Cathay Pacific losing grip of China card

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific reported plunging profits of 82 per cent for half-year results up to 30 June. Revenue fell 9.2 per cent to HK$45.68 billion (US$569 million). For an airline that had boasted record margins in previous reports, it demonstrates the volatility of the airline business today in spite of the continuing low fuel prices.

While Cathay chairman John Slosar put the blame on competition and the slowdown of the China economy – what’s new, indeed? – it is worthy of note that Cathay also suffered hedging losses in the spot market. Many airlines are apt to extol their ability to gain from fuel hedging but will remain reticent when the reading goes awry.

Mr Slosar said: “The operating environment in the first half of 2016 was affected by economic fragility and intense competition.” Apparently premium economy, which since its introduction has been Cathay’s pride, and the long hauls were not performing to expectations, confronted by competition from Middle East carriers Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, and from China carriers such as Air China and China Eastern which are offering direct flights thus doing away with the need for Chinese travellers to fly through Hong Kong.

Competition from foreign carriers in a reciprocally open market is to be expected, and which may be augmented by those carriers offering an improved product. Cathay’s main woe is probably the falling China market on two counts: the reduced demand for premium travel and the diversion away from Hong Kong as the gateway to the region. Cathay and Hong Kong International Airport have benefitted from the growing China market, but while it was able to prevent Qantas from setting up Jetstar Hong Kong, it can do little to stem the growth of China carriers.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

It would be more meaningful to compare Cathay’s performance with its major regional competitors. Singapore Airlines (SIA) reported Q1 (Apr-Jun) profit of S$197 million (US$144 million) (up from S$108 million) while the other carriers in the Group – SilkAir, Scoot and Tigerair – also did better on the back of lower fuel prices. But group revenue declined by 2.1 per cent because of lower contribution by parent airline SIA. In July passenger load was down 1.2 per cent (1.676 million from 1.697 million), and the load factor by 2.2 pts at 82.4 per cent from 84.6 per cent. Except for East Asia (with flat performance), all other regions suffered declining loads.

This may be indicative of the global economic trend. Like Cathay, SIA’s fortune has shifted from the longer haul to the regional routes. Europe suffered the highest decline (4.5 pts) followed by Americas (3.1 pts). The picture will become clearer when it reports Q2 (making up the first half year) results. According to Mr Slosar of Cathay, the business outlook “remains challenging”.

Courtesy APP

Courtesy APP

However, it is good news downunder as Qantas reported record profit of A$1.53 billion (US$1.15 billion) for the year ending June 2016, up 57 per cent – the best result in its 95-year history. Qantas Domestic, Qantas International and the Jetstar Group all reported record results: the domestic market chalked up a record A$820 million, up A$191 million, and the international division A$722 million, up A$374 million. The Qantas Transformation program seemed to have continued working its magic to “reshape the Group’s base and ability to generate revenue” according to its report. CEO Alan Joyce said: “Transformation has made us a more agile business.” And, unlike Cathay, effective fuel hedging saw the Group secure an A$664 million benefit from lower global fuel prices, leaving us to wonder what Cathay would say to that.

It is once again a feather in Mr Joyce’s cap. He added: “The Qantas Group expects to continue its strong financial performance in the first half of financial year 2017, in a more competitive revenue environment. We are focused on preserving high operating margins through the delivery of the Qantas Transformation program, careful capacity management, and the benefit of low fuel prices locked in through our hedging.” He believed the long-term outlook for the Group to be positive.

The contrasting fortunes of airlines may prompt one to ask how in the end that as much attribution of an airline’s performance is attributed to global influences, so too as much is balanced by its self-discipline in adjusting to the vicissitudes of the times, its astuteness in seizing shifting opportunities and, of course, its ability to read global and regional trends as unpredictable as they are.

Which Asian airlines might be interested to buy into Virgin America?

