Air Canada introduces seat auction for seat upgrading

Courtesy Air Canada

Courtesy Air Canada

FLYING with empty seats in the premium class in times of low demand is something all airlines have to live with. It often raises the question as to whether it is such a waste. Yet many of them would rather not compromise the product. Sometimes an airline may choose to selectively upgrade passengers for free – usually to frequent fliers – whether because it would release seats in an overbooked economy class or for goodwill.

Scandinavian Airlines used to offer the upgrade for a small fee at check-in when there are too many empty seats in the front of the aircraft. Some airlines announce the offer on board when most passengers are already seated. Indeed, why not make the extra bucks if it does not mean additional catering?

Air Canada piloted an online seat auction for upgrade late last year and apparently met with such success that it plans to fully implement the option. Mark Nasr, managing director of e-commerce, loyalty programs and ancillary revenue, said: “Because of customer demand, we’ve grown the product faster than we were originally intending to.”

However, Air Canada was not the first to do this. Virgin America reportedly was already testing an upgrade auction through an app called SeatBoost on its Las Vegas flights.

So, for bargain hunters, their dream of flying premium and not paying that much may well be within reach. True blue premium flyers may not have cause to complain since they are as less propensed to take the chance.

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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.

Another Virgin on the rocks

Courtesy Virgin Australia

Courtesy Virgin Australia

THE name Virgin is ringing in the air. Following on the heels of Alaska Airlines paying US$2.6 billion for Virgin America, wrenching the bid from rival JetBlue Airways, Singapore Airlines (SIA) announced it has increased its stake in Virgin Australia form 22.91 per cent to 23.11 per cent at a cost of A$3.18 million (US$2.39 million). SIA has approval from Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board to increase its stake to 25.9 per cent.

Air New Zealand, the largest shareholder of Virgin Australia with a stake of 25.89 per cent, said it was considering an exit to focus on other growth areas. If SIA takes up its full allotment, it will be a larger partner than Etihad Airways, which owns about 24 per cent of the Australian carrier. The Virgin Group holds only a stake of about 10 per cent. There is speculation that SIA is poised to go higher, subject to approval from the relevant Australian authorities.

History repeats itself. SIA’s relationship with the Virgin Group goes as far back as 1999 when the Singapore carrier made headline news buying 49 per cent of Virgin Atlantic at a cost of £600m (US$844 million). What then appeared to be a coup turned out not be a lemon, which after years of lacklustre performance, was sold to Delta Airlines at a hefty loss in 2014 for £224m.

Yet the circumstances today might be a little different. SIA feels more pressured to secure its Australian market against national carrier Qantas. Together with the other partners, SIA is a contributor to an A$425 million loan to Virgin Australia to keep it above waters. While Virgin’s trans-Pacific flights to the US would accomplish a dream long in the making for SIA, it is not as imperative as it was then when it had hoped Virgin Atlantic would augment its trans-Atlantic foray into the US east coast. It could be worse if Air New Zealand’s stake in the Australian carrier falls into the hands of competing rivals that may threaten SIA’s wider market beyond Australia.

SIA paid dearly for the increases take in Virgin Australia at 46.72 cents per share which is well above the current price of 35.5 cents. So it is said that Alaska Airlines too paid a high price to take over Virgin America, which will enlarge Alaska’s west coast market and give it access to the east coast. Virgin chief Richard Branson proudly admitted: “They paid a high price for a great brand.” Indeed, Virgin America, voted consistently as the country’s best airlines in the past four years, could add to Alaska which itself is known for providing consistently good service at reasonable fares. Somehow Virgin Australia has tried hard but with not as much success as expected to bite off Qantas’ 80 per cent market share. How much more can SIA contribute, noting the struggle of erstwhile Tigerair Australia?

SIA and Virgin are reputable brand names. While there is a chance that they can build on each other’s strength, there is no guarantee that the chemistry will work twice as well.

Confirmed: Alaska Airlines acquires Virgin America

Courtesy Alaska Airlines

Courtesy Alaska Airlines

IT’s confirmed, subject to final approval by the relevant parties, Alaska Airlines will acquire Virgin America.

Alaska has that personal touch that many airlines lack. As a registered customer of the airline, it is nice to receive this message :

“As one of our most valued customers, we wanted to be the first to share with you some exciting news that Alaska Airlines is acquiring Virgin America, combining two leading airlines both known for low fares and award-winning customer service. With complimentary West Coast-based networks, operational excellence and a strong commitment to innovation, the joining of Virgin America and Alaska will expand our existing California footprint and grow our transcontinental network, giving you more travel options with 1,200 daily departures nationwide.

We’ll keep you updated on the timing and plan for integrating our two airlines.”

So, congratulations, Alaska Airlines!

Both airlines will continue to fly their individual identity until the single operating certificate is issued when the combined entity will be known as Alaska Airlines.

Alaska Airlines pips JetBlue for Virgin America deal

alaska airlinesWHILE it was initially speculated that JetBlue would win the bid for Virgin America, now it looks like it is Alaska Airlines that will emerge the victor. The Seattle-hub airline is expected to pay US$2 billion for the deal.

Merging with Virgin will enlarge Alaska’s base on the west coast, more specifically its share of traffic out of San Francisco from 4 per cent to 15 per cent and Los Angeles from 5 per cent to 11 per cent. Alaska, currently ranked 6th by traffic in the US behind JetBlue, will now be bigger than its rival.

A point in favour of Alaska, which also owns Horizon Air, is that it has fewer overlapping schedules with Virgin.

As American aviation continues to spawn mega mergers that shrink the number of competing carriers, the authorities will have to grapple with concerns that this may lead to higher airfares. However, there is the glimmer of hope that both Virgin and Alaska as one airline will continue to offer lower fares with fewer add-ons competing with the other airlines.

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.