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Airline service quality: Southeast Asia sets the standard

5th October, 2010

When surveys are taken on quality, the airlines of Southeast Asia dominate. In the second of our series assessing the strengths and weaknesses of airlines through a sampling of traveller reviews taken from Skytrax, the focus moves to the Southeast Asian carriers.

They enjoy global reputations and most travellers, when citing an ideal for comparison, often will use Singapore or Cathay Pacific as the ultimate benchmark. But that kind of reputation carries its own risk. The car rental company Avis for years used the slogan “We’re number 2”, realising it is easier to aspire to the top position than to occupy it.

To read about the methodology of this study, please see the first report on Airline service quality.

Being on top can be precarious.

Being “the best” automatically creates expectations that are very difficult, if not impossible, to meet. Consequently, minor irritants that are taken in stride elsewhere are far more critically assessed. That was obvious in the way that travellers rated these airlines, where expectations for this group were very often much more refined than those demanded of say, BA or United.

Nonetheless, the general excellence of the region’s carriers is reflected in the fact that of the six airlines currently holding a Skytrax five-star rating, four are in East and Southeast Asia. Kingfisher, not far away, is the fifth, and Qatar makes number six.

An incredible array of quality carriers

The competition is tough and, in examining the airlines, there were different operating patterns and service offers among them. The only major network carrier unrepresented is Vietnam Airlines, which lacked the requisite 25 reviews in the proper format.

Therefore we have assessments of the three five-star carriers, Singapore, Malaysia and Cathay Pacific, two four-star network carriers, Thai and Garuda, and one outlier, Bangkok Airways (four-star) that differs considerably in its business model but is firmly rooted in a full-service tradition.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines 5*

Points

Nat

Class

Food

Svc

Grnd

Cft

Val

10

LU

C

G

G

G

G

X

5

UK

C

   

B

 

X

9

AU

Y

G

G

 

G

X

10

US

Y

G

G

G

G

X

5

AU

C

G

G

 

M

 

3

AE

C

G

G

B

B

 

10

UK

Y

G

G

 

G

X

10

AE

C

G

G

 

G

X

8

CH

Y

G

G

B

G

X

7

CH

Y

G

G

 

M

 

8

UK

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

US

Y

M

G

 

G

X

10

NZ

Y

G

G

 

G

X

6

SG

Y

M

M

 

G

 

6

US

F

G

G

 

M

 

3

SG

Y

B

B

 

B

 

8

SG

Y

G

G

G

G

 

9

AU

Y

 

G

 

M

X

10

DE

Y

G

G

 

G

X

6

AU

Y

 

M

 

G

 

9

SG

Y

G

G

 

G

X

8

NZ

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

AU

Y

G

G

   

X

9

AU

Y

G

G

 

G

X

5

UK

C

     

B

 

7.68

           

16

Singapore Airlines is probably suffering from its own reputation. Because of its global notoriety, the airline is being held to a different standard. Unlike our North Atlantic exercise, few reviewers had truly negative comments, and most said that the service was at least OK. However, those giving fewer rating points almost always left comments like “not what it used to be” or “did not warrant the fare premium paid”. The refusal of SQ to substantively discount, especially in its premium cabins, leaves one third of passengers believing that the value proposition is not convincing.

There were also a few who noted that while the service was fine, the mythical “Singapore Girl” had disappeared.

The A-380 got generally very positive comments and made the older 777s look dated by comparison. The term “tired” or “old” was often applied. Overall, the reviewers were far less willing to cut Singapore some slack if things were thought to be even a tiny bit amiss. People granting US carriers a three often used words like “appalling” or “awful”, while a three rating on Singapore contained the following comment, “a rather disappointing experience with an airline who claim to be a premier carrier”.

Thai Airways

Thai Airways 4*

Points

Nat

Class

Food

Svc

Grnd

Cft

Val

7

NO

C

 

G

 

B

 

8

NL

Y

G

G

G

G

X

8

AU

Y

G

G

G

G

X

7

SG

Y

G

G

G

M

X

8

HK

C

G

G

G

G

X

6

AU

F

G

M

M

G

X

7

UK

C

G

G

G

M

X

9

UK

Y

G

G

 

G

X

5

JP

C

B

G

 

B

 

8

DK

C

G

G

 

G

X

7

MY

Y

G

G

 

G

X

8

CN

Y

G

G

 

M

X

9

ZA

Y

G

G

 

G

X

8

SG

Y

G

G

 

M

X

6

TH

C

M

G

G

M

X

9

UK

Y

G

M

 

G

X

7

FR

Y

G

G

 

G

X

7

NO

C

 

M

   

X

8

PH

Y

G

G

 

M

X

10

TH

Y

G

G

 

G

X

7

UK

Y

G

G

M

G

X

2

IN

Y

B

B

     

6

NZ

C

B

B

G

B

X

7

NO

Y

M

M

 

M

X

9

US

Y

G

G

 

G

X

7.32

           

22

Thai Airways reviewers are the most diverse group that has been registered thus far, with 15 different countries of residence represented. This is perhaps related to Thai pricing, which was repeatedly referenced as being the lowest in a number of markets. In a many cases contributors noted that with low fares and quite good service, Thai was excellent value. In one case, the poster noted that Singapore was better but the value proposition was better with TG.

