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​After spate of flight delays over a month, what's gone wrong with Scoot?

Published on: 06-Jan-2019

​After being hit by five major flight disruptions in just over a month, travellers are asking if there is something seriously wrong with Scoot, the budget arm of Singapore Airlines (SIA).

The incidents which occurred between Nov 25 and Jan 1, all due to different technical problems with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, caused delays ranging from about seven hours to up to 56 hours for about 2,000 passengers.

Experts say operational hiccups are inevitable and can be caused by many factors, including ground handling and air traffic issues. In Scoot's case, the problems were due to aircraft glitches.

"Even the best airlines in the world cannot avoid experiencing technical glitches," said Mr Abbas Ismail, course manager for aviation management and services at Temasek Polytechnic. While some glitches can be resolved quickly - for example, a problem with the in-flight entertainment system - others like engine issues require more time to fix, he added.

Airlines and experts are clear that when there is a problem, safety must never be compromised, even if it means grounding the plane.

Travellers understand this but say the recent spate of incidents involving Scoot flights is unprecedented and worrying.

Many of those affected were also upset that it took so long for the airline to activate the necessary contingency plans, including mounting rescue flights, and felt that Scoot could have done a much better job taking care of their needs while they were stranded.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) has looked into the technical issues encountered by Scoot and confirmed that the airline has conducted its operations, including aircraft maintenance and management of technical issues, in compliance with CAAS' safety regulatory requirements and procedures prescribed by the aircraft manufacturer, said Mr Alan Foo, director (flight standards) at CAAS.

There are many factors that contributed to the disruptions, starting with the troubled B-787.

With new and lightweight composite materials that make up half of its primary structure, including the fuselage and wing, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner started flying commercially in 2011, promising a new era of profitable flying for airlines.

Powered by more fuel-efficient engines, its American maker said the aircraft would cut fuel use and carbon emissions by about 20 to 30 per cent compared with the older planes it would replace.

But a series of engine glitches that have hit Rolls-Royce's Trent 1000, which powers Scoot's 18 B-787s, have led to costly delays and repair costs.

The turbine blades inside the Trent 1000 "package C" engines are corroding and cracking at a quicker than expected rate.

In April last year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States gave notice that B-787s fitted with the Rolls-Royce engine cannot operate more than 140 minutes from an airport they can divert to in an emergency; down from 330 minutes before.

This was after the European Aviation Safety Agency ordered additional maintenance checks on the Trent 1000.

There are more than 750 B-787s worldwide, fitted with either Rolls-Royce or GE Aviation engines.

Scoot has at least one plane grounded at any one time. Rolls-Royce has promised the problem will be fixed but experts caution this could take many months.

Budget airlines operate with tight schedules and limited resources, including aircraft spare parts, to keep costs down and fares low.

Unlike full-service airlines that have commercial tie-ups like interline and codeshare arrangements with other carriers, many budget airlines prefer to go solo or have few such partnerships, to avoid complicated operations that may add to operating costs.

The downside is that when a problem crops up, recovery takes time. For example, transferring passengers to flights operated by other airlines is not so easy for budget airlines.

Mr Abbas said: "With leaner fleets and a high aircraft utilisation rate to maximise resources, and keep fixed and operating costs low, a slight delay here and there can lead to longer delays for flights later in the day due to the knock-on effect."

When a glitch occurs, the preferred option is always to fix the problem locally, said Professor Guido Gianasso, associate dean (corporate engagement and relations) at Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School.

"Sometimes, a new piece of material needs to be ordered and shipped to the destination. This takes time.

"If the problem cannot be fixed reasonably quickly, say around six hours, the airline transfers all stranded passengers to its next flight, or to another airline's flight.

"The last resort is sending another plane to take stranded passengers home. As you can imagine, with a small fleet and stretched capacity, this is expensive and complex," he said.

From a purely financial perspective, it is cheaper and easier for Scoot to keep a group of 200 passengers on the ground for a couple of days than organising a special flight to rescue them.

"Passengers need to understand how the business model works," he stressed.

How fast an airline can recover from a glitch also depends on where the problem occurs and on which route, experts say.

In the case of the Dec 18 Athens-Singapore flight which caused a 56-hour delay for passengers, the distance and lack of alternative flights to rescue stranded passengers posed major challenges.

Prof Gianasso said: "Flying Scoot on short-haul routes with frequent connections is a pretty safe choice. The risk is a delay of a few hours. But long-haul is a completely different story."

With long flights, there is also a high risk that the regulatory time limits for airline crew can run out. If this happens, another set of crew has to be activated.

Before a relief flight can be mounted, the airline also needs to seek regulatory approvals from various countries for overflight requirements, which require time.

"You get what you pay for," Mr Abbas put bluntly.

"There is a reason why we have Scoot and SIA, and why the fares charged by them are different. If you want an airline that will take care of everything for you when something goes wrong, fly SIA.

"The higher fares are like an insurance when something goes wrong. If you prefer to save some money and take care of yourself when things go wrong, fly Scoot or other low-cost carriers," he said.

When flying on budget carriers, travellers can also help themselves by being better prepared, said Singapore Management University Assistant Professor Terence Fan, who specialises in transport.

"As far as possible, schedule some buffer between the flight and their next activity, for example, going back to work or moving to another connecting flight. They should also buy travel insurance for compensation if extreme delays occur," he cautioned.

In a letter to The Straits Times Forum page, Ms Stacy Wong, one of those affected by the Taipei-Singapore delay on Dec 30, said "communication and compassion are key when there are extensive flight delays".

Airlines should always provide frequent and clear updates to all passengers, she said.

"In Taipei, Scoot did not adhere to briefing timings, leading passengers to crowd around ground staff for information.

"On both days (when passengers were stranded in Taipei), passengers had to ask staff questions individually and circulate information among themselves," she noted.

Ms Han Xiaoming, who was also affected by the delays, said: "While we all appreciate that low air fares come with no frills, the economics of running Scoot's operations seems perverse."

The 27-year-old accountant said the airline may have tilted the balance in favour of running tight schedules with little or no margin for error because the costs of inconveniencing passengers, which could include a $75 voucher, are too small.

Aviation analysts and other experts pointed out that unlike in Europe where there are regulations and strong consumer laws, budget airlines that operate in other regions are not obligated to offer any compensation when flights are disrupted.

When accommodation and meals are provided, airlines do it out of goodwill.

Still, it is not in Scoot's interests, or that of its parent SIA, to upset its customers.

Mr Shukor Yusof, aviation analyst at Endau Analytics, warned: "While Scoot has been the poster boy for the SIA group (in terms of revenue) such incidents, if not explained fully or worsen, will quickly put passengers off and the group will suffer."

A Scoot spokesman acknowledged the shortcomings in customer handling during the recent delays.

"We apologise and will review to improve.

"With regard to our speediness in the activation of extra flights, when the technical issue resolution requires more time, we have been and will continue to utilise all resources available to us, including chartering aircraft from SIA for that purpose," she said.

Source: The Straits Times, 6 January 2019

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