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.

Will Qatar Airways be Malaysia Airlines’ white knight?

Some three to four months after Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohamad said ailing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) may shut down or be sold, he revealed he had received four proposals to take over the national flag carrier.

The first known interest came from former AirAsia non-executive chairman Pahamin Ab Rajab and five partners, whose consortium is looking at scooping up a 49 per cent stake in MAS. Whether AirAsia is part of the consortium is not clear, but the budget carrier’s chief Tony Fernandes had said he was not interested as it would be a mistake for a low-cost operator to want to go full-service. (See Can AirAsia save Malaysia Airlines, 8 July 2019)

Qatar Airways now emerged as the second prospective white knight come to the rescue of MAS following a meeting between Dr Mahatir and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamin Hamad al-Thani. Both Qatar and MAS belong to the OneWorld alliance. At least that’s common ground for a start, unless geopolitical problems Qatar faces with its neighbours that lead to its isolation in the region stand in the way.

But, of course, no doubt Qatar has the funds to shore up the loss-making MAS. There are good competitive reasons for doing so. The tie-up will certainly boost Qatar’s standing in Southeast Asia and the extended Asian region. Dr Mahatir has recognised that MAS suffers from fierce competition, and Qatar’s aggressive strategy in the international arena may well also push the Malaysian carrier in the same direction.

The acquisition will complement Qatar’s investment in Europe, where it is already a major shareholder of the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. With a share of 20.01 per cent, it s IAG’s largest single stakeholder.

It is interesting that of the four proposals received by MAS, Qatar is the only foreign company. It is not known if the other proposals are from industry players apart from the suggestion that Mr Pahamin had an aviation link in a non-executive capacity. That probably explains how many industry experts think MAS’ best bet is AirAsia, once a carrier heavily indebted and now Asia’s leading budget operator.

Qatar’s credentials as the world’s best airline voted by Skytrax respondents are impressive, but national pride to keep the flag carrier in local hands may present a hurdle. Yet one only has to look at Swiss International Air Lines now owned by the Lufthansa Group and the merger between Air France and KLM to appreciate how in business, the desire to survive will dictate the course. Already Dr Mahatir has assured his people MAS will retain its name.

Can AirAsia save Malaysia Airlines?

Courtesy Reuters

Back in March, AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes said he was not keen on acquiring Malaysia Airlines (MAS).

This came amidst speculation of a likely scenario when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad mulled over the future of the beleaguered flag carrier, suggesting it might be better off sold if not downsized or expanded as the case may be with a change of management.

Dr Mahatir said: “Although we hired foreign management, MAS still faced losses. Therefore, one of the options is to sell.”

Four turnaround initiatives without success had apparently cost the government MYR250 billion (USD 6.05 billion).

Recent events have led to renewed speculation of AirAsia’s interest. Former AirAsia Group Bhd non-executive chairman Pahamin Rajab is said to have met Dr Mahatir. However, it might well point to Mr Pahamin’s personal interest eyeing the top job at Malaysia Airlines following the resignation of Tan Sri Mohammed Nor Md Yusof as chairman.

But if the acquisition does come about, it would be an interesting case of how a budget carrier came to assimilate a larger national carrier. AirAsia, once itself heavily indebted, had become Asia’s leading budget carrier.

There are clear benefits of such a merger. The two carriers can complement their networks and not compete as rivals on the same routes given AirAsia’s ambition to expand into the long-haul market, unless the products differ substantially in their make-up. This can be modelled after the likes of Singapore Airlines-Scoot and Qantas-Jetstar complement.

The execution is key. The industry has seen one too many examples of assimilation by a legacy carrier of a low-cost operator. For AirAsia, the big question must be one of how its operating culture will mesh with that of MAS, noting in particular that its success lies in the austere budget model although this does not imply it is not inclined to be service-bias.

One can’t help but wonder how and why MAS has failed to change in spite of earlier initiatives at restructuring, so much said about cost-cutting and perhaps not enough focus on the operating culture. So can AirAsia work the magic?

