Rising budget tide: Alitalia unbundles, IAG launches budget long-haul

Courtesy Getty Images

YET another legacy airline is going budget. Italian flag carrier Alitalia will adopt the unbundling model of budget carriers by charging for what will now be considered perks – seat selection, luggage and in-flight meals and drinks. This will be implemented for flights of four hours or less.

Alitalia CEO Cramer Ball said the airline had “absolutely no alternative” but to follow suit, coming soon after British Airways started charging for meals. He said: “If we can’t compete throughout Italy and Europe against low-cost carriers, then we lose air travellers that connect into intercontinental flights.”

Ryanair, EasyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, WOW Air, Eurowings (owned by Lufthansa) and Vueling (owned by International Airlines Group – IAG – which also owns British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus) are among the budget carriers viewed as close competitors.

Unbundling is not new even among legacy airlines. US carriers such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are already offering “basic economy” whose low fare does not come with cabin baggage allowance and seat selection, and holders of such tickets will be boarded last.

Courtesy IAG

In the wake of the rising budget tide, IAG announces its decision to launch a long-haul budget carrier – Level – to complement Veuling’s short-haul. Level, which becomes the fifth brand within the group, will be based in Barcelona with flights to the Americas that include destinations such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Buenos Aires and Punta Cana.

IAG chief executive Willie Walsh said: “Barcelona is Vueling’s home base and this will allow customers to connect from Vueling’s extensive European network onto Level’s long-haul flights.”

Clearly, legacy airlines can no longer hide behind their pride of providing a service that is safe from the aggression of budget carriers. It is up to the consumers to decide, whether the extra dollars charged justify the perceived better standards. In today’s price-sensitive market, the bottom-line counts, and legacy airlines unbunding the fare package will make an easier comparison.

They will be faced with the challenge to convince the travellers of that something extra over and above price that they will continue to provide but which budget carriers may not have the capability or capacity to offer, such as mileage perks, compensation for flight delays and product shortcomings, ease of booking, schedule flexibility, and after-sale customer attention.

Many budget carriers, for example, do not have adequate Plan B when a flight is cancelled or delayed, and your chances of getting out of that situation soonest is better with legacy airlines in light of their frequency, connections and codeshare arrangements.

British Airways is becoming more “budget” than Ryanair

Courtesy Getty Images

NOT too long ago, British Airways (BA) did away with complimentary meals on short flights. (See No more free meals for BA short haul, Jan 16, 2017) Now, in yet another move to operate like a budget carrier, it is squeezing in more seats in its planes and that means less legroom.

According to some media reports, BA seat space will be the same as budget carrier Easyjet, even less than Ryanair.

A BA spokesman said the initiative would keep the fare low. But, of course, that’s to be expected. Air travellers will do better to recognise the new BA as belonging to the same category of low end operators when they are booking flights. And, sadly for BA, it can only mean it is facing tough competition.

BA’s partner airlines – Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus – under the International Airlines Group (IAG) are also offering the same seat space.

And, if you’re thinking of complaining about any aspect of BA’s service, think again. There is a £25 fee. If it makes you feel any better, that applies to Easyjet as well. Just don’t make the mistake of expecting more from a legacy-but-no-longer-full-service airline!

Budget and transatlantic competition heat up

Courtesy Vueling Airlines

Courtesy Vueling Airlines

International Airlines Group (IAG) announced plans to commence low-cost transatlantic flights from Barcelona to the United States by budget carrier Vueling. IAG also owns British Airways (BA), Iberia and Aer Lingus.

Legacy airlines (and airline groups) are increasingly recognizing the competition posed by budget carriers, and it is not new that some of them have set up budget operations such as Lufthansa’s Eurowings, Qantas’ Jetstar, and Singapore Airlines’ Scoot. In the US, the Big Three airlines of American, United and Delta are introducing no-frills fares on normal services to compete with low-cost counterparts such as Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier.