Photo courtesy Virgin America

Photo courtesy Virgin America

UP for sale, Virgin America has some suitors lining up. It has received takeover bids from JetBlue Airways Corp and Alaska Air Group Inc. In this era of the mega carriers (consider the mergers of United Airlines and Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, and American Airlines and USAir), a tie-up with another carrier strengthen Virgin’s competitive ability. And while it is almost certain that the merger would be with another American carrier, with analysts placing bets on JetBlue as the best fit, apparently some unidentified Asian carriers have also expressed interest. Still, be that as a remote possibility, one cannot help but be curious and speculate who the likely candidates might be.

Two big names come to mind immediately because of their successes, networks and financial capability, namely Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines. Both airlines are keen on expanding their US market. Cathay flies to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco while Singapore Airlines (SIA) operates to Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Both airlines have codeshare access to several other destinations. Cathay’s codeshare partners include Alaska Airlines and American Airlines while SIA already codeshares with Virgin and with JetBlue.

So it looks like SIA more than Cathay would be favoured on relationships alone. Since foreign ownership rules governing US airlines require the bid to be submitted jointly with a US partner. It would be convenient for SIA to join hands with JetBlue. Of course, Cathay may partner Alaska Airways, but historically Cathay is not quite interested in equity participation. Although it has a 20.3% stake in Air China and 49% in Air China Cargo, that could be a matter of expedience to secure its market in the growing China mainland market.

SIA on the other hand, limited by a hinterland market, tried in its early years to grow through acquisitions. In 1999, it bought 49% of Virgin Atlantic and subsequently 25% of Air New Zealand. Although both buys subsequently proved to be lemons, resulting in heavy losses, the misstep might be less strategic than circumstantial. Unfortunately that has hurt SIA deeply more psychologically than financially as the airline became more cautious about such moves. In subsequent years it failed in its seemingly reluctant bid for a stake in China Eastern Airlines, and the SIA Group was plagued by the poor decisions of its budget subsidiary Tigerair in joint ventures in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Oct 2012 SIA bought a 10% stake in Virgin Australia, joining tow other foreign partners namely Air New Zealand and Etihad Airways. In much the same way that Cathay needed to secure its market in China partnering with Air China, SIA needed to secure its Australian market against the competition by Qantas. Six months after, SIA increased its stake to 19.9%.

But is SIA even interested in a stake in Virgin when its codeshare partnership with JetBlue already places it in an advantageous position to benefit from a JetBlue takeover of Virgin? Would a bid jointly with an Asian partner jeopardise JetBlue’s chances if the powers that be preferred an all-American merger a la the big three of United, Delta and American?

Besides Cathay and SIA, one should not ignore the voracious appetite of the China carriers in the national trend to acquire foreign assets. And why must it be premised on full-service carriers that are already serving destinations in the US? What about a budget carrier with dreams of new frontiers? Maverick AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes who models himself after Virgin guru Richard Branson and who had been where others were hesitant, even afraid, to go may yet surprise with an expression of interest even if it is no more than just that. He is one of the few airline chiefs who, like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Qantas’ Alan Joyce, understood what an opportune good dose of publicity could do.

All this, of course, is speculative. Asian carriers are likely to be less concerned this time than when the mergers of the American big three took place. Together with Southwest Airlines, the big three control 80% of the American market. Virgin and its alleged interested parties JetBlue and Alaska are all largely domestic carriers. Even if Southwest throws in a bid (but for its size that may not pass the antitrust law as easily), it is still the same scenario. SIA’s connections with JetBlue and Virgin will continue to stand it in good stead, but if it’s Alaska that carries the day, then it is Cathay that stands to benefit from the new, extended connection. Or does it really matter when there are already subset agreements across partnership lines that allow you to fly an airline of one alliance and connect on another in a rival group? That’s how complex today’s aviation has become.

Qantas’ Asianisation thrust

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

Qantas is adding more flights between Australia and Hong Kong as well as Manila. From October 26, there will be four weekly services between Sydney and Hong Kong added to the current daily services from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Services between Sydney and Manila will increase from four to five weekly services, commencing early December to last until late March next year.

This is nothing quite surprising. It may even be said to be expected in response to increasing demand from travellers. But moving resources across the network to meet demands may not be as simple as it seems; it’s not as if there are spare aircraft sitting on the tarmac waiting to be assigned. But Qantas seems to have found a formula to work round the complications, or so it seems, particularly when it comes to seasonal demands.

