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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Qantas Asian Expansion with Malaysia

When Tony Fernandes last jetted into Sydney for a major PR event it was to trumpet his airline’s operational alliance with Qantas’s budget offshoot, Jetstar, aimed at saving them both money on buying planes and parts.

The outspoken boss of AirAsia engaged in a group hug with the Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, and Jetstar’s boss, Bruce Buchanan, for the cameras at Jones Bay Wharf, with the Harbour Bridge as a backdrop.

Although arch rivals in much of Asia’s budget air markets, the Qantas duo and Fernandes, in his trademark red baseball cap, were keen to showcase their close relationship.
”The sky’s open to what else we can do,” Fernandes boasted

Two years on Joyce and Fernandes are again in talks, this time about setting up an ultra-premium carrier in Malaysia. The two fortysomething CEOs have much more riding on the outcome of their negotiations.

For Joyce, the plan for an ultra-premium airline as part of a joint venture with Malaysia Airlines – the national flag carrier over which Fernandes now has considerable influence – is the centrepiece of his bold gamble to shift Qantas’s centre of gravity closer to Asia.

The Irishman has emerged hardened but not unscathed from one of the most bitter industrial battles in Qantas’s 91-year history. After bringing a long-running stand-off with unions to a dramatic head
three months ago when he grounded the airline’s entire fleet, Joyce now has to deliver on his plans to turn around the loss-making international operations and snare a bigger slice of the world’s fastest-growing aviation market.

His long-term strategy might be bold but it is high-risk. Launching an ultra-premium airline in south-east Asia is fraught with political, cultural and financial hurdles.

”The Asian step is clearly an ambitious one but a pretty understandable one,” says Conor McCarthy, a mate of Joyce’s who is regarded as the operational brains behind AirAsia.

”Qantas seem to be taking a view that they would not be going it alone, that they would look for partners. That makes sense because an Australian airline trying to break into markets in south-east Asia on its own might have some real problems – not just regulatory problems – but just in terms of breaking into the markets that would be strongly protected by the incumbents.”
The rush is on for Asia’s nouveau riche. A severe downturn in debt-laden European economies and a weak outlook for the US makes Asia look like a honey pot for airlines.

”It is the most resilient customer right now,” Andrew Orchard, an aviation analyst at Royal Bank of Scotland in Hong Kong, says of Asia’s wealthy and corporate travellers. ”There is a lot of wealth flowing into this part of the world. That is something airlines recognise.”

The Asia-Pacific region eclipsed North America as the world’s largest aviation market in 2009 by a few million people, notching up 647 million air travellers at 26 per cent of global passenger traffic.

By 2015, the International Air Transport Association is forecasting, travel within the Asia-Pacific will account for almost a third of the total. Although predicated on what happens in Europe and the US, the peak body for airlines is forecasting annual traffic growth of almost 7 per cent in the region by that year.

Qantas is not alone in the race to court well-heeled flyers in Asia. Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are doing their utmost to boost their appeal, knowing they need to stay ahead of their rivals.

From his Dublin office, McCarthy says Qantas’s plans for an ultra-premium carrier haven’t been discussed at AirAsia board level but he has been part of ”broad discussions”.

”It wouldn’t fit with AirAsia’s market at all. What it would be is something that would work probably between MAS [Malaysia Airlines] and Qantas, with potentially Tony’s involvement as well and a clear segmentation of the market,” says the co-founder of AirAsia, who worked alongside Joyce at Ireland’s flag carrier, Aer Lingus, in the 1990s and later helped design the blueprint for Jetstar.

Joyce’s ambitions rely heavily on buy-in from Fernandes, Malaysia’s answer to Richard Branson who, together with McCarthy, has built AirAsia from two planes and a pile of debt into Asia’s largest budget airline over the last decade. ”Tony is front and centre. He is part of the strategy – he is not just keeping a roving eye,” a Qantas insider says. ”We’ve got a failing international business … we need to do something. [Malaysia Airlines] are clearly struggling, so both companies essentially have to make something happen.”

