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).

SIA re-incorporates fuel surcharge in base fare

sia-silkairSingapore Airlines (SIA) announced that fuel surcharges will from the end of March be incorporated in the base airfares. The policy, which also covers insurance surcharges, will apply to SilkAir as well.

As the global pressure to protect consumer rights mounts, aviation authorities are exhorting airlines to publish full fares so as not to mislead consumers and make it difficult for them to compare prices and arrive at an informed decision. Some airlines have been fined for misleading customers stating only the base fares. SIA said it is already advertising the full fares.

Virgin Australia was among the first very few airlines to announce it would not show the fuel surcharge as a separate cost but build it into the airfare way back in January 2015, at a time when the cost of oil was falling and there was public demand for airlines to similarly reduce the fuel surcharge. (See A conscionable call as oil price plummets: Will airlines reduce airfares? Jan 26, 2015)

The full surcharge was introduced as a way to pass on the cost to the consumer in the wake of rising oil prices, and falling fuel prices have made it quite unnecessary, even cumbersome. One wonders if this, having come a full circle, will change yet again when fuel prices rebound.

Chinese conglomerates beat SIA in Virgin Australia acquisition

Courtesy GETTY IMAGES

Courtesy GETTY IMAGES

IN a separate article I wrote about Singapore Airlines’ interest in taking up Air New Zealand’s stake in Virgin Australia, its concern being that “if it did not step into the void left by Air NZ, it might op[en the door to a competitor” (What price for SIA in its pursuit of a Virgin bride? TODAY, Apr 27, 2016), I mentioned the likelihood of Chinese carriers making that move. And so it has come to pass.

The HNA Aviation Group which owns China’s fast growing Hainan Airlines (the fourth largest in the country) was the first to move in, acquiring 13 per cent of Virgin Australia with plans to increasing its stake to almost 20 per cent. Virgin chief executive John Borghetti welcome the acquisition as “a big coup” that “sets us up for very, very good growth going forward in that very lucrative inbound but also outbound, traffic between Australia and China.”

Indeed, there has been a healthy growth in traffic between Australia and China in recent years. According to Mr Borghetti, more than one million Chinese travelers visited Australia in 2015 and this number is expected to grow to 1.5 million by 2020. Clearly HNA sees the potential and the opportunity could not have come a better time.

Now a second Chinese conglomerate Nanshan Group hopes to reap the benefit of increased tourism in Australia. The firm has bought a 20-per-cent stake in Virgin Australia from Air New Zealand. Air NZ chairman Tony Carter said: “We believe Nanshan Group will be a very strong, positive and complimentary shareholder for Virgin Australia. The sale will allow Air New Zealand to focus on its own growth opportunities, while still continuing its long-standing alliance with Virgin Australia on the trans-Tasman network.”

Both HNA Aviation Group and Nanshan Group will now join SIA and Etihad Airways as co-partners in the Australian carrier. While Etihad has not expressed any interest in buying off Air NZ, SIA appears once again to have lost the lead in a game that started out as the Singapore carrier’s to play.

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.

As the price of crude oil plummets, fuel surcharge holds sway

fuel-priceAs the price of crude oil continues to plunge to record lows and all indications are that it is likely to remain low, the burning question on the air traveller’s lips must that which asks if and when airlines in good conscience would pass the savings back to their customers. In 2008, the price was as high as close to US$140 per barrel; today it has collapsed to US$30.

That situation has persisted long enough for the airlines to make the move, and it appears it is not likely to happen, not any time soon if at all. Giving back is so hard, indeed. The fuel surcharge was implemented, the argument being that the volatility of the oil price is something beyond an airline’s control. So much for understanding that it must be a cost of doing business! It is ludicrous to assert that because of that, the cost should be taken out to be borne by the customer. What other costs are not borne by the traveller as part of the fare?

Sure, the public can choose not to fly. But it is not as straightforward as that. In truth, the authorities too are neither keen to see the major airlines floundering. The repercussion can be widespread. Consider how some governments had very quickly doled out rescue packages to save a national airline on the brink of collapse.

The airlines know they are in a position of strength, supported by an international body that constantly warns about unprecedented losses when there should be more attention focussed on efficiency. In good conscience, it is only fair that when airlines pass on rising fuel costs to their customers, that they should similarly reduce the surcharge when the price of fuel falls. They are all too ready to cite the familiar and over-used counter arguments that even as the price of crude oil falls, they have not benefitted since they have already paid up too much in the past, that they have only passed on a modicum of the actual cost to their customers, and that they have suffered heavy hedging losses. So they took a bad gamble and the customers have to pay for their mistake. What, when they benefit from hedging gains?

Last year American carriers reported better than expected profits, largely attributed to the low fuel price and increased demand on the back of an improved economy, but none saw it reasonable to pass on the savings or part of it back to their customers as they rewarded their shareholders handsomely and argued that surpluses would be reinvested in their product in the interest of the customer.

Today there is the temptation to use the gain arising from the fuel surcharge to make up for the high costs in other areas of doing business. Take, for example, Air Canada, suffering from the fall in value of the Canadian dollar which results in reduced revenue vis-à-vis the high cost of foreign expenses. In fact, airlines can congratulate themselves on the clever implementation of the fuel surcharge model, which has led to a slew of other surcharges that are so ambiguously nomenclature that the consumers are nonetheless any wiser of what they are paying for over and above the fare. These ranged from so-called government levies to other operating requirements that airlines do not deem to be theirs to bear.

The good thing is that some governments recognize the prickly issue and have cautioned airlines to play fair with the customer and not misrepresent the cost of an airline ticket. As far as the air traveller is concerned, it is the bottom-line fare that matters, whatever the components. And as the fuel price keeps heading downward, there is no better time than now to do away with the fuel surcharge and other similar surcharges. Australian flag carrier Qantas and rival Virgin Australia have already moved in that direction. Of course, the consumer must expect a higher fare price when the cost of doing business, whether from a rising fuel price or other expenses, increases. Perhaps airlines fear losing the surcharge protection when in an open competitive environment, there will be pressure on them to improve efficiency and productivity.