The state of the airline industry

Courtesy IATA

Courtesy IATA

IN his keynote address at the recent AGM of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) held in Doha, IATA director-general Tony Tyler said: “Our financial performance does not yet match the value that we deliver.”

No one will deny the importance of the airline business in global connectivity that is so necessary for economic growth, a point that Mr Tyler made sure is not taken for granted especially by the powers that be regulating the industry from outside the business, and on which must therefore be premised the criticality of ensuring that “airlines must be profitable, safe and secure businesses.”

The sentiment is understandable in light of what the industry has been through since the global economic meltdown in 2009 and the continuing struggle to regain past glory. But, as Mr Tyler recognized, airlines operate in a highly competitive environment. The new elasticity in demand and reduced brand consciousness as influenced by the cost of flying are not helping. There is really not much you can do about the global economy dragging its feet, or about the volatility of the fuel price which has been blamed all too often for many an airline’s poor performances, so Mr Tyler turned to the regulators with this message: “Airline efforts to improve performance further need a counterpart in governments.” More specifically, he said: “Airlines themselves remain burdened with high taxes and weak profitability.”

This brings us back to his earlier comment about what he considered to be “a mismatch between the value that the industry contributes to economies and the rewards that generates for those who risk their capital to finance the industry.”

So, if the airline industry were to collapse, who is to blame? You can be sure that governments are equally concerned about pushing the industry to the brink, and while they may be selective about whom to rescue, they would generally rally to facilitate one that flies the flag however independent and autonomous it claims to be. But governments have a wider agenda which in no surprising way may be more political than commercial, which understandably are more regional than local, and which consequently become more complex and faceted by comparison. Noteworthy is how an increasing number of governments have in recent years relented in allowing increased foreign investment in local airlines.

Taking the cue from Mr Tyler’s statement, one might ask: Are there one tax too many (apart from the quantum)? It is not uncommon for airlines to pass on these taxes or some fraction of them to their customers, the rationale being that these are collected on behalf of the governments. In the tussle between the European Union and airlines over a carbon tax that would have been implemented at the beginning of last year but for the global protest, airlines had said that they would pass it on to their customers. To the discerning air traveller, he shall not be misled by the misrepresented fare advertised by many an airline, and increasingly regulators in the United States and the European Union are taking the carriers to task for misleading advertising. Carriers that had been fined include Ryanair and Southwest Airlines.

Squeezed between the regulators and the operators, consumers are not necessarily the winner but for the saving grace in the competition and the application of the law of supply and demand. India offers a classic example of how the competition may work in the favour of consumers. AirAsia India, the first airline with foreign investment and new kid in the arena, has promised to become the “lowest-cost” airline in India, and a fresh round of price warfare is expected. It is known that many operators have come and gone, and too many of the existing operators continue to incur losses, yet the huge potential of a growing market of air travellers continues to lure would be investors. It may be the law of the jungle where only the fittest will survive, and AirAsia believes it has the discipline to keep the fares low and its costs “razor-thin”.

Mr Tyler too advocated the need for improved efficiency, as evident in the use of more fuel-efficient equipment and through consolidation and airline partnerships. Nevertheless, this raises the question: How efficient are today’s airlines?

Yet all is not gloom and doom, even as IATA has cut its profit forecast for this year to US$18 billion from US$18.7 billion made in March, over concerns of China’s economic growth and a recurring slowdown in world trade. Still it is a vast improvement, compared to US$10.6 billion last year and US$6.1 billion in 2012. Overall passenger growth is expected to remain strong in 2014, reaching 3.3 billion, up 5.9 per cent on 2013 although the premium component of that growth continues to stagger. According to IATA, for the first time, the global load factor looks set to average above 80 per cent for 2014.

Region-wise, North America is likely to be the star performer as IATA raised its profit projection to US$8.6 billion, which is US$300 million higher than the previous forecast. All the other regions will see downward estimates with the exception of Africa, which remains unchanged. Still, the prospects look bright for the industry overall.

There is another piece of good news: fuel prices have been quite stable for now, although the situation continues to be threatened by geopolitical conflicts in Europe and the Middle East.

And, believe it or not, yet another piece of good news but for the consumer: Mr Tyler said air fares are expected to fall 3.5 per cent “in real terms”. Now whom do we thank for that?

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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