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Lowcost&Longhaul: Singapore Style

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Lowcost&Longhaul: Singapore Style

June 09
10:23 2016

Published in April 2015 issue

Singapore style scoot, owned by Singapore Airlines, is trying to redefine cheap flying on long-haul routes from its home base to Asia and Australia.

By Andreas Spaeth

There is a long queue inside Gate E3 at Singapore Changi Airport. But it is not made up of people waiting to board Scoot Flight TZ206 to Taipei and Seoul. The air bridge is almost empty. Instead, people are lining up in front of the only gate-side water fountain, patiently filling with drinking water the empty bottles they brought along. This is a scene seldom seen in long-haul travel from Changi Airport, which is dominated by full-service carriers like Singapore Airlines (SIA). On board the Boeing 777-200ER, registered 9V-OTE and painted in bright yellow, things are different, even in the front rows, called “Scoot Biz,” which offer what other airlines would call Premium Economy service. There is a pre-take-off drinks service consisting of a single, miniature plastic can of drinking water. If a thirsty passenger asks for a second one, the flight attendant, in black and yellow uniform, regrets that, “We have just one serving per passenger; but you can buy drinks after take-off.” By now, the queue around the water fountain in the terminal is beginning to make perfect sense. Welcome to Scoot, Singapore Airlines’ low-cost, long-haul offspring.

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LONG-HAUL, LOW-COST

Scoot started operations on June 4, 2012. It currently operates six Boeing 777-200ERs taken over from SIA, and will shortly switch to an all-new Boeing 787 fleet. Since launch and as of late 2014, the airline has carried almost 3.5 million passengers, aiming to move two million customers around annually with ticket prices up to 40% cheaper than those of full-service airlines. In the industry, Scoot seems to have established itself as a blueprint of how to achieve a sustainable business model for low-cost, long-haul operations, a segment with a checkered history. “Scoot is an interesting concept,” said Lufthansa’s CCO Jens Bischof, who is setting up his own low-cost, long-haul offspring called Eurowings, based at Cologne/Bonn. It will start from October 2015 with three leased Airbus A330-200s, operating initially to Florida, the Indian Ocean and Southern Africa. “We have thoroughly reviewed what we can learn from Scoot. That’s important if you want to start up a carrier based on such a formula,” Bischof told Airways. “But you need to have staying power and a lot of money.”

The money, in Scoot’s case, comes from Singapore Airlines. This legendary premium carrier is facing tougher times to maintain its full-service, high-fare model in an increasingly price-sensitive marketplace. “It is not that one model replaces the other,” insisted Mak Swee Wah, EVP Commercial of Singapore Airlines, in talking to Airways at the airline’s headquarters near Changi Airport. “But the full-service model is growing a bit more slowly now. One reason is the emerging new middle class in many Asian countries being able to afford flying.” But Mak insisted that Scoot “has to carve its own niche. They have to run independently of SIA and make their own decisions.”

With much denser seating than is found on the parent airline and a significantly lower product level, he doesn’t think cannibalization will be an issue. “Of course we want them to grow,” stressed Mak. To facilitate that, SIA has handed over their full initial batch of twenty Boeing 787s on order to Scoot, which was to receive their first 787-9 in late 2014, with the first 787-8 coming in mid- 2015. Ultimately, Scoot will operate a fleet of ten 787-8s and ten 787-9s, with all 777-200ERs being retired. “We knew we had to replace the older 777s after we had set up Scoot, but we opted to initiate service with them because we wanted an early start-up,” recalled Mak. SIA itself will instead take their own batch of A350s, starting by late 2015/early 2016, and then, from 2018 onwards, also Boeing 787-10s.

