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,

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.

Budget and transatlantic competition heat up

Courtesy Vueling Airlines

Courtesy Vueling Airlines

International Airlines Group (IAG) announced plans to commence low-cost transatlantic flights from Barcelona to the United States by budget carrier Vueling. IAG also owns British Airways (BA), Iberia and Aer Lingus.

Legacy airlines (and airline groups) are increasingly recognizing the competition posed by budget carriers, and it is not new that some of them have set up budget operations such as Lufthansa’s Eurowings, Qantas’ Jetstar, and Singapore Airlines’ Scoot. In the US, the Big Three airlines of American, United and Delta are introducing no-frills fares on normal services to compete with low-cost counterparts such as Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier.

Where the competition is most felt is the transatlantic sector, which has seen a surge of cheap fares offered by operators such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and Iceland’s WOW Air, discomforting both US and European counterparts.

WOW Air is well-known for its $99 fare for travel between the US and Europe – destinations such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Edinburgh and Bristol – with a free stopover in Reykjavik. It has begun enticing US Westcoasters with fares as low as $65.

Norwegian also offers $99 fares with promotional offers as low as $69.

Budget doyen Ryanair has long announced its ambition to also ply the transatlantic routes.

While home-based US airlines are protesting the entry of Norwegian, European airlines are taking a more active approach to compete head-on. IAG will be able to advantage Vueling with the network of partner airlines. Eurowings is already operating nonstop from Cologne and Bonn to the US, and it has plans to add more destinations.

In a price-sensitive market for as long as the current situation holds, budget carriers may be driving the trend. Legacy airlines will be challenged to make their advertised difference in product worth the additional dollars in fares, at the same time keeping their budget rivals at bay in a two-prong approach to the competition.

Ultra-long flights: The competition heats up

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways has clinched the honour of operating the longest non-stop commercial flight when it commenced operations from Doha to Auckland on February 6. The inaugural flight, using a Boeing 777-200LR aircraft, clocked 16 hours and 23 minutes for a distance of 14,535 km.

Qatar edged out rival Emirates Airlines which also operates to Auckland but from Dubai, and Air India which interestingly flew over a longer distance of 15,127 km from New Delhi to San Francisco across the Pacific (rather than the Atlantic) but advantaged by tailwinds clocked a shorter flying time.

Ultra-long flights are a boon to travellers, particularly corporate executives, who want to skip long transit stopovers or the hassle of connections. But there are others who prefer an intermediate stop to stretch their legs. They work excellently for end-to-end traffic where there is demand between these destinations. But airlines will find it does not make economic sense to connect two points for the sake of flying the distance. One may ask, in the case of Qatar’s new launch, is there adequate traffic between Doha and Auckland – the same question that would have been posed to Emirates?

Clearly Qatar is thinking network connections – not catering to just traffic from Auckland but to encourage travel beyond Doha to Africa, Europe and the Americas, in much the same way that Emirates has built a viable Dubai hub for connecting traffic challenging long-standing hubs such as Singapore Changi. Qantas, which has traditionally used Changi as the hop from Australia to Europe vv has contributed to the growth of Dubai to which it has shifted its hub operations. Now Qantas is rethinking its strategy to make Perth the hub when new technology enables the flying kangaroo to one-hop from London to Perth vv.

The competition has heated up in recent years with more airlines mounting such ultra-long flights. The strategy goes beyond tapping end-point, particularly home, markets, pointing to the importance of developing strong home and secondary hubs, and onward network connections. The squeeze on the competition may ironically persuade more airlines to intercross their networks to make ends meet.

New Qantas safety video: Attraction or distraction?

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

Ever since Air New Zealand made waves breaking away from the conventional in-flight safety video, featuring among other things Middle Earth, a number of other airlines have taken up the challenge to “engage” the travellers, many of them who may find the old style too boring to deserve attention.

The new Qantas video features Australian destinations across every state and territory, ranging from the Victorian ski fields to sand surfing at Queensland’s Moreton Island, thus killing two birds with one stone promoting travel to these destinations at the same time. Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce admits: “This video doubles as a perfect tourism ad.”

While the main goal (as it should be) was to make the safety video “engaging as well as informative,” there are questions about the effectiveness of getting across the primary message as to what to do to keep safe and how to react in the case of an emergency. There is the important question of context. The order of priority in presentation is not necessary received in the same order. And, let’s face it, people get tired of most re-runs soon enough.

Qantas to fly non-stop Perth to London: Shifting the markets

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

FROM four days and nine stops when Qantas first launched its Kangaroo Route from Australia to London to just 17 hours when the airline introduces a non-stop service from Perth in March 2018. The 14,498 km route will be operated by Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner jets, making the world’s longest commercial flights until Singapore Airlines (SIA) launches its 18-hour non-stop service from Singapore to New York’s Newark Airport.

Until Qantas switched to using Dubai International as the hub for its Kangaroo runs in 2013 as part of a mega alliance arrangement with Emirates Airlines, Singapore (Changi Airport and its predecessor) was its traditional stopover point. Now the possibility of non-stop flights raises the relevance of Dubai in the equation, but a Qantas spokesman assured its partner that “Dubai will remain an important hub for onward services into Europe.” Presently Qantas flights from Sydney and Melbourne stop in Dubai for onward connections on Emirates to the rest of Europe with the exception of London.

But at the same time, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, referring to the new service as “a game-changing route”, said “the opportunities this opens up are huge.” Dubai will likely feel the same pinch that Singapore once felt as Perth becomes the hub for passengers from eastern Australia to Britain, even beyond. This too may hurt Singapore as a transit point for passengers from Perth. Mr Joyce also expected other direct-to-Europe flights from Australia to follow. The shifts can be significant considering that the UK is a major source of international visitors for Australia. According to Australian tourism minister Steven Ciobo, the UK ranked third with 660,000 visitors in 2015.

Qantas’ new Perth-London non-stop once again demonstrates how the geographical aviation map continues to shift as airlines re-strategize taking advantage of the capability of new technology.

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 AirlineRatings.com 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. AirlineRatings.com 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 AirlineRatings.com 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 AirlineRatings.com 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.