But, of course, only if Mr Fernandes wanted it. He had said: “For low-cost carriers to go full-service… is a mistake.” He had also called Malaysia Airlines “old-fashioned”. For him, the priority is to transform AirAsia into a “travel technology company”. In his words, to be “more than just an airline”.

The real question then is: Is MAS ready for the transformation?

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.

AirAsia completes Asian conquest

Courtesy AirAsia

AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes said the latest agreement to set up a joint venture in China with Everbright Group “closes the loop” in the region. He added that AirAsia China “represents the final piece of the AirAsia puzzle.”

The Chinese joint venture came on the heels of the agreement with Gumin Company Limited, businessman Tran Trong Kien and Hai Au Aviation Joint Stock Company to set up AirAsia Vietnam, which is expected to commence operations in the first half of 2018.

These two ventures add to an impressive list that already includes Thai AirAsia, Indonesia AirAsia, Philippines AirAsia and AirAsia India, giving the Malaysian budget carrier a base in almost every major country in the region from India and across Southeast Asia to China. The exception is Japan when an earlier joint venture with All Nippon Airways – AirAsia Japan – was disbanded just over a year after it commenced operations in August 2012.

Notwithstanding that, AirAsia’s ambition to be the region’s main player remains unthwarted, capitalising on Asia’s growing middle class and its propensity for air travel, particularly in populous China, India and Indonesia. Headquartered in Kulala Lumpur, it is now larger than flag carrier Malaysia Airlines and is Asia’ largest budget carrier.

But Mr Fernandes enjoys wrestling with the big boys. AirAsia’s strategy is not confined to the domestic market, which will place it in good stead to compete beyond the borders in time. Not content to be just Asia’s largest budget carrier, AirAsia is once again trying to prove sceptics wrong about the viability of the long haul as it launches flights from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu in June – this, despite its failure to sustain services to Paris and London five years ago. If success seemed elusive in the past – the same fate that had dealt similar blows to others such as Hong Kong’s Oasis Airlines who dare go where others fear to tread – Mr Fernandes deserves credit at least for trying.

AirAsia to launch Honolulu services: Revisiting the sustainability of budget long haul

Courtesy AirAsia

Courtesy AirAsia

Malaysian carrier AirAsia will be introducing four weekly services from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu in June, becoming the first budget airline approved for operations between the United States and Asia. Flight time is anything from 16 to 18 hours.

This is yet another attempt by founder Tony Fernandes to launch a budget long haul, despite the failure to sustain earlier operations under the AirAsia X banner to London in 2009 and Paris in 2011, which were suspended in 2012. However, Mr Fernandes said operations to London will resume in 2018 when the airline receives its new more economical long-range Airbus A330-900neo jets.

Although sceptics continue to doubt the viability of budget long hauls and there have been many who tried and failed, the entrepreneurial spirit to push the boundary is still very much alive. The current slate includes Norwegian Air Shuttle which commenced services from Oslo to New York and to Bangkok in 2013, and Lufthansa’s Eurowings which and operates nonstop from Cologne and Bonn to US destinations such as Seattle, Orlando, Miami and Las Vegas. Budget doyen Ryanair is also looking at crossing the Atlantic. Singapore Airlines’ budget offshoot Scoot has announced plans to connect Singapore and Athens in June.

A number of factors have contributed to the trend.Bu dget carriers are beginning to eye distant destinations dominated by legacy airlines as they expand, and this is now made possible by technologically advanced and more fuel efficient aircraft. The budget model is changing, and the line between budget and full-service carriers is increasingly blurring as the former upgrades customer service and facilities and the latter adopting some of the practices such as product unbundling and charging for add-ons. Legacy airlines no longer view budget carriers as operating in their own niche markets but a real threat. (See Ultra-long flights: The competition heats up, Feb 7, 2017)

Whether Mr Fernandes’ Honolulu venture is sustainable or not in the long run, he has earned his feather. As a stand-alone, it will be a challenge for AirAsia, which will have to tap feeds from its regional connections – as will Scoot when it commences services to Athens. It will be a test, considering the nature of the leisure traffic and the competition posed by several airlines in the region that are already plying the route direct form their home bases or in code-share arrangements.

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.