Can Cathay Pacific recover lost ground?

July 19, 2018 16:25
After bagging the top spot in 2014 in a world airline ranking survey, Cathay Pacific has seen its position slip continuously. Photo: Bloomberg

Cost-cutting gone too far? The China integration factor? Or the I-don't-care attitude?

Well, whatever the reason -- personally, I think it's a combination of all three factors, plus more -- the undeniable truth is that Cathay Pacific Airways is no longer the gold standard it once was in its industry.

As any frequent and long-time airline passenger would attest, Hong Kong's flag-carrier has seen a marked slippage in service quality in recent years.

Airline bosses may dispute this contention, but they only need to look at the growing number of independent passenger surveys that point to a deteriorating image of the airline. 

The latest bit of negative news comes from the Skytrax 2018 rankings, with Cathay getting dropped from the top five among the world's best airlines.

Cathay was ranked No. 6 overall in the new survey, down one notch from the previous poll in 2017 and marking a slide in its position for four years in a row.

According to the Skytrax rankings, which are based on the views of millions of passengers from around the world and take into account a host of parameters including boarding procedures, seat comfort and service quality, Singapore Airlines -- Cathay's main regional rival -- gets the top honors.

Moving up from its previous No. 2 spot, Singapore Airlines has grabbed the top position for the fourth time, having also won in won in 2004, 2007 and 2008. 

Qatar Airways, ANA All Nippon Airways, Emirates and EVA Air rounded up the top five, leaving Cathay with the consolation No. 6 spot in the annual Skytrax World Airline Awards.

It is certainly not something that the Swire Pacific group entity will be proud of, given that it had slipped continuously after bagging the top spot in 2014, and also took the title in 2003, 2005 and 2009. 

What should be even more painful is that was edged out by a much smaller player, Taiwan's EVA Air, from the fifth position. Another thing that it will note is that a local low-cost carrier, Hong Kong Airlines, has broken into the top 20 for the first time this year.

Things are not looking good for Cathay, whose mainland-focused subsidiary Cathay Dragon (formerly Dragonair) managed to climb a spot to No. 26 but still trailed Hainan Airlines (No.8) and China Southern Airlines (No.14).

Hong Kong's home-grown airline is confronted with several challenges and has posted losses since 2016, getting squeezed due to rising operating costs and soft demand for its high-end service.

Cathay has undergone several rounds of management reshuffle as it tries to improve its prospects after some wrong bets on fuel prices.

Oil prices have now surged back to the level it hedged, but the carrier had missed a ride as it failed to benefit from falling fuel costs from 2014 and 2017.

Meanwhile, passengers complain that service quality is not what it used to be, with the airline seeming to cut costs wherever it can.

Management changes may have added to the negative perception, as well as a view that its passenger profile is getting dominated by mainland Chinese, who generally don’t enjoy too good a reputation in the global travel and tourism market.

On some routes, the flights often don't run on time, among other issues. Meanwhile, staff morale has also come into doubt as Cathay is no longer is as generous as it had been in the past in terms of pay and perks.

The once-premier airline company certainly needs to take a hard look at its operations and take steps to recover lost ground.

Until that happens, given the slippage in service quality, it would be perfectly reasonable if the public poses this question to Cathay: How about offering us cheaper fares?

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EJ Insight writer