Humanizing the airline business

Never before was there so much publicity given to customers’ complaints about mistreatment by the airlines in North America ever since the David Dao incident when the seated passenger was forcibly removed from an United Airlines flight by security personnel. Stories of being bumped off a flight abound, and added to these other stories that include flight cancellations and misconnections, checking into an incorrect flight that took the passenger half way around the world, and death of a treasured animal in the cargo hold.

The beef is more about the way such a situation was handled by the airlines than the fact that it did occur. Take, for example, the incident of a 15-year old boy, technically classified as a minor, who was travelling from Denver to Thunder Bay via Toronto on Air Canada. He missed his connection when the flight out of Denver was delayed, and Air Canada duly rebooked him to fly to Thunder Bay the following day but did not offer any accommodation or vouchers for food.

Courtesy Air Canada

In an interview with BC News, Derrin Espinola said he felt “trapped… very hungry, very tired, very scared.” No one helped, even as he went from counter to counter to explain his situation. While Air Canada had issued a statement to say it was “truly sorry”, the blame appeared to have been placed on runway construction works at Toronto’s Pearson Airport and “exacerbated in this case by adverse weather”.

Was this really Espinola’s fault for having faith in the airline’s trusted his service? His mother, Karin Patock, who tried in vain to reach the airline by phone, said she chose Air Canada for its policy about flight delays as stated on its website: “Youths travelling alone (ages 12 to 17) will be taken care of by our agents. We will also arrange for accommodations, meals and transportation if needed.”

The spate of stories now made possible by the power of the social media may have caused many travellers to not believe that airlines in pursuing the dollar do really care for all that they boast to be better than their competitors. But they are beginning to listen, or so it seems as each time a nasty incident like this happens, they apologize readily and are said to be reaching out to the affected passengers and even compensating them as some form of amelioration for their distress, however irreparable.

In the case of denied boarding, which will continue to be practised by most of the airlines with the exception of JetBlue Airlines and Southwest Airlines in their stated policy, the major airlines have vowed to reduce overbooking and increased their compensation for volunteers who give up their seats.

Certainly the authorities have also taken note of the frustrations of passengers within the purview of their legislative responsibility to protect the rights of travellers.

Airline advertisements generally paint the romance of caring crew and other personnel to reduce the stress of travelling. Mind you, many of them do live up to their word. Recent incidents could signal a timely re-focus on procedural constraints and methodology in tackling difficult situations. The social media has given voice to travellers, and what is happening is a humanizing of the airline business as a reminder to carriers that they are dealing not with mere business numbers but people who deserve to be treated with dignity.

Advertisements

Southwest will follow JetBlue: Better a policy of no overbooking than compensation

Courtesy Getty Images

AFTER the fallout of United Airlines in an ugly overbooking situation, Delta Air Lines said it would pay any volunteer who gives up a seat close to US$10,000, which United now emulates. But Southwest Airlines does it better with the assurance it will not overbook seats.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the airline “had been thinking about ending overbooking for a long time”. Thanks to United, it is now looking to implementing the new policy sooner with “better forecasting tools and a new reservations system coming online next month.”

In fact, JetBlue Airways already has the policy in place. In a published “Customer Service Plan”, the airline states: “JetBlue does not overbook flights.” There may be exceptions to the rule. The statement goes on to state: “However, some situations, such as flight cancellations and reaccommodation, might create a similar situation.” In which event, affected passengers will be paid denied boarding compensation of US$1350.

Courtesy JetBlue Airways

In the present climate when travellers are weighing in on the issue, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes reaffirmed the airline’s policy. “We are committed to our policy of not overselling flights,” he said. “And our crew members have always been in power to make decisions in rare cases where we have to put someone on a flight.”

Last year, according to the Transportation Department, JetBlue bumped off 3,176 passengers involuntarily while 1,705 passengers agreed to take another flight, out of 34.7 million passengers.
This, Hayes said, was largely the result of downsizing planes.

Ironically, Southwest had the highest total number of involuntary denied boardings last year – at 0.99 per 10,000 passengers,. JetBlue was not far behind 0.92. The rates for both airlines more than double United’s 0.43.

One badly handled incident, so it seems, can really do more damage than the number of incidents added up might suggest.

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.

Virgin America tops, according to Conde Nast

Courtesy Virgin America

Courtesy Virgin America

Virgin America is the best airlines in the US according to a readers survey by Conde Nast. It is a credible list.

The top five airlines are as follows:

1. Virgin America, for its service and roomy cabins that include such features as touch-screen menus ordering, seat-to-seat messaging, no shortage of power outlets, Netflix streaming and mood lighting.

2. JetBlue Airways, for its ten-inch seatback screens, entertainment streaming options, free internet, unlimited blue chips and snacks.

3. Hawaiian Airlines, for its lie-flat seating in the premium cabin, welcome mai tais and guava cookies, and reputation for punctuality.

4. Alaska Airways, for its friendly staff, comfortable seats, reliability and guarantee that checked luggage will arrive no later than 20 minutes after touchdown.

5. Southwest Airlines, for its fun staff, affordable fare, two free checked bags allowance and any change of ticket without penalty.