Qantas International Gareth Evans said: “We’re pleased to add to the seasonal services we’re set to operate to Asia later this year, with the fifth weekly Manila flight again representing the dynamic nature of our network, which has the flexibility to offer our customers more flights during peak seasons.”

This apparently has been made possible by the airline’s continued focus on more efficient use of aircraft across its fleet. And the agility, one may add, in making adjustment to the schedule. To be not only reactive but also proactive ahead of change and the competition, so as to stay lean and mean

That aside, the operations in the last few years demonstrate Qantas’ increased focus on Asia. The airline has earlier announced an additional 140 services to Singapore, Jakarta (Indonesia), and Wellington and Christchurch (New Zealand) over the summer holiday.

Services between Perth and Singapore will be daily, competing directly with Singapore Airlines (SIA)’s four flights daily. It was only in June this year that Qantas resumed direct services between the two cities, operating five times a week. Mr Evans said: “Our customers told us they missed us.” So that forebodes well for Qantas, which is also looking beyond Singapore with connections on partner airlines to destinations such as Koh Samui and Phuket in Thailand, and even Tokyo in Japan, which testifies to the continuing importance of Singapore as a transfer hub. For travellers arriving from Singapore, Qantas will be offering direct onward services from Perth to Auckland from October to April 2016, the third year in a row that it is doing this.

Qantas executive manager international sales Stephen Thompson said: “A key part of our strategy is listening to and responding to our customers’ needs and developing an agile and flexible network which offers more options during peak periods.”

Good work there, and one then asks: What after that? There is a possibility that a temporary operation may become permanent, subject to regulatory approval, particularly if you believe in the industry wisdom that capacity creates demand or as a way to gain approval when demand justifies the case. Yet when you consider the short duration of the fifth weekly service between Sydney and Jakarta – from 2 December to 10 January 2016 – you may be persuaded to believe that Qantas is unlikely to sit its aircraft idle. Qantas has also announced additional services to Bali, a popular destination for Australian holiday travellers – four additional weekly during December this year and January next year, making a total of 33 return services between Sydney and Bali, adding to 65 services per week by Jetstar from Australia. Operating across the northern and southern hemispheres has given it a geographical advantage; it means catering to different peak seasons.

The transformation program that Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said was the reason for the airline’s dramatic turnaround in profitability had identified Asia as its best bet for growth and expansion. (See Qantas is Asia Pacific’s new star performer, 27 Aug 2017). Australian politicians have long debated the toss of aligning their country with Asia (instead of Europe), at least economically. While the proposal to set up an Asia-based premium carrier never took off, that did not stop Qantas from expanding its reach into the Asian hinterland by other means.

No foreign carrier calling at Singapore more than Qantas has taken advantage of Singapore’s strategic location at the crossroads of international routes. For years until 2013, Singapore has been an important hub for Qantas flights. Although the airline has since shifted its hub for the kangaroo route to Dubai, in an alliance with Emirate Airlines, it continues to retain, even growing, the Singapore hub for connections to the rest of Asia, a strategy that Virgin Australia tries to replicate in a three-way tie-up with SIA and Air China.

However, the game continues to shift. In recent years, Qantas has been introducing more direct services between Asian and Australian destinations. This makes sense particularly when these destinations become tourist attractions in their own right and attract more traffic to justify direct routings. China for one has become Australia’s biggest inbound tourism market, projected to contribute up to A$9 billion (US$6.4 billion) annually to the Australian economy by 2020. Chinese carriers too have increased their frequencies to Australia.

In this connection, Qantas has strengthened its alliance with major Chinese carriers such as China Southern and China Eastern Airlines to deliver expanded services, better departure and arrival schedules, shorter transit times, increased frequent flyer benefits and a wider range of onward connections within China and Australia. Commencing April last year, customers on both Qantas and China Southern could travel on each other’s flights to the four destinations of Xiamen, Kunming, Fuzhou and Urumqi within China, connecting at Guangzhou, from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, and on the Qantas Domestic network as well as on services between Sydney and Auckland.

