A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a newspaper journalist seeking some comments on the troubles of low-cost airline Tiger Australia.
The reporter was specifically interested in the likely impact of the current grounding on the firm’s relations with its parent back in Singapore (with a particular focus on the cultural aspect of ‘losing face’). I offered a few insights – that I couldn’t speak to any cultural dimension, but that HQ clearly was very worried given the group CEO was talking of basing himself in Australia presumably to kick some heads… and that the airline was clearly struggling well before pilots (allegedly) started flying a little recklessly.
Low-cost airlines have been a business revelation in the past decade or two.
Innovators like Ryanair and Easyjet, and copycats like Air Asia and Jetstar Asia have sliced enormous costs out of the process of offering international air travel. This has both sliced into the market share of the older full-service airlines, and also expanded the pie considerably by bringing less wealthy passengers into the market (and also allowing greater frequency of short trips away).
In the typically moribund US domestic market (see Michael Porter’s excellent explanation of why US airlines are typically loss-making – from about the 2 min mark of this video), both Southwest Airlines and JetBlue have been very successful using a low-cost model.
It would seem this a combination of mis-reading the local environment and under delivering on customer value.
Air travel in Australia is an awkward exercise. While there is little threat of substitutes due to the enormous distances between our major cities (other than Sydney-Canberra driving between mainland capitals takes >7 hours), the fact that there are single airports in pretty much every major city (other than Melbourne’s inconvenient Avalon option).
Low cost airlines typically seek to avoid the high landing costs (and associated parking costs etc for price-sensitive passengers) by using smaller second airports and secondary cities, especially to cross-subsidise those flights that must go through hubs. In Australia that simply isn’t an option. The two big local players have very stable and mutually beneficial arrangements with airport management, and upstarts like Tiger are burdened with either tin-shed outhouses or pricey general gates.
The concentration of Australia’s population into a small number of large cities, unlike the more dispersed US markets, has meant Tiger has developed no local monopolies, and struggled to find a niche of consumers willing to sacrifice certainty and convenience for the limited price savings on offer.
At an operational level the firm has also failed to deliver then minimum service required to develop any customer loyalty. Too many flights are cancelled (and given the infrequent schedule, too long a wait ensues), and the airline is notorious for being close to uncontactable for assistance.
The current grounding of all flights could (and perhaps should) be the end of line for this failed business strategy.