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,

How much “SIAness” is in Vistara?

This interview with Mr Yeoh Phee Teik, CEO TATA Singapore Airlines was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Vistara is a full-service joint venture between Tata Sons Limited and Singapore Airlines (SIA) with Tata holding the majority stake of 51% and SIA the remaining 49%. Headquartered at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, Vistara took delivery of its first A320-200 aircraft on Sep 25, 2014. It plans to increase its fleet to 20 aircraft by the end of its fifth year of operation. The name Vistara is derived from the Sanskrit word “Vistaar” which means “limitless expanse”.

This is the third attempt by Tata and SIA at forging a partnership to tap into the Indian air market. They first attempted in 1995 to set up a domestic carrier but a change in Indian civil aviation policy preventing foreign participation scuttled the project. In 2000 they made a bid for a stake in Air India but the offer was later withdrawn.

Vistara expects to launch flights soon from Delhi to Mumbai, Ahmedabab and Bengaluru.

Q1: With two big names as parents in the field, success looks almost guaranteed. How do you see Vistara’s positioning in the competition and how different will it as an airline in its own right be from other airlines?

Courtesy TATA SIA Airlines

Courtesy TATA SIA Airlines

Yeoh: Vistara brings together Tata’s and SIA’s legendary hospitality and renowned service excellence. We aim to transform the air traveller’s experience and will ensure that travellers enjoy seamless experiences that shall set a new benchmark in terms of service, technology and processes. With an obsession for quality in every aspect of customer engagement, Vistara will treat travellers as unique individuals and delight them with intuitive thoughtfulness.

Q2: How much of “SIAness” will the traveller see in Vistara?

Yeoh: Leveraging the best traits of our parent brands, Vistara will establish new standards of service and transform the discerning air traveler’s experience. What makes a perfect partnership in this case is how SIA’s service excellence complements the Tata Group’s legendary hospitality. Our strategy and our unique product service differentiators are what will set us apart from others and will provide a refreshed and seamless flying experience to travelers in India.

Courtesy TATA SIA Airlines

Courtesy TATA SIA Airlines

SIA has grown over the years to become a brand recognized internationally as one of the world’s leading airlines with a strong customer centric focus. The Tata Group stands synonymous with trust and has been consistently credited with being ahead of the times. Vistara has a clear alignment with the ethos and values of TATA as well as SIA and their business practices. We will raise the bar for the industry by bringing in global best practices, out-of-the-box thinking and the best talent.

Q3: A new airline is apt to cite the growth potential that India presents. Yet history has shown that the stiff competition has driven a number of the upstarts to bankruptcy. What is your reading of this scenario?

Yeoh: As per the industry predictions, the aviation sector in India is going to take a positive turn. The new government has already begun taking steps in the right direction. We are optimistic about the new government’s investor friendly outlook which could potentially open up the Indian skies further.

Vistara_logo.svgQ4: Vistara in Sanskrit implies “limitless expanse”. What are your plans on expanding the network beyond India? How will your operations match those of SIA and its subsidiaries (SilkAir, Scoot and Tiger Airways)?

Yeoh: We have taken delivery of two of our aircrafts, Airbus A320-200. Vistara plans to increase its fleet to 20 aircraft, including A320neos, by the end of the fourth year of operation. We will be focusing on growing operations in cities where there is demand for a full-service airline. This will include metros and non-metros that have a large number of business and leisure travellers. We would like to fly international as and when we are allowed to, and when we do so, we are sure that there will be opportunities to integrate our operations with the SIA network.

Q5: Tata Sons is also in a domestic partnership with AirAsia. How do you explain the potential conflict in rival relationships? Are AirAsia and SIA comfortable with the arrangements?

Yeoh: We don’t see any conflict between Vistara and Air Asia as the Indian aviation sector has immense potential for growth.

Move over, Ryanair, the new low-cost model is Jetstar

Courtesy AFP/Getty Images

Courtesy AFP/Getty Images

REPORTING a net profit of 602m euros (US$831m) for the six months to end-September and despite an increase of 1% year-on-year, Ryanair yet again warned that profits are likely to fall for the full year. The airline reiterated an earlier exhortation about the numbers dipping as low as 500m euros compared to last year’s 570m euros, thus negating the gain made in the first half.

It is bad news that profits will fall despite an expected drop in fares by 10% over the winter months. Ryanair attributed this to “increased price competition, softer economic conditions in Europe and the weaker euro-sterling exchange rate.” As a result, the airline may ground some aircraft.

The truth is that Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier is beginning to feel that its hitherto successful modus operandi, hailed as a true budget model, may be finally running up against the wall. Surprise, surprise, surprise it is that the airline is talking about change, and more specifically in the department of customer service when previously it may even be said to have been sitting pretty comfortable and breathing arrogance about being labelled brusque, unfriendly and uncompassionate. Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary acknowledged it is now time to “listen to customers” in a somewhat belated but hopefully never too late attempt to retain customers and attract new ones.

