How Singapore Airlines overcame COVID-19 obstacles to soar again

Over the past two years, the coronavirus upended commercial aviation. Singapore Airlines (SIA) was not spared.

At the FCM Th!nk Singapore event on April 28, 2022, Bryan Koh, the divisional vice president of e-commerce and distribution for Singapore Airlines, shared how the airline had been working to overcome the hurdles, as well as tap into the opportunities, created by the crisis.

What were the concerns that Singapore Airlines had to deal with in the past 12 to 24 months?

We had a lot of fear at the beginning. Borders were shutting down, eventually leading to a complete closure. With no cash flow coming into the company, the first thing we had to do was to stay afloat. So, we had to go to the market and undertake corporate actions to raise capital.

The progressive shutdown of borders also meant that there were people who were trying to return to Singapore or their homeland through various gateways. Then, there were those who wanted to fly. A lot of effort was spent to help these groups. Of course, travel trickled down to essential travel after a while.

Employees, too, were affected. That was the hardest part because we had to let some people go. But when all the borders were closed and all we had was so little travel, and we could only carry some cargo, what were our people going to do? There was a lot of doom and gloom. It was tough: How do we value our employees and give them hope? How do we tell our employees that the company is here to stay and they're going to have a future within it?

Also, at the time, nobody knew how long COVID-19 was going to last. The closest form of prediction was measuring it against SARS, which lasted for about nine months, after which things got back to normal. COVID-19 proved to be different.

We decided to preserve our operating capacity, which meant redeploying our crew to do something else in the interim – you may have read about our crew helping out hospitals as care ambassadors.

If we had just laid off everyone, you won't be able to fly today. That was the one good thing that we did.

Another major initiative we did was to set up a transformation office.

Describe the role of the transformation office.

They work with all the various business units across the company to identify areas we want to focus on in order to emerge from the crisis stronger and better, with a leaner cost base and stronger revenue-generating capabilities.

They look at what projects to accelerate and what to put aside as well as processes, and their relevancy in the future.

With this programme, we are now able to better ride the recovery, and grasp the opportunities that accompany it.

Tell us about some of the innovations that arose during the pandemic. What are their implications for the business traveller?

Minimising contact was our goal. We wanted our customers to feel that we were taking care of their health and safety – that was number one on our mind.

In the earlier part of 2021, we were trying to still help people travel as efficiently as they could, but policies were fluid and testing requirements were changing all the time. To help our corporate or VFR travellers travel more efficiently, we incorporated digital solutions into the customer journey. For example, the ability to upload your health certificate onto our app, although it's no longer required now in most places.

On the plane, the in-flight manual was digitised. Literature was removed from the seat pocket. So, no in-flight shopping magazine and no physical menu. Even our in-flight travel services were streamlined.

At the SilverKris lounge, food ordering was done via a QR code. Checking in a bag required you to scan a quote, and then you had to print your own bag tag.

For those not travelling, we engaged them with KrisPlus, our lifestyle app featuring more than 1,000 merchants. It enabled them to earn and burn miles without travelling or redeeming a flight ticket.

The downtime saw us enhancing our corporate high-flyer travel programme. It’s now applicable to not just SIA but also Scoot, giving better value and greater flexibility.

It’s important for us to continue to strive for digitisation because in the new normal, it’ll be what our customers expect.

There are different levels of understanding about what NDC is. Can you touch on your airline’s developments?

We have invested in building a very mature NDC pipe, which the GDS, the aggregators and the agents can connect to. Our goal is to pass down the best air content along with any ancillary services consumers may need through the NDC channel. Currently, corporates already enjoy NDC-related benefits such as greater discounts when they book through NDC with our global corporate team; as well as access to ancillary services such as the popular Book-the-Cook feature which is available for premium economy and above.

We are also working on something called dynamic pricing. Instead of pricing at district levels where the fare will jump, the method allows us to price more competitively and in real time to capture revenue.

What are Singapore Airlines’ efforts in sustainability?

Apart from our commitment to be net zero carbon emission by 2050, in 2019, we had set up a sustainability office to coordinate the various internal initiatives and external collaborations.

Given today's technology, the best way that an airline can reduce carbon emission is by operating fuel-efficient aircraft. For us, the most immediate and material way is to operate a very young and modern fleet.

Our fleet has an average age of about six years and three months. That's against the industry average of about 15 years. During the COVID-19 period, we implemented a fleet rationalisation: We brought in variations of the A350 and the A787. These are 30% more fuel efficient than the aircraft that we took off the fleet. That's the most immediate way for us to reduce our carbon emission.

We are also in a very active conversation with the entire ecosystem at Changi Airport, including the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, the Changi Airport group and Temasek to make sure that we can set up the required infrastructure incorporating the use of sustainable aviation fuel, and achieve our long-term ambition of further de-carbonisation.

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