Scoot, Singapore Airlines’ new long haul low cost airline, has set fire to its hair in the linguistic sense in China, which is more than odd given the close relationship between Singapore’s business elite and their counterparts in the People’s Republic of China.

Its CEO, Campbell Wilson, was in Beijing yesterday announcing that Tianjin, not far from the China capital by high speed rail, would be Scoot’s third destination from this August after its inaugural flights to Singapore begin in June from Sydney and the Gold Coast. But in apparent deference to the difficulty the “s” sound can present in some languages in Asia, Scoot also announced that its name in China would be ku-hang 酷航 (or Cool Air).

Problem. As a number of Plane Talking readers pointed out, “cool” in China can, with an alternative intonation, go from meaning “kewel” to “krewel“, something that  passengers crammed into its tight fit discount format seating in its Boeing 777-200ERs might find appropriate by the time their cheap flight to Singapore has taxied to the end of the runway even before takeoff.

One China scholar noted that the Chinese word “cool” (ku 酷) had been quite fashionable in the last few years in China, due to dominance of several web portals in mainland China which includes the word. But it can also mean cruel, punishing, bitter, suffering and extreme, depending on intonation and context, such as being pinned by the kneecaps for eight hours or so in tiny seats never envisaged by Boeing when it first introduced the 777 in 1995 before the low cost revolution.

Scoot is also a difficult term to translate into Chinese and other Asian languages, as in “flee” as in a robber “fleeing” the scene of a crime. This is like Qantas insisting on calling itself the “Spirit of Australia” in Japan, which translates as the “ghost of Australia”.

So will Scoot, or Cruel, invent special names in other markets? Ripper (pronounced rupper) in NZ? Bewdie in Sydney? Bottler in Alice Springs or Darwin? Or Up There in Melbourne? Will different names, sensitively attuned to the cultural nuances of Scoot’s markets, give it the upper hand against major rival Jetstar?

Scoot is probably too busy banking the money at the moment to worry. It has sold tens of thousands of seats in advance to Singapore with opening special from $88 one way in the tiny seats with no food or baggage allowance, and $321 in the big seats in ScootBiz, a premium economy product, complete with all the trimmings, both for tiny fractions of the fares for economy and premium seating on Qantas or parent Singapore Airlines.

Meanwhile, the Qantas plan to launch Jetstar Hong Kong in a joint venture with China Eastern has raised significant questions as to whether the SAR’s Basic Law can be used to turn the city state into a flag of convenience hub for airlines rivaling the role of Monrovia, Liberia, for the world’s shipping.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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