Among the measures to be introduced are: the return of allocated seating in February next year for a smoother boarding process and to enable families and other groups of passengers to sit together; the allowance of a small second carry-on bag, which will be a bonus compared to other low-cost operators; and a 24-hour grace period to allow passengers to correct minor booking errors, a far cry from the alleged erstwhile practice of faulting or penalizing passengers on the slightest technical inaccuracy. It is a lesson learnt that in an increasingly competitive environment, customers do have a choice.

But, of course, many upstarts in the same niche market as Ryanair have failed to make the same strides as the Irish carrier. Some of them tried in vain to tweak the low-cost model to do one better and then ran the risks of evolving an expensive but misplaced hybrid model. Ryanair made no secret about flying the dollar and that everything else was baloney. Can you blame it that in its robust years it had not anticipated that this day of reckoning would arrive?

Image courtesy ABC

Image courtesy ABC

Younger Jetstar Airways and its sister airlines operating in a different part of the world might have gleaned some valuable lessons from the doyen’s experience. A subsidiary of Australian flag carrier Qantas, Jetstar has made its mark not only domestically but also in New Zealand and across Asia with local partners in Singapore, Vietnam, Japan and soon Hong Kong. It is fast becoming the region’s favourite low-cost carrier, competing with AirAsia and Tigerair whose founding fathers included Ryanair. Ranked tops in Australia, Jetstar Airways was second to AirAsia for best low-cost carrier worldwide in the Skytrax 2013 survey. Singapore-based Jetstar Asia was ranked seventh in the same category, but there was no mention of either Ryanair or Tiger Airways (now Tigerair) in the top ten list. In the Asia category, Jetstar Asia was ranked ahead of Tiger Airways. For Europe, Ryanair was outside the radar.

Jetstar is spreading its wings across Asia as Ryanair has done in Europe. It is enjoying an Asian boom, posting double-digit passenger growth. Since 2009, it has flown 23 million passengers within Asia and 10 million passengers from Australia to Asia. However, as pointed out by Jetstar CEO Jayne Hrdlicka, “low fares are just part of the story.” For too long while the going was good, competing on the lowest fares was everything for Ryanair. Price leadership has to be complemented by good products and services. Jetstar has identified “customer advocacy” as one of its drivers for growth. Providing a consistently good experience each time that a passenger flies is the surest way of attracting returning as well as new customers. It is the best advertisement that you can get.

Jetstar has contributed positively to the bottom line of the Qantas Group even though its last full year (ending June 2013) profit dipped by 32%, attributable largely to start-up losses in Jetstar Japan and Hong Kong. Is Jetstar, compared to standalone Ryanair, advantaged by its being an offshoot of an established legacy brand? Jetstar may attribute its success largely to its focus on local and independent management, but you cannot rule out parental influence. The airline is not alone in that aspect, if you consider the many others so conceived. This could well be the reason why AirAsia failed to work with partner All Nippon Airways (ANA) in the Jetstar Japan venture which has since been fully assimilated by ANA and the airline renamed Vanilla Air. Yet Qantas and Japan Airlines so far seem to have done all right in the case of Jetstar Japan.

It is not a given. The parental association can benefit or be detrimental to the offshoot carrier. United Airlines and Delta Airlines were reluctant parents to Ted and Song respectively. Or, it can disappoint. The magic of Singapore Airlines has not seemed to rub off Tigerair, not even Scoot that it wholly owns.

Good bloodline may provide an advantageous lift-off; the rest depends on the offspring coming into its own. Jetstar has scored many firsts since its inception, among them the first LCC in Asia-Pacific to introduce customer self-service for changes and disruptions, SMS boarding passes, and the unbundling of check-in bags. It was also the first LCC to put on board iPADS with the latest content and the first LCC to offer interline and codeshare flights. Soon it will be the first LCC to launch avatar chat (“Ask Jess”).

In all fairness to Ryanair, it is an equally innovative airline and it should be commended for being a bold one too. Here is where the path diverges for both airlines. As a true blue low cost carrier, Ryanair is focused on measures aimed at reducing costs further. The first principle of economics is that ceteris paribus, consumers will go for the lowest cost. If, for example, you do not fancy eating up in the air, why should you subsidise the cost of meals that other passengers tuck in? You pay only when you want to eat. Budget carriers, including legacy airlines – notably North American carriers – operating domestic or the short haul routes are already subscribing to that principle. Ryanair goes further with other measures such as charging a fee for counter check-in and has no compunction about bumping off a passenger who arrives at the airport without a pre-printed boarding pass. Scrimping on staff numbers to provide customer service also helps to reduce its operating costs. Mr O’Leary raised some brows when he suggested charging for the use of the aircraft loo and providing standing room only fares. The vibes turn out to be negative.

