Dnata in no hurry to expand in tough market

Dnata's premium lounge opened at Changi Airport's Terminal 1 last November. The Emirates-owned ground-handler is in no rush to expand in Asia. Besides Singapore, its other wholly-owned firms in the Asia-Pacific region are in the Philippines and Austr
Dnata's premium lounge opened at Changi Airport's Terminal 1 last November. The Emirates-owned ground-handler is in no rush to expand in Asia. Besides Singapore, its other wholly-owned firms in the Asia-Pacific region are in the Philippines and Australia. PHOTO: DNATA
Dnata's premium lounge opened at Changi Airport's Terminal 1 last November. The Emirates-owned ground-handler is in no rush to expand in Asia. Besides Singapore, its other wholly-owned firms in the Asia-Pacific region are in the Philippines and Austr
Mr Gary Chapman.

Emirates' ground-handling arm prefers to go for quality service rather than join the rush into China and India

After 12 years at Changi Airport, ground-handling firm Dnata is attending to three times more flights than when it started, but for less money, it says.

"It gives you an idea of just how competitive the market is," said Mr Gary Chapman, president of the Dubai-based firm, which is part of the Emirates group.

Dnata does not provide country-specific numbers but Mr Chapman said profits in Singapore have been squeezed over the years with pressure from airlines to cut charges for passenger, baggage and cargo handling.

Changi Airport's attempts to inject more competition into the market has had an effect too.

Speaking to The Straits Times during a recent visit to Singapore, he said the entry of Swissport and, later, Aircraft Service International Group (Asig), and their subsequent exits, caused financial damage to incumbents Dnata and Sats.

DELIVERING ON QUALITY

We don't want to be the biggest. We want to make sure that where we go, we can deliver the best.

MR GARY CHAPMAN, president of Dnata, which is part of the Emirates group.

Swissport came to Changi in 2005 and left four years later, after losing more than $50 million.

Asig arrived in 2011 but managed to secure its first and only airline customer, Jetstar, only in late 2014. The contract ended in under a year for reasons neither side made public.

Mr Chapman said: "Asig came thinking it could do the work for half the price. They got it completely wrong. It was crazy.

"But it created expectations among airlines, a knock-on effect... It's very easy to reduce prices, but very difficult to increase."

Operating in Singapore is tough but Dnata, which has invested heavily, including opening a new passenger lounge at Terminal 1 last November, is here to stay, said the 64-year- old New Zealander, who joined Emirates 27 years ago.

As for the rest of Asia, Dnata is in no rush to grow its footprint.

"Everyone says you need to be in China and India. I don't accept that I have to be anywhere if I can't be sure that the risk-reward is going to work for me," he said.

"It does not mean we are not trying...It's very easy to jump into something and make a mistake, and we don't want to do that.

"It does not hurt our business (not being a big player in Asia). What would hurt our business is doing something that fails."

Politics, government regulation and a lack of transparency are factors that make operating in Asia a challenge for many foreign firms, industry experts said.

Of the 75 countries where Dnata has wholly-owned firms, only three - Singapore, the Philippines and Australia - are in the Asia-Pacific.

The firm, which also has a travel agency arm, has extensive operations in Europe, the United States and, increasingly, the Americas.

A lack of presence in Asia, one of the world's fastest-growing air travel markets, has not clipped Dnata's wings.

On Tuesday, the firm reported its strongest annual profit in 57 years for the 12 months ended March 31.

Profits crossed one billion dirhams (S$373 million) for the first time, on the back of a 16 per cent jump in revenue to 10.6 billion dirhams.

Contrary to a popular misconception that Dnata's business comes mainly from Emirates, the firm said that its international business accounted for more than 64 per cent of revenues.

Just five years ago, 80 per cent was generated from within Dubai.

Outside Dubai, Emirates accounts for just about 10 per cent of the firm's business, Mr Chapman said.

The challenge now is to consolidate the business, which has grown in the last year with acquisitions in Brazil, Italy, Amsterdam and the US, he said.

In Singapore, the focus for Dnata, which has about 20 per cent market share at Changi Airport, is to continue to deliver.

Mr Chapman said: "We don't want to be the biggest. We want to make sure that where we go, we can deliver the best. It's about having a brand and standards that represent the ideals of high quality, innovation and reliability."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Dnata in no hurry to expand in tough market'. Print Edition | Subscribe