Where the competition is most felt is the transatlantic sector, which has seen a surge of cheap fares offered by operators such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and Iceland’s WOW Air, discomforting both US and European counterparts.

WOW Air is well-known for its $99 fare for travel between the US and Europe – destinations such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Edinburgh and Bristol – with a free stopover in Reykjavik. It has begun enticing US Westcoasters with fares as low as $65.

Norwegian also offers $99 fares with promotional offers as low as $69.

Budget doyen Ryanair has long announced its ambition to also ply the transatlantic routes.

While home-based US airlines are protesting the entry of Norwegian, European airlines are taking a more active approach to compete head-on. IAG will be able to advantage Vueling with the network of partner airlines. Eurowings is already operating nonstop from Cologne and Bonn to the US, and it has plans to add more destinations.

In a price-sensitive market for as long as the current situation holds, budget carriers may be driving the trend. Legacy airlines will be challenged to make their advertised difference in product worth the additional dollars in fares, at the same time keeping their budget rivals at bay in a two-prong approach to the competition.

No more free meals for BA short haul

BA4 courtesy BA.jpg

Courtesy British Airways

British Airways (BA) will stop catering complimentary meals on domestic and short-haul flights. Passengers may avail themselves of food and drink supplied by supermarket chain Marks & Spencer at a cost, and we all know that such meals don’t come cheap.

BA said the decision was made to cut costs, and this naturally was not well received by its customers. It is coming at a time when BA is making record profits compared to its regional competitors, picking up a trend set by North American carriers although ironically some of them such as Delta Air Lines are considering re-introducing meals as the competition intensifies.

The question is: Will BA lower its airfare as a consequence? Increasingly airlines are adopting the no-frill model to boost their coffers with ancillary revenue which has been rising significantly in recent years. But that is at the risk of losing the differentiation that makes full-service airlines a conscious choice of travellers who are prepared to foot more for it. It is good news otherwise for low-cost operators such as Ryanair, Norwegian Air Shuttle and Wow Air.

BA is testing the ground. Its success will depend on how strong it is as a trendsetter, and its understanding of the compliance of the travelling public, however prone they are to complaining. Right now, BA has muscled itself into an extensive network of airlines under the International Airlines Group (IAG) that also owns Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. Time will tell.

Brexit gloom overstated for airlines

THE day after the Brexit referendum, it looked like all gloom and doom as the pound plummeted and the global stock market reeled. The share price of British low-cost carrier EasyJet went down 22 per cent. For their discernible dependence on the UK market, Ryanair and the International Airlines Group (IAG, which owns British Airways besides Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus) also suffered declines above 20 per cent. Even American carriers across the pond with the exception of domestic operators took a hit.

Reduced profits for the second half of the year are all but certain. IAG said it would not be able to match the 2015 level. EasyJet warned that fares may increase. Ryanair said it will cut back investment in the UK and focus instead on growth in the EU.

The immediate concern was that the weak sterling may mean British holidaymakers will now count their pennies before committing to an overseas vacation. UAE Director-general of the General Civil Aviation Authority, Saif Mohammed Al Suwadi, foresaw a decline of travel from the UK to the Gulf region, and this is not good news for Middle East carriers which are also benefitting from onward travel by the Brits to places in Asia and Australia. But consider what a weaker British pound could do for Britain to attract tourists into the UK. It may be more than just rephrasing the equation, and airlines including Singapore Airlines which fly to British destinations could benefit from the fallout.

So far the world’s reaction seems unduly lopsided in its view of the dire impact on the UK. Doomsayers are mistaken if they were waiting to see the UK punished indefinitely. At least for the airline industry, the gloom has been overstated. In fact, IAG believed that the UK vote to leave the EU would not have a long term material impact on its business. So too Ryanair which reassured its customers that it “will continue to offer the lowest fares in Europe and the UK.” British carrier Monarch Airlines said it is not raising fares and “will continue to remain competitive.”