Jetstar on the other hand offers more positive solutions to perceived constraints that may be considered by many travellers as necessary evils of the budget travel mode. It has adopted a consolatory approach that has earned it brownie points. What little additional costs it incurs on the swings, it more than makes up for it on the roundabouts. Ancillary services are a major earner for the airline.

Move over, Ryanair, the new low-cost model is Jetstar. Still, it is quite something to hear Mr O’Leary say: “Listen to customers.”

What some airlines say about themselves

United Airlines used to “fly the friendly skies”, which have proven to be far from being so for competing airlines as more of them spread their wings. The sky may not be the limit after all. In 2010, United merged with Continental Airlines which has promised its customers: “We really move our tail for you.” Well, it’d better be, as no airline can afford to sit idle on the tarmac. The partnership realized a dream of United to “fly united”, professed through the depiction of two mating geese in the air.

BA to fly to serve
British Airways (BA) prides itself as “the world’s favourite airline”. But is it really, even when no one bothers to challenge the claim? Little wonder that Iberia Airlines, which has merged with BA, claims it is “one of the world’s best airlines”. There is no jostling with the dominant partner. The UK carrier says it swears by four words which have “always been at the heart of everything we do”: To Fly. To Serve. Isn’t that what is expected, you may ask. Trust the Brits to go nano on the language they own and to assume that foreigners do not quite understand the finer or deeper meaning of words as simple as “fly” and ”serve”. BA explains: “It’s what we do. It’s who we are.” Apparently those four words were painted on the tailfins of early aircraft and the pilots still wear them in the lining of their jackets and on the peaks of their hats. Do they even need to be reminded of their jobs? BA has said that will never change. It is after all British tradition.

It is distant cousin Qantas that puts it better: “You’re the reason we fly”. It goes on to say: “While you might fly for many different reasons, we fly for one. You’re the reason we fly.” The attention shifts from the flyer of the airplane to the rider in the plane, and from the server to the person who is being served. Qantas clearly demonstrates a better understanding of marketing principles.

But Cathay Pacific Airways decided it might rephrase BA’s pride in reaching out to its customers when it rolled out a series of ads in 2011 under the banner: “People. They make an airline.” The campaign intended to showcase a team that would go the extra mile to assist someone, who, by implication, could be a customer. But when a scandal involving flying crew on board an aircraft began circulating on the internet, it had to curb its enthusiasm in extolling its staff.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Does the crew make it a great way to fly? Yes, very much so. Yet no one makes a better case of the ambiguity than Singapore Airlines (SIA) whose tagline – “Singapore Girl, You’re a great way to fly” – has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The sarong-clad stewardess has become synonymous with the airline and everything that it represents; its name might well be Singapore Girl. Feminist activists have derided it as being sexist, but it has done the airline wonders. However, the Singapore flag carrier’s latest ad campaign, which draws on the theme of “the lengths we go to” to demonstrate its commitment to the customer, pales by comparison to the early poetic catch phrases such as “You’re as young as you feel” and “It’s the journey, not the destination”. While SIA insists that the Singapore Girl remains the protagonist in its latest ads, sometimes you wonder if you need to go to that length to drive home the point. When the Singapore Girl smiles, enough is said.

Lufthansa tries to go one-up. It says, “There’s no better way to fly.” But don’t we want to know why, if not how? But listen to American Airlines: “We know why you fly. We’re American Airlines.” That sounds a bit too arrogant, doesn’t it? In the same vein, the Northwest Airlines tagline: “Northwest Airlines. Some people just know how to fly.” Maybe it is an American thing; modesty has no place on the world stage. Yet Delta Air Lines simply promises: “Delta gets you there.” We certainly hope so, as says Air New Zealand: “Being there is everything.” Southwest Airlines wants to be known as “a symbol of freedom”, whatever that means – another American thing?

By comparison, European airlines are more down to earth. Austrian Airlines is “the most friendly (sic) airline” and Virgin Atlantic “no ordinary airline.” Or, they are simply factual. Alitalia is “the wings of Italy” the way that EVA Air in Asia is “the wings of Taiwan” but not quite what Cathay Pacific claims to be “the heart of Asia.” Cut the French some slack about “making the sky the best place on Earth.” They have the airs. But when Swiss becomes “the most refreshing airline in the world”, it suggests a toothpaste-like struggle to impress anew. Sadly, speaking the truth may be detrimental to one’s fate, as when British Caledonian Airlines confessed before it was bought by BA: “We never forget you have a choice.”

