The Big Read: Floored by COVID-19, can SIA soar again? Fate of Singapore’s aviation hub rests on it
With many airlines likely to shutter in the coming years, the pandemic is expected to lead to an industry-wide consolidation while the market shrinks.
SINGAPORE: Just when the rules of commercial air travel were laid out in the dawn of the jet age in the 1970s, Singapore Airlines (SIA) barged its way into the international arena in the rudest of ways.
At a time when the bread thickness and the amount of cheese used in inflight sandwiches were dictated, when the reclining angle and legroom for customers were strictly regulated, SIA gave alcohol and headsets free of charge to its economy class passengers.
SIA’s determination to pursue its own rule-breaking path of “innovation” resulted in a temporary falling-out with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which had set these rules.
And in the 1980s, more than a decade after SIA’s split from the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines in 1972, there were also stories of German police raiding SIA’s offices for offering tickets at prices so low they were allegedly illegal. SIA called a press conference to condemn the police actions as too “extreme”, after which the raid stopped.
Elsewhere, Amsterdam airport authorities would question SIA passengers about how much they had paid for their tickets, effectively delaying SIA flights at the boarding gate. SIA went to the Singapore Government to call for something similar to be done to the Dutch flagship carrier KLM here. The harassment of SIA’s passengers ceased after Changi Airport authorities stopped and checked one flight of KLM passengers.
To the global commercial flight industry, SIA was the enfant terrible back then. But to passengers who sensed the truth in its motto “a great way to fly”, Singapore’s flag carrier was a darling that stood out from the pack.
To Singaporeans at large, SIA’s fortunes put the country on the world map, and came in tandem with the rise of Changi Airport as an aviation hub.
“You may have never been to Singapore. But you would have heard of SIA, or flown with them before,” said Mr Priveen Raj Naidu, an independent aviation analyst.
READ: Commentary: COVID-19, the biggest crisis ever for Singapore’s aviation industry and Singapore Airlines
But almost overnight, the good times have become a distant memory as the Singapore icon – which had endured the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 – faces a storm unlike any other it had encountered before.
COVID-19 had hit SIA like a bolt from the blue, and at a bad time: It was already facing significant challenges to its competitiveness before the virus struck Singapore eight months ago.
The national carrier’s chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong called it “the greatest challenge in the SIA’s Group’s existence” when he wrote to staff in March via an internal memo, announcing a round of cost-cutting measures which have gotten even more drastic in recent months.
As international travel came to a virtual halt due to the pandemic, SIA recorded its first full-year loss of S$212 million for the 12 months ending Mar 31, after staying profitable throughout its 48-year history.
Earlier this month, SIA Group announced it will be cutting around 4,300 positions, affecting around 2,400 staff, including ground staff, pilots and flight crews — on top of other cost-cutting measures.
With COVID-19 now clipping SIA’s wings more severely than its closest rivals and imitators, the airline cannot simply weather the storm by hunkering down, aviation insiders said.
The pandemic has forced all of aviation to change, analysts said. Long-haul wide-body flights had been the first to be cut when borders were closed, business travellers are finding new ways to work cross-border amid national lockdowns, and packed budget flights may not be possible in a coronavirus-fearing world.
These traditional pillars of SIA’s growth, already under strain previously, are now being sorely tested, said analysts. SIA will have to become a game changer like it was before if it is to fly high again after the worst has passed.
Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Dr Faizal Yahya said: “The fact is SIA had succeeded (thus far), despite the twin Gordian Knot of the lack of domestic market and oil resources.
“Their competitors have these in abundance, therefore, SIA’s strategy has to evolve beyond the premium passenger segment.”
In response to queries about its post-pandemic outlook, an SIA spokesman said that it is unclear when the COVID-19 outbreak will be brought under control.
“But when it does, our customers can be sure that Singapore Airlines will be there to welcome them back on board and deliver, once again, the exceptional service that they have come to expect and are familiar with,” said the spokesman.
READ: Flights grounded, fewer repairs: Singapore’s aerospace industry feels knock-on effects of COVID-19
AN INITIAL RUNAWAY SUCCESS, BUT RIVALS CAUGHT UP
Before COVID-19 struck, SIA was already facing mounting competition from its rivals.
In 2014, Professor of Strategy Loizos Heracleous of Warwick Business School and Professor of Marketing Jochen Wirtz at the National University of Singapore (NUS) undertook a study to understand how SIA was able to achieve consistent profitability and zero annual operating losses within “an unforgiving, hypercompetitive industry environment”.
