News Update: Emirates reverses decision to suspend all passenger flights

Courtesy AFP

Emirates Airlines reversed an earlier decision to suspend all passenger flights, which was supposed to take effect from March 25.

The Gulf carrier said it had “received requests from government and customers to support the repatriation of travellers.”

It will continue to fly to Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. This is greatly reduced from its usual 159 destinations.

Singapore Airlines has announced it will cut capacity by 96 per cent to end April, previously planned at 50 per cent.

Jetstar Asia will be grounding its entire fleet from March 23 to April 15.

Quick changes across the globe are expected, demonstrating the uncertainty that is gripping the industry.

Emirates suspends all passenger flights: Will the global industry grind to a standstill?

Courtesy Reuters

Emirates Airlines becomes the first carrier to announce complete suspension of all passenger flights. This will take effect on Wednesday, March 25 when its entire passenger fleet will be grounded. The airline has already cut back capacity by 70 per cent.

It is not just that more people are refraining from travel for fear of contracting the coronavirus, more countries are beginning to ban travel by foreigners into their ports. Consequently airlines are flying empty seats. And especially for airlines which rely on transiting and connecting traffic such as Emirates, this takes a heavy toll on their business.

Emirates chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum said: “As a global network airline, we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot viably operate passenger services until countries reopen their borders and travel confidence returns.”

Is this a sign of more airlines following suit, notwithstanding those which are already teetering on the line facing bankruptcy?

Other major carriers which rely heavily on similar traffic as Emirates include Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific.

SIA has reduced capacity by 50 per cent to the end of April. Further reduction is not off the table. The airline attributed this to “the growing scale of border controls”. SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong said: “We have lost a large amount of our traffic in a very short time, and it will not be viable for us to maintain our current network.”

Cathay too has made deep capacity cuts, particularly to mainland China as high as 90 per cent.

For the premium Hong Kong carrier, it is a double whammy as it moves from an embattled 2019 into an uncertain 2020. Profits plummeted in 2019 caused by the political unrest in the latter half of the year. The full year profit was HK$1.7 billion (US$220 million), down by 26 per cent from HK$2.3 billion in 2018.

Looking ahead, the airline said in a statement that “the outbreak of COVID-19 since January 2020 has resulted in a challenging operational environment, and will adversely impact the Group’s financial performance and liquidity position.” Cathay chairman Patrick Healy added, “We expect to incur a substantial loss for the first half of 2020.”

While some carriers may fall by the wayside, it is however unthinkable that the global airline industry will grant to a halt. Some governments are already promising reliefs to help them pull through. Nobody can say for sure when normalcy will return while acknowledging it is anything but foreseeable.

A bleak year for airlines

It looks quite certainly a bleak year for airlines as Covid-19 keeps people away from travelling. The outbreak has become more extensive than anticipated, short of being classified as pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Cutting capacity

Many airlines are cutting back or suspending services not only to destinations in China where the outbreak started but also across the world.

Among them are:

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines, which has cancelled almost 700 flights across its network through to May. Its low-cost subsidiary Scoot has cancelled all flights to China.

Cathay Pacific, which so far has seen flights reduced by more than 75 per cent till the end of March, with hints of more to be scrapped.

Qantas, which has reduced capacity to Hong Kong and suspended flights to Shanghai and Beijing. It is also reporting weak demand for seats on flights to Singapore and Japan as well. Capacity to Asian destinations will be reduced by 15 per cent until the end of May. Its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar is also adjusting capacity as a result of the weaker domestic market.

Air France, which has taken out flights to China until the end of March.

British Airways, which has cancelled not only flights to China but also more than 200 flights from London to destinations in the United States, Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Ireland in the latter half of March.

Ryanair, which will cut up to 25% of flights in and out of Italy from 17 March to 8 April..Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary said: “There has been a notable drop in forward bookings towards the end of March, into early April.”

EasyJet, which is cancelling some flights because of “a significant softening of demand and load factors into and out of our Northern Italian bases”.

United Airlines, which has suspended flights to China and axed flights to South Korea, Japan and Singapore as demand across the Pacific has fallen by as much as 75 per cent. Delta Air Lines has also cancelled flights to China.

Air Canada, which has cancelled all flights from Toronto to Hong Kong until the end of April.

Middle-east airlines, which are affected by action taken by the Gulf authorities. Iran as the epicentre of the outbreak in the region has seen flights to its airports cancelled by neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Events cancelled

The threat of the disease spreading easily at public events has led to many of them being cancelled, which in turn will affect the airlines which would have enjoyed a boon in carriage numbers.

Courtesy United Airlines

United Airlines for one has scaled back additional flights between San Francisco/Newark and Barcelona planned for the Mobile World Congress which has been cancelled.

