A Brief History of Singapore Airlines Going Forward

Courtesy Bloomberg

The history of Singapore Airlines (SIA) dates back to the incorporation of Malayan Airways on May 1, 1947. The airline changed its name to Malaysia Airways in line with the formation of Malaysia in 1963. The entity splits into SIA and Malaysian Airlines System in 1972, seven years after Singapore left the Malaysian federation and became a nation in its own right. Then on SIA expanded quickly and became one of the world’s top airlines.

SIA established Tradewinds in 1975 as a regional carrier catering mainly to the leisure market. This was SilkAir’s predecessor as the airline looked beyond into the business segment and assumed its new identity in 1976. With the growth of budget travel, SIA partnered leading budget carrier Ryanair to set up Tiger Airways which commenced services in September 2004. Tiger underwent several changes over the years, performing below expectations. In the meantime SIA set up Scoot, a fully-owned budget subsidiary said to be targeting the medium (and now long-haul) while Tiger focused on the short-haul. The line soon blurred, and by the end of 2016, Tiger was assimilated into Scoot.

As SIA expanded as it grew, so did it reconsolidate by contracting as the aviation landscape shifted. The demise of Tiger was imminent when Scoot was formed, not only to extend the range of the budget operations but also to recapture ground lost by Tiger. The intra-competition that followed did not make much sense. The costly lesson from Tiger is that it can be hard to repair a badly tarnished image and easier to start a new slate.

Now, from four down to three, will there be further restructuring of the SIA stable?

Courtesy AFP

According to OAG, an air travel intelligence agency based in the UK, Scoot has overtaken SilkAir in the number of seats offered. The budget airline is also about a third as big as SIA in the economy market. And it is growing at a faster rate than its regional sibling. Besides, parent SIA looks set to refocus on premium travel, a move that some analysts believe to favour the expansion of Scoot, particularly when the line between budget and legacy airlines begins to blur across the industry.

This does not augur well for a carrier like SilkAir operating in the middle of the field. Since its inception, the so-called regional carrier has been operating in the shadow of the parent airline and continues to do so despite recent efforts to change that image. Does this forebode a merger between SilkAir and Scoot, going forward, although the former has time and again insisted it is not a budget airline? Can Scoot on the other hand be more than a budget carrier?

What’s in a name anyway? So says the Bard, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

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After the merger of Scoot and Tigerair, will it be Singapore Airlines and SilkAir next?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Will Singapore Airlines (SIA) and its subsidiary SilkAir take the merger route of Scoot and Tigerair, now that their finance operations are merged, perhaps as a first step in that direction?

While SIA maintains that such initiatives are part of an ongoing programme to be more competitive, the speculation is only to be expected in the oontext of the company embarking on “a comprehensive review that leaves no stone unturned, cutting across all divisions of the company” as stated by its CEO Goh Choon Phong.

SlkAir started in 1975 as Tradewinds Charters which became Tradewinds Airlines in 1989 when scheduled services were introduced. Three years later, it was renamed SilkAir, shedding its leisure image and is often referenced as SIA’s regional arm.

However, in its long history, SilkAir hardly comes into its own, seen as operating in the shadow of parent SIA. Therefore, consolidating operations – finance, for a start – makes sense since some of the routes operated by SilkAir were previously operated by SIA and in light of SIA re-focussing its operations in the region. Besides, as the competition intensifies, a strong SIA brand across the region is imperative. There is no reason why a regional carrier so-called should be viewed as one providing services one notch below, an unfortunate perception that is difficult to shed.

At the height of the budget travel boom in the region, SIA launched Tigerair in 2003. Then there were already questions asked about the continuing operations of SilkAir which the company reiterated is a regional airline and not a budget carrier. Then Scoot came into being in 2012 as a medium haul budget carrier, differentiated from Tigerair’s short haul operations. It soon became clear the SIA Group was having one too many on its plate, resulting in intra-competition. Tigerair and Scoot finally merged under the Scoot brand this year.

Now that the number has been trimmed from four to three, will it be cut down further to two, typically the structure of most global airlines, between full-service and low-cost operations?

