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).

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A hub airport needs a strong home-base carrier – but does it really?

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

INCOMING Cathay Pacific Chief Operating Officer Rupert Hogg who will be taking up his new position in March loses no time in marking his presence as one with a voice and views to be heard. At a recent meeting in Vancouver, Canada with officials from Vancouver International Airport (VIA), he offered a piece of advice that might not sit too well with his host but certainly something that Air Canada in its battle to check VIA’s enthusiasm to open its doors to foreign carriers willy-nilly might use to support its case.

Mr Hogg emphasized the need of a strong home-base airline to anchor an airport’s hub operations. He said: “Only a home-base carrier has the wherewithal to create the banks of incoming flights and make them connect to the banks of outgoing flights.”

There is much truth in Mr Hogg’s statement. No one, including Mr Hogg, can resist citing the opposing fate of Dubai and Bahrain as an example. Both airports are quite on par in terms of an advantageous geographical location and the capability to provide good facilities, but Bahrain today is unable to achieve the kind of success that Dubai is enjoying because it lacks a strong home-base carrier like Dubai’s Emirates Airlines. Gulf Air, once the leading airline of the Middle East and which was expanding rapidly in the ‘80s and becoming the first airline from the region to fly to Australia, has succumbed to the competition posed largely by rival Emirates and by other younger airlines such as Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi) and Qatar Airways (Doha). Gulf Air has since ceased operations to major airports such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney. So too spelt the decline of Bahrain as a major Middle East hub.

There is more to the story of the decline of Bahrain, which did enjoy brisk business in its early days when Dubai and Emirates were relatively little known; it became badly affected when new jets plying the kangaroo and east-west routes no longer needed a technical stop in a city that offered little else and their operators preferred airports in Asian cities such as Bangkok and Singapore. Bangkok offered the shortest route from Sydney to European cities and the additional attraction as a touristy stopover, and Singapore topped the efficiency table for best connectivity and the lowest probability of a costly disruption.

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

But Mr Hogg’s advice to VIA, as it appeared to be intended, might be incidental. He was actually talking about Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), and their symbiotic relationship. Mr Hogg cited the synonymous growth of both Cathay and HKIA in support of his argument. Similarly, as another example, we can look at the relationship between Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Singapore Changi Airport. In fact, in many of the recent surveys such as those conducted by Skytrax, the awards for the best airline and for the best airport seem to go hand-in-hand: SIA/Changi, Cathay/HKIA, Asiana/Incheon and Emirates/Dubai amongst them. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine London Heathrow without British Airways, Frankfurt without Lufthansa, Sydney without Qantas, Tokyo Narita without Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways, and major American hubs without the spoke patterns of resident American airlines.

Mr Hogg’s argument may therefore come across as being self-serving in the interest of Cathay, which has protested Qantas setting up Jetstar Hong Kong jointly with China Eastern Airlines and a local company. In that respect, his view is one-sided, to think that it is the airline that grows the airport (and not the other way round) although one definitely cannot deny the airline’s contribution to an airport’s success. The question is: Does an airport similarly contribute to the success of its home-base airline (or for that matter a visiting airline)? More specifically, how much of Cathay’s success can be attributed to HKIA’s positioning (and for the sake of comparison that of SIA to Changi’s)?

Mr Hogg said: “As you can see in the case of Dubai, you need geographical location, but if you don’t have a successful home-base carrier, you have nothing,”

Those were strong words, which led us to the next question: Can an airport and its home-base airline succeed independently or one without the other?

While geography is not everything, it cannot be denied that it is an important factor. Mr Hogg would not refute that, as he did say that airports and airlines must leverage their geographical advantages. But as the world shrinks with technological advances, this importance can shift, as when Bahrain lost its geographical advantage with the introduction of modern jets that allows airlines to overfly it. In the same way, Mr Hogg did not think that SIA poses a threat to Cathay in the North American market. He reasoned: “If you look at the Great Circle Route, Hong Kong is directly on the route. The reality is, with current technology, Singapore is too far south to effectively serve North America. If you are travelling to India, you are not going to go all the way south, then come back up north to Delhi.”

Changi has often been cited for its geographical advantage over its regional rivals, and no doubt this advantage has contributed to SIA’s success. But the lesson of Bahrain continues to hold true, in yet another example when Qantas decided to move its hub for European flights from Changi to Dubai. So Mr Hogg was right here to think that geography is not everything but a starter’s advantage. Qantas’ exit from Changi has more to do with a shift in marketing strategy. So in the same way, hypothetically, can SIA do a Qantas on Cathay in the case of Indian traffic, even though logically the shorter flight distance favours Hong Kong but not that much more considering the close proximity of HKIA and Changi to each other?

Indeed, Cathay should be grateful for HKIA’s growing popularity as an Asian gateway, advantaged by its location at the doorstep of the huge Chinese market. That, while not denying Cathay’s contribution, Mr Hogg might accede, has to do with geography too.

We have come round a full circle to recognizing that Mr Hogg’s view cannot be viewed as the definitive scenario of things to come. At best, it was pre-emptive. In spite of the setback caused by the Qantas rerouting of its kangaroo runs, Changi continues to register higher passenger volumes. In 2013, it handled a record 53.7 million passengers, an increase of 5.0% attributed to growth in regional travel, fuelled particularly by the burgeoning budget business. As a hub airport, it is confronted by growth issues of the airport per se vis-à-vis the interest of its home-base carrier. So it is with HKIA and VIA. Changi boasts an open skies policy that may intensify the competition for SIA. HKIA will face the pressure of allowing more airlines to call at its port in view of its proximity to the growing market of the Chinese hinterland and its promotion as an alternative Asian gateway, but this has disturbed Cathay somewhat. VIA sees its future in connecting with more Asian carriers across the Pacific, positioning itself as the western gateway to the rest of North America, the initiative meeting with objection from Air Canada. How then will the airlines figure in their growth plans?