Many of the airlines pay big bucks to have those words coined and put into their mouths. Yet does it matter what airlines say or how they say it when the test of the pudding is in the eating? Think it this way – it dresses the pudding to make it look more palatable. In advertising, it is referred to as “recall”. What happens after is reinforcement or disappointment. That is why SIA has for a long time become a great way to fly and BA, whether proven or not, the world’s favourite airline, but Austrian Airlines is forgettable as one of the world’s best airlines, an epithet that is universally applicable to one and many in fluid time. You do wonder though whether for some airlines, considering the cost of their words, what has been said may best be left unsaid.

Why is Singapore important to Qantas?

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

YET again Qantas reiterates the importance of Singapore to the airline. Qantas chief financial officer Narenda Kumar told Singapore’s Today newspaper just that, as if out of a guilt complex to having to continually justifying the Australian flag carrier’s recent shift of its hub for European flights from Singapore to Dubai, consequent to a mega commercial agreement with Emirates Airlines for the kangaroo route.

Singapore should however not be unduly flattered by Qantas’ reassurance – that it is doing Changi Airport a favour. It is cold business, and Qantas is doing it for itself. Singapore, as a major Asian hub, is not a point that Qantas would skip in its network, the way that many, if not all airlines, do not want to bypass London if it can help it in reaching out to, across and beyond Europe.

Truth be told, Qantas needs Asia, and Singapore is key to that strategy.

Mr Kumar said: “When you think about how the timings of our flights and how our schedules used to operate, it was all about the end-to-end destinations.” He added: “Now we are able to put in dedicated flights (in Singapore), improved timings and increased connections, and this has made Singapore and Asia that much more important.”

Yes, indeed, if Qantas is focussing on end-to-end traffic, then it does not matter whether its kangaroo run stops at Singapore or Dubai, or for that matter anywhere else, which could well be Bangkok, for example, so long as it offers the best deal for its customers and the most cost-beneficial modus operandi for the airline. For years now, the international arm of Qantas operations has been in the red, and the market served by the kangaroo route is a critical component of its operations.

Tying up with Emirates, Qantas now boasts that its customers can connect to more than 70 destinations to Europe, Africa and the Middle-East out of Dubai. For some travellers, Dubai might offer a more comfortable mid-point in their travel, depending on the timings of the flights. Unlike some other possible mid-points, Dubai International is said to be a competitive alternative to Changi. Strategically, it is not what Dubai offers on home ground but beyond that probably convinces Qantas of its advantage over Changi.

But, as Qantas from the day it announced the tie-up with Emirates until today continues to reiterate, Singapore is in the same way an important hub for its connections to the rest of Asia. It is not something new; Qantas has for years used Changi, courtesy of Singapore, to fan out flights to other parts of Asia without restricting Qantas passengers to having to access those destinations only from Australia. In other words, Changi has long functioned like Sydney, Melbourne or Perth for Qantas. Of course, Singapore enjoys the benefit of becoming a favoured and convenient tourist’s stopover for Qantas passengers as well, though not undeservedly for what it has to offer. This is not to underplay the popularity of Singapore as a destination for Australians, hence the remark by Mr Kumar about the focus on end-to-end traffic.

Then again, talking about end-to-end traffic, Qantas is not wasting time tying up deals with other airlines, such as China Eastern Airlines, to provide more direct access for Australians to Asian destinations and vice versa for nationals of Asian countries to Australia. In other words, this can reduce the reliance on Changi as a transit stop, not that this will spell immediate gloom for Changi since Qantas has announced it is in fact increasing flights to Singapore. The increase may be a necessary change for now, with its shift of its hub for European flights from Changi to Dubai International.

Still, the loss of Changi’s hub status has exposed the vulnerability of Singapore’s apparent geographical sovereignty, a reminder of how in the 90s there was rumour of Qantas threatening to move its Singapore hub to Bangkok. Changi has done exceptionally well in fending off the competition from regional airports, but that ghost may still be lurking in the shadow of its success.

As part of its Asian strategy, Qantas has been pushing and building up the Jetstar brand. It is Qantas’ intention to use budget subsidiary Jetstar Asia to increase its connections with Asian destinations such as Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok through Singapore, which is home to the budget carrier, and in direct competition with rival Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s Scoot and Tigerair and Malaysian operator AirAsia. Speaking of the advantage of the network connections between Qantas and Jetstar, Mr Kumar cites the following example: “If someone is going from Australia to Singapore to Shanghai and back to Australia, you can do that it in three sectors with us without having to return to a hub to complete your itinerary.”

It looks like Qantas may be having its cake and eating it. But if that helps to spur traffic growth at Changi, Singapore is unlikely to censure it. Qantas’ nemesis is not Changi but SIA. Tying up with Emirates is like two hitherto rivals taking on a common foe. Changi may not be that worse off without Qantas’ kangaroo run routing through it, so long as it continues to grow its Asian hub and, as Qantas has repeatedly assured it, remain important to the Australian carrier. For SIA, it will be a different story.