Worthy of note is the ranking in the top five positions of both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, which have since merged but continue to operate under their different names for the time being. Their merged identity is set to be a major aviation powerhouse in the US,

Also worthy of note is the absence of the big three US airlines: American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Size is not a plus in this case, it seems.

Bags fly rough on Southwest Airlines

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

Thrice in six months seems a little too often. The first time it happened, the bag cracked on its side. The second bag lost a wheel. And the face of the third bag was smashed, probably because a heavier bag landed on it in the process of loading. And they were good bags, one of them brand new.

Which, of course, led me to wonder about the handling of the bags by Southwest Airlines or its airport agency. To add insult to injury, on the one occasion that the damage was brought to the attention of a ground staff member, the retort was: “How could we be sure it was caused by us?”

Guess we should be grateful that Southwest is about the only US airline that allows you to check in not only one bag but two at no additional fee. An increasingly rare perk these days!

Which Asian airlines might be interested to buy into Virgin America?

Photo courtesy Virgin America

Photo courtesy Virgin America

UP for sale, Virgin America has some suitors lining up. It has received takeover bids from JetBlue Airways Corp and Alaska Air Group Inc. In this era of the mega carriers (consider the mergers of United Airlines and Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, and American Airlines and USAir), a tie-up with another carrier strengthen Virgin’s competitive ability. And while it is almost certain that the merger would be with another American carrier, with analysts placing bets on JetBlue as the best fit, apparently some unidentified Asian carriers have also expressed interest. Still, be that as a remote possibility, one cannot help but be curious and speculate who the likely candidates might be.

Two big names come to mind immediately because of their successes, networks and financial capability, namely Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines. Both airlines are keen on expanding their US market. Cathay flies to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco while Singapore Airlines (SIA) operates to Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Both airlines have codeshare access to several other destinations. Cathay’s codeshare partners include Alaska Airlines and American Airlines while SIA already codeshares with Virgin and with JetBlue.

So it looks like SIA more than Cathay would be favoured on relationships alone. Since foreign ownership rules governing US airlines require the bid to be submitted jointly with a US partner. It would be convenient for SIA to join hands with JetBlue. Of course, Cathay may partner Alaska Airways, but historically Cathay is not quite interested in equity participation. Although it has a 20.3% stake in Air China and 49% in Air China Cargo, that could be a matter of expedience to secure its market in the growing China mainland market.

SIA on the other hand, limited by a hinterland market, tried in its early years to grow through acquisitions. In 1999, it bought 49% of Virgin Atlantic and subsequently 25% of Air New Zealand. Although both buys subsequently proved to be lemons, resulting in heavy losses, the misstep might be less strategic than circumstantial. Unfortunately that has hurt SIA deeply more psychologically than financially as the airline became more cautious about such moves. In subsequent years it failed in its seemingly reluctant bid for a stake in China Eastern Airlines, and the SIA Group was plagued by the poor decisions of its budget subsidiary Tigerair in joint ventures in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Oct 2012 SIA bought a 10% stake in Virgin Australia, joining tow other foreign partners namely Air New Zealand and Etihad Airways. In much the same way that Cathay needed to secure its market in China partnering with Air China, SIA needed to secure its Australian market against the competition by Qantas. Six months after, SIA increased its stake to 19.9%.

But is SIA even interested in a stake in Virgin when its codeshare partnership with JetBlue already places it in an advantageous position to benefit from a JetBlue takeover of Virgin? Would a bid jointly with an Asian partner jeopardise JetBlue’s chances if the powers that be preferred an all-American merger a la the big three of United, Delta and American?

Besides Cathay and SIA, one should not ignore the voracious appetite of the China carriers in the national trend to acquire foreign assets. And why must it be premised on full-service carriers that are already serving destinations in the US? What about a budget carrier with dreams of new frontiers? Maverick AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes who models himself after Virgin guru Richard Branson and who had been where others were hesitant, even afraid, to go may yet surprise with an expression of interest even if it is no more than just that. He is one of the few airline chiefs who, like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Qantas’ Alan Joyce, understood what an opportune good dose of publicity could do.

All this, of course, is speculative. Asian carriers are likely to be less concerned this time than when the mergers of the American big three took place. Together with Southwest Airlines, the big three control 80% of the American market. Virgin and its alleged interested parties JetBlue and Alaska are all largely domestic carriers. Even if Southwest throws in a bid (but for its size that may not pass the antitrust law as easily), it is still the same scenario. SIA’s connections with JetBlue and Virgin will continue to stand it in good stead, but if it’s Alaska that carries the day, then it is Cathay that stands to benefit from the new, extended connection. Or does it really matter when there are already subset agreements across partnership lines that allow you to fly an airline of one alliance and connect on another in a rival group? That’s how complex today’s aviation has become.

What conclusions can you draw in an airlines survey?