Although it was in Vancouver that Mr Hogg spoke, his message to HKIA on Cathay’s position is clear. His view was hardly a new one, but it was a timely reminder of how as the competition among hub airports and that among airlines begin to move divergently, the concerned parties may increasingly lock horns over whose interests are more important.

Virgin Atlantic exits Australian market, not a surprise

Courtesy Virgin Atlantic

Courtesy Virgin Atlantic

IS anyone at all surprised that Virgin Atlantic is ceasing its operations between Sydney and Hong Kong come May 5?

Virgin issued a statement to say that “the route is no longer considered profitable” due to “increasing costs and a challenging economic environment.” CEO Craig Kreeger added that “external factors such as increasing costs and a weakening Australian dollar have affected our profitability.”

Virgin has never quite made it in this part of the world and prefers to focus on the direct traffic from London Heathrow to Hong Kong and Tokyo Narita. Even Singapore Changi and Bangkok Suvarnabhumi as stopover hubs present no real attraction. For onward traffic the competition is tough. Out of Hong Kong, Qantas and Cathay Pacific dominate. Virgin is also feeling the pinch with more passengers flying London to Australia direct on the back of the Qantas-Emirates alliance instead of routing through Hong Kong.

Exiting the Australian market may pose more a concern to Australian tourism as demand lags capacity. As for Virgin, there is speculation that the void may be filled by Virgin Australia which would find it more efficient operating the medium-range Airbus A330. Even then the Australian carrier prefers to be cautious, weighing the advantages of code-sharing with partners that include Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways and Air New Zealand for international operations while it works at its domestic market.

Qantas-Emirates tie-up is no surprise

THERE are several reasons why a Qantas-Emirates tie-up should not come as a surprise.

 

Foremost is the Australian flag carrier’s desperation to revive its loss-making international operations, which, it is expecting will plunge its full-year profit by as much as 90 per cent from US$552 million the previous year. So the airline is looking for opportunities to boost its earnings as it rationalizes its network operations and connections. Qantas has said that alliance deals have always been on the agenda, particularly when such arrangements not only open up new traffic channels but also reduce operating costs.

The Dubai-based Emirates Airlines, its home situated roughly midway on the kangaroo route, makes a veritable partner. Significantly, the airline is profitable and expanding. Besides, Emirates is a keen competitor for the same market. A tie-up would mean a more amicable intra rather than inter-airline competition.

It has also been speculated that Qantas as a consequence would reduce its operations to Europe – retaining only London as a destination and giving up Frankfurt – while it then feeds traffic to other European ports through Emirates. Qantas hopes to also gain access to a wider Middle-East market as well as making inroads into Africa through Emirates.

Not to be ignored is the fact that other Middle-East airlines such as Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways (also an airline of the UAE but based in Abu Dhabi) have also intensified the competition. Etihad has acquired a 10-per-cent stake in Virgin Australia.

But what is likely to unsettle Qantas more is the alliance between key rivals Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Virgin Australia. In the end, a Qantas-Emirates tie-up would look like a counter-move when adversaries join hands to take on a common enemy. There is not much of a choice left really, so to speak, for the self-professed “alliance specialist”.

Analysts who were quick to deduce that Qantas would also shift its operations from Singapore to Dubai have been mistaken. For many years now, Singapore has been Qantas’ major hub outside Australia, and from where it is able to feed transfer traffic to other Asian ports.

While it is convinced that its fortunes lie in the lucrative Asian market, it does not make sense for the flying kangaroo to skip Singapore or make a sizeable reduction in its operations there. After all, Singapore (Changi Airport) is the darling of transit passengers worldwide. An exit would shut Qantas out of growth opportunities – not just in Singapore but in the region – even as Qantas raises the profile of its low-cost Jetstar subsidiary and continues to pursue the dream of staging a separate Asia-based premium carrier.

Qantas chief Alan Joyce has said that Qantas would continue to develop large hub airports or en-route gateways in its network since these hubs, pulling in travellers from all over the world and sending them on to their final destinations, mean “extending our reach while restraining our costs.” However, he admitted: “We have a gap (in Asia), because our current schedule is predicated mainly on travellers transitting through Asia en route to Europe.”

While that might see some shift of such pure transit traffic from Singapore to Dubai, the former remains a premium hub for its infrastructure and connectivity – unless Mr Joyce becomes convinced that its family of hubs in partnerships with Japan Airlines (Narita), China Eastern Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways (Hong Kong) and possibly Malaysia Airlines in 2013 (Kuala Lumpur) are adequately positioned even with the exclusion of Singapore.

It looks like with the impending incorporation of the Malaysian flag carrier as a new member of the OneWorld alliance, the two airlines may yet again revisit the proposal of a joint-venture regional carrier to be based most likely in Kuala Lumpur. Even then, it would be difficult imagining Qantas skipping Singapore altogether.

However, there have been mixed signals from both Qantas and Emirates on the rumoured alliance.

While admitting that his airline has met with Emirates, Mr Joyce clarified: “We only enter partnerships when we have the right arrangement for the long term. In the current economic environment, taking our time with this part of our agenda will clearly not undermine our broader transformation plan.”

On the other hand, Emirates chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum revealed that a code-sharing agreement would likely happen within six months but would not include any revenue-sharing arrangement.

Is that any indication of who is more likely to benefit from the tie-up? You can confidently make your wager, can’t you?