And then there are three

From four to three (if you exclude SIA Cargo which will be absorbed as a division of the parent airline in 2018), Singapore Airlines (SIA) will now have three carriers in its stable as sister budget subsidiaries Scoot and Tigerair announced the completion of their merger come July 25, 2017. SilkAir, defined as a regional carrier, makes up the trio.

Both Scoot and Tigerair will henceforth operate under the Scoot brand. It seems logical, considering the poor reputation of Tigerair and the plans to expand Scoot into the long-haul. Unlike Tigerair, Scoot was launched as a medium-haul budget carrier.

The merger was long anticipated as the operations of the two carriers began to overlap with Scoot operating the short-haul as well. At the same time, loss-making Tigerair’s days were numbered as it struggled through a period of difficult times both financially and operationally, scarred with customer complaints of poor service.

While it certainly makes sense for the two carriers to eliminate intra-competition and pool their resources, it also opens the field for Scoot to expand its network. Already it is trailing behind Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia, whose chief Tony Fernandes is known to be testing new boundaries beyond the four-to-five hour limitation of the budget model. While AirAsia is not always guaranteed success, it has enjoyed headstart advantages.

Courtesy AirAsia

Scoot has announced a service to Honolulu by the end of the year, six months after AirAsia launches its service from Kuala Lumpur. Both carriers will operate via Osaka. It will be interesting to see how the competition plays out.

Scoot may be advantaged by its hub connections at Changi Airport while AirAsia will rely on its wide regional network to take advantage of Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s lower costs in a price-sensitive leisure market.

Scoot will benefit from the reputation of the SIA brand association, but somehow that has not rubbed off on the beleaguered Tigerair.

The competition is set to redefine the budget game as Scoot and AirAsia battle it out to be the region’s leading carrier not only for the short-haul but also beyond.

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.

AirAsia to launch Honolulu services: Revisiting the sustainability of budget long haul

Courtesy AirAsia

Courtesy AirAsia

Malaysian carrier AirAsia will be introducing four weekly services from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu in June, becoming the first budget airline approved for operations between the United States and Asia. Flight time is anything from 16 to 18 hours.

This is yet another attempt by founder Tony Fernandes to launch a budget long haul, despite the failure to sustain earlier operations under the AirAsia X banner to London in 2009 and Paris in 2011, which were suspended in 2012. However, Mr Fernandes said operations to London will resume in 2018 when the airline receives its new more economical long-range Airbus A330-900neo jets.

Although sceptics continue to doubt the viability of budget long hauls and there have been many who tried and failed, the entrepreneurial spirit to push the boundary is still very much alive. The current slate includes Norwegian Air Shuttle which commenced services from Oslo to New York and to Bangkok in 2013, and Lufthansa’s Eurowings which and operates nonstop from Cologne and Bonn to US destinations such as Seattle, Orlando, Miami and Las Vegas. Budget doyen Ryanair is also looking at crossing the Atlantic. Singapore Airlines’ budget offshoot Scoot has announced plans to connect Singapore and Athens in June.

A number of factors have contributed to the trend.Bu dget carriers are beginning to eye distant destinations dominated by legacy airlines as they expand, and this is now made possible by technologically advanced and more fuel efficient aircraft. The budget model is changing, and the line between budget and full-service carriers is increasingly blurring as the former upgrades customer service and facilities and the latter adopting some of the practices such as product unbundling and charging for add-ons. Legacy airlines no longer view budget carriers as operating in their own niche markets but a real threat. (See Ultra-long flights: The competition heats up, Feb 7, 2017)

Whether Mr Fernandes’ Honolulu venture is sustainable or not in the long run, he has earned his feather. As a stand-alone, it will be a challenge for AirAsia, which will have to tap feeds from its regional connections – as will Scoot when it commences services to Athens. It will be a test, considering the nature of the leisure traffic and the competition posed by several airlines in the region that are already plying the route direct form their home bases or in code-share arrangements.

SIA’s KrisFlyer Gold is one big disappointment

sia-krisflyer-goldDo not expect the KrisFlyer Gold Lounge in Terminal 3 of Singapore Changi Airport to be anywhere near an iota of the flavour of Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s very own Silver Kris lounge for its first and business class passengers. This other lounge meant for other entitled travellers, such as non-premium class frequent fliers and guests of partner airlines, is a far cry from the reputed real thing.

Quite inevitably the disappointment stems from the expectations of an SIA brand name association, and all the more if you had on a previous occasion tasted the lavish luxury of the Silver Kris. But even while making generous allowance for this so-called Gold standard to be expectedly or intentionally inferior to that Silver offering, you would not have imagined it to be that wide of a gulf.

Perhaps the receptionist had just had a bad night when I decided to avail myself of the privilege one morning before flying off to Taipei. He looked visibly unhappy at his desk. He was most unwelcoming and quite arrogant as if he thought that was a bearing befitting his job at a supposedly exclusive facility. That didn’t quite bother me, as the facility itself should be enough to compensate for the cold reception.

But alas, it did not. The lounge was cramped with seats but not users. Quite strangely, the chairs were arranged like they were in a classroom. Perhaps there was a teaching class that had just ended. The self-service counter had a limited array of food – very ordinary, I must say – that looked like a buffet spread at some office event. We were not enthused, and left within five minutes without partaking of the pleasures it was supposed to offer. The receptionist didn’t say a word as we stepped out.

You can’t help the brand name association, which may be a good or a bad thing, how it fortifies or dilutes the image. It is understandable when passengers fly Tigerair or Scoot, they expect a little of the SIA rub-off. It is not so much about the tangible product which is clearly of a different tier, but a little if not much of the service culture. All the more so when the line between budget and mainstream airlines begins to blur.

Singapore Airlines’ profit plunges

Courtesy The Straits Times

Courtesy The Straits Times

THE downward trend was to be expected as you followed Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s performance month-to-month for the second quarter (July-September) of its current financial year. The sluggish global economy, according to the airline, was largely to blame.

SIA’s operating profit declined 19.4% from last year’s S$98m (US$71m) to S$79m. Fortunately, the stronger first quarter boosted the result for the first half-year, with operating profit increasing 34.0% from S$206m to S$276m on declining revenue of S$343m and the contraction in passenger carriage by 3.2%. Yield as a consequence came down by 2.9%, and the passenger load factor of 78.1% was a drop of 1.9 percentage points. The saving grace was lower fuel costs by 25.2%.

Regional subsidiary SilkAir too suffered a decline in operating profit for Q2, down 19.0% from S$21m to S$17m.

Budget subsidiaries Scoot and Tigerair however managed to reverse their losses, respectively from a loss of S$2m to S$5m and from a loss of S$10m to S$3m.

Looking ahead, SIA hopes that the improved operating capability and efficiency of its growing Airbus A350 fleet as well as the long anticipated integration of Scoot and Tigerair (see The end draws near fro Tigerair, Nov 6, 2016) would improve its fortune as it continues to be impacted by geopolitical uncertainty and weak global economic conditions and faces the prospect of losing the cushion by lower fuel costs as oil producers cut back on their output.

However, if there’s any consolation, close rival Cathay Pacific too is experiencing a downward trend in profitability (see Cathay Pacific losing grip of China card, September 19, 2016 ).

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.