Same airports in Skytrax’s best ten 2018

The 2018 Skytrax list of world’s top 10 airports is a gentle rejuggling of last year’s list which may be divided into three parts. The top three airports remain the same as the next three, and so too the last three with Chubu Central in the same 7th position.

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Singapore Changi tops the list for six consecutive years, a remarkable feat that according to Skytrax “is the first time in the history of the awards that an airport has won this prestige.” Its closest rival is Seoul’s Incheon International in second place, followed by Tokyo Haneda, which has been making impressive stride in recent years. In fact, Haneda was 2nd last year, and Incheon third.

The other airports in the top ten list are Hong Kong International (4th ), Hamad International (5th), Munich (6th), London Heathrow (8th), Zurich (9th) and Frankfurt (10th).

Changi scored with the best amenities, enhanced by the addition of a new terminal (T4) and the upgrading of Terminal 1. With continual upgrading works and the opening of the aptly named Jewel Changi Airport facility next year – a complex of gardens and more leisure activities – it looks like it may yet again achieve the top honour.

However, Changi is second to Hong Kong for transit and dining, and second to London Heathrow for shopping. It ranks behind Taiwan Taoyuan (1st), Incheon (2nd) and Tokyo Haneda (3rd) for customer service, and much lower in 7th position for baggage delivery. Incheon and Japanese airports score high in these areas. Not surprisingly, Japanese airports score top marks for cleanliness.

Don’t bet on the list changing much next year. Airports are massive investments that take time to materialise, and many of the existing ones are quite content to be functional and hopefully efficient than to be wowing! Yet note that Beijing Captial, which was one of the ten best from 2012 to 2015 has dropped to 34th position.

As appeared to be the order of the day, there is a noticeable absence of US airports with the first mention in Denver airport, ranked 29th. Canadian airports fared a little better, with Vancouver International which was among the ten best for three consecutive years 2012-2014 now ranked 14th but still the best in North America, and Toronto Pearson ranked 41st.

Advertisements

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.

Asian airports dominate Skytrax best rankings

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Not surprising that Singapore Changi clinched Skytrax’s 2017 Best Airport award for the fifth year running, commended for having the best leisure activities. As a hub airport, it is how best travellers are relieved of the stress of travel that will garner an airport favourable ratings. Changi is a favourite transit airport with its array of amenities, restaurants and shops.

What else can we infer from the survey said to be based on 13.82 million responses from 105 different nationalities, conducted from July 2016 to Feb 2017?

The top spots are held by familiar names of the last five to six years – Incheon International (3rd), Munich (4th), Hong Kong International (5th), Munich (4th), Zurich (8th) and London Heathrow (9th).

Incheon was ranked the best airport in 2012 before Changi took over in 2013, and until this year, it was a close second.

Special mention should be made of London Heathrow, which was the world’s busiest airport for international traffic until Dubai took the honours from it for two years now – Dubai did not make it to the list as being among the best.

It would appear that performance consistency is key, yet stagnation can lead to one losing the competitive edge. Changi has always prided itself as being innovative, constantly upgrading and expanding its facilities.

Making strides are Tokyo Haneda (2nd) and Doha’s Hamad International (6th). Tokyo Haneda was ranked 9th in 2013, 5th in 2015, 4th last year and 2nd this year. Hamad entered the top ten list at the bottom last year and made it up to 6th this year.

Besides Tokyo Haneda, there is a second Japanese airport in the list, namely Centrair Nagoya (7th). Tokyo Narita and Kansai Osaka were also ranked in previous years. It does say a lot about Japanese airport management.

It is no surprise that four Japanese airports are ranked among the top ten cleanest airports – Tokyo Haneda (1st), Centrair Nagoya (3rd), Tokyo Narita (5th) and Kansai Osaka (9th). Except for Zurich (8th) and Hamad (10th), this list is dominated by Asian airports, the others being Incheon (2nd), Taiwan’s Taoyuan (4th), Changi (6th) and Hong Kong (7th).

Similarly, the best airport staff service list is made up of nine Asian airports with the exeption of Vienna (10th): Taoyuan (1st), Incheon (2nd), Tokyo Haneda (3rd), Changi (4th), Centrair Nagoya (5th), Kansai Osaka (6th), Kuala Lupur International (7th), Tokyo Narita (8th) and Hong Kong (9th). Clearly service is an Asian strength.