Citing figures from IATA, the study said the global airline industry between 2001 and 2011 had destroyed shareholder value overall and had not earned a real rate of return on capital, accumulating a staggering US$31.7 billion in losses in that time.
Yet, SIA was able to become one of the highest performing and respected airlines in the world through its ability to transcend “organisational paradoxes”, said Prof Heracleous and Prof Wirtz.
Essentially, SIA was able to provide service excellence and innovation, while being a low-cost leader. This is a paradox since the former requires significant resource investment, which precludes the latter.
The study said SIA managed this because it had one of the industry’s youngest aircraft fleets, a high proportion of long-haul flights, an efficient work culture, high staff productivity, as well as relatively conservative salaries compared to Europe or America.
This concept of organisational paradoxes was conceived by American business theorist Michael Eugene Porter, who argued that being all things to all people is a recipe for “strategic mediocrity because it often means that a firm will have no competitive advantages at all”.
Any success in doing both is only possible temporarily, he added, because such a strategy will eventually be copied by one’s competitors.
Indeed, in the last 10 years, a number of airlines have emerged in the industry that began to provide award-winning services at a low cost to the company.
Between 2012 and 2018, SIA’s group revenues improved only slightly from S$15 billion to S$15.81 billion. Conversely, the global industry’s performance appeared to be growing faster in those years.
NUS Associate Professor Nitin Pangarkar said: “There was increasing imitation of SIA’s premium strategy. Price competition was stiff, especially for the leisure customer segment.”
In the oil-producing Middle East region, emerging flag carriers such as Qatar, Etihad and Emirates were able to woo passengers with premium services at lower fare prices for similar routes. Some have also claimed that these airlines benefit from unfair subsidies of fuel from their respective governments.
The service gap between SIA and other carriers had also narrowed – ANA, Delta and Cathay Pacific are consistently ranking well on the list of world’s best airlines.
At the other end of the spectrum, SIA and other full-service airlines have also been challenged by the emergence of low-cost carriers that choose to focus on cost leadership.
Faced with such competition, however, SIA could still hold its own. The airline was set to make an operating profit of S$253 million in the first three quarters of its 2019/2020 financial year, until the onset of COVID-19 in the final quarter caused a S$803 million operating loss.
Mr Brendan Sobie, founder of Singapore-based independent aviation consulting and analysis firm Sobie Aviation, noted that SIA’s third quarter was one of the best in recent years.
“So while market conditions were rather challenging and competition was intense they were doing relatively well prior to COVID-19 … I think SIA would have had a good year in 2020 if it weren’t for the unpleasant surprise of COVID-19,” said Mr Sobie.
FLIGHTS BYPASSING CHANGI AIRPORT
Before the pandemic, SIA, whose fortunes relied on long-haul flights, business and premium travellers, also faced competition from its traditional rivals in Europe and Australia who were moving towards direct flights to and from both regions.
Part of this trend is due to the development of newer, more fuel-efficient and longer range aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350.
For example, in 2018, Qantas launched a once-daily Perth-London non-stop flight with the Dreamliner, which was reported to be 92 per cent filled per flight on average. The route has since been cancelled due to COVID-19.
Such developments could bypass Singapore as a transit hub for Europe-Australia flights, dubbed the “kangaroo route”, which saw about 2.2 million passengers shuttle between the two regions last year.
More than 10 per cent of these passengers flew on SIA, according to international flight data. Most had flown via the Middle Eastern airlines.
Dr Faizal said: “With better technology ... alternative regional airports and rising business costs among other things, airlines need not use Changi Airport as a stopover. These are challenges for SIA to overcome and COVID-19 has accelerated the changes.”
Professor Martin Dresner, area chair of logistics, business and public policy at the Robert H Smith School of Business, noted that given the perceived dangers of air travel currently, “passengers may prefer direct flights to their destinations, rather than connecting routes through a hub such as Singapore”.
READ: Don’t take for granted Singapore will remain an aviation hub when COVID-19 is over: Ong Ye Kung
In July, Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung told reporters while speaking about opening up reciprocal green lanes that Singapore cannot take for granted that it will remain an aviation hub even when the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
“Others will be vying for it. It's not something we take for granted. It’s something we fought for, and we’ve secured,” said Mr Ong.
