A bleak year for airlines

It looks quite certainly a bleak year for airlines as Covid-19 keeps people away from travelling. The outbreak has become more extensive than anticipated, short of being classified as pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Cutting capacity

Many airlines are cutting back or suspending services not only to destinations in China where the outbreak started but also across the world.

Among them are:

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines, which has cancelled almost 700 flights across its network through to May. Its low-cost subsidiary Scoot has cancelled all flights to China.

Cathay Pacific, which so far has seen flights reduced by more than 75 per cent till the end of March, with hints of more to be scrapped.

Qantas, which has reduced capacity to Hong Kong and suspended flights to Shanghai and Beijing. It is also reporting weak demand for seats on flights to Singapore and Japan as well. Capacity to Asian destinations will be reduced by 15 per cent until the end of May. Its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar is also adjusting capacity as a result of the weaker domestic market.

Air France, which has taken out flights to China until the end of March.

British Airways, which has cancelled not only flights to China but also more than 200 flights from London to destinations in the United States, Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Ireland in the latter half of March.

Ryanair, which will cut up to 25% of flights in and out of Italy from 17 March to 8 April..Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary said: “There has been a notable drop in forward bookings towards the end of March, into early April.”

EasyJet, which is cancelling some flights because of “a significant softening of demand and load factors into and out of our Northern Italian bases”.

United Airlines, which has suspended flights to China and axed flights to South Korea, Japan and Singapore as demand across the Pacific has fallen by as much as 75 per cent. Delta Air Lines has also cancelled flights to China.

Air Canada, which has cancelled all flights from Toronto to Hong Kong until the end of April.

Middle-east airlines, which are affected by action taken by the Gulf authorities. Iran as the epicentre of the outbreak in the region has seen flights to its airports cancelled by neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Events cancelled

The threat of the disease spreading easily at public events has led to many of them being cancelled, which in turn will affect the airlines which would have enjoyed a boon in carriage numbers.

Courtesy United Airlines

United Airlines for one has scaled back additional flights between San Francisco/Newark and Barcelona planned for the Mobile World Congress which has been cancelled.

Now all eyes are on the 2020 Summer Olympics to be staged in Tokyo.

Business travel, as noted by British Airways chief Willie Walsh, has been affected by the cancellation of large conferences. Some large corporations are also restricting executive travel.

International cruises, which pose a similar threat following the outbreak of the disease on the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama, have also suffered from reduced patronage or cancellations, and this in turn reduces feeds from airlines from across the globe to the ports of call.

Reduced profitability

Expectedly airlines are predicting reduced profitability although some of them are optimistic about the impact as not being as drastic as it seems.

Air France-KLM warned its earnings would be affected by as much as €200 million (US$224 million).

Qantas said the COVID-19 outbreak would cost the airline up to A$150m (US$99m).

Air New Zealand expects the impact to be in the range from NZ$35 million (US$22 million) to NZ$75 million as travel demand to Asia drops.

Finnair is expecting a significant drop in operating profit this year.

Airlines which rely heavily on Asian traffic are naturally more affected, even more so budget carriers such as AirAsia and its long-haul arm AirAsiaX. Particularly vulnerable are airlines which are struggling to stay afloat, such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, which is cutting back on long-haul operations, and Hong Kong Airlines, which is 45 per cent owned by Hainan Airlines of the HNA Group, which itself is facing a sell-off by the Chinese government.

Cost cutting

Besides reducing or cutting capacity, expectedly many airlines are looking at cutting cost.

EasyJet is looking into reducing administrative budgets, offering unpaid leave, and freezing recruitment, promotion and pay rises.

Singapore Airlines is implementing paycuts of 10 to 15 per cent for senior executive management. General staff will be offered a voluntary no-pay leave scheme.

Cathay Pacific is asking employees to take unpaid leave.

Courtesy Airbus

Perhaps the impact is most felt at Hong Kong Airlines which has slashed in-flight services to a bare minimum and dismissed staff, targeting 400 of them.

What’s next?

While the industry contnues to grapple with the prolonged saga of the B737 Max jet predicament, the coronavirus outbreak could not have come at a worse time on its heels. In both cases, it is the uncertainty that poses the biggest problem. Soem airlines are pessimistic that the threat will blow over by the end of March, which is unlikely, while others are more cautious in their forecast, looking at the end of May. It is this uncertainty that makes one wonder if any of them might not survive the wait.

Malaysia Airlines can’t make up its mind

Courtesy Reuters

While beleaguered Malaysia Airlines (MAS) gets deeper into the red and is looking for a strategic partner to prop it up, it seems not to be in any real hurry to accept any of the proposals it is said to have received. It has been reported that MAS needs up to RM21 billion (USD5.17 billion) to stay afloat until 2025.

A new slate of potential white knights made known recently, one different from the initial list, include AirAsia Group Berhad, Japan Airlines, Air France-KLM and Malindo Airways. No mention was made of four other local companies and Qatar Airways which subsequently clarified that it was not considering equity participation but interested in helping MAS get back on its feet. The proposals by the local companies apparently didn’t sell as they had limited or no aviation experience.

What has since changed? AirAsia which had previously insisted it was not interested has now emerged as a front-runner, which industry observers had at the onset said would be the best bet of success for the ailing MAS. AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes had proposed a merger to include budget long-haul AirAsia X. It is however understandable that the powers that be may not be too enthusiastic about being taken over by a rival compatriot which is a budget carrier and which has grown bigger than the national flag carrier.

Japan Airlines seems lukewarm about its interest which has been fanned by a commercial partnership with MAS to open access to each other’s destinations in their respective countries. The Japanese carrier continues to maintain its interest in expanding that partnership but steers clear of a firm potential investment in MAS. If at all it is interested, it is believed the stake would be small.

