SINGAPORE: Singapore Airlines is following Cathay Pacific in upgrading its regional subsidiary’s product in order to create a more seamless passenger experience between long-haul and short-haul flying, unlike the case in some other regions, such as Europe.
The upgrades bring needed sophistication to the regional units that fell behind their parent company’s benchmark-setting standards.
With the delivery of new 737s, SilkAir, as SIA’s regional unit is called, will upgrade its seats and expects to offer more in-flight entertainment options in a bid to narrow the experience gap with SIA – but not close as it, as Cathay’s Dragonair has largely done.
Cohesiveness is the objective: SilkAir says about half of its passengers connect from SIA flights, almost all of them long-haul.
“What we need to do is improve on the product and services to try to give our consumers a better and more complete travel experience,” SilkAir chief executive Leslie Thng says.
SilkAir will stop short of Dragonair’s re-positioning. In a major over-haul last year Dragonair dropped its dated interior for a near replica of Cathay’s, from IFE to seat covers to even menu designs. Dragonair’s uniform was previously updated to look similar to Cathay. The two carriers went from stark contrast to being interchangeable.
Differentiation will remain between SilkAir and SIA. Today SilkAir has no in-seat IFE while visual elements – from seat patterns to crew uniforms – are tropical, in contrast to SIA’s refined look. SilkAir’s upgrade will likely see wireless IFE while seat cover patterns will be different from SIA but more modern.
“The two companies feel we could continue being distinct and have our own branding and positioning in the market,” Thng says of SIA and SilkAir, which share passengers but also have their own markets. “We are dependent on each other in terms of joint customers but at the same time we are carrying our own passengers so we would still like to retain our own identity.”
Also a likely factor is that Dragonair’s key routes are competitive business cities – Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei – while SilkAir only serves secondary cities, negating the need for a top-end experience.
Some might say Dragonair went above expectations in its re-branding, but there is no consensus in Asia in managing the passenger experience for those transferring between a long-haul flight and a short one. Thai Airways has taken a different approach with far more leisure-oriented unit Thai Smile blocking the middle economy seat for premium passengers.
SilkAir’s perhaps more practical offering is despite a longer average sector length than Dragonair, although SilkAir offers amenity kits to economy passengers on long or over-night flights, unlike Dragonair.
SilkAir sees IFE as the biggest difference between SilkAir and SIA. SilkAir at the end of 2013 commenced a trial with Panasonic (SIA’s IFE supplier) for its wireless streaming eXW product. If the results remain positive, SilkAir could retrofit eXW to its 20-odd-aircraft fleet by the end of the year.
SilkAir VP Operations Goh Boon Hwee says the solution is practical for short flights as retrofits are far simpler and less expensive while ongoing maintenance is minimized. But SilkAir strongly expects that it will continue to offer over-head monitors and in-seat audio to accommodate the safety demonstration video as well as any passengers who do not have personal devices.
The initial trial sees limited content, including about 20 videos, but that would be expanded if exW was fully implemented. SilkAir is not offering early window Hollywood content as it wants the IFE solution to be simple and not require passengers to download a plug-in in advance, as is now the case to ensure digital rights management. “We wanted something that’s easy,” Boon Hwee says. “You don’t have to do anything. Just go on board.”
SilkAir could change its view based on passenger feedback, or more ideally, “there will hopefully be improvement in offering early release Hollywood” content without DRM, Boon Hwee says. He notes that SilkAir could offer early window content from Asian studios that are not as stringent about DRM.
The changes are being ushered in as SilkAir in February prepares to take the first 737 (in a special 25th anniversary livery) from a 54 aircraft order. The aircraft will replace its existing A319s and A320s and allow for what SilkAir expects to be annual double-digit capacity growth. The Airbus fleet could be retrofitted with eXW but will not gain the new interior, which includes a powerport and USB outlet for each business class seat while three economy seats will share two powerports and also have a USB plug. In contrast, every Dragonair seat has an individual plug.
SilkAir’s Airbus fleet comes in a number of configurations, but VP Commercial Ryan Pua says SilkAir has learned simplicity of a standard configuration outweighs the complexity of right-sizing configurations to destinations. SilkAir expects all its 737-800s to have the same configuration of 12 business class and 150 economy seats (8% more than its most common A320 configuration). But SilkAir is also continuing to determine what is the optimal number of business seats. Pua says business traffic accounts for 30% of its network, but point-to-point demand is down.
The configuration and business/economy split could change if SilkAir takes other variants of the 737. SilkAir does not offer a first class cabin whereas a few Dragonair aircraft due. The order includes 737 MAXs, which Pua says will increase SilkAir’s maximum flying time from 5h10m to 6h30m, potentially ushering in new destinations.
Images credit: airteamimages – SilkAir A319