One other Asian airport deserves some mention as the most improved airport – Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport. Will it make it to the list as one of the world’s best?

By bow you have noticed that no airport outside Asia, the Middle East and Europe are listed in this year’s Skytrax top ten/ The only outsider was Vancouver International which was ranked 9th in 2012, 8th in 2013 and 9th in 2014. Yet again, this does not come as a surprise.

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).

Cathay Pacific losing grip of China card

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific reported plunging profits of 82 per cent for half-year results up to 30 June. Revenue fell 9.2 per cent to HK$45.68 billion (US$569 million). For an airline that had boasted record margins in previous reports, it demonstrates the volatility of the airline business today in spite of the continuing low fuel prices.

While Cathay chairman John Slosar put the blame on competition and the slowdown of the China economy – what’s new, indeed? – it is worthy of note that Cathay also suffered hedging losses in the spot market. Many airlines are apt to extol their ability to gain from fuel hedging but will remain reticent when the reading goes awry.

Mr Slosar said: “The operating environment in the first half of 2016 was affected by economic fragility and intense competition.” Apparently premium economy, which since its introduction has been Cathay’s pride, and the long hauls were not performing to expectations, confronted by competition from Middle East carriers Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, and from China carriers such as Air China and China Eastern which are offering direct flights thus doing away with the need for Chinese travellers to fly through Hong Kong.

Competition from foreign carriers in a reciprocally open market is to be expected, and which may be augmented by those carriers offering an improved product. Cathay’s main woe is probably the falling China market on two counts: the reduced demand for premium travel and the diversion away from Hong Kong as the gateway to the region. Cathay and Hong Kong International Airport have benefitted from the growing China market, but while it was able to prevent Qantas from setting up Jetstar Hong Kong, it can do little to stem the growth of China carriers.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

It would be more meaningful to compare Cathay’s performance with its major regional competitors. Singapore Airlines (SIA) reported Q1 (Apr-Jun) profit of S$197 million (US$144 million) (up from S$108 million) while the other carriers in the Group – SilkAir, Scoot and Tigerair – also did better on the back of lower fuel prices. But group revenue declined by 2.1 per cent because of lower contribution by parent airline SIA. In July passenger load was down 1.2 per cent (1.676 million from 1.697 million), and the load factor by 2.2 pts at 82.4 per cent from 84.6 per cent. Except for East Asia (with flat performance), all other regions suffered declining loads.

This may be indicative of the global economic trend. Like Cathay, SIA’s fortune has shifted from the longer haul to the regional routes. Europe suffered the highest decline (4.5 pts) followed by Americas (3.1 pts). The picture will become clearer when it reports Q2 (making up the first half year) results. According to Mr Slosar of Cathay, the business outlook “remains challenging”.

Courtesy APP

Courtesy APP

However, it is good news downunder as Qantas reported record profit of A$1.53 billion (US$1.15 billion) for the year ending June 2016, up 57 per cent – the best result in its 95-year history. Qantas Domestic, Qantas International and the Jetstar Group all reported record results: the domestic market chalked up a record A$820 million, up A$191 million, and the international division A$722 million, up A$374 million. The Qantas Transformation program seemed to have continued working its magic to “reshape the Group’s base and ability to generate revenue” according to its report. CEO Alan Joyce said: “Transformation has made us a more agile business.” And, unlike Cathay, effective fuel hedging saw the Group secure an A$664 million benefit from lower global fuel prices, leaving us to wonder what Cathay would say to that.

It is once again a feather in Mr Joyce’s cap. He added: “The Qantas Group expects to continue its strong financial performance in the first half of financial year 2017, in a more competitive revenue environment. We are focused on preserving high operating margins through the delivery of the Qantas Transformation program, careful capacity management, and the benefit of low fuel prices locked in through our hedging.” He believed the long-term outlook for the Group to be positive.

The contrasting fortunes of airlines may prompt one to ask how in the end that as much attribution of an airline’s performance is attributed to global influences, so too as much is balanced by its self-discipline in adjusting to the vicissitudes of the times, its astuteness in seizing shifting opportunities and, of course, its ability to read global and regional trends as unpredictable as they are.

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.”

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”.