FUEL HEDGING AND THE CHALLENGES POSED BY LONG-HAUL MODEL
As if these pre-existing challenges for SIA were not enough, the pandemic has turned the entire industry on its head.
With air travel impeded by lockdowns and travel bans, long-haul routes were the first to be cancelled, and many airlines could operate only limited domestic flights.
Since it is serving a city-state, SIA does not have any domestic capacity to rely on. In March, it grounded 138 of its 147 planes, or 96 per cent of its flights.
By November, SIA and its regional subsidiary SilkAir will be reinstating around 11 per cent of its pre-coronavirus capacity, with flights resuming for six cities.
But a full recovery for SIA, especially for its long-haul flights, will come slowly.
Business travellers are less willing to be paying more for premium seats amid a global recession and may curtail business travel entirely, said Prof Dresner.
IATA also warned in July that the advent of videoconferencing amid COVID-19 “appears to have made significant inroads as a substitute for in-person meetings”.
What this means is that SIA will continue to face fierce headwinds even after the pandemic passes.
The SIA spokesman said the airline adopts a portfolio strategy with a presence in both the full-service premium and low-fare segments, which allow it to meet demand when it returns.
SIA Group comprises the main SIA passenger arm, as well as its wholly-owned subsidiaries SilkAir and Scoot, which handle regional travel and budget travel respectively.
“Our extensive global network will also help us to flexibly deploy capacity to meet the demand from different markets as air travel slowly returns,” said the spokesman.
Assoc Prof Pangarkar said: “Long-haul routes are good for SIA because that’s where their value proposition is strongest. But, typically yields are lower and hence costs need to be managed well.”
The lower yields are due to the fact that such routes are inherently less fuel efficient than those with stopovers. Hence, seats on non-stop long-haul flights are more expensive.
This is also why there are only premium economy and business class seats on SIA non-stop flights between Singapore and Newark in America.
But like many airlines, such a global strategy puts SIA long-haul routes at the mercy of fuel prices and the global economy.
For example, the Singapore-Newark route was discontinued from 2013 to 2017 due to the aircraft’s high fuel consumption and rising fuel costs at the time, relaunching only after the fuel-efficient A350 wide-body jet came into service.
To guard against the volatility of fuel prices, SIA adopts a fuel hedging strategy. It buys fuel up to five years in advance – longer than most airlines – when it perceives the price of fuel will go up in future.
“But hedging is a double-edged sword. SIA has indeed struggled recently with hedging – so have many others,” said Assoc Prof Pangarkar.
The unexpected oil price crash earlier this year, due to disagreements between oil-producing countries as well as reduced demand caused by COVID-19, underpinned the weakness of this strategy.
From March 2019 to March 2020, SIA recorded a hefty S$710 million in losses due to ineffective fuel hedges that matured during the fiscal year, with more losses expected in future.
In a statement, SIA said it would “pause and plan to monitor developments closely before entering into any additional hedges”.
Regardless, experts say the hedging strategy has added to the carrier’s woes at a critical time, potentially overshadowing losses due to a fall in passenger demand alone.
SIA’S CRISIS RESPONSE
Amid these turbulent times, all airlines are tightening their belts to ride out the pandemic. In its July report, the IATA said that global passenger traffic is unlikely to return to pre-coronavirus levels until 2024.
SIA has resorted to cutting capacity, delaying non-critical projects and slashing its labour costs – by reducing management salaries, director fees and furloughing staff.
An agreement between SIA and the Air Line Pilots Association – Singapore will see pilots taking sizable pay cuts ranging from 10 to 60 per cent until March 2022, in order to save more jobs.
SIA is also negotiating with aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus to defer deliveries and payment of aircraft. SIA had around 150 aircraft on order as part of its fleet renewal strategy, which will inevitably be delayed.
READ: Commentary: Airlines will need to review their fleets to boost passenger confidence and demand
But how much is enough?
At the height of the pandemic from April to June, SIA saw its group revenue plunge by an eye-watering S$3.2 billion, or 79.3 per cent, to S$851 million, compared with the same period in 2019.
In this time, passenger carriage was virtually wiped out, falling by 99.4 per cent for SIA, 99.8 per cent for SilkAir and 99.9 per cent for Scoot on a year-on-year basis.
Group expenditures, however, did not come down as quickly. Costs fell by S$2 billion, or 51.6 per cent year-on-year, to reach S$1.9 billion.
Together, this represented a S$1.1 billion net loss in the first quarter of SIA’s financial year.