Courtesy easyJet

Courtesy easyJet

It is easy to blame Brexit as the shock of the unexpected outcome takes its toll. Understandably, low-cost carriers such as EasyJet are more concerned about losing access to the single EU market, which has spurred their growth across a wider region. EasyJet for one has seen its profit increase manifold from GPD22.1m in 2000 to GPD548m in 2015, and its passenger load from 5.8m to 68.6m making it the second largest operator in Europe after Ryanair. Today it boasts a load factor above 90 per cent and operates from 24 bases across Europe. It may be one, being British, to lose the most if new regulations limit its operations or make it difficult for it to access its present markets. In truth, EasyJet is already facing what it described as “extremely challenging” conditions in the past two months with demand being affected by severe weather, airport issues and industrial strikes in France which resulted in flight disruptions.

Despite the harsh warning from EU leaders that Britain cannot expect to enjoy EU privileges post-Brexit, it is hard to believe that Open Skies which has come a long, long way globally will suffer a substantive setback. The UK could still negotiate access to the EU single market a la the model used by non-EU members Norway and Iceland if Britain then joins as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). It must abide by EU rules but cannot participate in the Union’s decision-making.

The UK could also look at other models such as one adopted by Switzerland, which is not a member of the EEA but the European Free Trade Association, gaining access through a number of bilateral agreements though not for all sectors. Or, the post-Brexit negotiations could knock up a deal specific to the UK. Outside those jurisdictions, peculiar to the airline industry is the number of complex cross-border partnership agreements that have blurred regional lines.

Britain is a large market, so it is in the interest of all parties concerned to negotiate a win-win deal. The silver lining in the dark Brexit cloud is how commercial considerations will prevail over political deliberations. Politically driven regulatory restrictions will do neither the UK nor EU members any favour. It is in their interest to continue keeping the channels open for competition.

The resilience of the business in adjusting to change cannot be underestimated. Many people take comfort that the due process for any change may take up to two years. The real comfort is that implicitly, any change is unlikely to be unduly drastic or disruptive.

Optimism and more good news

IT’s been a long time coming, the optimism and good news that the industry badly misses as more airlines report better, even record, performances as fuel prices show no certainty of bottoming out. From Chicago to London, Singapore and Sydney, the mood is celebratory.

American carriers were the first to celebrate. The US big three– American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines – all reported record recovery last year, and are reintroducing snacks on domestic services (instead of lowering the fuel surcharge) as a way of giving back to their customers. (As the price of crude oil plummets, fuel surcharge holds sway, Jan 23 2016)

This article takes a look at four major airlines in three other different regions (Australia, Europe and Asia) that recently posted their report cards, and see how they measure up to the mood.

Courtesy Bloomberg

Courtesy Bloomberg

Qantas

The good run continues with Australian flag carrier Qantas’ record performance for the first half of its current financial year (Jun-Dec 2015). The airline reported an underlying profit before tax of A$921 million (US$685 million), which is A$554 million more than last year’s first half. Revenue was up 5 per cent. Chief executive officer Alan Joyce announced that every part of the Qantas Group contributed strongly to the result, with record profits reported by Qantas Domestic and the Jetstar Group.

Qantas Domestic reported earnings of A$387 million, compared to A$227 million last year, maintaining a strong market share of 80 per cent. The Jetstar Group’s earnings were A$262 million, compared to A$81 million last year. Revenue for the Australian market went up 10 per cent, and for the first time, Jetstar Japan contributed positively to the profit of the Asian network since its start-up in 2012.

Qantas International which used to be the bleeding arm of the Qantas Group reported earnings of A$279 million, compared to $59 million last year. This was its best performance since before the global financial crisis. The airline has benefitted from the weak Australian dollar which has helped boost inbound tourism for Australia. Qantas’ cornerstone alliance partnership with Emirates, American Airlines and China Eastern has strategically strengthened its global network, overcoming an apparent geographical disadvantage of its home base in a far corner of the world.