Now all eyes are on the 2020 Summer Olympics to be staged in Tokyo.

Business travel, as noted by British Airways chief Willie Walsh, has been affected by the cancellation of large conferences. Some large corporations are also restricting executive travel.

International cruises, which pose a similar threat following the outbreak of the disease on the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama, have also suffered from reduced patronage or cancellations, and this in turn reduces feeds from airlines from across the globe to the ports of call.

Reduced profitability

Expectedly airlines are predicting reduced profitability although some of them are optimistic about the impact as not being as drastic as it seems.

Air France-KLM warned its earnings would be affected by as much as €200 million (US$224 million).

Qantas said the COVID-19 outbreak would cost the airline up to A$150m (US$99m).

Air New Zealand expects the impact to be in the range from NZ$35 million (US$22 million) to NZ$75 million as travel demand to Asia drops.

Finnair is expecting a significant drop in operating profit this year.

Airlines which rely heavily on Asian traffic are naturally more affected, even more so budget carriers such as AirAsia and its long-haul arm AirAsiaX. Particularly vulnerable are airlines which are struggling to stay afloat, such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, which is cutting back on long-haul operations, and Hong Kong Airlines, which is 45 per cent owned by Hainan Airlines of the HNA Group, which itself is facing a sell-off by the Chinese government.

Cost cutting

Besides reducing or cutting capacity, expectedly many airlines are looking at cutting cost.

EasyJet is looking into reducing administrative budgets, offering unpaid leave, and freezing recruitment, promotion and pay rises.

Singapore Airlines is implementing paycuts of 10 to 15 per cent for senior executive management. General staff will be offered a voluntary no-pay leave scheme.

Cathay Pacific is asking employees to take unpaid leave.

Courtesy Airbus

Perhaps the impact is most felt at Hong Kong Airlines which has slashed in-flight services to a bare minimum and dismissed staff, targeting 400 of them.

What’s next?

While the industry contnues to grapple with the prolonged saga of the B737 Max jet predicament, the coronavirus outbreak could not have come at a worse time on its heels. In both cases, it is the uncertainty that poses the biggest problem. Soem airlines are pessimistic that the threat will blow over by the end of March, which is unlikely, while others are more cautious in their forecast, looking at the end of May. It is this uncertainty that makes one wonder if any of them might not survive the wait.

Singapore Airlines’ third quarter performance: Silver lining before the clouds darken

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airliners (SIA)’s double-digit profit growth for the third quarter (October to December 2019) is a silver lining before the clouds darken.

SIA posted a 3Q operating profit of S$413 million (US$297 million) – S$44 million or 12 per cent more than the same quarter a year ago. This gives a 9-month total of S$878 million which is 13 per cent short of the full FY 2018/19 profit of S$991 million Of that, 4Q contributed 21 per cent.

The question is whether SIA can match last year’s performance in the current situation with the dip in global travel because of COVID-19.

SIA has cancelled almost 700 flights to destinations not only in Asia but also in the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and Africa and West Asia. Some flights are suspended from February with others taking effect in the months following until May.

The full impact of the cancellations will not be felt in FY2019/20 which nevertheless will be impacted by present and continuing dip in demand.

In particular, China is a large market for SIA and its low-cost subsidiary Scoot, which has cancelled all flights to China. SilkAir which will in time be merged with the parent airline has also drastically reduced its services to China.

SilkAir’s 3Q performance was flat, posting an operating profit of S$7 million. The airline’s capacity has been impacted by the grounding of the B737 Max jet.

Scoot posted an operating profit of S$4 million for 3Q 2019/20. In light of its reliance on the China business, it is not likely to fare any better in the last quarter.

Of course, SIA is not alone in this unfortunate situation. Other airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines and Royal Brunei Airlines have also cut back services to cope with reduced demand. In the case of Cathay, capacity has been reduced by as much as 40 per cent.

It is during times like this that confidence is most needed. SIA is optimistic that the airline is “well-positioned to weather current challenges posed by COVID-19 outbreak” according to its statement released on February 14.

Malaysia Airlines can’t make up its mind

Courtesy Reuters

While beleaguered Malaysia Airlines (MAS) gets deeper into the red and is looking for a strategic partner to prop it up, it seems not to be in any real hurry to accept any of the proposals it is said to have received. It has been reported that MAS needs up to RM21 billion (USD5.17 billion) to stay afloat until 2025.

A new slate of potential white knights made known recently, one different from the initial list, include AirAsia Group Berhad, Japan Airlines, Air France-KLM and Malindo Airways. No mention was made of four other local companies and Qatar Airways which subsequently clarified that it was not considering equity participation but interested in helping MAS get back on its feet. The proposals by the local companies apparently didn’t sell as they had limited or no aviation experience.