More recently, a codeshare agreement with China Eastern not only further increases capacity between the two countries but also maximises Qantas’ presence within China. Mr Joyce said:
“We cannot fly to every destination in China. However, our deepened relationship with China Eastern supports our successful strategy to work with key partners around the world to offer the most comprehensive network and world class travel experiences for our customers.”

Being visible helps; Chinese travellers voted Qantas as having the “Best Cabin Crew” in the 2014 iDEAL Shanghai Awards, judged by more than 100,000 people in Shanghai across all categories, and evaluated by a jury of reporters, columnists and lifestyle writers.

Underscoring how partnerships are at the core of the Qantas strategy in Asia, the airline announced in Mar last year a codeshare agreement with Bangkok Airways which will significantly improve travel options for its customers travelling across South East Asia. Customers will be able to fly from Bangkok and Singapore to six new destinations including Ko Samui, Chiang Mai and Phuket. (See Air New Zealand poised for growth, Sep 10, 2015)

Qantas’ Asianisation thrust is not confined to the operations of the parent airline alone. The budget brand of Jetstar adds to its reach across the region, as can be seen in the set up of the Jetstar Group’s ventures in different locations – Jetstar Airways (Australia and New Zealand), Jetstar Asia Airways (Singapore), Jetstar Pacific Airlines (Vietnam), and Jetstar Japan. The only setback it experienced so far was the Hong Kong Air Transport Licensing Authority (ATLA)’s rejection of its application for Jetstar Hong Kong’s low-cost alternative at the doorstep of the large China hinterland, a move that met with strong objection from Hong Kong based carriers led by Cathay Pacific. (See The real battle behind Jetstar HK’s rejection, Jun 30, 2015)

Optimistically, however, Jetstar Hong Kong’s rejection may be compensated by the increased flights by Qantas between Sydney and Hong Kong. While stating the obvious that “customers travelling from Sydney will have the choice of double daily flights to Hong Kong on peak days of the week for business travel,” Mr Evans hinted that “we’ll look at expanding beyond that if the opportunity is available.”

Hong Kong will have more to be concerned about. As in the case of Singapore which has thrived as a transfer hub, more direct flights between Australian and Chinese destinations do not spell good news for it.

For an airline like Qantas based in a far corner of the world, it is blessed that geography has not deprived it of opportunities in other parts of the world. The ATLA’s rejection aside, while Mr Joyce prided himself as the master of a transformation program that has driven the airline’s dramatic recovery, Qantas too has much to be thankful for the largely liberal skies that loom over Asia. Something for Australia to consider when called upon to open its doors to foreign carriers that wish to mount transpacific operations from its ports to the Americas.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Air New Zealand poised for growth

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand (ANZ) is probably best known for its innovative approach in its in-flight safety video presentation. Drawing inspiration from the Men In Black to Hobbits of the Middle Kingdom, what used to be or is supposed to be a staid, no-nonsense delivery of critical information that is often ignored by many travellers, particularly repeat fliers, the presentation has become entertainment. Though not without controversy, the videos show how ANZ is not only innovative but also bold enough to break tradition. While the initiative cannot be said to be a marketing strategy to attract more customers, one is tempted to ask if ANZ is in like manner finally emerging, albeit slowly, from a lacklustre past and turning heads across the industry.

The kiwi airline has just reported an impressive full-year performance. Operating revenue as at end-June 2015 was NZ$4.92 billion (US$3.01 billion), increasing by 6% over last year. But annualised earnings before taxation rose by 32% to NZ$496 million, and the statutory net profit after taxation was NZ$327 million, up 24%. The results were released right after Qantas’ announcement of a dramatic turnaround and were not surprisingly overshadowed by the hype drummed up by the flying kangaroo’s performance and no less the outspoken personality of its chief executive Alan Joyce (See Qantas is Asia Pacific’s New Star Performer, Aug 27, 2015).

