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Singapore Airlines is the national carrier of Singapore, which has an international presence, but a focus on the Asian and Australasian markets. Founded in 1972, the Airline has grown and consolidated its position over the last forty years to become one of the world’s largest and most successful airlines, with an expansive and relatively young fleet of planes (Singapore Airlines, 2014). According to its published mission statement, "Singapore Airlines is a global company dedicated to providing air transportation services of the highest quality and to maximising returns for the benefit of its shareholders and employees." (Singapore airlines, 2014). But just how well placed is the company to achieving its objectives? The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the business environment, the resources held by the company and the threats and opportunities facing it in the globalised marketplace. The tools used to undertake these analyses are a SWOT analysis, PESTLE analysis and Porter’s Five Forces analysis.
A SWOT framework is used to evaluate the internal and external forces affecting the company.
A major strength of the company is its size, brand image, and positioning strategy. In 2010, the airline was named by the International Transport Association (ITA) as the second largest in the world in terms of market value (Heracleous and Wirtz, 2012). Famously, and in an achievement unmatched by any other sector counterpart, Singapore Airlines has reported a profit for every year since it was established in 1972 (Heracleous and Wirtz, 2014). In 2013, the company reported an annual profit of 378.9 million Singaporean dollars (equivalent to just over £186 million GBP) (Singapore Airlines, 2013).
However, the strength of the company should not be measured only in terms of capitalisation. Singapore Airlines has been described as the best-known brand in the airline industry, and as a standard for other airlines seeking to develop their product and their brand (Heracleous and Wirtz, 2012). The company has managed to secure its position as the industry’s leading brand through the utilisation of a ‘first mover’ business model (Markides and Sosa, 2013). By, for example, being the first airline to offer free refreshments and a choice of meals to economy class passengers in the 1970s, through to being the first airline to take delivery of the new A380 passenger plane in the 2000s, Singapore Airlines has always ensured that it is one step ahead of its competitors (Singapore Airlines, 2014).
While the strengths outlined above are certainly unmatched by any other in the industry, the company does still have some weaknesses. Analysts have noted that the company’s investment in low cost, short-haul carrier Tigerair is dragging the company down in terms of profitability (Air Transport World, 2014). In 2014, Singapore Airlines boosted its stake in the company by 7.3 per cent to 40 per cent, but the company has been consistently unprofitable since 2012. In an effort to boost its performance, that company has attempted to establish a presence in markets other than Singapore (particularly in Thailand and the Philippines) but these efforts at market penetration have, to date been unsuccessful. This is a considerable weakness for Singapore Airlines, for low cost carriers in the South East Asian markets have recently been experiencing a boom (Pearson and Merkert, 2014).
Another weakness is the inability of the airline to recruit additional passengers on its home turf. Although overall passenger numbers have been growing, since 2000, Singapore Airlines has only managed to grow passenger numbers on the mainland (Singapore and Malaysia) by 2 per cent annually (Heracleous, Wirtz and Pangarkar, 2006; Heracleous and Wirtz, 2012). This is because the home market is already mature, and, given increased levels of movement between Singapore and other nations near the peninsula, short-haul routes have experienced the greatest levels of growth.
With few opportunities for growth in the home market, analysts have pointed to the North American market for growth opportunities for the airline. A weakness therefore is that rather than seeking opportunities to expand into this market, Singapore Airlines instead seems to be shrinking from it. Previously, the company served such important North American hubs as Vancouver, Las Vegas and Chicago (Chan, 2000), but today, it serves only four US cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and New York (Pearson and Merkert, 2014). In 2013 alone, the airline’s seat capacity in the North American market dropped by some 16 per cent (Centre for Aviation, 2013). As a result, while the airline is still the largest in Europe, in North America it now lags behind eight other competitors.
There are considerable opportunities for development in the future. Singapore Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance, the world’s largest and most successful airline strategic alliance, which gives it access to the resources of 24 partners (Heracleous et al, 2006). Since only 11 of these partners thus far fly to Singapore, there are opportunities for further and deeper partnerships. To some extent, the company is already capitalising on these opportunities. Since the firm’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Goh Choon Phong took the helm of the airline in 2010, the company has forged 8 new codeshare partnerships with competitor airlines (Riwo-Abudho, Njanja, and Ochieng, 2013).
Although the airline is struggling in the North American and Southeast Asian markets, opportunities can be found elsewhere. Unique opportunities for growth exist in the Indian market. Singapore Airlines has entered into a joint venture with Indian transportation giant Tata Sons, which will culminate in a new full-service airline Vistara, that is expected to be fully operational by October 2014 (the Times of India, 2014).
Singapore Airlines is the world’s largest and most profitable airline carrier, but this does not mean that it is immune from threats. Chief of these is perhaps the rapid growth of several Middle Eastern airlines, such as Etihad and Emirates, many of which have adopted similar business models and market positioning strategies as Singapore Airlines (Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 2012).
