We’ve all heard our fair share of Cebu Pacific horror stories. I’ve experienced my own too, from a faulty website to delayed flights. But they weren’t anything that I haven’t encountered at Delta, PAL, or even Singapore Airlines.
That was until the Great Cebu Pacific Christmapocalypse of 2014. While I’m still compiling a lengthy account of that experience (complete with photos + videos of stranded children, crying women, and censorship attempts by security), I couldn’t help but take a deeper look into the company and uncover some interesting facts why it’s such a shitty airline.
I’m no expert in the airline business, but I’d like to believe I know a thing or two about how companies work. In this case, I’m looking at Cebu Pacific with the following context in mind:
- The airline industry is a tough business. In the US, the average airfare each way is $178 and the airlines would only make 37 cents per passenger trip on average.
- Cebu Pac is a growing business. 2014 revenues are up 25% year-to-date.
- The industry is becoming more competitive, with a resurgent PAL, a dominant low-cost competitor in Air Asia, and the desire of foreign airlines to enter the Philippine market.
- Filipinos are demanding better service, yet are also more docile consumers on average.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I only spent two hours going through publicly available information in its annual report, quarterly disclosures, and analyst presentations, and I already uncovered lots of reasons why it’s a horribly run airline. I just wrote this today, and this is by no means a definitive analysis.
Place Cebu Pacific under the close, investigative scrutiny of a Patricia Evangelista, Natashya Gutierrez, or Bianca Consunji, and I bet we’ll uncover way more.
Four things stick out:
1. The Board of Directors is stacked with family members and insiders.
No surprise here. This is the Philippines, after all.
For comparison, let’s look at Air Asia’s board of directors, followed by their ages:
- Datuk Kamarudin bin Meranun (52), Non-Independent Executive Chairman
- Tan Sri Dr. Tony Fernandes (50), Non-Independent Executive Director and Group Chief Executive Officer
- Aireen Omar (40), Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer
- Abdul Aziz bin Abu Bakar (61), Non-Independent Non-Executive Director
- Fam Lee Ee (53), Independent Non-Executive Director
- Robert A Milton (53), Independent Non-Executive Director
- Amit Bhatia, Independent Non-Executive Director
- Uthaya Kumar A/L K Vivekananda (60), Independent Non-Executive Director
Here’s Cebu Pacific’s Board of Directors:
- Ricardo J. Romulo (80 yrs old), Chairman
- John L. Gokongwei, Jr (87)., Director
- James L. Go (74), Director
- Lance Y. Gokongwei (47), Director
- Robina Gokongwei-Pe (52), Director
- Frederick D. Go (45), Director
- Jose Buenaventura (79), Director
- Antonio L. Go (73), Independent Director
- Wee Khoon Oh (55), Independent Director
Why is this important? Because the board is the highest governing body of a corporation. If customer service is so bad, then either the Board a.) refuses to do something about it (prioritizing fleet expansion instead, for instance), or b.) is incapable of doing so.
Let’s look at the Board one by one.
Ricardo Romulo is the senior partner of law firm Romulo Mabanta. No airline experience.
Gokongwei patriarch John is unlikely to be closely involved in the airline’s operations given his age.
James Go is John’s brother. No airline experience.
John’s son Lance, is CEO of Cebu Pacific. No extensive airline experience before Cebu Pacific. More troubling, Lance also serves as CEO of Robinson’s Land. Oh wait, he is also CEO of Universal Robina.
I’m sure Lance is brilliant. But I am doubly sure airlines, real estate, and food & beverage are incredibly tough businesses on their own. How can he be CEO of all three? The inescapable conclusion is that Lance is Cebu Pacific CEO in name only.
Robina is Lance’s sister. No airline experience.
Frederick Go runs Robinson’s Land as COO. No airline experience. Which begs the question: if we measure Frederick’s and Lance’s performance, do they spend more time in the airline business or in the real estate business?
