Air New Zealand tops again

Courtesy Air New Zealand

AirlineRatings.com has named Air New Zealand as the world’s best airline for 2018. Other airlines that make the top ten in descending order are Qantas, Singapore Airlines (SIA), Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Etihad Airways, All Nippon Airways (ANA), Korean Air, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

According to the editorial team, airlines must achieve a seven-star safety rating (developed in consultation with the International Civil Aviation Organization) and demonstrate leadership in innovation for passenger comfort to be named in the top ten.

The evaluation team also looks at customer feedback on sites that include CN Traveller.com which perhaps explain little surprise in both AirlineRatings and Conde Nast Travel naming Air New Zealand as their favourite. (See What defines a best airline? Oct 19, 2017) Four airlines, namely SIA, Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific are ranked in the top ten of both lists. These look like consistently global favourites.

Notable absences from the AirlineRatings list are Middle east carriers Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines. While these airlines scored for service in other surveys, they may have lost the lead in product innovation for which most of the airlines ranked by AirlineRatings are commended. Virgin Australia’s new business class is said to be “turning heads” and Etihad is said to provide a “magnificent product throughout the cabins.” Looking ahead, Air New Zealand will feel the pressure from Qantas and SIA for the top spot. (See Singapore Airlines steps up to reclaim past glory, Nov 3, 2017) In the same survey, Qantas is selected for best lounges and best catering services, and SIA for best first class and best cabin crew.

For those who think best airline surveys are often skewed by the halo effect of service provided in the upper classes, AirlineRatings has named Korean Air as best economy airline.

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What defines a best airline?

What defines a best airline, considering the different surveys that rank them? Conde Nast Travel has just released its readers’ choice of the best in 2017, and it is no surprise the list is made up of Asian, Middle East, European and SW Pacific carriers.

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Of course, it depends on the readership, but recognizing that, it also points to what really makes these airlines stand out. It is clear that the premium class service weighs heavily – the seat comfort and the fine food.

Etihad Airways (ranked #16) offers “the future of first-class comfort: a three-room “residence” with a bedroom, private bath with shower, and lounge.” Emirates (#4) offers “posh perks for premium fliers – cocktail lounges, in-flight showers… part of the reason it scores so high among travellers.” And the suites on Singapore Airlines (#3) offer “a pair of fully flat recliners that can be combined into a double bed.”

Mention is made of the premium economy class in almost all the ranked airlines” KLM (#20), Lufthansa (#19), Japan Airlines (#17), All Nippon Airways (#13), Qantas (#12), Cathay Pacific (#10), Virgin Atlantic (#7), Virgin Australia (#6), Singapore Airlines (#3) and Air New Zealand (#1).

So it may appear to be the voice of the premium travellers that is being heard. Maybe coach travellers aren’t too concerned about the ranking, more driven by price and less frilly factors, although to be fair, the Conde Nast report did mention of at least one airline, i.e. Etihad Airways (#16), not ignoring “those sitting in the back.” While many travellers may resign to the belief that the economy class is about the same across the industry, it is reasonable to assume that an airline that strives to please its customers in the front cabins will most probably carry that culture or at least part of it to the rear.

Although you may draw consensus across many of the surveys, it is best best to treat each one of them in isolation. It is more meaningful to try and draw intra conclusions within the findings of the particular survey.

You will note in the Conde Nast findings, there is an absence of American (including Canadian) carriers, never mind that of African and South American carriers.

Asiana Airlines (#8) is ranked ahead of Korean Air (#11).

All Nippon Airways (#13) is ranked ahead of Japan Airlines (#17). V

Virgin Australia (#6) is ranked ahead of Qantas (#12).

The order of the “Big 3” Gulf carriers is as follows: Qatar Airways (#2), Emirates (#4) and Etihad Airways (#16).

Of European carriers, there is the conspicuous absence of the big names of British Airways (compare Virgin Atlantic #7) and Air France, and the pleasant surprise of Aegean Airlines (#9) while SWISS seems to be regaining its erstwhile status years ago as being the industry standard.

The best belongs to Air New Zealand as the quiet achiever.