Outside of the Middle East, other airlines have also begun to compete with the carrier in its traditional marker space, the premium passenger. At the start of the century, Singapore Airlines was the clear market leader in business class products (Chan, 2000), but in recent years similar cabin products have been introduced by European carriers like British Airways (Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 2012). This means that the offerings of Singapore Airlines, which once would have been considered innovative or avant-garde, are increasingly in danger of appearing outmoded.
The PESTLE framework is used to understand the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental forces affecting an industry and its incumbent organisations.
National political frameworks have a major impact on the operations of the airline industry. This is because almost all countries have a ‘national carrier’ – an airline that carries the country’s flag, is headquartered in the capital city, and represents that country (Riwo-Abudho et al, 2013). Given that these carriers are seen as representing the nation, they tend to receive a great deal of support from government, and globally, many remain government-owned. Withdrawal of such support, for whatever reason, can be disastrous for national carriers, as Italy’s national carrier Alitalia found in the 2000s (Beria, Niemeier, and Fröhlich, 2011).
Since airlines operate across national economic boundaries, and given their level of resource intensity, they are subject to the vagaries of national, and the international economy. One major economic threat to Singapore Airlines’ process is the growth in fuel costs. Political unrest in the Middle East, exemplified by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 has helped to bring oil prices to unprecedented levels (Hakimian 2011), which is directly, and negatively impacting airlines’ fuel costs. Some airlines have opted to pass these increased costs on to customers, but given that Singapore Airlines already utilises a premium pricing strategy, there may be limits to the extent to which it can adopt such a strategy.
Social trends are also impacting heavily on the operations of airline businesses. Travel, particularly to faraway destinations and to tropical locations, has long been the provision of the more wealthy in society (Schafer and Victor, 1997). An increase in disposable income since the 1980s has enabled the types of travel that was previously out of reach of the less wealthy individuals in society to become affordable. At the same time, there seems to have been a shift in consumer preferences away from premium types of travel to the low cost travel formats, as evidenced by the huge increase in the number of low cost carriers. Even airlines with premium positioning strategies like Singapore Airlines have found that they have little choice but to enter this market. This might explain the company's recent decision to increase its share holdings of Southeast Asian low cost carrier Tigerair, in spite of its recent lack of profitability (Air Transport World, 2014).
In a saturated market like long haul passenger air travel, and particularly in the premium market position, technological innovations are often the arena in which competition is played out (Chan, 2000). Airline suppliers expend considerable levels of research and development (R & D) in creating new fleets and cabin products in order to boost sales, and customers enjoy using new technology on airlines not only for reasons of comfort, but because new fleets evoke in passengers a sense of security (Heracleous et al, 2006). Technological developments have had a huge impact on Singapore Airlines. The carrier has one of the youngest fleets in the industry, and prides itself on being the first to adopt new innovations, such as headsets, reclining seats and seatback entertainment systems (Singapore airlines, 2014).
Changes to the regulatory framework can have major impacts on airlines, particularly those that are national carriers. Different governments bring with them different political outlooks and strategies, many of which will significantly impact the aviation industry. For instance, following the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, there were major regulatory changes impacting the way in which passengers must be screened for air travel (Heracleous, and Wirtz, 2014).
There is increased concern among airline passengers for environmentally friendly services. This preference is likely to grow in the future due to national carbon reduction targets and increasing energy prices (Heracleous, and Wirtz, 2014). Some airlines have already begun to tackle the ‘green issue’; integrating it into their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies and marketing plans, but Singapore Airlines has thus far been slow to respond to this demand from consumers.
Porter’s Five Forces analysis
Michael Porter (1985) identified five factors, which he argued impacted the performance of companies within market boundaries: the threat of new entrants to the market; the threat of substitute products or services; the bargaining power of suppliers; the bargaining power of buyers and the intensity of the rivalry in the market. It is common for strategists to analyze these factors in order to predict the likely success of a company in a market. Below, these factors are applied to the airline industry.
The threat of new entrants
This aspect of the Five Forces refers to the extent to which new competition can be accommodated within the industry. In relation to the long-haul passenger airline business (which currently dominates Singapore Airline’s market activity), the threat of new entrants is weak. Long haul air travel is a fairly saturated industry with just one or two national carriers representing each economy, most of which receive some backing (pecuniary or otherwise) from the nation’s government (Fu and Oum, 2014). This means that traffic growth generally comes from the growth of a national carrier, rather than the entry to the market of new rivals. Evidence of the saturation of the long haul airline passenger industry can be seen in the congestion of the skies and airports, particularly large regional hubs (Wirtz and Johnston, 2003; Heracleous et al, 2006), and there is impetus from regulatory and governing bodies as well as passengers to reduce current congestion levels. In any case, there are huge capital outlays and long lead times to recoup investment in the airline industry, which explains the high failure rates of many nascent airlines. Despite the weak threat of new entrants to the full, long-haul airline passenger sector, the short-haul sector has witnessed the entry of several new entrants in recent years. Good examples in the Southeast Asian markets in which Singapore Airlines operate are Air Asia and Jet Star (Stockport, 2012).
