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.

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.

Singapore Airlines to fully acquire Tigerair

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

As anticipated, Singapore Airlines (SIA) is taking steps to rationalize Group operations. (See Singapore Airlines rationalizes operations, Nov 4, 2016). The parent airline has offered to buy out the remaining shares of budget carrier Tiger Airways, of which it currently owns 55.8 per cent. Tigerair will then be delisted.

SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong said: “We are confident that full integration of Tiger Airways into the SIA Group will result in enhanced operational and commercial synergies, ensuring Tiger Airways’ long-term success.”

SIA reported an improved Group operating profit of S$240 million (US$171 million) by 40.4 per cent for Q2 ending September 30, 2015. This raises the Group operating profit excluding Tigerair by 46.2 per cent year-on-year to S$79 million for the first half of Year 2015/16. Lowe fuel costs were a major contributing factor. Also, the Group’s share of losses of associated companies including Tigerair declined by S$117 million. Operating profit for the parent airline was S$206 million, up 12.6 per cent from S$183 million, and for regional carrier SilkAir S$26 million which is a hefty increase from S$5 million from the previous year. Long-haul budget subsidiary cut its losses by half from S$44 million to S$22 million.

What then is the likely future of Tigerair? Already the airline is said to be complementing its operations with Scoot, working together instead of competing with each other in the same market. With SIA keen to expand Scoot, it may not be too far in the future before Scoot assimilates the operations of Tigerair. Or, unlikely as it seems that SIA will relish competition from a stronger Tigerair, still consider tying a “for sale” tag around the tiger’s neck?