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Opinion

Asian airlines -- crowded skies

Pressures grow as more carriers chase more passengers

Will there be room for all?   © AP

It has been a banner year for Singapore Airlines. It won top billing for 2018 in the prestigious Skytrax World Airline Awards and on the TripAdvisor travel website.

The five-star operator even played a stealth cameo in the Hollywood blockbuster "Crazy Rich Asians." Though the first-class compartment in which our two main characters fly from New York to Singapore did not bear the SQ brand, frequent travelers know which airline served as inspiration. Singapore Airlines featured prominently in the Kevin Kwan book on which the movie is based.

But the reality is markedly different as budget airlines grab the spotlight.

In 2017, the Asia-Pacific region saw the biggest jump in passenger traffic of any region. Traffic rose 10.6% from 2016 on 1.5 billion passengers, according to the International Air Transport Association. That compares to roughly 4% annual traffic growth at the start of the decade. Last year, Asia won more than 36% of global market share versus 26% in Europe and 23% in North America. Asia's share is still growing apace in 2018.

The fastest increase is at the low-cost end of the business. In Southeast Asia, low-cost carriers now have half the market, a dynamic that is squeezing the profitability of Singapore's fabled carrier and other full-service ones. In 2013, the share was about 31%. Competition will only rise with the number of no-frills aircraft filling the Asian skies.

Vietnam, for example, is now getting its third budget airline. Japan Airlines also is getting into the lower end of the Asian market, one that's seen more than a 50 new entrants in less than 20 years. The nation's second-largest name, a shareholder in low-fare carrier Jetstar Japan, is deepening its bet on the fastest-growing aviation arena.

It is part of a well-observed pattern. In the U.S. and Europe, the prestige operators of old have been supplanted by budget carriers. Now, it is Asia's turn.

Does this mean the death of Asia's prestige carriers? Not necessarily. True, the rapid ascent of budget travel would seem to pose an existential threat to Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, All Nippon Airways and others. The would seem to be facing the fate of PanAm, the defunct U.S. carrier, or Alitalia, the troubled state-backed Italian airline put into administration last year.

Yet there may be unexpected salvation for Asian top-class carriers. The budget-ization of Asia's skies could catalyze legacy giants to raise their games.

Certainly, the budget carriers can be expected to win the lion's share of passenger growth as they have in recent years and as they profit from the further rise of the region's vast middle classes.

Like North Americans and Europeans, Asians want to travel, when they have the money. They live in an even bigger region than North America and Europe, with fewer options for international rail and motor tourism. And they mostly have much smaller homes -- so more money to spend on holidays.

But, as the film Crazy Rich Asians has highlighted, Asia arguably faces the globe's biggest inequality challenge. Asia's Gini coefficient -- a key measure of inequality -- deteriorated markedly from 1990 to 2014, moving from 48 from 37.

In a combined population of nearly 4.5 billion people there will be plenty of wealthy people ready to fly first class. Capgemini SE estimates that nearly 2,000 new Asian millionaires are created every day.

Some will be cheapskates. But the Asian rich's taste for luxury suggests there will be enough upwardly-mobile consumers with little interest in no-frills carriers. For many, longer waiting times, undesirable time slots and distant gate assignments hold little allure.

"The [economic] pie is getting bigger," says airline analyst Michael Linenberg of Deutsche Bank Securities. "That said, the legacy carriers do need to adapt to the new world order."

That means better service, more competitive pricing, bigger seats, greater comfort. But there also is a diverse enough Asian clientele to support both high and low market segments. As incomes rise, there should be plenty of room for both first-class travel on Singapore Airlines and, say, AirAsia.

Even at the top there will be plenty of competition. Not everybody will survive. Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and other top-end Asian carriers already face tough challenges from the state carriers of the Middle East. Government-owned Emirates Airline and Qatar Airways have the luxury of good brands and state support.

That is surely the view of Tony Fernandes, who founded AirAsia and 2001 to kick off the low-cost carrier boom. "I would agree that the pressure is on these [legacy] airlines," he tells me. "But I do also think the middle class is growing." Bottom line, he says: "The pie is getting bigger."

And budget airlines will surely get a larger slice of this bigger pie. "I think maybe premium airlines are realizing they cannot do all," Fernandes says. "And they are moving up the curve and focusing on more premium customers and adjusting their capacity and product to reflect their cost structure."

But budget airlines will not have it easy. Not only are newcomers entering the market but it is also true that, as with the full-service carriers, government support distorts the market.

The heavy subsidies China, and Chinese local governments toss at airlines make for uneven competition. The world's second-biggest economy is on course to become the top market for air travel. Strong government backing makes China's Spring Airlines, 9 Air and others hard to beat on price -- and price is what matters for the budget traveler.

Making life even tougher for the likes of AirAsia, the legacy carriers are also staying in the game with low-cost offshoots such as Singapore Airlines subsidiary Scoot.

What is clear, though, is that AirAsia's "now everyone can fly" ethos has become conventional wisdom. Take Vietnam, where fledgling carrier Bamboo Airways is preparing to hit the skies. Its 94 million people, economic growth of 6.7% and emerging role in Asian supply chains provide a microcosm of the passenger base on which low-cost carriers are relying. For business travel as much as for tourism.

Headwinds abound, including Donald Trump's escalating trade war. The U.S. president's policies are upending Asian supply chains and imperiling China, the region's key engine.

Yet Asia's economic growth is an even more powerful force, especially in its teeming cities. The ability of new urban centers from India to Indonesia to grow relies on increased transportation connectivity. It is no mystery why so many of Asia's infrastructure dollars are going toward new, or upgraded, international airports. Asians will not be short of airports or of airlines.

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades." He was given the 2018 prize for excellence in opinion writing by the Society of Publishers in Asia, for his work for the Nikkei Asian Review.

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