In their part of the world, ANZ and Qantas are major rivals. Indeed, considering that ANZ’s short-haul load makes up 88% of the 14.3 million passengers carried for the full year, the kiwi airline is more a regional than international airline. Australia was its biggest membership base for ANZ loyalty program Airpoints, with growth in that market exceeding 20% during the year. ANZ chief executive officer Christopher Luxon said: “This doesn’t surprise us as more Australian than ever are embracing the Air New Zealand product and service offering whether it be on the Tasman, to the Pacific Islands, North America or South America.”

Obviously Australia is an important market which is critical to ANZ’s growth as an international airline, perhaps an ironic corollary to how Qantas probably sees New Zealand as a necessary appendage by offering a one-dollar fare for onward travel through Australian gateways. Both airlines have enlarged their interest bases in each other’s land – Qantas through its budget subsidiary Jetstar Airways and ANZ its investment in Virgin Australia. And both airlines, situated at the far end of the kangaroo (and beyond) route, face competition beyond their shores from a slew of airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA), Cathay Pacific and Middle East carriers.

Mr Luxon said: “We remain focused on the Pacific Rim as our growth strategy and will continue to provide the best connections, product and service at competitive prices, to maintain and grow our market share in these regions. Next year will see further capacity growth in international markets as we look forward to new routes starting in December 2015 to Houston and Buenos Aires. And while we are gearing up to launch these exiting new routes we have a team assessing potential new opportunities in Australia, Asia and the Americas.”

Can ANZ overcome an apparent geographical disadvantage and turn it into a strategic marketing benefit, and identify new windows of opportunities?

Mr Luxon has identified the Pacific Rim as its focus. So, fly west. The Americas are much closer and offer room for growth. Qantas too in recent years has been ramping up its connections westward, penetrating deeper into the US. It operates the world’s longest non-stop flight, between Sydney and Dallas (the record will go to Emirates when it introduces a service between Dubai and Panama City in February 2016). The challenge remains whether ANZ has enough hinterland traffic to sustain that initiative, and whether this will hinge on how successfully it can challenge Qantas on market share for the region. To turn a geographical advantage into a benefit demands a lot of the innovative spirit to make it work. ANZ is already flying onward from Los Angeles to London with fifth freedom rights.

Meantime Qantas has not only strengthened its alliances with American Airlines but also entered into partnerships with airlines in other regions, especially China having identified Asia as a potential area of growth in its restructuring plans. While still maintaining a hub for Asian connections in Singapore (after moving the hub on the kangaroo route from Singapore to Dubai in partnership with Emirates Airlines), it has been active in mounting direct flights between Australian and Chinese destinations. This, of course, makes sense when China has become Australia’s biggest inbound tourism market. The Qantas/China eastern connection now commands 87% of the market share on the Sydney-Pudong (Shanghai) sector. Qantas would have commanded a strong presence in Hong Kong in a tie-up with China Southern Airlines had the Hong Kong administration not rejected the Jetstar Hong Kong’s application.

Qantas offers a ready lesson since Mr Luxon had expressed ANZ’s interest to grow in Asia although, to be noted, Virgin Australia which is 26% owned by ANZ has also entered into an alliance with Air China for flights between China and Australia. Just that it seems a couple of steps behind. However, there are situational differences between Qantas and ANZ although the challenges may be similar. Among the factors for ANZ’s success, ANZ chairman Tony Carter cited “the continued development of our alliance partner relationships”. ANZ and Air China will jointly launch a Peking-Auckland service in December.

Mr Carter is optimistic about ANZ’s immediate future. He said, “Given the current known operating environment, along with our increased capacity and improved operating efficiencies, we expect to achieve significant earnings growth in the coming year.” How “significant” that will be is to be seen, but Mr Carter seemed encouraged by “current sales momentum”. Of course, the lower fuel prices help, but then as Qantas Joyce said, “Every airline gets the benefit.” What lifted Qantas above the rest, according to Mr Joyce, was its transformation program. This does not mean ANZ should roll out a similar program. Far from it. We’d rather be surprised by ANZ’s knack for innovation a la Lord of the Rings.

