Singapore Air Trounces Hong Kong’s Cathay in Battle for the Skies

The fortunes of Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., the flagship airlines of two of Asia’s most important financial hubs, differed during the pandemic and continue to diverge in its aftermath.

(Bloomberg) — The fortunes of Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., the flagship airlines of two of Asia’s most important financial hubs, differed during the pandemic and continue to diverge in its aftermath. 

Their valuations are revealing — Singapore Air’s market value of $17 billion is almost three times that of Cathay’s. Four years ago the difference was only about $2 billion. Singapore Air just ended a 12-day run of gains, the longest streak since 2008, and it is up about 40% this year. Cathay has fallen 9.3%. 

While both are better placed than they were during the depths of Covid, Singapore Air is rebounding much faster and flying high on a relentless wave of travel demand. Its stock price reflects its status as “a poster child for the Asian airline recovery,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Tim Bacchus said.

Cathay’s rebuild, meanwhile, was severely hampered by the Hong Kong government’s reluctance to drop virus-related restrictions, and it is still struggling to restore staff numbers and services. The airline doesn’t expect to return to pre-pandemic levels of passenger capacity until the end of 2024. 

A fresh and insatiable appetite for travel after Covid lockdowns hasn’t been dented by eye-popping airfares. That’s helped many airlines recover as they fill their planes with passengers willing to shell out on what has been dubbed “revenge travel.” Singapore Air posted record earnings of S$2.16 billion ($1.6 billion) for the year ended March, with revenue of S$17.8 billion exceeding pre-Covid levels. 

Cathay’s position is improving too, but revenue of HK$51 billion ($6.6 billion) last year was still less than half of what it was in 2019, before the crisis. The company has now, at least, generated enough cash to cover a HK$1.52 billion dividend payment due to the government at the end of June.

Read more: Cathay to Pay Government Deferred Dividend as Fortunes Rise

Revival Rewards 

Staff at Singapore Air are seeing the benefits — they’re in line for bonuses equivalent to about eight months’ salary. Spirits aren’t so high at Cathay, where recently announced pay adjustments have been met with skepticism. 

“Pilot morale is rock bottom,” Paul Weatherilt, chairman of the union that represents Cathay pilots, said last week after the company revealed it was changing its salary policy. “They cut our pay permanently.”

Read more: Airline Executives Herald Revival They Predict Is Here to Stay

Singapore Surge

Singapore Air is one of the world’s best-performing airline stocks over the past three months, surging 34%. Only Taiwan’s Eva Airways Corp. has done better, rallying 56%. Singapore’s Straits Times Index is up about 2% over that period. Cathay has added 6.2%. 

Singapore Air’s investors backed its effort to rebuild flight capacity, confident that it would lift earnings, said Jason Sum, an analyst at DBS Bank Ltd.. Advanced bookings also look attractive as competitors like Cathay face resource constraints, he said.

Rebuilding from Covid

Singapore Air carried 2.8 million passengers in May, hitting 88% of its pre-Covid capacity and advancing toward the 3.4 million high set in January 2020. 

Cathay’s passenger traffic was nearly 1.4 million in April, according to the most recent data available. The airline has said it will only return to 70% of pre-pandemic operation levels by the end of this year. 

While both airlines have been on a hiring spree, Cathay needs to climb out of a deeper trench. Its staff attrition over the pandemic was nearly 40%. It also owes the government HK$19.5 billion that was extended in a rescue package. 

Competitive Edge

From its position of relative strength, Singapore Air is cementing partnerships around the region with several airlines, including Garuda Indonesia, Malaysia Airlines Bhd, Thai Airways International Pcl and Vietnam Airlines JSC.  

The carrier and its low-cost unit Scoot are flying to 114 destinations again, while Cathay and HK Express are only back to 70. Prior to the pandemic, they served 136 and 119 places, respectively. Singapore Airlines and Scoot have 195 planes, while Cathay has 222, some of which remain in storage.  

Long Journey Back

The speed at which Cathay can dust those jets off and bring them back into service will help determine its recovery to an extent, but it will be playing catchup to Singapore Air for some time yet, regardless. 

“Our journey of rebuilding Cathay for Hong Kong is on the right track,” Cathay Chief Executive Officer Ronald Lam said on June 6.

He didn’t mention his rival based 1,600 miles (2,585 kilometers) to the south. 

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