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Can Singapore Airlines overtake Qatar Airways as world's best airline?

Qatar Airways took top spot in the 2019 Skytrax World Airline Awards ranking, switching places with last year's winner, Singapore Airlines (SIA). In an annual exercise which does not see significant movement among the ranks, the close rivalry between the two airlines for the top honour seems to be the only exciting news.

For SIA, it is not easy staying at the top, as other airlines are catching up fast, says the author.

For SIA, it is not easy staying at the top, as other airlines are catching up fast, says the author.

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Qatar Airways took top spot in the 2019 Skytrax World Airline Awards ranking, switching places with last year's winner, Singapore Airlines (SIA).

In an annual exercise which does not see significant movement among the ranks, the close rivalry between the two airlines for the top honour seems to be the only exciting news. Eight out of the last 10 years since 2010, SIA ranked one position behind Qatar.

The exceptions were in 2010 when SIA was second and Qatar third, and in 2018, when SIA was named the world's best airline.

There are a couple of worthy observations to be made of the latest Skytrax survey, which since its launch in 1999 has become widely recognised as an industry benchmark. Over 21 million people were surveyed.

First, consistency makes a winning trait. Every year, you can expect to see in the top 10 list perennial favourites – besides Qatar and SIA, names such as All Nippon Airways (3rd this year), Cathay Pacific (4th), Emirates (5th), EVA Air (6th) and Lufthansa (9th). Like SIA, both Cathay and Emirates were four-time winners in the past.

So an airline can deservedly give itself a pat on the back wherever it is placed in the top 10, allowing some leeway for subjectivity, bias in the composition of respondents, and weightage as expected of all surveys. 

But, of course, it is a big deal to be declared the overall winner. With it comes extensive global news coverage and publicity. On that score you can't blame SIA if it felt sore being pipped by Qatar yet again.

Qatar became the first airline to win the award five times, an honour that would have been SIA's had it won again this year.

It appears SIA has lost the edge of yesteryear to a better player. Its win last year marked a commendable comeback after 10 years, reliving the hope of the previous decade when it won three times in 2004, 2007 and 2008.

But it was short-lived. Does it look like Qatar has become an unbeatable foe?

One may be quick to think cash-rich Middle East airlines enjoy an unfair advantage considering the wonder that money can do.

But to SIA's credit it has held its own, winning the award of the world's best first class. Qatar was not even a close second but fifth after Lufthansa, Air France and Etihad Airways in that category.

The first class product has been SIA's forte since its inception. But that's not good enough to beat Qatar in the Skytrax ranking, despite SIA winning the award for world's best cabin crew to boot.

Today's focus seems to weigh in more heavily on the business class product for which Qatar came up tops, followed by ANA and SIA in second and third placing respectively.

This is probably the fiercest battleground among airlines, which explains how many of them have been upgrading their product in recent years.

Flat beds are no longer a desired but essential feature. Seats are being designed increasingly to provide maximum privacy.

Qatar no doubt impresses with its new cubicle-like Qsuite which has its own door. There is a double bed option, and quad configurations allow businessmen to confer and families to share the private space.

It should be said that SIA's business class too is impressive. According to Skytrax, its spacious seat is the best in Asia.

In its early days, SIA was known to be a leader in innovation. It has lost the lead somewhat in some fields in recent years, but the good news is that SIA as a latecomer still manages to catch up and make it to be among the best.

An example is premium economy. For some time after Cathay hyped up interest in the renewed product as a sub-class in its own right with its own cabin, SIA resisted following suit until 2015.

Today it was voted the best premium economy in Asia, second only to Virgin Atlantic worldwide in the 2019 Skytrax survey.

To be sure, the survey and other similar ones can be skewed by the halo effect of the premium service. The playing field for economy class is pretty much level, but the competition has led to an increasing push for differentiation.

According to Skytrax, Japan Airlines ranked first in this category, followed by SIA and Qatar in second and third placing respectively.

You may then wonder how SIA, being better than Qatar for both first and economy but second to Qatar for business, is not the winner. It all comes down to the weightage.

A second significant observation of the Skytrax survey is how easy it is to fall from grace. Asiana Airlines, ranked 28th in the 2019 survey, was the world's best airline in 2010 and stayed in the top 10 list for six consecutive years until 2014. 

In subsequent years it kept tumbling four or five notches down. 

A second significant observation of the Skytrax survey is how easy it is to fall from grace. Asiana Airlines, ranked 28th in the 2019 survey, was the world's best airline in 2010. Until 2014, it was a familiar brand in the top 10 list. But in subsequent years it kept tumbling four or five notches down. 

Etihad Airways is another example. 

It did reasonably well for eight years until 2018 when it was ranked 15th and a year later suffered a dramatic decline to the 29th spot.

We can surmise that service inconsistency and falling standards contributed to these airlines' decline. 

Fortunately for SIA, the corollary holds true and poses a different challenge — it is not easy staying at the top. Other airlines are catching up fast. 

According to the latest Skytrax survey, SIA fell behind Emirates and Qatar for in-flight entertainment; behind EVA Air, JAL and ANA for cabin cleanliness; behind EVA Air for economy class catering; and behind five others namely ANA, Thai Airways International, JAL, EVA Air and China Airlines for airport services.

However, SIA may find vindication in a different survey. Skytrax may be prestigious but not definitive. Conde Nast readers, for example, have voted SIA as the best airline for all but one of the last 30 years of the awards, scoring top marks for seat comfort, in-flight service and reliability.

It also gets praise for continually upgrading its product. In the last Conde Nast survey announced in 2018, Qatar Airways was ranked third behind SIA and Emirates.

It will be interesting to see if the 2019 Conde Nast survey replicates that of Skytrax. If Qatar beats SIA, then SIA needs to seriously look at what it needs to do to regain the top spot.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Leo is a published author and an aviation veteran, having worked in airline and airport operations for 30 years.

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