Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) has taken a 5-inch lead over Singapore Airlines Ltd.
That’s how much wider the carrier’s first-class seats will be than Singapore Air’s when it starts flying the Airbus SAS A380 in July. In total, passengers will have more space than on a single-bed mattress, with seats measuring 40 inches by 87 inches.
The new seats, costing about $9,000 for a round trip to London, will spearhead Malaysian Air’s push to win corporate and long-haul travelers after higher fuel prices and competition from budget carrier AirAsia Bhd. (AIRA) led to a 2.5 billion ringgit ($795 million) loss last year. Thai Airways International Pcl (THAI) will also get its first A380s this year, adding a further challenge for Singapore Air.
“Malaysian Air has to improve on their premium services in order to be able to compete,” said Joshua Ng, an analyst at RHB Research Institute Sdn. in Kuala Lumpur. “There is a bit of national pride involved as well -- especially when you’re talking about competing with Singapore Air.”
The carrier, the eighth A380 operator, will start flights with the plane on July 1 with a trip to London. Daily services on the route will begin Aug. 25. Flights to Australia and another country will be added as more of the planes enter service, Anbarasu Sundram, a spokesman for the airline based in Subang outside Kuala Lumpur, said by phone. The last is due to arrive in February.
Malaysian Air, controlled by state investment fund Khazanah Nasional Bhd., will fit its A380s with 494 seats. The eight first-class units, which will be on the lower deck, are wider than any seats listed on comparison website seatguru.com. The planes will also have 66 business-class seats on their upper floors and 420 coach seats divided between the two decks.
Yields, a measure of average ticket prices, are typically 5.5 times higher in first class than coach, compared with business-class’s 3.6 ratio, according to aviation consultant Rigan Doganis. The seats are also important in terms of marketing and for maintaining the loyalty of business travelers through potential upgrades.
“First-class is retained for prestige and brand, and as an incentive in the frequent flier-program,” said Andrew Wong, London-based regional director for TripAdvisor Inc. (TRIP:US)’s flights division, which owns seatguru.com. Few first-class passengers buy tickets themselves, he said.
Asian and Middle East carriers have kept first-class cabins, which have been largely eliminated by North American carriers, because of their greater focus on long-haul routes, he said. Emirates Airline, the largest A380 operator, has fitted showers in the premium cabins of its superjumbos.
Thai Air A380s
Thai Air’s A380s will accommodate 507 passengers, including 12 in first, 60 in business and 435 in economy. The first-class seats will be 26.5 inches wide and offer an 83-inch pitch, a measure of legroom, according to the carrier’s website. The first superjumbo will arrive by early October and six will be in service by the end of next year. Routes could include Hong Kong, Frankfurt, London, Tokyo, Paris and Copenhagen, outgoing- President Piyasvasti Amranand said last month.
Thai Air and Malaysian Air are adding A380s in a bid to win premium travelers as higher fuel prices and economic concerns in Europe damp demand. Singapore Air posted a loss in the quarter ended March, while Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. (293) has forecast “disappointing” first-half earnings and pared growth.
“The business-travel market isn’t really looking up at the moment,” said Tushar Mohata, an analyst at Nomura Holdings Inc.
Malaysian Air has already cut flights because of the slowdown and losses. It also said this week it’s in talks with the government on a sale-and-leaseback deal involving the A380s under a program to restore its finances. The airline narrowed its loss in the first quarter.
The carrier rose 1 percent to 1.06 ringgit in Kuala Lumpur trading today, while the benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index gained 0.2 percent. The airline has fallen 33 percent in the past year, compared with a 27 percent decline for Singapore Air in Singapore.
The first-class seats’ pitch will be 89 inches on Malaysian Air’s A380s, surpassing those on Emirates’ and Singapore Air’s, according to seatguru.com data. Passengers will also have an individual 23-inch inflight-entertainment screen, a personal closet and the ability to pre-order meals. The seats reach their widest when converted into a bed with one armrest down.
Singapore Air Suites
The first-class suites on Singapore Air’s A380s, which took five years to develop, have a seat that’s 35.3 inches wide with its armrests folded away, and a separate bed measuring 27 inches by 78 inches, spokesman Nicholas Ionides said by e-mail. A standalone bed increases comfort for passengers, he said.
“Competition has always been there and it will always be there,” Singapore Air’s Chief Executive Officer Goh Choon Phong said earlier this month when asked about the new A380 operators. “As new aircraft come out, we would have to expect other people will purchase them.” The carrier was the first operator of the superjumbo in 2007.
Singapore Air also still has the advantage of being based in Singapore, which is a more likely destination for premium passengers, such as bankers and lawyers, than Kuala Lumpur. The city-state is the most competitive city in the Asia-Pacific region, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit report this year. The Malaysian capital ranked 11th.
“Malaysia is predominately a budget travelers’ market, not business like in Singapore and Hong Kong,” said RHB’s Ng. Malaysian Air will struggle for premium flyers until Kuala Lumpur becomes a financial hub and “that’s not going to happen anytime soon,” he said.
Seats in first class are usually custom-designed, with individual units costing as much as $150,000 to make, said Chris Pirie, business development manager at Seattle-based Teague Design Inc., which has worked with Boeing (BA:US) on plane interiors since the 1940s. Malaysian Air’s Sundram didn’t comment on the cost of the carrier’s units.
The investment will be worth it if the seats boost Malaysian Air’s reputation and allow it to sell more tickets at higher fares across its fleet, said Nomura’s Mohata.
“Malaysian Air wants to shift the airline’s whole image upmarket,” he said. “Whether it succeeds depends on their product and their ticket prices.”
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