Repeatedly mentioned was the lack of up-to-date IFE gear on much of the fleet, especially in economy. There were also quite a few comments that noted the “ageing” 747-400s and some older 777s. However, the 34” pitch on many of their aircraft was recognised and appreciated.

In the reviews surveyed, Thai appeared to get fewer low marks when rough spots appeared as they offered a clear price advantage. Like Singapore, there were no biting reviews and really no “flights from hell”.

Malaysia Airlines

Malaysia Airlines 5*

Points

Nat

Class

Food

Svc

Grnd

Cft

Val

6

AU

Y

 

M

 

M

X

9

ES

Y

G

G

G

G

X

8

MY

C

G

G

G

G

X

6

AU

Y

M

M

M

B

X

9

AU

C

G

G

G

G

X

9

BE

Y

G

G

G

G

X

7

CH

Y

M

M

G

G

X

9

AU

F

G

G

G

G

X

10

RO

Y

G

G

 

G

X

6

SG

Y

M

M

 

M

X

3

NL

Y

 

B

 

B

 

3

AU

Y

 

B

   

X

3

ZA

Y

   

B

   

10

AU

Y

G

G

 

G

X

6

NZ

Y

G

G

 

G

X

8

CN

Y

G

G

G

G

X

8

NZ

Y

G

G

M

G

X

1

AU

Y

   

B

G

 

9

US

C

G

G

M

G

X

9

PT

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

UK

C

G

G

 

G

X

9

AU

C

G

G

M

G

X

5

AU

C

M

M

 

M

X

9

AU

C

G

G

M

G

X

4

AU

C

M

M

 

M

 

7

           

22

Malaysia Airlines, also with a five-star rating, came off a bit worst than Singapore. The word “appalling” was used in one review and there were two semi-horror tales related. However, again, the baseline appears to be set higher than it is for airlines in other regions. One reviewer, who posted a seven for the review commented: “I think it is a good 4.5 star airline.” That is still rather high praise, making a seven probably more valuable for Malaysia than a similar ranking elsewhere.

Like Thai, there were quite a few references to substandard, by today’s benchmarks, IFE and the 747s were also seen as in need of a facelift.

There were far more mentions of delays in the reviews, perhaps partly due to the fact that quite a few contributors had flown Malaysia on domestic flights. Unlike Thai, which has few domestic routes and Singapore that has none, Malaysia operates a dense domestic network and has smaller aircraft and more short sectors than either Thai or Singapore.

Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific 5*

Points

Nat

Class

Food

Svc

Grnd

Cft

Val

4

US

Y

     

B

 

4

AU

Y

G

G

 

B

X

9

US

C

G

G

 

G

 

8

US

Y

G

G

G

G

X

9

US

Y

G

G

 

B

X

3

BE

Y

 

B

 

B

 

10

FR

C

G

G

 

G

X

6

AU

C

G

G

 

M

X

4

AU

Y

B

     

X

10

PL

C

G

G

 

G

X

8

IN

Y

G

G

M

 

X

5

US

Y

M

B

B

B

 

9

AU

Y/C

M

M

 

M

X

8

AU

Y

G

G

 

G

X

10

FR

C

G

G

G

G

X

9

ES

Y

G

G

 

G

X

8

HK

C

M

G

G

G

X

9

CN

C

G

G

 

G

X

4

AU

Y

M

M

 

M

 

8

VN

Y

G

G

G

G

X

9

UK

Y

G

G

   

X

5

NZ

Y

G

G

 

B

X

3

TW

C

M

   

M

 

9

CH

C

G

G

B

G

X

7

AU

C

G

G

 

M

X

7.12

           

19

Cathay Pacific, yet another five-star airline, were generally expected to be flawless and any deviation or problem was immediately noted and a cause for demerits.

Like Singapore, they tend to not discount in their premium cabins, making them relatively more expensive. One passenger wrote: “I'd happily pay more to fly them every single time, but can't justify paying twice as much as I'm able to pay elsewhere.”

One absolute constant was the unpopularity of the new economy shell seat. There was not a single positive comment and many economy travellers complained that it was hard and very uncomfortable for long flights. This was a unanimous opinion that had not been aired with any other carrier.

The one reviewer who was upgraded on the return went from being extremely critical of the seat and service to being a very happy camper in business. This resulted in a nine overall, but one wonders what the rating might have been had the return also been in economy.

