Exit the Dragon: HKAL Launches its Club Only Service
Question. Do you sleep at night? Do you slide between Egyptian cotton sheets (satin, if you’re ‘like that’), turn out the light, kiss your better half sweetly and, laying your head on cool, plump goose-down pillows, drift off into eight hours of deliciously soothing slumber? Or do you find yourself awake as a needle, slowly becoming accustomed to the ceiling’s features as the monochrome night receptors at the back of your wide open eyes begin to flood in the ambient light, your ears assaulted by ambient humming and your partner’s delicate breathing? Perhaps you’re stressed. Worried, even.
The economy is certainly in a bit of a pickle, isn’t it? A double dip has hit. And growth of 0.2% is certainly not doing anyone any short-term favours. With the Eurozone in perpetual flux and what seems like growing financial hostility to London from both the US and the East, the future certainly looks murky. If you’re in this camp, stop reading now. You won’t like it. Go to a gym and lower your cortisol levels. Take Diazepam. For those of you who do sleep like proverbial babies, here’s the good news – we’re fucked. But don’t take my word for it.
‘“For immediate release: 1 August 2012 – As part of a system wide review Hong Kong Airlines is currently evaluating its European strategy. The worsening economic outlook in the UK and Europe, combined with increasing expansion within Asia, has resulted in the decision to suspend our service from 10 September 2012 and to focus additional resources in markets with higher growth potential.”
“In early 2010, when Hong Kong Airlines planned its all Club Class service, the economic outlook was significantly better than what has transpired during 2012, where the expected stimulus to the UK economy from the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics has failed to materialise.”
“Hong Kong Airlines is a commercially focused airline committed to successfully growing its route network and is deeply frustrated that the deterioration of the economies in the UK and Europe has led to Hong Kong Airlines suspending its London service.”
Things looked much, much shinier back in March of this year. HKAL had just launched its Club only service from London Gatwick. Three brand new Airbus A330-200s, featuring a spacious all Club Class seating configuration, were flying daily. Each of these ultra-modern aircraft showcased two premium cabins: ‘Club Premier’ and ‘Club Classic’.
Classic was (and in other more solvent parts of the world, still is) based around a World Traveller Plus-style lounge seat. At the front, Premier flyers are treated to a fully reclining lie-flat bed, straight out of BA’s Club World and Etihad’s Pearl class. Food service – in Premier, at any rate – was of the multiple course/tablecloth and cruet set/personal serving variety. Top chef Jason Atherton, from Michelin-starred restaurant, Pollen Street Social, had created a wonderful in flight menu and wifi was freely available through the flight. Now, I’m not going to lie. This being the inaugural week, there were teething problems. The cabin crew were clearly getting to grips with certain issues, such as idiomatic English and the timing of serving Western-style multiple courses. Then there was the moment where I had to show one very sweet flight attendant how to use a corkscrew. This is not meant as snark.
Every brand new carrier needs time to bed in their service and supply programmes.
I could never hope to speak Mandarin to a level where I could serve finiky Chinese journalists and answer questions about the grub. The investment in building an operation like this, from the ground up, was impressive. Maybe the issue is that Hong Kong is still being sold to Europe as a fusional gateway to China – a hybrid of British, colonial straight forwardness and New Chinese efficiency.
Which culturally and financially it is. But demographically, the story is different. Today, Hong Kong is China. English-speaking, culturally semi-British HK Chinese are now mostly residents of Vancouver and other parts of Pacific Canada and over 250,000 left at Handover in ‘97. And whilst this shouldn’t make travelling there now any different from visiting Shanghai or Bejing, the issue is, indeed, one of very raised expectations – whilst the available workforce will be now coming from the mainland. Training takes time and, it must be stressed the calm dispositions and genuine smiles displayed went a very long way on an 8000 mile flight (many Western carriers could learn a lot from that).
LUSSO has written before about the cultural abrasions that can be expected as China extends its global reach. I would suggest, for example, that whilst indigenous business flyers would be comforted by Hong Kong Airline’s ‘lucky’ red interiors, westerners might find it a wee bit intense. These are personal, subjective impressions. In the end, it’s the numbers that have done for the London route – temporarily, at least. Their model was to undercut the competition, flying business clients direct in deep comfort at a very competitive £2,800. General UK manager Gerald Clarke had said “pricing will appeal strongly to passengers who would fly business class on an indirect route between London and Hong Kong.”
However, it’s important to remember, many corporate flyers with mileage club membership don’t easily switch to other carriers. The inaugural London flight was around 70%-80% full. However, bookings for the first month of flights remained under 50% of capacity, highlighting the difficulties in filling all 116 business class seats on every plane out of Gatwick. The shame of it is, like Silverjet and Maxjet before them, Hong Kong Airlines’ offering and pricing were excellent. Within two weeks of launch, all the in flight issues had – showing the benefits of Chinese efficiency – been ironed out and my contacts’ reports were all glowing and full of praise. Maybe they could have been more aggressive in their marketing. But, pragmatically speaking, the environment (in Europe) is definitely tough and economies of scale will always come into play. Martin Craigs, chief executive at Pacific Asia Travel Association has pointed out,
“Many business travelers couldn’t afford to use an airline with a limited schedule, no matter how cost-effective and comfortable the offering might be. So that favours the incumbents.” Which is great news for the big carriers, but not so great for us.
Me? I wish HKAL had been able to make it stick. Having graciously carried myself and 12 other British journos to a wonderful 48 hour weekend sojourn in Hong Kong, it was very enjoyable flying on them – especially as I lay (fully) down to a deep sleep, dreaming of returning home. Home to a land of deteriorating opportunity and negative growth. Oh shit…