The lack of a domestic market for SIA is ultimately its biggest handicap, compared with other airlines that can serve domestic travellers and not be affected by lockdowns elsewhere.
“If SIA had domestic travel, things would not be so dire,” said Mr Naidu, who helped set up AirAsia in Singapore and now works as a consultant.
SIA now finds itself in a situation where it lacks options to raise revenue, he added, noting how regional airlines in Asia are clocking enviable load factors amid the pandemic.
One silver lining is in air freight, which has become more profitable due to a crunch in global air freight capacity and urgent demand in medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and fresh food.
Cargo yielded 173 per cent more revenue for SIA in the recent quarter, which had deployed passenger aircraft to ferry cargo.
But as air cargo trends track closely to the world’s economic health, relying on freight to staunch the bleeding will not be a sustainable solution, said Mr Naidu.
Another alternative revenue idea is SIA’s proposal for flights to nowhere, which has generated controversy due to its environmental impact.
The idea is not unique to SIA – airlines in Brunei, Taiwan, Japan and Australia have also begun offering such scenic flights which start and end in the same place.
However, not all interviewed were supportive of the idea. Mr Naidu said COVID-19 rules on safe distancing and minimising oral communication would affect the customer experience and thus the brand.
The unhappiness over the environmental toll could also affect SIA’s reputation, he added.
When asked to comment on its plans for flights to nowhere, the SIA spokesman said none of its plans to engage the public during the pandemic have been firmed up, and said it will announce if it intends to go ahead with any of these initiatives at an appropriate time.
But former senior SIA executive Chow Kok Wah said there are other hidden benefits to such flights – pilots and crew get to clock important flight experience and ground crews can continue to service the aircraft’s equipment.
“See it as a bedridden person trying to take a few steps but (then) go back to bed. It helps the blood circulation and I think it is a significant psychological boost,” said Mr Chow.
Thus, the flight-to-nowhere is not so much about recovering revenue, which he said is insignificant at best.
“(Such flights) do wonders to everyone’s morale. Yes, we produce a relatively small amount of carbon emissions, but recognise that these are extraordinary times.”
“WITHOUT SIA, THERE IS NO AVIATION HUB”
Recognising the urgent need to strengthen SIA’s balance sheet, the airline in March aimed to raise around S$15 billion by issuing shares to existing shareholders and mandatory convertible bonds, with state investor Temasek Holdings pledging to mop up any remaining unsubscribed shares and bonds.
So far, it has raised S$11 billion – equivalent to about 10 quarters of April to July 2020 operating losses. SIA has an option to raise another S$6.2 billion in additional bonds.
The Singapore Government, through wage subsidies, rebates on aircraft parking charges and other relief measures, has also stepped in to aid the battered aviation sector.
The government and shareholder support received by SIA has given the flag carrier a better footing, compared to other airlines.
Senior aviation strategist Gerben Broekema, who founded Netherlands-based Broekema Aviation Advisory Services, said many flag carriers are already burning through their first wave of financial support and will need further support towards the end of the year.
“Most flag carriers at the start of the COVID-19 crisis had three to six months of liquidity to survive while leading cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet in Europe had nine to 12-plus months in cash to survive,” he said.
Governments support their respective carriers for various reasons, chiefly because the airlines provide vital air connectivity to the country, which, in turn, creates domestic industries catered to aviation such as the maintenance, repair and operations sector.
Dr Faizal said: “SIA and Changi Airport are symbiotic to each other because they maintain and grow air connectivity crucial for Singapore … which is important for Singapore as a trade-dependent nation.”
He highlighted how global logistics firms such as DHL have set up their bases here, making Singapore one of their regional hubs.
Becoming a logistical air hub is a source of economic resilience too, even during a pandemic, said analysts.
At a time when passenger travel has been decimated, some of the busiest airports in the world are those that handle freight and logistics, such as the Hong Kong International Airport.
Mr Chow said: “The hub led to a whole ecosystem evolving – repair centres, supply chain, regional service centres, aerospace colleges, R&D labs, aero conferences and the Singapore Airshow … It leads to creation of jobs that pay higher than national median salaries.
“Without SIA, there is no aviation hub, hence the importance of ensuring SIA’s survival.”
BIG CHANGES NEEDED TO GET BACK TO THE TOP: ANALYSTS
The boost to SIA’s liquidity will help it stay on strong footing and ward off the shroud of bankruptcy, but the carrier needs to do more in order to also emerge stronger from the crisis, analysts said.
