Exceeding flying standards to and from Manila 52 years and counting

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Decades ago, flying was considered a privilege, reserved for the well-born and powerful. But with the arrival of globalization, that perk is now available to everyman on any budget.

As the aviation industry continues to advance, one brand has consistently stood out, kept up standards—if not exceeding them—and set new benchmarks. And that is Singapore Airlines (SIA).

Singapore Airlines General Manager Balagopal Kunduvara PHOTO BY RUSSELL PALMA

No stranger to awards and accolades from influential industry and consumer bodies, this can-do airline company recently emerged first in the “Top 10 Airlines in the World” listed by TripAdvisor. It also scored the “Best for First Class and Economy Class” recognition.

Long relationship
Singapore’s flag carrier boasts a long and warm relationship with the Philippines, flying passengers between the Lion City and Manila for nearly 52 years. Now in the cockpit and energetically leading his team into a promising future is general manager Balagopal Kunduvara.


Born and raised in India, Kunduvara moved to Singapore to pursue mechanical engineering at Nanyang Technological University as a SIA scholar, eventually joining the airline in 2000 as a technical services engineer. Several years later, he was appointed Vice President of the Company Planning and Fuel Team before being assigned in 2017 to run the Philippine station.

The Airline’s newest A380 Suite

“I used to manage the strategic planning process for the whole company. The Company Planning and Fuel team is also responsible for fuel procurement and hedging, as well as aircraft procurement. In the aviation industry, acquisitions don’t happen every day, but when an opportunity arises, this team would look at it as well,” Kunduvara Kunduvara told The Manila Times during an interview at the SIA office in Makati City.

“Obviously, it’s a different role now because I am on the commercial side of the company,” he added.

Multi-tasker
“When you are a general manager it’s a bit of everything. It is not really a specialized role. It’s actually about being able to handle whatever comes across your path and finding a way around it. Specifically, the general manager is responsible for anything that happens in the country, from marketing, to airport operations, HR, accounts and on top of the list, sales,” he explained.

The next generation First Class

Switching from strategic planning to commercial responsibilities posed challenges, according to the country GM. But now that he has settled in, he is looking forward to burnishing SIA’s record in the Philippines even brighter.

“My planning horizon used to be five to 10 years because when you buy an aircraft that’s the sort of horizon you’re looking at. Now, it’s the day-to-day sales, running the next promotion or a campaign. Essentially, you’re talking about every single ticket that’s being sold,” he continued.

“It’s a different level, but it’s equally important, if not more, because this is what brings the revenue for the company. You can’t really succeed if you don’t have a good sales and marketing operation.”

Demanding market
In the 10 months Kunduvara has been at the helm of SIA, he has run multiple campaigns – the most recent of which was the fifth Showcase and Travel Fair where the airline presented a range of attractive offers for local travelers.

“The fair is an annual event and every year we try to make it bigger and better. This year, we ran it in two different venues at the same time, in Glorietta and TriNoma. It took a lot of resources but now that it is done, we’re happy and we are challenging ourselves to make it even bigger next year,” he beamed.

SIA is further aware that Filipinos clamor for marketing come-ons, a trait not lost on the opportunity conscious airline executive.

“Promotions and campaigns are very significant in this market, which expects them to happen on a regular basis. So, we always have to think of new ways to do them, and come up with new offers that travelers understand and like,” he observed.

“The market also continues to evolve and therefore, what is hot this year may not necessarily work the following year. That could be as simple as destinations because we’ve seen how the general market’s preference for travel changes. Certain destinations slowly drop out while some become prominent, all of a sudden,” he said.

“It could be linked to the ease of applying for a visa. For example, if some countries make it easier to get a visa, you will see a shift there. So, this is where, as a marketing and sales team, you have to find ways to react because planning and operating a flight is not something you can change every day,” the airline executive added.

This April, Kunduvara happily shared that travelers can pick their perfect holiday, as Singapore Airlines, in partnership with Mastercard, introduces their surprisingly attractive seasonal fares with up to 30 percent off on straight payments. The campaign also gives customers the alternative option of choosing a 10-month zero percent installment plan with one month free. Plus, every cardholder can get a chance to win a Priceless Suites Holiday for two to Sydney.

Same, yet different
The Philippines and Singapore have more in common than is perceived, Kunduvara noted. It is not too difficult for a Singaporean to acclimatize himself to Manila given how friendly the people are here as well as the similarity in weather and the wide usage of English.

The aviation market, however, is where the difference lies.

“Singapore doesn’t have a domestic market. Changi Airport has only international flights. The Philippines has a domestic market, and while, as an international carrier, we cannot operate domestic flights, there is nevertheless the additional consideration of people from other parts of the country flying into Manila to connect to an international flight,” he explained.

“The population in the Philippines is also much bigger. It’s a population that is getting affluent with time. The growth figures are very good, and every year, a lot of people are taking possibly their first ever flight. This gives us an opportunity to actually make ourselves known to more consumers and hopefully become the airline of their choice.”

Kunduvara has pointed out that the Philippines remains an important market for SIA, both as a source and a destination.

“Singapore Airlines, as you know, is not just about flying people to Singapore. We have the ability to take people beyond Singapore. It is therefore very important to have strong source and destination markets like the Philippines – markets where people fly with you because they appreciate the service you provide,” he asserted.

“It’s the total experience. Today, we fly four times daily to Manila. If the airport here can support it, we would love to grow that even further as the Philippine market continues to grow,” he added.

Discovering the world
Despite a range of international airlines to choose from, Kunduvara is firmly confident of his airline’s unique proposition to its customers.

“Our tagline is ‘A Great Way to Fly.’ When we sell a ticket, it is not just about getting from point A to point B; we want it to be a great experience as well,” he declared.

“How do we do it? From a corporate perspective, we base our strategy on three pillars. We try to offer a well-connected network so that you can get to your destinations easily. We also look to offer a superior product – the aircraft, the seats, and of course the services and the skills of our staff, which is best embodied by the Singapore Girl. In short, it’s all about giving consumers the best possible experience, be it on ground or inside the aircraft,” he expounded.

“How do we continue to grow? The challenge is to get a person to fly with us once so that they can experience what Singapore Airlines stands for, and then ensure that we deliver what we promise so that they come back and fly with us. Given the growth prospects in the Philippines, we truly expect this country to continue to be a bright spot as far as aviation is concerned.”

As the general manager pledged, SIA, having served the Philippines for over half a century remains committed to serve this market for the next 50 years and beyond.

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