Qantas initially favoured Singapore as a base for a new airline but Malaysia became more attractive in August when AirAsia and the government-controlled Malaysia Airlines agreed to a share swap. The deal opened the way for Qantas to progress talks on setting up an ultra-premium carrier based in Kuala Lumpur as part of a joint venture with the Malaysian flag carrier.

Apart from Fernandes, the other central character in the talks has been Malaysia Airlines’ deputy CEO, Mohammed Rashdan Yusof. Described as ”very smart”, Yusof represents the Malaysian government’s sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah, at Malaysia Airlines. The share-swap deal left Fernandes and his associates with almost 21 per cent of Malaysia Airlines, while Khazanah took a 10 per cent stake in AirAsia, the region’s equivalent of Ryanair. ”Now Tony is not in a position to piss off Khazanah, but likewise Khazanah is not in a position to piss off Tony,” an insider says.
Qantas has a dual track process under way. Under its favoured ”capital-light” option, a new airline based in Kuala Lumpur would use 15 twin-aisle A330 aircraft which Malaysia Airlines is due to take delivery of shortly.

At the same time, Qantas is wanting to bolster its relationship with Malaysia Airlines, initially through a code-share alliance but eventually extending to a much closer tie-up similar to its revenue-sharing agreements with British Airways and American Airlines.

Under the plans, the ultra-premium airline – Qantas has been testing RedQ and OneAsia as brand names – will service Australia and other medium-haul destinations, including China and India. Qantas maintains the airline is a different but complementary proposition to Malaysia Airlines’ plans for a short-haul premium carrier, announced late last year, several months after the asset swap with AirAsia.

Although it will include other classes besides business, the Qantas offshoot is touted as having ”very high specifications” and ”will not be replicating anything else” (such as British Airways’ all-business class flights from the City Airport in London to New York).

In contrast, the plans for Singapore – now playing second fiddle to Malaysia – are very different, requiring a capital injection of up to $500 million and using single-aisle A320neo aircraft Qantas ordered last year.

Either way, Qantas will have to overcome considerable scepticism. Kuala Lumpur might be a growing capital city but it is not the business hub where ”you would expect this type of premium service to be based”, says RBS’s Orchard, who lists Hong Kong and Singapore as preferable locations.

”The intentions are very good, and maybe they are a little bit ahead of the rest of the market. But basing a new premium carrier there [in Kuala Lumpur] would be a missed opportunity, even though I can see why they are doing it. Part of it is that their hand is being forced.”

More importantly, he questions the timing of setting up an ultra-premium airline because more people – even in Asia – are choosing to fly economy class due to the precarious state of the global economy. Business class might be a high yielding part of the aviation market but it is low volume.

”On the one hand you do see wealth creation in this part of the world. On the other hand you have dominant players already in SIA [Singapore Airlines] and Cathay,” Orchard says.

”Even if you have a low-density plane run by Qantas and Malaysia Airlines out of KL, is it going to be that much better option than what SIA already offers?”

Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates and Etihad are also fighting aggressively for premium passengers.
The question is whether RedQ will be ”premium enough” to encourage the rich and corporate travellers to switch from Singapore Airlines and Cathay. It will need high frequency, and good timing for business passengers who want to sleep on the planes before arriving at their destinations to go straight to meetings.

Ground products such as airport lounges and services to ensure passengers move smoothly from their home to the airport gate are also becoming more important.
”It is the whole nine yards – it is the frequency; it is upgrading the product,” Orchard says. ”Upgrading the 
product is becoming increasingly important with lounges and limo services. The older incumbent carriers are realising that this new reality is upon us.”

Even under a ”capital light option”, there will need to be a refit of a dedicated fleet of aircraft to appeal to the well-heeled traveller – not to forget training of staff. All of which does not come cheaply.

”It is going to take some time to build up … as many as five years,” Orchard says. ”And in the first few years you probably have to be more competitive on pricing. You have to accept margins will be smaller.”

The attempts to target Asia’s growing upper class might make sense on paper but industry insiders question what Qantas offers Fernandes and Malaysia Airlines.

