Now that I have gained a lot of experience in flying with each of these tropical heavyweights, I thought I would try to evaluate what each of these particular airlines do well, and where there is room for improvement. In the foreseeable future, I can possibly see the likes of Vietnam Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines, Philippine Airlines, as well as possibly Myanmar Airways International, join the original ‘Big 4’ of South East Asia, but for now, it is those aforesaid ‘Big 4’ on which I am going to concentrate.
I will give a little background on each airline, and recount some of my own experiences flying with each. I will also analyse the food and uniforms of each airline, as well as examining and comparing the service levels onboard. I will also take a look at the prestigious first class cabins of each of the airlines featured in this article, as well as their hub airports, in addition to adding some final thoughts on what the future may hold for aviation in general in this part of the world.
Garuda Indonesia were once known as something of an unreliable or even unsafe airline, and were also banned from entering EU airspace on the basis on their poor aviation safety. However, recent improvements have left many people, myself included, very impressed with Garuda. Now a firm member of SkyTeam, they are one of the only airlines I have flown with who offer pre-takeoff drinks in economy class, and it is these added touches that make Garuda what it is today, and also gives an edge when compared to other airlines in the South East Asia region.
Thai Airways is a member of Star Alliance and is a sleeping giant of the aviation world. They should be huge, but for some reason always seem to play second-fiddle to those around them – and have not fared well against the onslaught from the ME4. I have flown with Thai many times, mainly on regional flights within south east Asia, and have grown accustomed to their style and brand. The onboard product from Thai is usually inferior to that of SQ or MH, but certainly on par with Garuda. It must be said that the new Airbus A380s from Thai look amazing both inside and outside (see below), as the cabins are fitted with the latest in-seat technology and catering options. Recent unprofitability has led to the emergence of Thai Smile, a budget airline wholly owned by Thai Airways, which focuses on domestic routes and new routes in central China and Laos.
Unquestionably one of the heavyweights of the aviation world, Singapore Airlines is a staunch member of Star Alliance. Singapore Airlines is also an airline that I have flown in the past few years to their hub at Singapore Changi Airport from 4 different continents/regions (Europe, Middle-East, Australia, China), and have tried out economy class in the A330, B777, and the A380, as well as the imperious First Class Suites onboard the A380. Without meaning to sound biased, I have never had a bad flight with them, and many of those flights would rank among my top 5 most enjoyable of all-time.
At the moment, Malaysia and the world is still mourning the fatal losses of both Flight MH370, which went missing over the Indian Ocean, and Flight MH17, which was recently shot down in the Ukraine, and this brings into question the long-term future of Malaysia Airlines, a recent addition to One World. Over the past few years, MH has been losing money to the budget carriers operating out of Kuala Lumpur (such as Air Asia) and in a part of the world where international flying of 4 hours or less is becoming increasingly popular, there is no need for the consumer to pay premium prices for these flights. In order to survive, and to once again attract the customer base it once had, MH has had to lower its prices drastically. Singapore Airlines and the other airlines listed in this article have also felt the pinch, but none as much as Malaysia Airlines. I have flown with MH only twice, on Boeing 737s each time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but my experience was very good and I noticed lots of nice little extra touches in economy class, as well as some very friendly and caring cabin crew members.
Food is a very important discipline when flying, as the airlines’ catering crews work frenetically to meet the demands, making sure every passenger is fed and watered, with a litter left over to spare in case of emergencies. Every airline has different menus, as well as little variations in the way they serve their meals onboard, and I will now take a little look at each of them, but first let’s look at some pictures to enhance my words:
If you are in economy class, like the majority of the passengers, then your meals (if any) will be quite basic, but the airline food industry has come a long way from the days of the 1990s where undercooked meats and pitifully small portions plagued the reputation of many an airline. Nowadays, there is great pride taken, all the way from factory level where the food is cooked, stored, and prepared, right up to the way it is served by the cabin crew onboard your plane. Every airline in South East Asia has little variations of how they do this, and some are more noticeable than others. Clearly, if you are in a premium cabin, such as business class or First Class, then your meals will more closely match the price you paid for your seat. In particular, Singapore Airlines has a concept known as ‘Book the Cook’, whereby you can order your meal online when you pay for your ticket, and have it cooked fresh for you on the plane by the resident chef – and you can also choose to eat this meal whenever you choose (apart from ascent and descent, obviously), and not at the times dictated by the cabin crew! This was pioneered by Singapore Airlines, and has since been copied by Malaysia Airlines.