This is an abridged version of the article which was first published in Aspire Aviation, titled “Partnership is Air New Zealand’s answer to litmus test” .

Air India joins Star Alliance: How will it benefit?

Logo_Star_AllianceNO more pussy-footing. Air India becomes a member of Star Alliance from July 11, 2014, joining a global network of 26 airlines that include founders Air Canada, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Thai Airways International and Untied Airlines. Other airlines that have since joined the alliance include Air China, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Singapore Airlines and South African Airways.

Welcoming the Indian flag carrier to the club, Star Alliance COO Jeffrey Goh said Air India would enjoy “Alliance’s benefits” while other member airlines would benefit from “improved access to a region which includes the world’s fifth largest domestic aviation market.”

Courtesy Star Alliance

Courtesy Star Alliance


At the same time, an elated Air India chairman and managing director Rohit Nandan said: “We eagerly look forward to extending the benefits and privileges of Star Alliance to (our) passengers.” The benefits are assumed, often touted from the perspective of the air traveller with “connectivity” and “seamless travel” listed at the top of the list. Air India’s admission to the club can only mean more flights and more destinations added to the alliance’s network, which will boosted by an additional 400 daily flights and 35 new destinations in India.

Yes, indeed, it is only to be expected that membership must come with benefits. What does Air India – as an airline – hope to gain from the induction?

If it works good for the passengers, it should work well for the airlines. That, after all, is the encapsulation of the alliance’s goal to grow the market share collectively in a way that individual members may not be able to do as effectively and as efficiently because of costs and the limitations of market access. Member airlines are increasingly moving towards more code share flights, shared facilities such as airport lounges and even pooled management at some ports. The launch of a dedicated Star Alliance terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport will strengthen the cooperation among member airlines and enhance the connectivity between them. Alliances (including OneWorld and SkyTeam) will have to introduce more of such initiatives to convert doubters like Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson; except for the scale, membership otherwise is not much difference as commercial tie-ups between individual airlines that may even benefit from the flexibility of cross-alliance arrangements. However, airlines such as resource-rich Emirates which are single-handedly successful thus far may not be as easily convinced. Suffice that it be suggested that Air India is not quite Emirates.

On the home front, India is currently being served by 13 Star Alliance members flying to 10 destinations, making up a total of 13% market share. It is expected that with Air India, the market share of the alliance will increase to 30%. However, is the alliance benefiting at Air India’s expense? The inducement for Air India must be the international market which will increase to 28% for Star Alliance. Through the alliance, Air India will be able to serve more than 10 destinations additionally in China, Africa and Europe over and above its own 33 international destinations. Since its main focus is the Middle East, through the alliance, Air India may be able to check the competition posed by the big three Middle east carriers of Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. Interestingly, Air India’s seat share is only 18% compared to Emirates’ 20% between India and the Middle East.

In the same way that Emirates (although not a OneWorld member) has increased Qantas’ access to more destinations in the Middle East besides Europe and Africa, Air India could latch on to Star Alliance partners such as Turkish Airlines for the same extension. In fact, some observers have primed Turkey’s TAV Istanbul Ataturk Airport as a veritable competitor that may one day usurp the hub status of Dubai. In that connection, Turkish Airlines will also grow in importance.

Yet another school opines that India has that same hub potential to connect Asia and Australiasia with Europe and Africa and beyond. Mumbai could be a convenient one-stop between Sydney and London with feeds to the region. Access by Star Alliance members to India’s domestic market and the improved standing of Air India in the global market will, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hoped, revive economic growth in India under his leadership.

So much has already been said about India’s potential with a population of 1.2 billion for both domestic and international traffic. That almost suggests an imbalance in the equation in favour of Star Alliance members outside India waiting to tap into that potential. But granted that the benefits are mutual as they are supposed to be, it cannot be denied that there remains still a lot of intra-competition. Yes, membership has its benefits, but Air India cannot be blind to the competition. If it is not about the greater good, it has to be about the lesser evil.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Emirates’ Airbus order cancellation raises questions

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus


THE cancellation of an order for 70 Airbus A350 aircraft amounting to US$16 billion (based on 2007 list prices) by Emirates Airlines has turned the focus on the Airbus company. In an obvious attempt to play down the drama, Airbus chief operating officer (customers) John Leahy said: “It is not the world’s greatest news.” That did not check Airbus shares from falling 3.7 per cent and engine maker Rolls-Royce by 1.7 per cent on the back of Emirates’ decision. Mr Leahy even brushed it aside as if it was something to be expected, adding that Emirates president Tim Clark “does change his mind from time to time.”

