Name : Desmond Pan
Position : General Manager of Singapore Airlines
When was your first visit to Myanmar and what was your impression back then?
I was posted here in March 2017 which was my first visit to Myanmar. I had a pleasant first impression of Myanmar where I find the locals warm and hospitable. I believe that there is a strong bonding between Myanmar and Singapore thus resulting in less culture barrier between both nationalities. I have made several Myanmar local friends during my first week here and was invited soon to their homes for a meal. This was a nice gesture given that I was alone back then and unfamiliar with the country.
Infrastructure has been lacking in some areas for example transport, telecommunications and electricity which is a common feature among developing countries. After living in Yangon for a year, I do observe significant improvements. On telecommunications, since the introduction of 4G around June last year, internet connectivity and speed has improved significantly. This is exceptionally helpful for working professionals like myself who likes to access emails and information on the road. On transport, situation has also improved with the introduction of new buses as well as ride-hailing services such as Oway and Grab. I believe the country is on the right track.
I am still interested and intrigued with the beautiful Myanmar which is very rich in culture. I am mostly based in Yangon and do travel to Mandalay on some occasions for business. I do hear plenty of rich travel experiences from the locals and will very much like to travel more often within the country. Myanmar has deep roots in Buddhism. As a Buddhist myself, I am deeply interested to visit Buddhist places of interest within the country. In general, I have a positive perception of Myanmar which has plenty of opportunities to offer to the world.
What do you think of Myanmar now?
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of things have improved especially in infrastructure. Mobile communications have improved in speed and reliability. My perception is that the country is moving towards the right direction with a lot of improvements including infrastructure. The issue to highlight will be traffic congestion which is common among all developing countries and will take time to resolve. It can be quite disruptive for our customers who must cater for sufficient travelling time to airport before catching our flights.
MI: How did you end up in current position at Singapore Airlines?
Singapore Airlines strongly believes in human resource. Internally we have rotation program for all executives every few years. This is a mutual benefit where the executive can be exposed to various core functions such as Commercial, Planning & Operations as well as the Company will benefit from a fresh perspective every few years. I joined the company as an engineer before moving to Commercial division where I was an analyst in Network Revenue department. Following which I was posted to various overseas assignments in London, Nagoya before ending up here.
What are the differences between customers in Myanmar and other countries?
Relating to our business, we customize our sales strategy heavily on customer booking trend. The booking trend of the locals are rather late. Take the example of domestic travel, the locals can book their air tickets just one day in advance. For international travel, it varies by destinations. Typically, the locals will purchase their tickets just in time to satisfy the visa requirements. For example, if a country requires three months in advance for visa, application, they will then book just three months in advance. To visa-free countries, the locals can book just few days before departure. Hence for our air fare promotions, we typically do not offer flights options too far out. We do have foreign customers especially Singapore residents who typically purchases our tickets well in advance as they usually plan their trips and holidays early. On customer servicing, I am pleased to share that the locals are accommodating and satisfied with our product and services as well as regular flight schedules.
What is your target market segment?
We do want to attract the rising middle class. These are the people who have a higher disposal income thus a higher propensity to spend. We do emphasize on businessmen and student traffic to Australia and USA.
Why should Myanmar customers choose Singapore Airlines?
This comes back to our three pillars that we strongly believe in. The first pillar is network. We have sizable network worldwide. Under the Singapore airlines group, there is also SilkAir and Scoot. Singapore Airlines is a full service carrier flying mostly medium to long haul routes from Singapore to America. Silkair is also a full service carrier flying regional routes mostly Southeast Asia and also to China, India, Japan and Australia. Scoot is a low cost carrier flying both short and long haul routes. We have just recently announced that Silkair will be merged into Singapore Airlines in few years time, after upgrading the cabin product especially Business Class to full flat beds as well as the installation of seatback in-flight entertainment systems in all cabin classes. The Singapore Airlines Group currently serves will serve 138 destinations in 37 countries and territories, including Singapore. The second pillar is product. Our latest new product is the B787 dreamliner that is currently flying Osaka and Perth. From this aircraft onwards, all our Business Class cabins will come with full flat beds. We have also introduced various enhancements to Economy Class. Our recent signature new product will the our new A380 aircraft which comes with various enhancements to all cabin classes especially Suites. The new A380 product has been well received by our customers. One highlight is our inflight entertainment system Krisworld which comes with more than 1,900 on demand video and audio entertainment options in all cabin classes. The third pillar is service. We placed heavy emphasise on in-flight services. Our signature Singapore Girl wearing sarong kebaya has been an icon that our customers are familiar with. Recently we are moving towards more customized and personalised services. These three pillars have ensured that we kept our brand and competitive edge. We constantly review our strategy based on customer feedback and introduce new initiatives. We will soon introduce more direct Singapore to USA flights with a new A350 long haul configuration aircraft.
