And then there are three

From four to three (if you exclude SIA Cargo which will be absorbed as a division of the parent airline in 2018), Singapore Airlines (SIA) will now have three carriers in its stable as sister budget subsidiaries Scoot and Tigerair announced the completion of their merger come July 25, 2017. SilkAir, defined as a regional carrier, makes up the trio.

Both Scoot and Tigerair will henceforth operate under the Scoot brand. It seems logical, considering the poor reputation of Tigerair and the plans to expand Scoot into the long-haul. Unlike Tigerair, Scoot was launched as a medium-haul budget carrier.

The merger was long anticipated as the operations of the two carriers began to overlap with Scoot operating the short-haul as well. At the same time, loss-making Tigerair’s days were numbered as it struggled through a period of difficult times both financially and operationally, scarred with customer complaints of poor service.

While it certainly makes sense for the two carriers to eliminate intra-competition and pool their resources, it also opens the field for Scoot to expand its network. Already it is trailing behind Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia, whose chief Tony Fernandes is known to be testing new boundaries beyond the four-to-five hour limitation of the budget model. While AirAsia is not always guaranteed success, it has enjoyed headstart advantages.

Courtesy AirAsia

Scoot has announced a service to Honolulu by the end of the year, six months after AirAsia launches its service from Kuala Lumpur. Both carriers will operate via Osaka. It will be interesting to see how the competition plays out.

Scoot may be advantaged by its hub connections at Changi Airport while AirAsia will rely on its wide regional network to take advantage of Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s lower costs in a price-sensitive leisure market.

Scoot will benefit from the reputation of the SIA brand association, but somehow that has not rubbed off on the beleaguered Tigerair.

The competition is set to redefine the budget game as Scoot and AirAsia battle it out to be the region’s leading carrier not only for the short-haul but also beyond.

SIA’s KrisFlyer Gold is one big disappointment

sia-krisflyer-goldDo not expect the KrisFlyer Gold Lounge in Terminal 3 of Singapore Changi Airport to be anywhere near an iota of the flavour of Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s very own Silver Kris lounge for its first and business class passengers. This other lounge meant for other entitled travellers, such as non-premium class frequent fliers and guests of partner airlines, is a far cry from the reputed real thing.

Quite inevitably the disappointment stems from the expectations of an SIA brand name association, and all the more if you had on a previous occasion tasted the lavish luxury of the Silver Kris. But even while making generous allowance for this so-called Gold standard to be expectedly or intentionally inferior to that Silver offering, you would not have imagined it to be that wide of a gulf.

Perhaps the receptionist had just had a bad night when I decided to avail myself of the privilege one morning before flying off to Taipei. He looked visibly unhappy at his desk. He was most unwelcoming and quite arrogant as if he thought that was a bearing befitting his job at a supposedly exclusive facility. That didn’t quite bother me, as the facility itself should be enough to compensate for the cold reception.

But alas, it did not. The lounge was cramped with seats but not users. Quite strangely, the chairs were arranged like they were in a classroom. Perhaps there was a teaching class that had just ended. The self-service counter had a limited array of food – very ordinary, I must say – that looked like a buffet spread at some office event. We were not enthused, and left within five minutes without partaking of the pleasures it was supposed to offer. The receptionist didn’t say a word as we stepped out.

You can’t help the brand name association, which may be a good or a bad thing, how it fortifies or dilutes the image. It is understandable when passengers fly Tigerair or Scoot, they expect a little of the SIA rub-off. It is not so much about the tangible product which is clearly of a different tier, but a little if not much of the service culture. All the more so when the line between budget and mainstream airlines begins to blur.

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 ).

The end draws near for Tigerair

ScootTigerThe announced assimilation of Tigerair into Scoot by the end of next year does not come as a surprise. In fact, it has long been anticipated.

The two airlines will operate under the single identity of Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s youngest subsidiary airline Scoot which was originally intended as a medium-to-long haul budget carrier in contrast to Tigerair’s short-haul status. To be expected, Scoot is performing much better than Tigerair, which has been plagued by an ill-gotten past. Faced with stiff regional competition, the lines soon blur between the networks of the two brands as they lapse into each other’s domain. The intra-competition does not make economic sense, which led to a policy of co-operating rather than competing.

A new company Budget Aviation Holdings (BAH) was formed in May to manage the two carriers. So said SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong: “The integration has already led to commercial and operational synergies between Scoot and Tigerair that are providing growth opportunities for both airlines. Following a review, we have determined that the logical next step is to pursue a common operating licence and common brand identity to enable a more seamless travel experience for customers.”
BAH chief executive Lee Lik Hsin added: “A single brand is less confusing for consumers and more effective to build brand loyalty and affinity.”

Multiple branding within a family is not a new economic phenomenon. But it has not worked for the Scoot-Tigerair differentiation when the market becomes restricted by its defined limits that may hurt both carriers in their pursuit of growth, particularly for Scoot in its own right to tap into source markets to grow beyond those confines. Besides, the poor reputation of Tigerair does not help. More than that, what really is happening in the big picture is that the aviation landscape has shifted drastically. The so-called niche budget market has extended beyond its boundaries. Tigerair seems a lame and superfluous appendage when Scoot could do the job better, and the neater structure will better position the Group in an integrative strategy rather one that is segmented overall.

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.

Scoot and Tigerair go where it makes sense

ScootTigerSingapore Airlines (SIA)’s decision to bring its budget subsidiaries Tigerair and Scoot under the control of a common holding company – Budget Aviation Holdings – is no surprise. Expected and long predicted. It just didn’t make sense for the two carriers to be competing for the same market in apparent collaboration although the initial division is for one to operate the short haul and the other the medium haul. The lines soon blurred.

The new entity will be headed by Tigerair CEO Lee Lik Hsin.

SIA chief executive Goh Choon Phong said: “The holding company structure will drive a deep integration of our low-cost subsidiaries, which are important parts of our portfolio strategy in which we have investments in both the full-service and budget aspects of the airline business.”

Indeed, as the aviation landscape keeps shifting, one may even wonder why this has not happened much earlier with Tigerair’s poor performance and Scoot competing in the same market. While major airlines are consolidating their strengths, SIA may be finding it one too many on its plate to try and catch-all but risks dilution of its core strategy. Well, as it has always been said, better late than never, and better now than later.

This may be the prelude to the merger of the two carriers with one identity although SIA has said there may be difficulties with traffic rights, airline/aircraft registration and licensing. But it can happen. “We would not rule it out,” said Mr Goh. “But for the moment, we do see a benefit in them having their own separate identities.”