In truth, airlines do change their mind about aircraft orders. In 2012, Qantas cancelled orders for 35 Boeing Dreamliner jets worth US$8 billion following a net loss of US$256 million – its first annual loss since 1995 when it was privatised – and expected lower growth requirements. The Australian flag carrier is keeping its fleet options open. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said: “We will maintain complete flexibility over the fleet.” He explained: “In this business there is always potential for great headwinds and tailwinds… there is no intention that every aircraft is guaranteed to come or that it’s not going to come.”

Only very recently did budget carrier Tigerair – which is 40-per-cent owned by Singapore Airlines – also cancel orders for nine Airbus A320 aircraft in light of perceived overcapacity in the region of its operations.

But a decision by Emirates which is not in the same financial straits as Qantas and Tigerair must raise questions even as Mr Leahy insisted that he was “not particularly worried at all.” To suggest that it was a whim of Mr Clark was quite unwarranted. But Airbus did express its disappointment. Apparently, Emirates’ decision followed ongoing discussions between the two parties as the airline reviewed its fleet requirement. In fact, Emirates has ordered an additional 50 A380 aircraft.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

So, naturally, we ask the big “Why?” and speculate on the ramifications of that decision.

Is Emirates dissatisfied with the aircraft model?

Allegedly Emirates is unhappy with particularly the performance of the A350-1000 model, which makes up 20 of the 70 aircraft orders, the others being the A350-900 model. Even as Airbus said Rolls-Royce was working on the upgrade, the writing was already on the wall when in November 2012, Mr Clark told Aviation Week that Emirates’ order for the aircraft was in limbo, and that the A350-900 “is starting to look a bit marginal to us because of its size.” That provided another perspective to the issue – one of suitability. Mr Clark explained: “Gauge is the way we grow, you cannot get any more aircraft into the Dubai hub.”

Has Emirates over-estimated its growth capacity?

The focus is so much on Airbus that it has become convenient to not ask any question that may suggest that Emirates’ decision is driven by more an internal than an external situation, or at least in part due to it. It is almost unthinkable in light of Emirates’ sterling performance when it posted a 43-per-cent increase in profit to Dh3.3 billion (US) for financial year 2013-14. According to Emirates chairman and chief executive officer Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the airline’s profit margin was more than double that of the industry, the result of flying 44.5 million passengers – up 13 per cent – and close to a 80-per-cent load factor. It was a year of expansion as the airline increased its capacity for both passenger and cargo, and as it added new destinations across the globe.

By all accounts it does not look like Emirates is about to stop expanding, or even slowing down, despite the revised forecast by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that showed astagnation in profitability for the industry in Africa and a dip for all the other regions with the exception of North America. Of course, the state of the industry does not necessarily reflect the fortune of Emirates, which in the past year has experienced healthy growth in all the regions that it operates. Still, the question must be asked: Has Emirates over-estimated its growth capacity, noting too the limitations of Dubai Airport? To be sure, the airline will continue to expand, having announced plans to add five new routes to Abuja, Brussels, Chicago, Kano and Oslo, but perhaps at a slower rate. It could be in this context that Shaikh Ahmad recognized the need for “efficient new aircraft” amongst other things to sustain profitability,

Will Emirates’ decision affect other airlines’ orders?