For one, SIA needs to start burnishing its post-coronavirus brand reputation, convincing customers – loyal and new – that despite the pandemic, the airline is still a great way to fly.
And despite the direness of the situation and the job cuts which it had to implement, SIA has to ensure its pipeline of talent in the longer term is not disrupted. At the same time, it also needs a ready pool of talent whom it can tap on when the industry recovers.
Mr Naidu suggested opening up SIA’s training centre, which trains its cabin crew, to the public for a fee. “This could spark interest in kids who may want to join the industry in future.”
With the shock of COVID-19, as well as the high cost barriers to aviation education, gone are the days where flight captains, first officers and air traffic controllers are seen as desired occupations, said Mr Naidu.
“For at least the next five years, COVID-19 will affect aviators in this generation as a cohort,” he said.
It takes around three to five years to train a commercial airline pilot, and about six months to a year to train a cabin crew.
Continued pilot training is needed in order to meet their licensing requirements and to maintain currency and proficiency.
Mr Abbas Ismail, course chair of Temasek Polytechnic’s diploma in aviation management, said that there will be major implications if youths shun the industry.
He warned: “When the aviation industry picks up, trained personnel must be ready to jump on the wagon. If training stops or slows down now, it will prove to be detrimental to the industry as the staff then will not be ready for the growth of the industry.”
Other analysts reiterated that SIA’s staff is its raison d’etre, since the quality of its pilots and the renowned kebaya-clad Singapore Girls were the key reasons the airline stood apart from its competitors.
Beyond retaining staff, there is a need for a significant shake-up in business models, they added.
Low-cost carriers, such as SIA’s subsidiary Scoot, will not be a feasible prospect if safe-distancing regulations and load factor caps limit the number of passengers that an airplane can carry.
SIA, which depends primarily on long-haul, premium travel, will likely be the last to recover fully in the group if it continues to focus on the same market segment.
Mr Chow said: “Even as the pandemic subsides there will be fits and starts as pockets of cases surface and countries react strongly. Even as COVID-19 fades away, authorities will be on the lookout for new diseases.”
As such, a post-pandemic SIA is likely to look very different from its past self.
Such a transformation exercise, however, will not come easy. Airlines have to contend with their existing fleet, which are often purpose-built to suit a particular business model. They also have to consider existing contracts signed for certain flight routes which may have been profitable in the past, but no longer.
The SIA spokesman said an internal task force has been set up to review all aspects of its operations “to ensure continued readiness to quickly ramp up services when the opportunity arises”.
“In particular, SIA has paid special attention to measures that would provide additional health and safety assurances to our customers and staff members,” said the spokesman.
In its latest quarter, SIA told investors that it is reviewing its network over the longer term given COVID-19 and the impact on passenger traffic and revenue, which is expected to be completed in six months’ time.
It warned that this will also likely lead to material impairment of its older generation aircraft, particularly the long-haul Airbus A380, which could account for around S$1 billion in losses.
The SIA spokesman said that during this period of “high uncertainty”, it will continue to “explore additional means to shore up liquidity as necessary”.
Mr Broekema noted that the current crisis "forces each airline to reconsider their right shape and size". "Thus far, downsizing has never been a real option for airlines, especially not for flag carriers operating a hub model (such as SIA),” he said.
In a hub model, cancelling one route directly affects the profitability of other routes.
“(In general) this massive resizing transformation of all airlines creates opportunities and threats for carriers to position them in new markets,” said Mr Broekema.
National airlines are seen as “embassies with wings”, and represent a symbol of success for the country.
READ: Commentary: We will fly again. Here’s what’s needed to safely restart flights and resume air travel
But with COVID-19, some industry-watchers are saying that the game is over for bloated and inefficient national airlines that are propped up by government handouts. This time, government resources are stretched too thin to continue bolstering their debt-laden flag carriers.
With many airlines likely to shutter in the coming years, the pandemic is expected to lead to an industry-wide consolidation while the market shrinks. Regional airlines, instead of national ones, could be the way for the future.
But if anyone can overcome the crisis, it is SIA, said Mr Chow.
“It may take two to three years to go back to normal but I am confident SIA will recover faster than the rest. It has to be thankful to the Government and shareholders who provided the urgent blood transfusion with the recent capital-raising. Without it, SIA wouldn’t last a year,” he said.
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