Singapore Girl – you’re a cheap way to fly…or are you? Making the low cost Singapore Airlines brand work

I have to admit that I’m a big Singapore Airlines (SIA) fan, and when someone says “you’re a great way to fly”, I can almost sing the SIA melody in my head.  But even I was surprised when SIA announced that they will be launching a low-cost long-haul airline, on the lines of AirAsia X and Jetstar.

Yes, Singapore Airlines is no longer the most profitable airline in the world (Cathay Pacific took over that title), and yes they’re losing market share to the likes of Emirates and AirAsiaX (to a lesser extent), but to go with a business model that’s hardly proven was a surprise move for a brand that’s been risk-averse of late.

While the initial reports stated that a good amount of analysis has gone into the decision and a “largely untapped market” exists, it’s safe to say that SIA is playing catch up in a market carved out in its backyard by AirAsia X and Jetstar. While the key success factor for SIA till date has been its endearing Singapore Girl brand, that’s exactly the dilemma they need to address – whether to extend the brand to the low cost airline or not.

Will the Singapore Girl fly budget? Probably not.

One big question everyone is wondering about is whether the Singapore Girl would fly this new airline. For those who’re familiar with SIA, they know that the airline is very protective of its brand icon. And multiple questions will be raised if the same Singapore Girls walk the aisle of the new airline.

  1. How to ensure that people know SIA and the new LCC are different, yet have the same flight attendants?
  2. Will service failures like flight delays or cancellations be dealt in an SIA manner, or Tiger Airways manner?
  3. Will SIA Economy Class passengers transferring on to the LCC be offered free meals and amenity kits?
  4. What baggage allowances will people get if they are transferring from one airline to another?

Close brand association between the two airlines might prove to be too risky for both brands. Hence, it’s likely that SIA will dis-associate itself completely from the new brand. For example, when things went bad for Tiger Airways in Australia, no one boycotted SIA – the latter still holds its reputation for impeccable service. SIA’s greatest leverage will be that they’ve run a long haul airline successfully, with a very low cost base.

Learn from the competition, then fight on your own turf

While SIA’s track record is an asset, it is also a reason for concern. The airline already has a very low cost base – how would they reduce it further, if operations are to be based in Singapore? One of the reasons for the success of AirAsia X and Jetstar have been the feed from their short haul operations. Interestingly, SIA is a purely-long haul airline, hence feeding the network for this new long-haul airline would depend on SilkAir and Tiger Airways. These and other factors will require SIA to re-think its commercial strategies for the new airline, learning from the competition.

  1. SIA till today only sells airline tickets on its website (trying to book a hotel will take you to an external site). Whereas on AirAsia’s RedTix website, I can even buy Justin Beiber concert tickets! So the new LCC SIA sets up must re-evaluate what businesses it gets in and how best to leverage the brand
  2. SIA’s frequent flyer program, Krisflyer, also currently only allows burning or miles on SIA flights. This is in stark contrast to Qantas’ Frequent Flyer program, where I can redeem and earn miles by shopping for groceries! Krisflyer will also have to evolve, just like Jetstar has been introduced into the Qantas’ program.
  3. SIA’s new long-haul LCC can expect very stiff competition from AirAsia X and Jetstar. Moreover, the competition has one year to sharpen its knifes before SIA launches the new airline. While Jetstar would want to start routes Melbourne-Singapore-Athens flights sooner, the Malaysian government has even more reasons to grant AirAsia X coveted routes like Sydney. SIA needs to run two steps ahead to out-think the competition.
  4. SIA also needs to learn from mistakes made in its Tiger Airways venture – running the new airline like a Ryanair may not work, especially in long-haul. They need to ensure high customer service standards, like they have with themselves.

A golden opportunity to co-create the brand with the customers

To provide exceptional customer service, SIA will also need to understand that the customers of the new airline more like those of Tiger Airways’ than its own. And they need to deal with them in a different manner. What do I mean?

Currently, SIA has no official Facebook fanpage. No official Twitter account. Or any other new medium engagement channels. All this when AirAsia, right next door, has become the first airline outside the US to reach 1 million Facebook fans. Tiger Airways’ social media interaction isn’t something to speak of either.

SIA needs to hire manager who believe that the brand is no longer about control. Rather, it’s about influencing a certain behaviour, and engaging with customers using mediums they’re familiar with (I still have to fax in certain requests to Krisflyer!). They can no longer be in a state of educated nonchalance about these new ways of building a brand, as I had mentioned earlier.

Singapore Airlines has a rare opportunity to involve the potential customers in the brand creation process of its new low-cost long haul airline brand. For starters, they can look at how the best airlines in the world are crowd sourcing ideas. And then wholeheartedly embrace the customer.

Given their track record, I think Singapore Airlines is going to do a good enough job setting up this new airline – what remains to be seen is whether they are able to sustain profitable operations in the face of changing customer realities and fierce competition. Exciting times ahead! What do you think?

(Special thanks to Khoa Huynh and Anthony Prsakasam – my two aviation geek friends who helped seed some of the ideas in this article)

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  • Jefftomei

    SIA has a Hugh cost structure and a mentality that doesn’t lend itself to low cost anything! What happened to Silk Air? Wasn’t that supposed to be the SIA LCC?

    • Shashank Nigam

      I beg to differ on this one. SIA indeed has one of the lowest cost structures in the industry – that’s a well known fact. Moreover, Silkair was never meant to be a low-cost subsidiary – that’s Tiger Airways. Silkair is a full-service regional subsidiary of SIA, and it’s in fact more profitable and successful than Tiger Airways.

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