What has since changed? AirAsia which had previously insisted it was not interested has now emerged as a front-runner, which industry observers had at the onset said would be the best bet of success for the ailing MAS. AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes had proposed a merger to include budget long-haul AirAsia X. It is however understandable that the powers that be may not be too enthusiastic about being taken over by a rival compatriot which is a budget carrier and which has grown bigger than the national flag carrier.

Japan Airlines seems lukewarm about its interest which has been fanned by a commercial partnership with MAS to open access to each other’s destinations in their respective countries. The Japanese carrier continues to maintain its interest in expanding that partnership but steers clear of a firm potential investment in MAS. If at all it is interested, it is believed the stake would be small.

Air France-KLM on the other hand is said to have proposed a 49-percent take-up. However, that too has become an “iffy” judging by a statement released by the Euorpean conglomerate: “Air France-KLM had previously been in contact with Malaysia Airlines’ shareholders, but at this stage Air France-KLM is not a current party to the sales process of Malaysia Airlines.”

Malindo Airways is unlikely to be able to stand up against AirAsia in the run-in.

Why is MAS hesitant or is it pussy-footing, hoping for a better deal? Over time, the interest has shifted. It seems there is division within the company. The proposals by foreign companies are said to be better than those by local contenders, but there is reservation about selling out to an alien entity.

However, the saga holds a mystery card. Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahatir Mohamad said “there are about five proposals but of course some of them are just no go.” The fifth proposal is not known. Is it a “no go” or could this be the surprise choice, and who could it be?

Previous speculation had thrown up names like British Airways which seems more interested in expanding its stronghold in Europe while preferring a wider commercial arrangement elsewhere.

More recently there was suggestion that Singapore Airlines might be interested to work with MAS to support each other in the region and world-wide. But the deep rivalry between the close neighbours which goes back a long way to when they split and became competitors is not something that is easily forgotten.

Apparently, Dr Mahatir was said to be unhappy with how the ongoing evaluation was proceeding, so it may not be long when MAS finally accepts the hand of one of the suitors, whether already named or yet to be known.

Review: From Singapore to Seoul vv on Korean Air

When I was planning a trip from Songapore to Seoul last month, I had intended to fly either Singapore Airlines or Asiana Airlines. I decided to go with Asiana as it was the cheaper option. However, when I completed my online booking, a different fare was shown.

It so happened that Korean Air in conjunction with a local bank was promoting a fare that was even lower.

Photo by DL

Although I had flown Korean Air before, I confess that I had not thought of Korean Air this time because comparing the two Korean carriers, I had been prejudiced by the many surveys particularly Skytrax which continually favoured Asiana over the years. But the Korean Air offer was too good to resist.

KE 646 departing SIN 01:30 arriving ICN 08:50
KE 647 departing ICN 23:10 arriving SIN 05:00+1

I flew Economy.

Flight

What’s good about a red-eye flight is that you travel at a relatively off-peak time, and you can try to get some sleep during the journey (as would be the normal thing to do at the time) before arriving in daylight.

I have never flown a more quiet flight in all aspects – there was little movement and hardly any unnerving noise made by the passengers. Quite unlike my experiences flying Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific long distance when the call button kept ringing throughout the flight. Understandably the distance may make a difference. In any case, this was a pleasant change.

Crew

They were good, the female flight attendants looking most impressive in their exquisite attire. Above all, they were polite and pleasant.

Unlike the crew of most other major carriers (not excluding the big names known for reputable customer service) who would gather behind the curtain in the back galley between meals, there was at least one attendant who would maintain his or her presence in the assigned station throughout the flight.

Food

Good. I liked the choice of a local Korean option out of Seoul.

Toilet

Surprisingly clean. It was observed that the crew would make frequent checks.

Ground service

But ground service seemed to be less than satisfactory. At Singapore Changi Airport, the check-in agent could be a little friendlier and less perfunctory. By comparison, the check-in agent at Incheon International Airport was more customer-friendly, showing a readiness to assist.

The flight departs and arrives at Changi’s Terminal 4, which means you will have to ride the shuttle to Terminal 2 if you are commuting by subway.

At ICN, Korean Air operates out of Termninal 2, which seems spartan compared to the bustling Terminal 1. By 9 pm, it would be hard-put to find a restaurant (or anything else to amuse oneself) except the 7-11 convenience store.

Will I fly this route on Korean Air again?

Certainly YES. Worthy of note is that while Asiana Airlines has lost its place in the Skytrax survey as one of the world’s best, the top 25 airlines for 2020 ranked by AirlinesRatings include Korean Air but not its rival.

What’s behind the partnership between Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines?

This article was published in Today on 26 November 2019

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/whats-behind-partnership-between-singapore-airlines-and-malaysia-airlines