SilkAir may be likened to Cathay Dragonair, which Cathay Pacific has also insisted is not a budget but regional airline. But then, Cathay has never believed in adding a budget carrier under its wings. You might say that place is filled by Dragonair. By comparison, however, SilkAir’s status is somewhat ambiguous depending on how SIA delineates the geography as being regional or international.

Joon: Basic yet chic

Courtesy Air France

What’s basic yet chic? That, says Air France, is the design of the uniform for cabin crew of its new subsidiary airline, Joon. You can expect to serve flight attendants in trendy casuals that include blazers, polos, ankle pants and sneakers. Apparently it is Silicon Valley inspired.

A statement issued by Air France said: “Its visual identity is based on an electric blue colour code symbolizing the airline’s dynamic attitude, as well as the sky, space and travel.”

Believe it, the colour has much to do with the kind of image projected by the airlines. Targeting millennials, Joon moves away from the convention of a neutral and sedate hue for something more in line with the outgoing disposition of younger jet-setters.

Many years ago when Singapore Airlines (SIA) launched a regional carrier called Tradewinds, there was much ado about the crew uniform to project the more casual mood of leisure travel – something you might wear on a vacation. That changed when its successor SilkAir took over to target business travel and other more serious travellers as well.

Courtesy Scoot

But it is Joon that is going completely millennial, right down to white trainers.

Courtesy Air Canada

Meantime, Air Canada is going retro. Its maple leaf logo design returns to the airline’s look 24 years ago, incorporating the circle loop. Black replaces red in the letterings on the aircraft, and flight attendantswill match with black uniform highlighted with a red tie or scarf.

Looks like you either go hip or nostalgic if you want to make a statement.

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.

SIA re-incorporates fuel surcharge in base fare

sia-silkairSingapore Airlines (SIA) announced that fuel surcharges will from the end of March be incorporated in the base airfares. The policy, which also covers insurance surcharges, will apply to SilkAir as well.

As the global pressure to protect consumer rights mounts, aviation authorities are exhorting airlines to publish full fares so as not to mislead consumers and make it difficult for them to compare prices and arrive at an informed decision. Some airlines have been fined for misleading customers stating only the base fares. SIA said it is already advertising the full fares.

Virgin Australia was among the first very few airlines to announce it would not show the fuel surcharge as a separate cost but build it into the airfare way back in January 2015, at a time when the cost of oil was falling and there was public demand for airlines to similarly reduce the fuel surcharge. (See A conscionable call as oil price plummets: Will airlines reduce airfares? Jan 26, 2015)

The full surcharge was introduced as a way to pass on the cost to the consumer in the wake of rising oil prices, and falling fuel prices have made it quite unnecessary, even cumbersome. One wonders if this, having come a full circle, will change yet again when fuel prices rebound.

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 ).

Singapore Airlines reports declining passenger numbers

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines (SIA) carried 1.51 million passengers in September – lower than both last year’s 1.57 million and last month’s 1.61 million passengers. Consequently passenger load factor was down 2.1 percentage points from last year’s 80.8 per cent to 78.7 per cent. Rival Cathay Pacific may take some comfort there that the downward trend was not a unique phenomenon when it reported its own lacklustre performance recently.

Except for East Asia which retained a flat performance, all sectors reported declining passenger laod factors, worst of all for Europe (down 4,8 percentage points) followed by South West Pacific (down 2.7 percentage points). The weaker demand for Europe may be attributed to the uncertainty of the region’s economic and geopolitical situation, but noteworthy is the performance of South West Pacific when Qantas was bucking the trend with record profits. As recognized by SIA in its statement, “the landscape remains challenging.” Competition is a given; the real poser is whether rival airlines are closing the gaps.

The good news, however, is that except for the beleaguered budget carrier Tigerair, the other two subsidiaries within the SIA Group – SilkAir and Scoot – carried more passengers although the passenger load factor also fell. Both airlines carried less than their capacity growth, but it looks like the region closer home is where the business is thriving best for now. Looking farther down the line, the high point would be the performance of SIA’s non-stop services to the US.