Ultimately, the results also depend on the group of respondents whose experiences may be limited to certain airlines.

Other airlines ranked in the top 20 of the Conde Nast survey: Finnair (#14), Turkish Airlines (#15), EVA Air (#18).

Air New Zealand leads the pack

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is the world’s best airline according to AirlineRatings.com based on criteria that include fleet age, safety, profitability and leadership in innovation for passenger comfort. The agency’s Airline Excellence Awards program which lists the winning airlines is endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Many travellers would recognize ANZ for its attention-grabbing in-flight safety video that takes them into Middle Earth, the kind of out-of-the-aircraft features that a few other airlines have tried to imitate but fared only poorly. AirlineRatings.com Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Thomas said: “Air New Zealand came out number one in virtually all of our audit criteria, which is an exceptional performance.” The airline was favoured for its record-breaking financial performance, award-winning in-flight innovations, operational safety, environmental leadership and motivation of its staff.

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

But, of course, there are surveys and there are surveys that publish their own lists of favourites. Some airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific have a ubiquitous presence, and there also notable absences. This is where it is most telling, bearing in mind that the ranking is dependent on several factors such as the excellence-defining criteria and the population surveyed.

The other nine airlines ranked behind ANZ in the top ten list by AirlineRatings.com are in descending order: Qantas, SIA, Cathay, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways (BA), Etihad, All Nippon Airways, EVA Air and Lufthansa.

It is interesting to note that the top two airlines come from the remote Southwest Pacific. Qantas has in recent years been working on upgrading its product offerings, winning accolades for catering and airport lounges. Not surprisingly, innovation along with good service seem to be the driving winning streak going down the list – SIA and Cathay for their premium economy and revamped business classes, Virgin for its cabin ambience and friendly crew, BA for its leadership in in-flight entertainment, and Etihad for its equally impressive service in front and at the back of the aircraft.

Notable absences in the list are US carriers (no surprise there) and two of the big three Middle-East carriers (Emirates and Qatar).

Many survey rankings are skewed by the weight they place on service in the premium classes. However, Mr Thomas of AirlineRatings.com said: “We are looking for leadership and airlines that innovate to make a real difference to the passenger experience particularly in economy class.” Considering that the majority of travellers are seated in coach, it is time that airlines crowned with the halo of excellence pay more attention at the back of the aircraft, for this may well make the difference as the competition intensifies. And, it is where the differentiation becomes even more challenging. Perhaps too, this could be the reason why Emirates and Qatar, known for their lavish premium service, did not make it to the top ten of the list.

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.

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.

Scoot to go where others failed

Courtesy AFP

Courtesy AFP

IT will happen, as it must. So it seems, but a matter of time. Scoot, the medium to long-haul low-cost subsidiary of Singapore Airlines (SIA) has made known its intention to extend its network to possibly include a destination as far away as London from Singapore. After all, London is a prime destination for SIA, and one that has helped it flourish in its early days, so it should be an encouraging start for Scoot to test the budget long-haul.

Scoot chief executive Campbell Wilson said: “The West is definitely on our cards.” Lest, you forget by definition it is a medium to long haul low-cost operator and think its fortune is confined to regional flights. It is eyeing the Middle East up to London.

Never mind the failure of others that tried, most memorably Hong Kong’s Oasis Airlines that inaugurated its route from Hong Kong to London in October 2006. The budget airline added Vancouver in June 2007, and won several awards that year including “World’s Leading New Airlines: and “Asia’s Leading Budget Airline” at the Annual world Travel Awards. But barely into its third year, it folded its wings in April 2008.

Another low-cost carrier that faced a similar fate was Canada’s Harmony Airways that ventured beyond North America from Vancouver to Manchester (UK) and planned to expand into Asia, eyeing in particular the China market. That was not to be, when the airline collapsed in 2007, three years after it repositioned itself for the long-haul.