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Emirates’ decision raises questions on the impact it may have on other airlines with similar orders, more notably the Gulf carriers namely Etihad Airways (with an order for 40 A350-900s + 22 A350-1000s) and Qatar Airways (43 + 37). Besides Etihad and Qatar, airlines that have placed orders include Air France-KLM (25 A350-900s), Aer Lingus (9 A350-900s + 9 A350-1000s), Aeroflot (14 + 22), Air China (10 + 10), AirAsia X (10 + 10), Asiana Airlines (12 +10), Cathay Pacific (20 + 26) and Japan Airlines (18 + 13). But Mr Leahy of Airbus was confident that other airlines would take up the slots vacated by Emirates. He maintained that there would “no hole in production” and therefore no impact financially since the first deliveries were only planned for 2019 and spanned out to 2034.

Is Emirates setting the stage for heightened competition between Airbus and Boeing?

This is not a new story about the rivalry between Airbus and Boeing, but more a reminder of it. It is all the more significant when Emirates is the world’s largest operator of the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 in a fleet of 217 aircraft. In 2013-14, it received 24 new aircraft including 16 A380s, six Boeing 777-300ERs and two Boeing 777Fs. If there is a customer that both manufacturers want to please most, it has to be Emirates. Airbus is unlikely to let Emirates’ concerns go unattended even though the latter had cancelled its order; that will become history. For Airbus, it is more than just about losing an order. More importantly, it is about the competition with Boeing. Clearly, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

It was by the size of Emirates’ order a big deal after all, and Emirates is one of the world’s leading airlines. Mr Tim Clark may well have the last laugh.

Qantas’ Chinese connections

EVERY airline looking east (or westwards or northwards depending on where they are based) wants a foothold in China, that huge market with a growing population of air travellers.

Three years or so ago when Australian flag carrier Qantas announced a transformation program, chief executive Alan Joyce identified Asia, in particular China, as the answer to the airline’s woes in the international arena. The rising wealth of Asia’s most populous country makes good reason for Qantas to consider an Asia-based premium carrier near enough to tap into that market, and to set up a budget carrier in Hong Kong, the gateway to China, jointly with China Eastern Airlines and a local conglomerate owned by casino magnate Stanley Ho. While the former proposal was aborted, the latter is awaiting regulatory approval – against the wishes of Cathay Pacific – with ordered planes parked at the Airbus factory awaiting delivery. That, Mr Joyce had said, was not unusual for start-up airlines.

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

All that did not stop Qantas from building up its Chinese connect ions through codeshare services. In a recent agreement with China Southern Airlines, Qantas customers can gain direct access to four destinations within China including Guangzhou from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. China Southern customers will similarly gain access to domestic destinations across Australia as well as beign able to fly between Sydney and Auckland.

Qantas International CEO Simon Hickey said: “Partnerships are at the core of our strategy in Asia and together with our airline partners, we’re pleased to now offer customers access to 179 flights to 12 cities in Asia each week, with fares available to over 120 additional Asian cities.” He added: “The Qantas Group has never had a stronger presence in Asia. More than one sixth of our total revenue now comes from flights to and within the region, and we plan to keep opening up new travel opportunities.”

This can only mean high alert for rival airlines, particularly those which by fifth and six freedom rights have been routing travellers through their home bases.

Qantas already has a codeshare arrangement with China Eastern Airlines between Australia and China via Singapore.

None of the mainland China-based airlines are members of the OneWorld alliance to which Qantas belongs. That may be of little consequence, considering that codeshare partners Chna eastern and China Southern are both SkyTeam members. Air China and Shenzhen Airlines are members of the Star Alliance. Out of Hong Kong, Qantas` Jetstar may face stiff competition from Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express, both carriers owned by the Hainan Airlines Group, besides Cathay’s Dragonair. Note however that Hong Kong Airlines and Dragonair are by definition regional and not budget carriers.

If there is any indication of China’s growing demand for air travel, it is Shandong Airlines’ recent order of 50 Boeing 737 aircraft to the tune of US$4.6 billion. At the same time, however, Air China warned that its first quarter profits would be 65 per cent lower compared with that last year because of the falling yuan. A statement issued by the airline said: “The financial expenses of the company substantially increased as compared with the corresponding period of 2013 due to the exchange losses.” Fellow competitor China Southern issued a similar warning on falling profits. These are but minor blips that will not deter foreign airlines from connecting with the China market.