Jose Buenaventura is a lawyer (and a partner at Romulo Mabanta). No airline experience.
Antonio L. Go is a banker. No airline experience.
The only board director with significant airline experience is Wee Khoon Oh, who used to be with SIA Engineering Co. SIAEC also happens to be the aircraft maintenance contractor of Cebu Pacific. Even so, Wee Khoon’s experience is in aircraft engineering, not customer service or flight operations.
In short, this is a board stacked with lawyers, family members, and insiders. It’s a board designed to preserve control and mitigate risk, rather than to strive for operational excellence and competitiveness.
It’s also a board filled with old people. The average age of the Cebu Pacific Board is 65 (and that is helped by Lance and Frederick. 5 out of 9 Directors – a majority! – are above 73 years old).
The average age of the Air Asia board is 53.
There is a very real possibility that the Cebu Pacific Directors themselves are not aware of the on-the-ground reality because they are unlikely to browse through Facebook, Twitter, or this blog.
I am sure they are outstanding professionals in their fields. But their skill set does not belong in today’s airline business.
I can end this blog post on this point. But let’s go on.
2. Senior management is no longer the right team for the job.
The role of the Board of Director’s is to be the overall governing body of a corporation by setting strategy, selecting senior management, and deciding on things like acquisitions, capital raising, and management remuneration. Operations is the responsibility of the senior management team, which reports to the board.
If the main issues are a.) delayed and cancelled flights; and b.) poor customer experience (in terms of ground staff operations, check-ins, gate crews, refunds and rebookings), then we should be looking for managers who are in charge of operations and customer service.
We’ve established Lance is CEO in name only. Who’s really in charge at Cebu Pacific?
That would be Garry Kingshott, Chief Executive Adviser. We all know the “Adviser” title is a smokescreen in Philippine business given that public utilities cannot have foreigner CEOs. But with Lance’s multiple roles, it’s reasonable to believe that Garry is calling the shots.
Judging by his LinkedIn profile, Garry is a sales & marketing guy. Cebu Pacific’s focus on growing ancillary revenue (revenue from baggage fees, rebooking fees, etc – which by the way is worth P6 billion) is likely his strategy, given his past experience at Jet Lit India. He seems to be more preoccupied with international expansion rather than getting down and dirty with local flight operations.
Who runs ground operations? Let’s look at the Cebu Pacific Annual Report.
Capt. Jim Sydiongco? Nah, he’s responsible for flight operations, pilot training, and safety. With a growing fleet and a pilot shortage, his main focus (rightly so) is for the planes to stay in the air. (Remember the Davao crash landing last year?). Rosita Menchaca? Nope. She runs in-flight services.
The most likely candidate is Michael Shau, Vice President of Ground Operations. But this year, he was moved to run the TigerAir division. And even if he is in charge of customer experience, Michael was also running cargo & fuel, catering, facilities, and procurement! He looks stretched.
In fact, looking at Cebu Pacific’s organizational chart, it’s impossible to see who’s in charge of ground operations and customer experience. There’s Benito Cosep, who runs integrated operations control (including flight dispatch and fleet control), and Rosario Santos who runs quality assurance, but they seem too far down the organizational chart to have significant power to influence outcomes.
Contrast this to Air Asia’s senior management featured in their annual report. They have a tough looking guy named Patrick Fennel heading the operations control centre. There’s a head of guest services – Francis Loh, who’s the single accountable person for customer service. Then there’s Terri Chin, group head of quality and assurance. All three seem like they have considerable power.
In Air Asia, there is one person in charge of finance in senior management: Andrew Littledale, the CFO.
In Cebu Pacific’s senior management, there are three: Jaime Cabangis (CFO), Jeanette Yu (VP Treasury), and Robin Cui (Comptroller).
Strategic priorities are allocated with resources, people, and power. Guess where Cebu Pacific’s priorities lie?
The lack of accountability culture at Cebu Pacific is in full force at the front lines. Ground staff were completely afraid to offer explanations for fear that might say the wrong thing.