The man behind Scoot works hidden in the corner of a no-frills office floor located somewhere behind the counters of Terminal 2 at Singapore’s Changi Airport—home of Scoot. Campbell Wilson, 42, is an easy-going New Zealander who had worked for SIA since 1996. The office walls at Scoot’s headquarters are painted in bright green, and Wilson revealed to Airways that green had been a strong contender when choosing a color scheme for Scoot. “We drew a map of which airline is associated with which color; red and blue are very common,” he pointed out. “Green is not; that’s why it was in the race, as was yellow. We finally chose yellow in a car park from samples,” he recalled. Wilson also claimed the copyright to the company’s name, although other airline industry insiders doubt his story. “The name was cheap; I came up with it while I was on holiday in New Zealand,” said Wilson. “It’s short and sharp, memorable, and has a connotation of movement, often used in a light-hearted way to talk about moving quickly,” explained the CEO, who described his airline’s culture as having the “fun-friendly, not too serious, typical nature of a start-up.” He also told the story of how the uniforms came into being, a unique creation, with yellow only on one side, the remainder being black. “I looked at the washing line at home and saw the scheme of my wife’s uniform—she is a travel agent—and that inspired me,” he shared. “Our brand has more impact than we thought in the beginning,” enthused Wilson. Scoot even invented its own term for its attitude, called “Scootitude.” Wilson described it as “being engaging, fuss-free, reliable, contemporary, friendly, different.”

It sounds all great in theory but, in reality, on flight TZ206 from Singapore to Taipei, the cabin crew makes only very short appearances in the cabin. After take-off, they come round and ask passengers in “ScootBiz” about their preferred drink with their meal, which is included and mostly pre-selected. There are four hot dishes to choose from: Creamy Pasta with Sausage; Hearty Beef Stew; Soya Sauce Chicken Rice; or Thai Red Curry with brown rice. Bought individually in the back of the cabin, each dish costs 12 Singapore dollars (about US $9). Soft drinks are S$4, beer S$8 and wine S$9. One meal and one drink of any kind plus a bar of chocolate is included in the “ScootBiz” fare. All this can also be ordered on board, unlike, for example, Norwegian Long Haul (Airways, October 2014), which, on its Boeing 787 long-haul flights, insists that passengers pre-order any hot meal. Airways tried the Thai Red Curry with rice. In all honesty, the way the meals are served, covered by a hard to remove airtight plastic foil, is not exactly appetizing.

The food quality itself is okay, but no more, just good enough not to fly hungry. Anybody craving a meal roughly equal to those SIA serves its Economy passengers has to pre-order from a “Premium Selection”, which offers a choice of five different options, including a salad, ice cream and a drink, for S$21.99 (about US $17). On Flight TZ206, apparently hardly anybody had opted for this choice. Besides serving and removing meals and drinks, the cabin crew is seldom seen in the aisles during the four-hour flight.


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SCOOT’S REDEFINED STRATEGY

Campbell Wilson admitted to difficulties, at first, in communicating to so-far spoiled Asian passengers what low-cost flying is all about: “The expectation of us was big in the beginning; people expected free meals and free-flowing drinks. There was a big misunderstanding from the customer side of what low-cost offerings mean.” And the CEO stressed that, “We don’t pretend to be SIA, just 50% cheaper, as was originally the expectation of Singaporeans.”

The cabin of Scoot’s Boeing 777 fleet is equipped with 32 leather seats in “ScootBiz,” featuring 22” width and 38” pitch, and 370 economy seats with pitch ranging from 31” to 35”. The seats with more legroom are sold for a premium, being called “STRETCH.” Their existence is purely due to the cabin architecture of the 777, while, in the 787 fleet, there will only be “ScootBiz” and Economy offerings. Their total seat count is 335 in the 787-8 and 375 in the 787-9, 35 of which are in the “Premium” cabin, with dedicated Premium Economy seats by manufacturer Timco. “Our 787-8s will therefore carry more passengers than SIA’s 787-10s,” revealed Scoot’s CEO. “The 15-year-old 777s are very cheap, and they are perfect for some routes,” said Campbell Wilson. “But they are too big for developing markets.” On the other hand, “it doesn’t make sense—due to crew efficiencies and in order not to duplicate things—to keep any 777s beyond March 2016, when we will have an all 787-fleet of initially ten aircraft.” The Dreamliners will feature in-seat power outlets and will be Wi-Fi-enabled.