Garuda Indonesia

Garuda Indonesia 4*

Points

Nat

Class

Food

Svc

Grnd

Cft

Val

9

UK

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

ID

Y

G

G

M

G

X

7

AU

C

M

M

B

M

X

10

IN

C

G

G

G

G

X

8

IN

Y

G

G

 

G

X

7

SG

Y

 

M

 

M

X

8

SG

Y

 

G

 

G

X

9

AU

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

NL

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

AU

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

IN

Y

M

G

 

G

X

9

CH

Y

G

G

 

G

X

8

IN

Y

G

G

   

X

8

UK

C

G

G

M

G

X

8

IN

C

G

G

 

G

X

9

SG

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

IN

Y

M

   

G

X

9

IN

Y

 

G

 

M

X

9

US

Y

G

G

   

X

9

IN

C

G

G

G

G

X

9

AU

C

G

G

 

G

X

7

AU

Y

G

G

M

M

X

7

AU

C

G

G

 

G

X

8

US

C

G

G

G

G

X

9

SG

Y

M

G

 

G

X

8.48

           

25

Garuda came as something of a surprise, ranking better than any airline tallied thus far. There were repeated comments that the airline provides excellent value and exceeds some of its competition. “Better value than Jetstar”, being one example.

It was also clear, almost from the outset, that most passengers had low expectations and were pleasantly surprised by the reality. Garuda has had a rocky history of late and is just beginning to re-enter the European market.

Travellers were genuinely impressed by the “new” Garuda. These statements sum up the gist of many comments: “Overall Garuda is improving” and “Garuda has changed into a better airline”.

The carrier also operates a large domestic network and many of the comments were based on very short flights. Yet they did not disappoint: "Short 50 minutes flight … managed to deliver prompt and courteous service.”

The friendliness and service-minded attitude of cabin staff received repeated mention.

The airline appears to be rebuilding itself on a firm foundation. It’s fleet is quite new and there is a sizeable order for more equipment. The challenge will come in maintaining its excellent start as it grows and becomes a more common inclusion in traveller itineraries.

Bangkok Airways

Bangkok Airways 4*

Points

Nat

Class

Food

Svc

Grnd

Cft

Val

9

FR

Y

G

G

G

G

X

9

CA

Y

G

G

 

G

X

6

UK

Y

B

B

M

G

 

9

UK

Y

M

G

G

G

X

9

AU

Y

G

G

 

G

X

10

UK

Y

G

G

G

G

X

10

KE

Y

G

G

G

G

X

10

CH

Y

G

G

G

G

X

8

UK

Y

G

G

M

G

X

8

UK

Y

G

G

 

G

X

8

UA

Y

G

G

 

G

X

9

TH

Y

G

G

G

G

X

10

UK

Y

G

G

G

G

X

9

UK

C

G

G

G

G

X

9

UK

Y

G

G

G

G

X

7

FR

Y

         

9

CN

Y

G

G

G

G

X

6

TH

Y

M

M

G

 

X

5

UK

Y

 

G

 

G

 

10

IN

C

G

G

G

G

X

9

UK

Y

G

G

G

 

X

8

UK

Y

G

G

G

G

X

8

HK

Y

G

G

 

G

X

10

NL

Y

G

G

G

G

X

5

UK

Y

M

G

 

G

 

8.4

           

21

Finally, an airline that is rather unique in the ranks of global carriers, Bangkok Airways. The carrier describes itself as “Asia’s Boutique Airline” and offers direct service to some of Thailand’s best island resorts. It owns and operates its own airports at a number of destinations and offers pre-departure lounges for all passengers.

As such, it is difficult to compare to network carriers that have a very different operation. Its routes are mostly regional with its longest flight being from Bangkok to Male in the Maldives.

The airline has A350s on order and may, some years from now, be a force to contend with in the intercontinental market. But for now, they occupy a distinct niche and enjoy an excellent reputation for the service they provide.

They get far more mention in the “ground” column because of the lounges that they provide. The primary complaint is that on some routes they have a virtual monopoly and the fares are deemed higher than those usually charged on sectors of similar length; hence quality, but at a price.

Southeast Asian carriers fly the quality flag

As expected, there are no slackers in this group. The scores are uniformly high and it is unlikely that a flight with any of these airlines will result in a truly negative experience. Even with a few threes and fours, the overall quality is evident, and even those low scores probably still represent a higher level of performance than a similar score on, say, a US carrier.

The charts also represent an interesting set of cumulative scores with Garuda, at 8.48, outscoring all of the five-star carriers. Does this mean that Garuda is better than Cathay, Malaysia or Singapore? Probably not; and from the tone of the comments, where they really rank is in the “most improved” category, consistently surpassing expectations which were probably far below those of travellers on the other three. As Garuda matures, and expectations rise, it can be expected that there will be a similar scrutiny of their service and lower scores for  “just being really good” most of the time.

If you want consistently good service, choose an airline based in Southeast Asia—but be aware that even they have some shortcomings.

Next, the Gulf carriers (and Turkish) are all intent on moving connecting passengers from European hubs to their operating bases. Are they supplying the quality service that is necessary for long-term success?

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