The intensity of rivalry
Porter (1985) conceptualised rivalry within an industry as existing on a continuum from low to high. He argued that where rivalry is intense, businesses must continually scan the market for changes in the needs and demands of customers and respond accordingly. There is some intense rivalry within the airline industry, but it occurs on a route-by-route basis (Heracleous et al, 2006). Where routes are well serviced by several different airlines (good examples are London to New York or Paris to Frankfurt), rivalry can be very intense. In order to capture market share on such routes, airlines must adopt price-cutting strategies or ensure that the quality of their service is very high. For instance, Cook et al (2012) have noted that on well-serviced routes, lack of punctuality can have deleterious effects on carriers. On the other hand, there still remain many routes that are monopolised by just a few carriers. The so-called ‘Kangaroo Route’, involving connections between Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand is an excellent example (Heracleous et al, 2006). Since there are just a few carriers operating this route, competition tends not to be as fierce. The exceptional performance of Singapore Airlines in recent years has been attributable to the capture of the Kangaroo Route (Chan, 2000).
The threat of substitute services
This aspect of the Five Forces refers to the extent to which the product or service offered by an industry incumbent can be replaced by another similar service. Porter (1985) argued that businesses providing substitutable products and services were at risk of market losses. Once again, distinctions must be made between the short-haul and the long-haul arms of Singapore Airline’s business operations. The threat of substitute services to the short-haul element of the business is relatively moderate. With globalisation, there are increasing investments in transportation links between major geographical hubs, including those served by Singapore Airlines. It is possible, for example, that high-speed rail connections will exist between the major cities of Eurasia in the future (Richards, 2012). More immediately, a threat to Singapore Airline’s market for long-haul business class passengers is posed by the growing recalcitrance of workers in internationalised organisations to travel for work. Due to increased concern with the environmental impact of air travel, improved real-time telecommunications technologies and the growing number of virtual enterprises, individuals that would previously have made considerable use of long-term business travel are finding that they can do their work from home.
The bargaining power of customers
According to Porter (1985), where buyers have strong bargaining power, the relative position of suppliers of goods and services is relatively weak. In such industries, product and service providers must be particularly cognizant of the needs and demands of their customer base if they are to develop – and maintain – their market share. The bargaining power of customers in the airline industry is moderate. Switching costs between airlines are very low (Cook, Tanner and Lawes, 2012). Switching costs refer to the burden perceived by customers in selecting one supplier over another, and are comprised of time, emotions, opportunity and financial costs. Observers have argued that switching costs for passenger flights have considerably lessened in recent years, driven by the decline in high street airline offices and travel agents and the proliferation of the Internet (Lim and Lee, 2012). Although virtually all airlines have their own websites through which passengers can search, book and pay for flights, it is more common for passengers to search for flights using one or more of a multitude of ‘comparison sites’ such as Lastminute.com and Traveljungle.com. These websites enable passengers to compare the airfares of like-for-like routes and services, which in turn facilitates easy switching (Lim and Lee, 2012). Airlines, have however, been attempting to increase switching costs through the provision to passengers of loyalty schemes, either alone, or in conjunction with partners in strategic alliances. Passengers are encouraged to remain loyal with one airline or one alliance as frequency of purchase enables them to accrue ‘points’ or ‘air miles’ that can be exchanged for free or discounted flights, or other rewards. The extent to which these initiatives drive purchasing decisions, is, however, under debate (Wang, 2014).
The bargaining power of suppliers
This aspect of the Five Forces refers to the extent to which suppliers can negotiate with businesses over materials and equipment. Porter (1985) argued that where suppliers have strong bargaining power, the relative position of businesses is relatively weak. Unusually for a transportation industry, suppliers to the airline industry are in a relatively strong bargaining position. Fleets to the industry are supplied by what is effectively a duopoly – Boeing and Airbus –, while an oligopoly exists in the supply of engines (General Electric, Pratt and Whitney, and Rolls Royce). With so few suppliers in operation, manufacturers are able to unilaterally establish prices and set delivery times (Olienyk, and Carbaugh, 2011).
This paper has examined the business environment, the resources held by the company and the threats and opportunities facing Singapore Airlines. Emerging from this analysis is a picture of a company with an excellent reputation in fine financial health. While there is little danger of the company succumbing to the competition any time soon, there are, however, a number of environmental threats, of which it must remain cognizant, if it is to remain the leader of what can be an intensely competitive industry. Importantly, the company will need to develop new markets, particularly in India and North America, and develop its low cost arm in order to meet changing consumer demands.
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