Interview: Mohamed Rafi Mar, Singapore Airlines

Routes speaks to SIA’s new general manager for the UK & Ireland to learn how the carrier aims to rebuild passenger and cargo networks.

Mohamed Rafi Mar is general manager UK & Ireland, Singapore Airlines. He has been with SIA for 27 years, most recently as vice president of cargo sales and marketing and vice president of commercial at SilkAir.

What might the “careful expansion” you recently mentioned of scheduled flights into the UK look like?

Singapore Airlines (SIA) has maintained flights between London and Singapore throughout the pandemic.

At its height, when countries started to rapidly close borders and effected quarantine restrictions, we had scaled back our services to operate three times weekly by an A350-900 aircraft.

Since then, we have progressively increased our frequencies, first becoming daily, then double daily, all operated by A350-900 aircraft.

More recently, we have been operating 17 flights weekly, which also includes daily flights operated by Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, which features first class.

Obviously we are still a long way from operating four times daily from London with A380 and Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, as well as five times weekly between Singapore, Manchester and Houston but gradually we are rebuilding both our network and frequencies in line with cargo and passenger demand.

How does SIA aim to rebuild demand from UK travelers?

Like all airlines, passenger demand is a key factor and in the current climate. This is largely driven by government decisions around border closures and entry criteria in relation to testing requirements and quarantine regimes.

For our part, we continue to engage with government decision-making to try and encourage solutions to these issues—such as the IATA Travel Pass—to allow global travel to safely restart in earnest.

To this end, Singapore Airlines has participated in the world’s first trial of the IATA Travel Pass, which is designed to consolidate the verification of health credentials into a single app to facilitate safe travel. In addition, we engage with industry bodies across the globe to participate in and support government discussions around the safe re-opening of international travel.

Of course, we have also focused on our own operations and continued to innovate to further enhance everyone’s safety on board.

As part of this, we have deep-dived into the end-to-end passenger journey, redesigning services where necessary and introducing digital technologies to help create a more seamless travel experience. The result is that we have recently been awarded the Diamond rating—the highest level attainable—in the APEX Health Safety powered by SimpliFlying audit of global airlines.

Beyond these key measures, we also continue to inspire future travel and provide flexible travel policies to allow customers to book now and make changes later, should the need arise.

With business demand expected to be flat, will cargo help to offset the lost premium revenues?

SIA Cargo has always been an important part of our business and indeed in 2017 it was announced that it would be reintegrated as a division within Singapore Airlines, instead of operating as a wholly owned but stand-alone subsidiary.

While our passenger flight network has been significantly curtailed due to the covid-19 pandemic, our cargo network has of course remained incredibly important and we have sought to protect it as far as possible. This has been both to meet strong demand and to help ensure supply chains and key goods such as medical—and more recently vaccine—supplies can keep moving.

Cargo is normally carried by both our dedicated freighter aircraft and in the belly hold of passenger aircraft. With global reductions in the number of passenger flights operating, this has created increased demand due to the reduction in the overall cargo capacity available.

Our seven freighter aircraft have continued flying and call to London twice weekly, in addition to our passenger flights, to maximize the capacity we can offer.

Indeed in our third quarter financial results, we reported an overall loss and drop in group revenue. This was, however, partially offset by improvements in cargo flown revenue.

What does the UK government need to do to support aviation?

The most critical thing is to continue engaging with the industry so that we can work together to find solutions to safely re-open meaningful international travel.

In the UK, we participate via industry bodies, including the Board of Airline Representatives (BAR) UK and IATA.

How can SIA ensure UK services connect effectively with onward flights given the challenges around reduced frequencies?

As a hub and spoke carrier, it is a core part of our network planning process to ensure that customers can connect beyond Singapore to a range of destinations and this remains true even where there are reduced frequencies in place.

A good example would be our connections between London and key cities in both Australia and New Zealand, which have been maintained throughout. 

Do you see the IATA health app being useful on UK routes?

Singapore Airlines was the first airline in the world to trial the IATA Travel Pass app, which aims to consolidate the verification of health credentials into a single app.

It is designed to facilitate travel and so yes, we see it as being a useful tool globally, including in the UK.

Earlier this month, Singapore announced its acceptance of pre-departure COVID-19 PCR test results on the IATA Travel Pass, so this a hopefully first step to much wider adoption of the technology globally and which we believe will play a key role in enabling countries to safely reopen their borders once more.

Photo credit: Rob Finlayson