Scoot’s first route was from Singapore to Sydney, which started on June 4, 2012, as were the Gold Coast and Bangkok flights, with just two aircraft initially. “Sydney and also Perth have a large market segment for low-cost travel that SIA’s product doesn’t really cater for,” said Wilson. “Our presence allowed the SIA group to catch more of the market.” And what a market— before Scoot took on the route, there was actually an annual decline of 0.4% in passengers. “Before, there were seven daily flights by SIA, British Airways and Qantas, and their loads declined,” recalled Wilson. But, in the purest low-cost airline manner, all changed when Scoot appeared on the scene. “In the first six months after we started, there was an overall passenger plus to Sydney of 30%. We feel we attract new market segments,” said Scoot’s CEO. That is despite the fact that Scoot’s Sydney flights leave Changi at the ungodly hour of 02:45 during the summer schedule, and at 01:45 in winter. “The rationale behind this is also to send passengers towards SIA, one of many considerations,” admitted Wilson, calling it a “crap departure time” himself but pointing out the “good arrival time” at 12:45 or an hour later, respectively.

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THE TYPICAL NO-FRILLS NETWORK

Currently, Scoot is serving three destinations in Australia (Sydney, Gold Coast and Perth), four in China (Qingdao, Shenyang, Tianjin and Nanjing), as well five Asian regional hubs (Tokyo-Narita, Seoul, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Taipei). The latter three already had a strong presence of low-cost carriers before Scoot. “On Singapore to Bangkok, there are over 30 flights a day with seven or eight carriers flying, even Ethiopian Airlines,” explained Wilson. “90 carriers have fifth freedom rights on the route; SAS used to fly it with traffic rights.” Still, Scoot offers one daily flight to Bangkok’s low-cost-dominated Don Mueang airport, again differentiating itself from SIA, which flies to Suvarnabhumi.

Taipei serves as an intermediate stop on flights from Singapore to both Tokyo and Seoul, with full traffic rights, also to minimize the commercial risk of these routes and, again, differentiate it from SIA’s nonstop offerings. “This way, we have three countries to fill the flights rather than just two,” Wilson pointed out. “It’s a risk to fly beyond where people know your brand, but shorter flights spread the economic risk better,” he argued. With such intricate scheduling, Scoot’s fleet achieves a utilization of up to a peak of 15.5 hours daily, despite not flying routes longer than the eight hours to Sydney.

Overall, Singapore has proven receptive to low-cost flying. “There were just four percent of Changi’s passengers travelling low-cost in 2004,” explained Campbell Wilson. “Today it’s over a third—a fertile ground for Scoot—but with just over 30% low-cost share now, there is still some way to go. The potential must be over 50% in Asia, as, if you don’t fly, you have to swim between many cities; there is no land infrastructure.

For the time being, Wilson wants to focus on destinations within a radius of five to nine flight-hours out of Singapore, particularly Korea, China and India. “A potential exists to do truly long-haul because our new aircraft can do it, but the attraction is not necessarily there, as trip costs are much higher.”

“Such economic considerations make markets closer to home currently more interesting than Europe,” stated Wilson, “but we never say ‘no.’” With the 787s coming and a doubling of the current fleet size, the CEO plans to increase existing frequencies by a third, complementing them with new destinations. Scoot, currently employing 583 staff for its six aircraft, enjoys an 81% load factor on average, which is paramount. “Because being a wide-body, low-cost carrier is night-and-day different from being a narrow-body LCC,” stressed Wilson, “as wide-bodies have a hell of a lot of seats to sell.” Scoot is not profitable yet, admitted Campbell Wilson. “It’s a long-run business with a high cost of starting up; you need patience and deep pockets.”

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About Author

Andreas Spaeth

Andreas Spaeth

Based in Hamburg, Germany, lifelong passenger aviation geek, aviation journalist, book author, TV expert and avid traveler to over 100 countries and counting.

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