How do you typically differentiate your services with other airlines following the same route?
Our key strength will be that we are the sole operator of wide body aircraft to Singapore. Generally, the comfort level of taking a wide body aircraft is better due to an additional aisle for embarkation and disembarkation and comes larger baggage bins. Larger baggage bins will be appreciated by customers who likes to shop at airport departure area. We have a strong selling proposition with our three times daily flight frequency to Singapore and other destinations. Our customers have the option to utilise our morning, afternoon and evening flights. I will also talk about our sales and marketing campaigns. Our Singapore Airlines Travel Fair is one of the most successful events. We typically hold it in a shopping mall over the weekend, offering attractive air fares as well as giveaways from our partners such as MasterCard, CB Bank, Changi Airport Group and Singapore Tourism Board.
Our brand has consistently strengthened thanks to our iconic travel fair. How do you train local staff?
We have comprehensive training program in Singapore. All new joiners get the chance to go Singapore for training for at least once a year. They are trained well in both technical competencies as well as soft skills such as how to communicate better. We do have leadership courses for senior staff in our company. These leadership courses are an excellent forum for networking, learning about problem solving and motivating our teams. We also believe in and reply on on-job training. All new staff are typically attached to experienced seniors. We also hold regular staff briefings to introduce new measures and initiatives.
How do you usually promote Singapore Airlines among target customers?
As mentioned earlier, our annual travel fair is a good forum to promote our brand. We are working on other various collaborations with our partners such as local banks, Singapore Tourism Board and Changi Airport Group. One significant initiative this year will be a TV drama collaboration with a local major TV company and Singapore Tourism Board.
What type of CSR activities do you do for every year in Myanmar?
In Singapore and worldwide, we held various CSR events on a regular basis. In Myanmar, we are planning to launch our CSR event sometime this year.
What is your opinion on Myanmar aviation sector?
Talking about international outbound travel, the outlook is promising. The entire travel market is expected to grow this year and the coming few years. Demand will increase primarily due to the rising affluent middle class who likes to travel more and to further destinations in Europe, Australia and USA. These places are relatively new to the locals who are hungry to explore new destinations. Furthermore, there is an increasingly student traffic to Australia and USA. To regional destinations such as Singapore and Bangkok, demand is expected to be flat as the locals are already very familiar with them. In general I am optimistic on the aviation sector for Myanmar in the coming years. With the growing outbound travel market, especially in premium travel, Silkair has taken over Scoot flights in October 2017. Singapore Airlines and Silkair now serve three flights a day from Yangon to Singapore. We also regularly introduce additional flights for selected peak seasons.
What are your future expansion plans?
Singapore Airlines group is expanding our network worldwide, especially that we are receiving a number of new aircraft these recent years. We are always reviewing our markets for the opportunity to increase capacity. For Yangon, we do hope to introduce more wide body flights in the near future. We also have flights to Mandalay which is an important market for us. On the latter we hope to introduce more flights soon.
From a business standpoint, what are the biggest challenges facing Singapore Airlines in next 1-3 years?
What will greatly impact aviation in last few years and next few year is fuel price. Crude oil recently has climbed up to $80 per barrel. Fuel cost has been a major cost component for airlines, typically 20-40% of the cost base. To mitigate fuel price fluctuations, we rely on fuel hedging. Furthermore we always exercise cost discipline in various areas such as operations, and maintenance. Product will be a second challenge as a number of competitors are playing a catching up game. We play heavy emphasis on customer reviews on what they want. We will continue to enhance our cabin product based on our customer feedback. Lastly our competitors are also catching up on service levels. As mentioned earlier, we will continue to work on customized and personalized services. We are confident to overcome these challenges and be the market leader.
If you could make one major changes to any government policy, what would it be?
It is not a government policy, but I think it will be helpful if the government can intervene to remove the practice that foreigners currently pay a higher price for domestic flights and selected hotels. We foreigners have to pay in $ at a higher rate that what the locals are paying. We carry quite a lot of foreigners on our flights and they were surprised on this practice. By removing this practice, inbound tourism figures should improve.