More recent and closer to home is AirAsia’s subsidiary AirAsia X in yet another attempt to keep budget pioneer Freddie Laker’s dream alive. In fact, its first aircraft was named “Semangat Sir Freddie” (“Spirit of Sir Freddie”). The budget carrier operated from Kuala Lumpur to two European destinations – London and Paris, connecting traffic from other destinations such as Melbourne – which it has since suspended, together with others, but it continues to operate some shorter hauls. Parent airline AirAsia is unlikely to admit to its offshoot’s failure as being final as its chief Tony Fernandes had said it planned to return some day.

So is Scoot going where angels fear to tread or where the brave dare not go to prove it is not an impossible dream after all?

On a more optimistic note, it is certainly a welcome breath of the erstwhile spirit and vigor that characterised the success of SIA when as a new airline it quickly became the world’s most envied operator that could do things that others were reluctant or afraid to consider. Indeed, it is difficult to think of Scoot without parent SIA – a quiet overshadowing that sibling SilkAir has for years tried and still does to dispel, and into which increasingly 55-per-cent owned Tigerair is moving. While pedigree connections cannot guarantee success, experiential wisdom is not something to be scoffed at. The issue is also one of relevance. SIA is very much a premium carrier that has been pushed into venturing into the lower end by increased competition from low-cost carriers and by peer rivals that have sprouted budget subsidiaries, a good example being Qantas and its budget subsidiary Jetstar.

There are questions: Is the SIA stable getting a little crowded with intra competition even as Scoot and Tigerair now claim they are performing better with cooperation? Scoot and Tigerair will soon be combining their reservations systems. Can SIA define the market such that they do not overlap and that it merely shifts the business from one pocket to the other? The move seems to be towards more commonality. SIA’s Krisflyer perks are now open to customers of subsidiary carriers.

And the big question: Is it Scoot in its own right flying to London or is the operation under the SIA banner, the way it is so difficult to tell AirAsia X from parent AirAsia? But then, AirAsia is itself a budget carrier. Nevertheless, the bet is likely to favour the probability of SIA (driving Scoot) succeeding if anyone should finally succeed in the budget long-haul.

This is not forgetting that SIA itself has not had lemons in its basket – its failed stake in Air New Zealand, its lacklustre investment in Virgin Atlantic, and the premature termination of its all-business class flights. While its slow entry (or re-entry if you consider the short-lived non-stop Los Angeles and New York runs) into the premium economy (PEY) market may have been the result of an over-cautious retreat, its performance thus far may have also emboldened it to take a more adventurous approach. Additionally, the PEY is doing well on the Vistara joint-venture in India, even as Cathay Pacific, a forerunner of the new PEY, has decided to take it off Indian routes.

Besides, the climate for expansion is encouraging. Mr Wilson said: “We are on an upward slope towards profitability. We see yield maturity building over time and we are observing that across our routes.” The SIA Group has just announced Q1 (Apr-Jun) profit of S$111 million (US$81 million), an increase of S$72 million. Parent SIA made a profit of S$108 million compared to S$45 a year ago. Tigerair broke even. And Scoot recorded an operating loss of S$20 million, an improvement of S$5 million over last year. Passenger load factor for Scoot increased 2.9 percentage points to 81.4% on the back of increased passenger carriage by 11.0%, far exceeding the 6.9% capacity injection. And, of course, the industry is blessed with the continuing low costs of jet fuel.

What about the competition? Without any indication of AirAsia X’s resumption of the long haul services, Scoot has a pretty much open field although Norwegian Air Shuttle operates from Oslo and Stockholm to Bangkok. In fact, with airlines such as Garuda Indonesia offering low fares to London in the attempt to retain direct traffic between Indonesia and the UK, Scoot may become the alternative SIA in the competition. Mr Wilson said: “We might be a bit more niche when it comes to long-haul operations.” Generally, the budget market is driven by the dollar, and the niche factor, whatever Mr Wilson meant by it, may make the difference. But note how many a budget operator that came and went had always maintained that they were not like the others, and that too may be predicated on the expectations of long-haul travellers.

Nevertheless, it is invigorating news although Mr Wilson said the plan “is not immediate but it is not something we are closed to.” It has been almost 50 years since Sir Freddie founded Laker Airways in 1966, and it is still a field where few dare venture. We wish Scoot good luck when it finally happens, and hope it succeeds.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.