Karamjit Kaur Aviation Correpondent

Why SIA is keen to heal wounded Tiger

Singapore Airlines (SIA) has pledged $140 million to rescue Tigerair, yet again.

The additional funding will increase SIA's stake in the loss-making budget carrier from 40 per cent now to as high as 71 per cent.

The commitment follows a cash call by Tigerair two weeks ago, after it announced a $182.4 million loss in the three months to the end of September.

For the 12 months to the end of March, Tigerair recorded its biggest annual loss of $223 million.

To replenish its kitty, the airline is offering shareholders more stock at a discounted price.

In a show of support, SIA has said it will take up its entitlement and subscribe for any shares not taken up. Before that, it will also convert Tigerair convertible securities it currently holds into new shares.

This is not the first time SIA has come to Tigerair's rescue. Since 2011, it has doled out at least $100 million in two earlier fund-raising exercises, and seemingly gained nothing.

"It's putting good money into a bad business," said UOB Kay Hian's K. Ajith.

Tigerair has scaled back its operations significantly in the last few months by closing down subsidiaries in Indonesia and the Philippines. Its 40 per cent stake in Tigerair Australia will be sold to Virgin Australia for A$1 (S$1.13).

Bruised and battered, Tigerair is not expected to return to the black until after 2016 at the earliest.

So why is SIA wasting its time and money? Why not just let the Tiger tail fall from the sky?

Because despite current challenges, experts believe that the demand for short-haul low-cost flights in Asia will continue to grow strongly in the coming years.

Without Tigerair, SIA has no presence in this market, leaving it defenceless against rivals like AirAsia, Jetstar and Lion Air.

With the likes of Emirates and Cathay Pacific putting intense pressure on its premium long-haul business, SIA also believes it must diversify and enter new market segments to continue to fly high.

In short, SIA has no choice but to keep Tigerair alive, even if it means effectively taking control of the carrier.

This was never the plan.

In December 2003 when SIA's then chief executive officer Chew Choon Seng announced plans to launch Tiger Airways, he made it clear that SIA would not be in the captain's seat.

Many previous attempts by full-service carriers to run budget airlines had failed, he said. "The low-cost model requires completely different methods and procedures, marketing approaches and skills, and it is hard to be both premium full service and low cost, no frills at the same time. Hence our decision to have it as a 49 per cent-owned associate company rather than a majority-owned subsidiary."

For as long as Tigerair managed its affairs well, SIA did not intervene.

But the shocking grounding of Tiger Airways Australia in July 2011 by the Australian civil aviation authority over safety concerns led to a management overhaul and the entry of an SIA divisional vice-president, Mr Chin Yau Seng, as Tiger's new head.

Industry veteran J. Y. Pillay, widely credited with turning SIA into a global leader, joined as non-executive chairman the same month, although he was approached by Tiger's board even before the kerfuffle in Australia.

Mr Chin stayed for a year before passing the helm to shipping veteran Koay Peng Yen, who served for about two years.

After he left in May, yet another SIA senior executive, Mr Lee Lik Hsin, took over as group chief executive officer.

Like many other low-cost carriers, Tigerair has been hit by regional overcapacity - airlines adding more seats than demand can soak up - which has pushed fares and takings down.

But unlike Malaysia's AirAsia and Indonesia's Lion Air which operate out of huge domestic markets that have cushioned some of the impact of overcapacity on international routes, Tigerair and, by the same token, Singapore's Jetstar Asia, do not have a similar advantage.

Tigerair also made mistakes along the way, with its management "clearly bordering on being clueless", said Associate Professor Terence Fan of the Singapore Management University.

With higher costs than rivals like AirAsia, for example, Tigerair should have stayed away from well-established low-cost territories and opted instead for newly emerging markets like Taiwan and Japan, where competition is less intense and yields higher, he said.

Lessons learnt, the current plan is to downsize, focus on the Singapore operations and turn losses into profits, with SIA's money and expertise.

The past few years were painful but the business restructuring in the last few months, and SIA preparing to take on a bigger stake and role in the running of the airline, could be just what Tigerair needs.

For one thing, it would pave the way for the short-haul budget carrier to work more closely with SIA's wholly-owned long-haul budget arm, Scoot, which they have not been able to do effectively thus far.

This was in fact the plan when SIA launched Scoot in June 2012, as part of its portfolio strategy of having a presence in all the key business segments.

SIA's chief executive officer, Mr Goh Choon Phong, speaking at the group's annual results briefing in May, said: "Tiger and Scoot make natural partners in connectivity. One with narrowbody aircraft servicing largely the region. And the other with the ability to go medium, and potentially in the future perhaps long haul, and operating widebodies, and for them to connect with each other."

Scoot working with Tigerair allows SIA to be present "in virtually all the different segments of the travel industry", Mr Goh said.

"And what needs to be done, as we have done for SIA and SilkAir, is closer integration," he added.

A plan is being worked out and details will be unveiled soon, insiders say.

As long as Tigerair has a place in SIA's overall business strategy, it will have the backing of the premium carrier, said Mr Shukor Yusof of aviation consultancy Endau Analytics.

Never mind that the carrier's "raison d'etre is in doubt, given its weak foundation, limited growth potential and inability to compete effectively", he added.

With Asean moving towards open skies, it is also in SIA's interest to keep Tigerair alive, analysts say.

The goal, by the end of next year, is for the 10 member nations to remove all restrictions on flights from their countries.

When this happens, and as airports in the region continue to invest in infrastructure to boost their handling capacity, carriers like Tigerair will be able to fly as and where they choose within the region.

Today, air services are bound by government-to-government deals and countries are sometimes reluctant to open their skies fully to airlines from neighbouring states for fear that their own carriers will not be able to compete with foreign airlines.

The Tiger is badly wounded but with a clear recovery plan and enough money and expertise to execute it, there is no reason why it cannot roar back in time to cash in on the region's aviation liberalisation and other future opportunities.

SIA will leave no stone unturned to see that this happens.

Mr Shukor said: "SIA has deep pockets and, loss of money aside, it's loss of face and loss of influence in a critical part of the business that they are probably most concerned with."

karam@sph.com.sg