Now I would like to take a little look at the uniforms of the cabin crew of each airline, with a picture for each below:
I think the Malaysia Airlines kebaya looks very similar to that of Singapore Airlines, but unfortunately for them much more bland. It just looks dull, and actually less impressive than the other cabin crew uniforms on display in this article. Singapore Airlines have a very famous uniform, which actually was first introduced to the air by Malaysia Airlines and since adopted by SQ. In fact, a lot of people consider the Singapore Airlines uniform to be among the best in the sky, and it recently won the award from SKYTRAX for the best Asian Airline uniform. Here you can check out the full results of its survey. The cabin crew uniform of Thai is a little plain, but the colours suit the livery of the aircraft, with a dark purple, and SKYTRAX also seem to like it. Garuda seem to currently have two colours for their cabin crew uniforms, as on the two occasions I have flown with them I have seen something different. I do much prefer the turquoise blue, though, as it suits the airline’s livery much better, and the orange doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than make the cabin crew stand out. It could be a kind of hierarchy thing on Garuda, where the senior members of cabin crew (purser) have a different colour uniform to differentiate them, much like on Singapore Airlines, where the senior members of the team wear a red kebaya.
Next, I think it is a good time to see each of these 4 airlines in action through some economy class YouTube flight reports that I have hand-picked for you from some of my favourite amateur videographers:
Garuda Indonesia Flight GA873 Hong Kong to Jakarta, by Flight Report Productions:
Thai Airways Flight TG910 Bangkok to London, by Myanmar Flyer:
Singapore Airlines Flight SQ15 Seoul to San Francisco, by FlightTravels:
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH3 Kuala Lumpur to London, by SwanInnSongkran:
What you can see from each of the videos embedded above is that each airline has its own style in-flight, with very different entertainment systems. It is worth noting that Malaysia Airlines and Thai both operate a large number of aircraft that does not have in-flight entertainment worthy of the name (in the case of Thai, even their much-maligned regional A330s do not have PTV), where as Garuda have PTV in many of their B737s even on domestic routes, which is a very impressive feat. You will have seen a lot of meals in the videos above, and from my own knowledge, I must say that in my experience, Singapore Airlines gets the top vote, as their meals are very consistent and plentiful, whereas the portions on my Garuda flights have been somewhat small, though tasty.
Now for a little look at some of the airlines’ premium services, such as the first class and business class lounges and cabins.
For a great first class trip report on Garuda Indonesia’s A330 between Jakarta and Melbourne (I have also travelled this route, but only in economy class), check out this very detailed page over at airliners.net from Dirk Traveller.
In my experiences, and from what I have heard from others, Thai have great service in their lounges and this service extends itself into the first class cabins aboard their planes. Although, it must be said that, while the newer aircraft in their fleet such as the Airbus A380 have pristine and modern décor and facilities, most of the other aircraft, such as 747s and A340s have average facilities.
I have flown with Singapore Airlines in First Class Suites to Hong Kong and would love to one day repeat my experience. At Changi Airport, Singapore Airlines’ hub, there is a private lounge for Suites class passengers only called The Private Room. It is a very dark room with elegant colours. I was fortunate enough to spend some time in there myself, and the breakfast I had of waffles, strawberries and chocolate sauce was divine! Singapore Airlines also have a Book the Cook policy in their first class (and indeed business class) cabins, whereby you can order your meal online beforehand and have a talented chef prepare it for you on the plane during the flight. You eat when you want to eat on Singapore Airlines, so a quick touch of a button will call over a Singapore Girl, who will in turn let the chef know to commence the cooking!
Malaysia Airlines currently have the second most impressive premium cabins of the 4 ASEAN airlines listed in this article. In particular in their newer aircraft, such as the A380, their lie-flat beds with dark, welcoming colours provide a nice rest and relaxation area for travellers in long-haul flights. The service onboard is also world-renowned from the friendly MH cabin crew. Much like their rivals Singapore Airlines, MH also have a Book the Cook option, and this allows you to choose your meal well in advance of your flight – but of course this is no ordinary meal!
Now it is time to give some final thoughts on what the future will hold for the big 4 of ASEAN.
