantas, British Airways and SIA are likely to rise faster with improved economic conditions, but when things are beginning to look up for the more troubled carriers while noting that in good times as in bad the fortunes of various airlines can be widely diverse, the industry can at last be a little more confidently optimistic.

United Airlines steals a march on Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Alamy

Courtesy Alamy

United Airlines has stolen a march on Singapore Airlines (SIA) when it announced its launch of a non-stop service between San Francisco and Singapore in June. This will be the first non-stop service between Singapore and the United States after SIA terminated its services to Los Angeles and New York in 2013. United`s announcement came soon after SIA made known its plans to resume non-stop services in 2018, if not earlier in 2017.

You may wonder why United has moved so quickly to fill the void left by SIA when the poor loads experienced by the latter contributed to its suspension of the non-stop services. Apparently the passenger traffic between the two markets has since improved and is growing by an average of 4 per cent annually. Of course, this is good news for Singapore Changi Airport, which is hoping that United could potentially bring more tourists to Singapore. Understandably, it does not matter which airline brings in the load. And since it is believed that capacity will help grow the traffic, then United has made the right move while SIA waits. The business climate changes so fast that the right time is as good as anybody`s guess.

For SIA, it is an opportunity cost. Or, an opportunity lost. When it terminated its non-stop services to New York, regional rival Cathay Pacific moved in quickly to fill up the void, flying non-stop between Hong Kong and New York. That also pits Hong Kong International Airport, which is only some four hours away from Changi, as an Asian gateway for onward connections. It also provides opportunities for Middle Eastern airlines, notably Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, to better compete to carry more traffic through their Gulf hubs as they expand their connections within Asia and services direct to the US.

Changi`s euphoria over United`s decision is understandable, since connections are key to hub operations. With a non-stop link between Singapore and San Francisco, it will mean more regional traffic feeding into Changi to take advantage of the trans-Pacific connection and the support of United`s extensive network within the US. United vice-president of Atlantic and Pacific sales Marcel Fuchs said: “Those arriving in San Francisco will have dozens of options to connect to other cities across the Americas.” Changi Airport Group senior vice-president for market development Lim Ching Kiat echoed the same sentiment, adding that it will strengthen Changi’s position as the preferred gateway between South=east Asia and North America.

United’s domestic network may be its edge over SIA when the time comes for the latter to mount its planned non-stop services. But SIA can always rely on its partnership links with US carriers such as JetBlue, not excluding too United which is a Star Alliance partner. And SIA has always competed on the strength of its superior service. For the long haul, especially for one that flies such a great distance, it is an important customer consideration.

United’s non-stop flight from San Francisco to Singapore is an estimated 16-hour-20-minute journey. Singapore’s erstwhile non-stop flight in the same direction but from Los Angeles to Singapore clocked 17 hours 30 minutes, and from New York (Newark) non-stop to Singapore, 18 hours or longer. United will be flying the B787 Dreamliner for the new non-stop route. In the past, SIA was operating the Airbus A349-500 but will be converting seven of 63 A350-900s on order to the A350-900ULR variant for the resumed services – the reason for the delayed plan. Referring to the new variant aircraft at the time of its announcement to resume the services, SIA chief executive Goh Choon Phong said: “We are pleased that Airbus was able to offer the right aircraft to do so in a commercially viable manner.”

Perhaps too, little did SIA suspect that United would spring ahead to operate its service using the Dreamliner. According to travel magazine Conde Nast, the Boeing 787 could possibly be the most comfortable aircraft by far to travel the ultra-long distance of 8,446 miles, said to be designed to limit jet lag. Among the reasons cited: the 787 has a better air filtration system and more humidity than comparable planes, so you’re less likely to land with chapped lips or dried skin and nasal passages; the windows are larger so the cabin looks brighter and roomier; and the ride is promised to be smoother and quieter. United vice-president Ron Baur said: “Our passengers will arrive less fatigued, and most experience a significant reduction in jet lag,”

We will have to wait to see what SIA has up its sleeves. There may be surprises yet. SIA’s previous services were configured as an all-business-class flight, and while the target market is still very much corporate and business travellers, SIA is not revealing details about how many seats the new business class cabin will have. However, weight limitations are likely to suggest more leg room, if not fewer seats.

High fuel costs were a major reason why SIA suspended its previous non-stop operations. Fortunately for United, today`s low oil price favours its early move and affords the American carrier precious lead time to consolidate its market. Until SIA resumes its non-stop operations, the game belongs to United.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation titled “United Airlines vs Singapore Airlines: The race for non-stop US-Singapore connections”.

Singapore Airlines to fully acquire Tigerair

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

As anticipated, Singapore Airlines (SIA) is taking steps to rationalize Group operations. (See Singapore Airlines rationalizes operations, Nov 4, 2016). The parent airline has offered to buy out the remaining shares of budget carrier Tiger Airways, of which it currently owns 55.8 per cent. Tigerair will then be delisted.

SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong said: “We are confident that full integration of Tiger Airways into the SIA Group will result in enhanced operational and commercial synergies, ensuring Tiger Airways’ long-term success.”

SIA reported an improved Group operating profit of S$240 million (US$171 million) by 40.4 per cent for Q2 ending September 30, 2015. This raises the Group operating profit excluding Tigerair by 46.2 per cent year-on-year to S$79 million for the first half of Year 2015/16. Lowe fuel costs were a major contributing factor. Also, the Group’s share of losses of associated companies including Tigerair declined by S$117 million. Operating profit for the parent airline was S$206 million, up 12.6 per cent from S$183 million, and for regional carrier SilkAir S$26 million which is a hefty increase from S$5 million from the previous year. Long-haul budget subsidiary cut its losses by half from S$44 million to S$22 million.

What then is the likely future of Tigerair? Already the airline is said to be complementing its operations with Scoot, working together instead of competing with each other in the same market. With SIA keen to expand Scoot, it may not be too far in the future before Scoot assimilates the operations of Tigerair. Or, unlikely as it seems that SIA will relish competition from a stronger Tigerair, still consider tying a “for sale” tag around the tiger’s neck?

Finally, Singapore Airlines flies premium economy

Finally, Singapore Airlines (SIA) is adding premium economy (PEY) to its configuration, way after rival airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Qantas have introduced theirs. In fact, Cathay is expected to unveil enhanced features in its next generation PEY later in the month.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

The first thought about PEY that comes to mind is the size of the seat. SIA says its version has a width ranging between 18.5 and 19.5 inches and offers an eight-inch recline. The pitch is the same as Cathay’s 38 inches, but the width compares a tad less favourably than its rival’s 19.3 to 19.5 inches.

SIA customers flying from Singapore to Sydney will be the first to enjoy its PEY, which will be progressively introduced to other sectors including Beijing, Delhi, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, London, Mumbai, New York, Shanghai, Tokyo and Zurich in the latter part of 2015 and early 2016.

SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong said: “We have been heartened by the highly positive public reaction to our new Premium Economy Class since our plans were announced last year.”

It has taken SIA a long time to come to that conclusion. But still, better late than never. Better a follower in the right direction if you did not lead. You can trust SIA to make up for lost time in the in-flight service that it is reputed for.