“CEB personnel did not explain the long lines, saying they were not authorized by their management to give statements to the press,” says an Inquirer report. I saw this myself. When I asked one supervisor at counter C27 to explain to the 150+ cancelled passengers what our next steps are, he resisted, saying that it wasn’t his job to process cancellations. After 2 minutes arguing, he agreed to send one of his lackeys to speak on his behalf.
3. Investments in human capital have severely lagged passenger growth.
A frequent complaint heard last December 24 and 25 was that Cebu Pacific was severely undermanned. There were not enough people at the check-in counter. My boarding gate didn’t have an agent for two whole hours. And when I finally was given a hotel room, the guy who coordinated the transfer and hotel booking told me there were only three of them that night who handled thousands of irate rebooked customers.
Contrary to what they want you to believe in the press, this wasn’t just a one-time incident over a busy holiday. It’s a structural problem.
The proof, again, is in the annual report. But you need to dig deep into the notes section.
Cebu Pacific’s Revenue Passenger Kilometer (RPK) grew 12.1% in 2013. RPK is the number of paying passengers on an airline multiplied by the distance traveled. If an airline were a factory, RPK is the measure of an airline’s production output.
Yet, despite the growth, note 21 in the annual report indicates that staff cost only grew 2% in 2013 (P339.7 million in 2013 vs P332.9 million in 2012). Output grew 6x faster than the growth in staffing. No wonder the ground crew felt swamped.
Now, under note 20, the accounts “Flying Operations” and “Aircraft and Traffic Servicing” both contain sub-accounts called “Others”. In the note, “Others” is said to pertain to “staff expenses incurred by the Group such as basic pay, employee training cost, and allowance“. It doesn’t exactly say if staffing cost is the ONLY item under that account. There could be others.
But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that that it’s all staffing costs. Note 20 + note 21 then implies that total people costs amounted to P921.9 million. This is equivalent to 2.2% of Cebu Pacific’s 2013 revenues of P 41 billion.
But if you look at Air Asia, which did RM 5.11 billion in revenue in 2013, staff costs were RM 610.9 million, or 12% of revenues! Now, even the higher wage levels in Malaysia vs the Philippines wouldn’t be able to entirely account why Air Asia spends 6x more on people than Cebu Pacific.
The whole “we didn’t anticipate the Christmas surge” reason doesn’t fly. This is an airline that obviously tracks RPK, and thus would have month-on-month information on passenger volume.
4. Finally, there are the rumors that Cebu Pacific is being window-dressed for a sale. Nope, not the “piso-fare” kind of sale, but a divestiture of the company to a strategic buyer. After all, the Gokongweis might be starting to realize that it is hard pressed to compete in an open skies environment across Southeast Asia, and would thus be willing to consolidate rather than compete. The group showed its willingness to do something similar in the Sun Cellular sale to PLDT.
Basically, a push for a sale encourages Cebu Pacific to prop up its bottom-line to maximize its market capitalization (and a larger return to the group if a sale occurs). And because profits tanked in 2013 (net income declined 86% from P3.6 billion in 2012 to P512 million in 2013), there is a strong reason for the company to scrimp on expenses in 2014.
In summary, it’s really hard to say what’s going on. All of the above is based on publicly available data. If you know something, get in touch.
My theory: Cebu Pacific is run by a Board that is designed to retain control of the Company rather than to embrace outsiders with the expertise and experience to run a growing low cost airline in a challenging competitive environment. This may have been an adequate Board 10 years ago, but not today. Its senior management is poorly structured, and there is no accountability for key passenger requirements, namely for excellent customer service. It’s underinvesting in human capital. While it’s also pursuing international expansion, management is also considering a sale of the company, and is thus incentivized to prop up the bottom line at the expense of making the investments that lead to operational excellence.
Stay tuned for my next post on how Cebu Pacific stole Christmas Eve.