It is clear to me that Thai Airways need to improve drastically to cling on to the likes of Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. Garuda Indonesia, who last year were named the Most Improved Airline in the World, are now clearly ahead of Thai, as far as I am concerned. I base this on the service levels received in the cabin, the attitude of the ground staff and check-in staff at the airports, and the hard product in the aircraft itself, such as seats and PTV. Thai lag so far behind the other airlines in those departments, that you wonder how long it would take them to catch up. They are quite frankly a mess, at present. I think the future for Thai in the mid-term is to consolidate its east Asia trade, where it has traditionally been a very strong player to the likes of Japan and Taiwan. Conversely, Thai is being destroyed by Emirates and the other members of the ME4 for flights from Bangkok to Europe, so there is no room for expansion there, yet there is room for improvement in India, especially the central areas such as Hyderabad and Bangalore. European routes need to be trimmed; get rid of flights to Milan, Arnhem, Madrid, and Munich, and consolidate flights to high-yielding destinations such as London, Paris, and Frankfurt, with daily flights with the A380, rather than double daily flights. This would allow for Thai to sell some of their aircraft, as latest figures show they are running an average of 60% load factor across their entire network – and in 2014 traffic plunged a whopping 43%. A great detailed analysis of Thai Airways’ recent strife and future goals can be found at this page from the ever-reliable Centre for Aviation.
Being a key SkyTeam member, it is clear that Garuda is now a big player in the ASEAN region, and now they have ditched their plans for ultra-long-haul non-stop service to London Gatwick from Jakarta, they can focus more on the Indonesia-Japan market, which has a lot of room for expansion now there is so much disposable income among the Indonesian middle-class. Garuda is also a big player now in the Indonesia-Australia traffic marlet, with daily non-stop flights to Melbourne and Sydney departing not only from Jakarta, but also from Bali. Their strategic alliance with Etihad gives them a great codeshare route to Abu Dhabi and beyond to a whole wide-range of European destinations on the Etihad network that Garuda cannot and will not ever serve themselves. Domestically, too, Garuda seem to be winning the battle against the LCCs, such as Indonesia Air Asia and Lion Air, which is more than can be said for their Malaysian counterparts.
Although in regard to their onboard product, Malaysia Airlines do not have a problem whatsoever, and with arguably the friendliest crew in the sky to compliment this, I cannot see that changing in the foreseeable future. However, what MH need to do is focus on their core network, and continue to lose some of the glory routes in order to cut back on costs due to falling profits. They have already began this by axing Los Angeles from their route map, and while it is a shame that Malaysia Airlines no longer serve the US, it nonetheless now has the opportunity to relocate those planes elsewhere – perhaps get stronger foothold in Australia and within South East Asia – and try to capitalise on existing markets. A strategic alliance with Etihad Airways has also been mooted to try to improve the ailing MAS profits, which would replicate the strategy that Garuda already has in place (although I argue profusely that a link up with One World partner Qatar Airways would be a better option). Also, when compared to the way Garuda Indonesia handles its domestic operations, Malaysia Airlines are way behind, as Air Asia operating out of KLIA 2 are currently dominating the domestic and short haul market with their extremely low fares. MAS need to better utilise their regional brand Firefly to actively take on the Air Asia success. The brand image of MH may have taken a battering with the unfortunate tragedies of MH370 and MH17 but surely all travellers will earmark the airline as one of the best in the world in terms of what you get on board.
Singapore Airlines often charge a slight premium on their fares, as they are capitalising on their own good brand image, similar to what Malaysia Airlines do slightly less successfully with theirs. Many travellers, myself included, find this small premium acceptable for the level of consistently good service we know will get. What does the future hold for SQ? Well, aside from adding Premium Economy to its cabins to combat losses, I would like them to expand further into Africa with their own metal, even if it’s not directly from Singapore. Currently, SQ only serve Johannesburg direct, with that flight flying on to Cape Town, and also Cairo being served via Dubai. Perhaps Addis Ababa? Or maybe Lagos or Dakar in west Africa via the Middle-East or even Europe? The European network, which includes 4 daily flights to London, plus Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Munich, Barcelona, Moscow, Istanbul, and Copenhagen are all fairly profitable for SQ right now, and in terms of their A380 utilisation on some of these routes, they at least know how to spread their wings in the right places, unlike the military-controlled Thai.
Please take a look at my other aviation blogs, including my analysis of Emirates vs Etihad vs Qatar vs Turkish in the battle of the big Middle East 4, Air India vs Srilankan vs PIA vs Biman Bangladesh in the battle of the Sub-Continent, and EVA vs Korean Air vs All Nippon vs Cathay Pacific in the battle of the Far East 4!