All this, Mr Joyce would be the first to tell anyone, is not a matter of luck or necessarily a given in today’s more favourable economic climate. He said: “This record result reflects a stronger, leaner, more agile Qantas. Without a focus on revenue, costs and balance sheet strength, today’s result would not have been possible. Both globally and domestically, the aviation industry is intensely competitive. That’s why it’s so important that we maintain our cost discipline, invest to grow revenue, and continue innovating with new ventures and technology.”

Give credit where it’s due. Sceptics may finally admit that Mr Joyce’s “transformation program” is not only bearing fruit but producing a good crop and reshaping Qantas into a more agile and innovative business. “Our transformation program has allowed us to save significant costs,” said Mr Joyce. “It’s never been a simple cost cutting agenda.”

Qantas expects to increase domestic capacity by 2 per cent, international by 9 per cent and Jetstar International by 12 per cent in the second half, averaging 5 per cent for the full year for the Group.

Courtesy Bloomberg

Courtesy Bloomberg

International Airlines Group

At the other end of the Kangaroo route is the unmatched success of the International Airlines Group (IAG) of which British Airways is a partner along with Iberia, Vueling and, more recently, Aer Lingus. IAG’s profits increased by almost 65 per cent to €1.8bn (US$1.98 billion) in 2015, which IAG chief Willie Walsh said had “undoubtedly been a good year”. The Group carried 88.3 million passengers last year, an increase of 14 per cent, overtaking Lufthansa to become second only to Air France-KLM in Europe.

In very much the same way that Mr Joyce was able to turn round the loss-making international division of Qantas, Mr Walsh could pride himself as the man who steered Iberia into profitability following its merger with BA in 2011. The Spanish carrier underwent a painful restructuring but it has paid off. . Unlike Qantas which prefers commercial alliances, IAG adopts a more aggressive strategy of acquisitions. The consortium of BA, Iberia and Aer Lingus stands the Group in good stead to grow trans-Atlantic traffic which forms the largest part of its business.

IAG expects similar growth next year, targeting an operating profit of €3.2bn

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Singapore Airlines

In Asia
, Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group reported a third quarter (Oct-Dec 2015) profit of S$275 million (US$200 million), 35 per cent higher than that of last year’s third quarter. However Group revenue declined by 4 per cent to S3.9 billion because of lower passenger yields and the continuing lacklustre performance of its cargo operations. Parent airline SIA faces stiff competition from Middle East carriers, and its subsidiaries SilkAir, Scoot and Tigerair are not spared the rivalry from regional budget carriers. Still it is good news that falling oil prices had resulted in a reduction of the fuel costs by S$354 million, a drop of more than 40 per cent.

Characteristically diffident and not as confident as either Qantas or BA, SIA said it expects travel demand to remain volatile, citing the increased competition and the pressure that it will continue to exert on yields and loads. But all three airline groups have experienced increased loads, driven by discounted fares as a result of of intense competition and made possible by the lower fuel costs. According to International Air Transport Association (IATA), breakeven load factors are highest in Europe because of low yields from the open competition and high regulatory costs, yet the region is achieving the second highest load factor after North America and generating solid growth.

It is going to be a rosier 2016. IATA forecast air travel to grow 6.9 per cent, the best since 2010 and well above the 5.5 per cent of the past 20 years. Demand is fueled by stronger economic growth and made attractive by lower fares. It is unlikely that the oil price will rise and airlines may even expect smaller fuel bills, making up 20 per cent of an airline’s total operating costs compared to what it used to be at 40 per cent. This will be further enhanced by the acquisition of new aircraft that are more fuel efficient.

In this connection, SIA has something to crow about as it took delivery last week of the first of 63 Airbus A350 firm orders after a long wait of 10 years. The first tranche of ten aircraft which it hopes to take complete delivery by the end of the year have a seat configuration of 42 business, 24 premium economy and 187 economy. An ultra-long range version of the model will be used to resume SIA’s non-stop services from Singapore to Los Angeles and New York in 2017. The modified A350 is said to be more fuel efficient than the A340 previously used. It will be configured premium-bias.

SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said: “The A350 will be a game-changer for us, allowing for flights to more long-haul destinations on a non-stop basis, which will help us boost our network competitiveness and further develop the important Singapore hub.”

Opinions are divided as to whether SIA has moved a little too slowly and as a result is playing catch up when once it used to lead the field. By all indications of the good times finally rolling back for the industry, it is not too late to leapfrog the competition to make up for lost time. SIA is banking on the rejuvenation of the demand for premium travel, the product it has always been reputed for.

The IATA forecast points to weak markets in South America and Africa – two regions that are of little interest to SIA – but continuing robust growth for North America which has been a key market for SIA since it commenced operations thereBut the competition will be tough, particularly from Middle East carriers tapping traffic in Asia-Pacific and redirecting it through their Gulf hubs. Already United Airlines has announced its launch of a non-stop flight between San Francisco and Singapore in June this year, ahead of SIA. (United Airliens steals a march on Singapore Airlines, Feb 15 2016)

According to IATA, consumers will see a substantial increase in the value they derive from air transport this year. Indeed, air travellers will benefit from the optimism as airlines become more inclined to improve their product, and the increased competition will likely see the airlines introducing more creature comforts beyond the snacks and peanuts. Qantas for one is upgrading its airport lounge at London Heathrow as part of a program to create a flagship global lounge at important destinations started three years ago. Hong Kong, Singapore and Los Angeles are already enjoying the new facility. Qantas is also developing across its domestic network an industry-leading wi-fi service that has the ability to deliver the same speeds in flight that people expect on the ground.

Mr Joyce said: “Our record performance is the platform to keep investing in the experiences that matter to our customers and take Qantas’ service to new levels.”

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Thai Airways International

Positive signs of the times are best presented by the performance of Thai Airways which posted a quarterly profit of 5.1 billion (US$141.7 million) baht ending Dec 31, 2015 reversing a loss-making trend. This compared to a 6.4 billion baht a year ago, and softened the full year’s loss to 13.05 billion baht, 16 per cent lower than 15.57 billion baht last year, partly attributed to a decrease in fuel costs of 20 per cent. The airline introduced a program “to stop the bleeding” last year aimed at introducing cost-saving measures, cutting unprofitable routes and down-sizing the fleet.

Plagued by political problems at home and safety concerns based on the findings of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Thai Airways has been struggling to stay afloat amidst increased competition from regional carriers. It is to be expected that stronger-muscled airlines such as Qantas, British Airways and SIA are likely to rise faster with improved economic conditions, but when things are beginning to look up for the more troubled carriers while noting that in good times as in bad the fortunes of various airlines can be widely diverse, the industry can at last be a little more confidently optimistic.

Is Malaysia Airlines now a budget long-haul carrier?

Courtesy GETTY Images

Courtesy GETTY Images

IT is baffling how Malaysia Airlines (MAS) gets entangled in the PR mess when it decided to ban checked baggage on its flights from Kuala Lumpur to Europe. Economy class passengers were allowed only one cabin bag of up to 7 kg and first/business class passengers double that allowance.

MAS cited “strong headwinds” as the reason.

Public reaction pointed to the ludicrousness of the decision. Considering that such flights are long-hauls and the northern winter, it was an affront verging on what some travellers would consider as unreasonable.

Apparently, for safety reasons MAS is taking a longer air route to reach European destinations, having suffered a fatal loss when one of its planes was shot down over war-torn Ukraine in July last year. Taking the longer route means using more fuel, so that would increase operating costs.

Has MAS become a budget long-haul, as it undergoes massive restructuring under the leadership of ex-Aer Lingus chief Christoph Mueller?

Although MAS reverted the ill-conceived decision after two days of negative public reaction, the damage has been done. Didn’t Mr Mueller see what was coming?