Last month, Singapore's national airline announced plans to launch no-destination flights for domestic passengers out of Changi Airport. But this new product offering—dubbed 'flights to nowhere' by the media—was met with protest on-the-ground. Many on social media argued that the 'being-on-a-plane' part of travelling was hardly what travellers missed during this pandemic period.
More importantly, Singapore Airlines (SIA) failed to consider the environmental impacts of consuming jet fuel to appease a group of restless travellers without a destination in mind. An op-ed on Channel News Asia argued that there's no denying the extent that flights generate carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, and that these 'flights to nowhere' are only a "plaster for the structural threats facing SIA and the global aviation industry".
Following the backlash, Singapore Airlines decided against this plan after conducting a "market study and comprehensive review" which took into account environmental implications, financial viability and feedback from the general public. The question remains: Why wasn't the market study conducted prior to publicly announcing this plan?
Last week, the airline came up with a revised marketing plan that allowed consumers to choose between three offerings. The first is a dine-in option in a parked A380 jumbo jet where meals range between 'economy' to 'first class', all which allow people to watch a movie on-board while they dine. Prices range from SG$50 (US$37) to SG$600 (US$440) per meal, or the equivalent in KrisFlyer miles.
The second option is to get airline food delivered to people's homes, with prices starting from S$288 (US$211) for a business class meal for two. The airline will throw in a 'digital guide' on how to heat and plate the dishes provided and customers are also encouraged to "immerse themselves in the experience with interactive aircraft cabin videos".
The third option—and what sounds like the most reasonable—is a tour of SIA's training facilities during the school holidays in November. The tour will feature latest cabin products and a look at where training on flight simulators is conducted. There will also be craft activities and balloon sculpting for children. Tickets are appropriately priced at S$30 (US$22) for adults and S$15 (US$11) for children.
One can empathise with SIA's scramble to launch these offerings after its 'flights to nowhere' plan was scrapped. Like many other airlines in the region, SIA has been badly hit by the pandemic. The SIA Group—including regional arm SilkAir and budget carrier Scoot—announced last week that it would cut around 4,300 positions, with an estimated 2,400 employees expected to be affected after taking into account previous measures.
But is purposeful and meaningful marketing that resonates with consumer demand too much to ask?
Ginny-Ann Oh, director at Asia PR Werkz, says that she was initially sceptical about the brand's 'flight to nowhere' given their late entry into the food delivery scene, and the brand missing out on opportunities over the past few months to diversify its services.
"While their efforts to bring airline meals into people's homes is a novelty, the key challenge would be to convince customers of its appeal and differentiate its offerings to stand out from other fine dining establishments with similar price points. It would be interesting to see how SIA further evolves this for sustainability and viability," she says.
"Although we have heard of successful examples of flights to nowhere by Taiwan's EVA Air and Australian carrier Qantas Airline, it would have been uncharacteristic for SIA to launch similar offerings given its efforts to contribute to 'greener skies'."
Oh rightly pointed out that for a company that has built itself on a reputation of impeccable customer service, the customer sensing at this critical juncture is essential, as it helps prevent missteps that could lead to a debilitating PR disaster.
"By retracting their initial plan and announcing its new line of services, SIA remained true to their brand ethos and demonstrated resilience as a leader in the aviation industry determined to ride out current challenges by offering new experiences," she says.
BlessAnn Luah, head of communications and partnerships at Distilleri, adds that there were already a number of social media comments suggesting alternative ways that airlines could engage with their customers.
"These reflect the larger public sentiment in understanding their priorities, preferences and concerns. SIA could have also used their database of loyalty members to test out some of these ideas and gauge their responses," she says.
So what can a badly hit consumer brand like SIA do to remain top-of-mind at a time like this without coming across as stretching too far?
Luah says that travel brands need to recognise that that leisure travel will no longer be what it was. "Issues like hygiene, safety, sustainability will be the top considerations for conscious consumers moving forward. Identifying these key factors and working backwards could help SIA form key narratives at this crucial stage, and play a part in redefining travel experience," she says.
These could include showing consumers what the airline's non-touch cabin would look like, and showcase 'safe' destinations that people could look forward to post-pandemic.
"[SIA should] dangle reasons to keep coming back to the brand and keep engagement strong among KrisFlyer members by encouraging and rewarding them for standing by the brand through these 'thinner' times. These people would be the first to help launch the airline back into action, and they could easily be cultivated to form an army of brand advocates online," she says.
Oh, meanwhile, says that SIA has become a national pride as a world-class airline, and therefore, needn't worry too much about staying top-of-mind.
She says: "Despite the downturn in the aviation industry, SIA has done well in managing its retrenchment exercise with grace and respect for its outgoing employees. And with current travel restrictions, consumers are not considering to fly, but when they do, I believe that they will still think of SIA."