SIA courtesy SIA

WE continue to be fascinated by rankings of the world`s best airlines, although the results of most surveys – take away some bias here and there – are quite predictable and almost similar across the board. The winners by and large boast excellent cabin service, great food, comprehensive in-flight entertainment and innumerable choices, more generous legroom than what their competitors offer, and frills such as complimentary champagne and brand name overnight kit. It is all about creature comforts. And the impressions are understandably almost always skewed by the luxuries of the upper classes.

Traveller magazine Conde Nast has just posted its list of the world’s best airlines, surveyed among some 128,000 readers. Of course this is not the definitive list of excellence to the detail, in the same way that no other list can be as definitive without considering factors such as the type of respondents involved, the scope of the survey and the criteria adopted, but there are nevertheless interesting conclusions to be drawn from them. So often it is more interesting to look at the omissions.

Long haul can impress or disappoint

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is a perennial favorite of Conde Nast readers, ranking top for 27 of 28 years. It is hardly surprising, which to be saying it seems even redundant. The airline has long earned the reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, and is frequently celebrated in other surveys as well. It was ranked second after Qatar Airways in the last Skytrax survey. It is hard to find a match that depicts consistency in excellence. The real clincher seems to be in its long haul operations – such flights that are likely to elicit the flaks when passengers are apt to become more stressed and demanding. Here is where SIA is able to make the difference by a well-trained crew that anticipates a passenger’s needs, always mindful the passenger’s comfort first and foremost in the service.

All the airlines in Conde Nast’s top ten are long haul operators, with the exception of Porter Airlines which is more a city shuttle that flies between Toronto in Canada and US destinations such as Boston, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

While the long haul impresses, it can also take apart an airline’s reputation, which explains why some airlines are inundated with complaints about being handled like a can of sardines. Interestingly, the Conde Nast list of best American carriers is made up of short-haul operators to the exclusion of the big three of United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Virgin America is ranked first followed by JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf Carriers

Again, it is not surprising that Conde Nast’s top ten ranks are dominated by Asian and Gulf carriers, which together were placed in not only in the top three ranks but also seven of the top ten positions. The Gulf big three of Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways were second, third and fifth respectively. Qatar was tops in the earlier Skytrax survey, ahead of Emirates (5th) and Etihad (6th). Other Asian airlines in the Conde Nast list are Japan Airlines (6th), Korean Air (7th) and Cathay Pacific (10th). Both SIA and Cathay were also ranked among Skytrax’s top ten airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf carriers means the stark exclusion of airlines of other regions. Only one European airline – Virgin Atlantic – was listed, and in fourth placing. One asks: Where are British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa although going further down the list you will find Swiss International Air Lines (17th) and Finnair (20th)?

That and the marked absence of US carriers demonstrate the superior service culture of Asian and Gulf carriers and their growing popularity that continue to put pressure on their rivals in the competition. The US big recently accused the Gulf big three of unfair competition supported by state subsidies. In truth, North American airlines are not inefficient, but they lack the soft pampering touches of their competitors. There is a host of pertinent questions. Can US carriers be as friendly or, to go one further, do better? And, ultimately, do they even see the need?

Luxury improves image

Etihad boasts the “residence” suite that comes with a bedroom, private bath with shower and lounge. That is for now the forerunner in the race for the ultimate luxury in the air, leaps ahead of SIA’s first class suites and all the other airlines’ flat bed allures. There are also the extras: Etihad provides a concierge service that will make a dinner reservation for you when you land, and some airlines offer door-to-airport limousine services. The slant towards premium classes is to be expected, for that is what makes news even as the perks are limited to a smaller but more lucrative market of the travelling population. If there is one airline that seems to be doing much more for coach than many others, it is Air New Zealand, which offers “Skycouch” in economy – seats that can be converted into a lie-flat double bed – but then again, this is limited to only three seats in the cabin, reminiscent of the days when EVA designates a small number of seats as the ill-defined premium economy before the subclass takes on an identity of its own today.

Comparison is the crux

In any survey, the crux is the comparison, particularly when they are all said to be providing good cabin service and excellent food amongst the creature comforts. The Conde Nast survey again surfaces the rivalry between SIA and Cathay Pacific in the top ten, favoring the former. Interestingly, Japan Airlines (6th) is ranked ahead of All Nippon Airways (11th), and Korean Air (7th) ahead of Asiana Airlines. That indicates a reversal of order that has been the reading of many past surveys, and may well portend how the competition may be trending.

In the case of Gulf carriers, the ranking rivalry among Emirates, Qatar and Etihad is very much a close call going by several international surveys. At the same time, we cannot ignore the inclusion of Turkish Airlines in Conde Nast’s top 20. Turkish was fourth in the Skytrax survey.

In the close rivalry between Qantas (15th) and Virgin Australia (19th), the former continues to enjoy an advantage over the latter.

What else matters? All the hype about going green as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the impact of climate change? That Korean Air prepares its food from humanely raised and organically grown produce. That El Al offers an iPad rental program. That Virgin Atlantic has a stand-up bar. That Qantas offers Select on Q-Eat that allows you to pre-order your meal. That Air New Zealand makes its safety presentation more entertaining than others. That British Airways allows you to log on to a movie as soon as you board and stay with it until the aircraft is docked at the gate on arrival. The list goes on. And one wonders.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.