It is not the first time Qantas has danced with Malaysia Airlines, only for them to go their separate ways. Under Geoff Dixon, Qantas attempted a merger in 2008 but that tango broke down over the ratio of shareholdings in any venture.

So where does Qantas fit into the grand plans of Fernandes and Malaysia Airlines?
The question leaves many veterans scratching their heads.
”I don’t see the opportunity for Qantas. What do they bring to the table?” an insider close to both parties asks, before pointing out that China is a much higher priority for Fernandes than Australia and Qantas.

”I can understand that they will fill the back of the plane but why does Tony Fernandes want to give it away [to Qantas]? If it was a joint venture with someone in China I would understand it.”

Fernandes, a one-time employee of Richard Branson, also has his hands full. Apart from Malaysia, AirAsia has offshoots in Thailand and Indonesia, as well as new ventures in Japan and the Philippines.

Add his English Premier League Club and formula one racing team, and now his involvement in Malaysia Airlines, on whose board he sits.
”Where does Qantas fit into his day?”
Even Joyce recently admitted that Fernandes can have ”50 business ideas a day”.

But after the industrial turmoil last year that cost Qantas $194 million, the pressure is mounting on Joyce to pull another rabbit out of his hat. A team led by a Qantas group executive, Lesley Grant, has been reviewing international options, including a new carrier, since last January.

Shareholders want some payback after several dismal years.

”Qantas investors have put up with a lot in the last 12 months and they want to start seeing some good news. 
That is where they are pinning their hopes – on the Asian carrier and expectations of a growing market,” the CBA Equities transport analyst Matt Crowe says.

”Qantas has had the excuse of the industrial dispute. They need to get on with it.”

Joyce has the caveat that any investment in Asia will depend on global economic conditions. But the airline maintains that it needs to find a solution for turning around its international operations and cement its place firmly in Asia before deregulation of the aviation market gathers speed.

Investors are likely to find out as soon as next month, when Qantas releases its half-year earnings, whether a dalliance with Malaysia Airlines will fly. But even if Joyce and Fernandes can nut out a deal, establishing an airline – even under the preferred ”capital-light” option – will take time. Winning approval for a new air operator’s certificate is likely to take a year, while gaining critical mass will take at least another.

”Premium airlines are being talked about all over Asia. The problem with the industry is that the lead time is so long,” a former senior Qantas executive says. ”KL to Singapore is like Adelaide to Sydney. They are wanting to go upmarket for business traffic but there is just not that much.”

Conor McCarthy is doubtful, too, about the rush for Asia’s emerging wealthy classes.

”Some of them [airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines] are getting involved early on because they want to be on that train when it leaves the station,” he says.

”There is a sizeable market but the problem is that it’s a pretty fragmented market. It is all over Asia and Asia is a big place. Where one group might want to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, another group might want to go from Kuala Lumpur to Bali.”

The large network needed presents a big challenge because it will have to meet the high demands of first-class travellers even when passenger volumes might not be high.

”It is going to require some careful roll out. There are benefits Qantas can bring to Malaysia Airlines and benefits Malaysia Airlines can bring to Qantas, which some of the stronger carriers would be reluctant to share,” McCarthy says. ”You try to do something like this in Singapore and you are going to find Singapore Airlines quite aggressive in defending their turf and not wanting to share any of the cake.”
The Irishman says Qantas’s push into Asia, where ”there is huge room to grow”, is an obvious strategic decision given the limited growth in its home market.

”[But] for you to break people away from their existing frequent flyer programs, to migrate them from their existing airlines to a new product, takes longer. So you need a little bit more patience and you need a little bit more capital,” he says.

The problem with the airline business is that there are some great ideas running out of capital before they get a chance to establish themselves.


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Live to love and love to live. The motto that I held on my entire life. Just a regular guy who loves what I am passionate in life. A song writer and producer. Living life on the move. From Malaysia to The States, New Zealand to Singapore. With the companion of great people in life. In and out from the music industry. Taking everything one step at a time. 
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