Air France-KLM on the other hand is said to have proposed a 49-percent take-up. However, that too has become an “iffy” judging by a statement released by the Euorpean conglomerate: “Air France-KLM had previously been in contact with Malaysia Airlines’ shareholders, but at this stage Air France-KLM is not a current party to the sales process of Malaysia Airlines.”

Malindo Airways is unlikely to be able to stand up against AirAsia in the run-in.

Why is MAS hesitant or is it pussy-footing, hoping for a better deal? Over time, the interest has shifted. It seems there is division within the company. The proposals by foreign companies are said to be better than those by local contenders, but there is reservation about selling out to an alien entity.

However, the saga holds a mystery card. Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahatir Mohamad said “there are about five proposals but of course some of them are just no go.” The fifth proposal is not known. Is it a “no go” or could this be the surprise choice, and who could it be?

Previous speculation had thrown up names like British Airways which seems more interested in expanding its stronghold in Europe while preferring a wider commercial arrangement elsewhere.

More recently there was suggestion that Singapore Airlines might be interested to work with MAS to support each other in the region and world-wide. But the deep rivalry between the close neighbours which goes back a long way to when they split and became competitors is not something that is easily forgotten.

Apparently, Dr Mahatir was said to be unhappy with how the ongoing evaluation was proceeding, so it may not be long when MAS finally accepts the hand of one of the suitors, whether already named or yet to be known.

Will Qatar Airways be Malaysia Airlines’ white knight?

Some three to four months after Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohamad said ailing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) may shut down or be sold, he revealed he had received four proposals to take over the national flag carrier.

The first known interest came from former AirAsia non-executive chairman Pahamin Ab Rajab and five partners, whose consortium is looking at scooping up a 49 per cent stake in MAS. Whether AirAsia is part of the consortium is not clear, but the budget carrier’s chief Tony Fernandes had said he was not interested as it would be a mistake for a low-cost operator to want to go full-service. (See Can AirAsia save Malaysia Airlines, 8 July 2019)

Qatar Airways now emerged as the second prospective white knight come to the rescue of MAS following a meeting between Dr Mahatir and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamin Hamad al-Thani. Both Qatar and MAS belong to the OneWorld alliance. At least that’s common ground for a start, unless geopolitical problems Qatar faces with its neighbours that lead to its isolation in the region stand in the way.

But, of course, no doubt Qatar has the funds to shore up the loss-making MAS. There are good competitive reasons for doing so. The tie-up will certainly boost Qatar’s standing in Southeast Asia and the extended Asian region. Dr Mahatir has recognised that MAS suffers from fierce competition, and Qatar’s aggressive strategy in the international arena may well also push the Malaysian carrier in the same direction.

The acquisition will complement Qatar’s investment in Europe, where it is already a major shareholder of the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. With a share of 20.01 per cent, it s IAG’s largest single stakeholder.

It is interesting that of the four proposals received by MAS, Qatar is the only foreign company. It is not known if the other proposals are from industry players apart from the suggestion that Mr Pahamin had an aviation link in a non-executive capacity. That probably explains how many industry experts think MAS’ best bet is AirAsia, once a carrier heavily indebted and now Asia’s leading budget operator.

Qatar’s credentials as the world’s best airline voted by Skytrax respondents are impressive, but national pride to keep the flag carrier in local hands may present a hurdle. Yet one only has to look at Swiss International Air Lines now owned by the Lufthansa Group and the merger between Air France and KLM to appreciate how in business, the desire to survive will dictate the course. Already Dr Mahatir has assured his people MAS will retain its name.

Size matters in the air

Courtesy Getty Images

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary predicted that “within the next four to five years you are seeing the emergence of four or five large European airline groups.” He even named the airlines, Ryanair among them in a mix of full-service and low-cost operators: Lufthansa, IAG (International Airlines Group which owns British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and Level), Air France-KLM and, probably, Easyjet.

This sentiment has been opined before by others at a time when mergers, assimilations and acquisitions across the industry were trending as competition broke barriers of entry and intensified, and so-called safe niche markets became every player’s game.

Air France-KLM as the name suggests is a merger of the two European airlines in 2004. Rival British Airways (BA) viewed it as a step in the expected direction, predicting further consolidation within Europe. And in 2011 IAG came into being when BA and Iberia merged. BA chief executive Willie Walsh said at the time that the merger would enable the airline to compete effectively with low-cost carriers.

So there came a time when budget carriers began to pose a threat to full-service airlines, with Ryanair leading the pack. Many of the legacy airlines today have adopted the budget model of charging for ancillaries, and introducing a basic economy class to keep cost-conscious travellers from switching. However, many low-cost carriers have become victims of the competition – the reason why Mr O’Leary named only one other carrier, EasyJet, as a probable survivor.

EasyJet, founded in 1995 and headquartered in London Luton, UK, is Ryanair’s closest rival which has grown and spread its wings across Europe. It too has made a number of acquisitions which include Swiss TEA-Basle and Go.
Elsewhere around the world, the vibes are not unfamiliar, New in the circuit is Air Canada’s interest in Sunwing and Cathay Pacific’s interest in Air Hong Kong Express, And where acquisitions and mergers are not on the plate, airlines are working to form alliances that are more than mere code-sharing. Qantas did it in 2013 with its tie-up with Emirates, and now Malaysia Airlines and Japan Airlines have applied for waiver of government restrictions to form an alliance that will enable easier connections between the two carriers.

It looks like size matters in the air.

News Update: US carriers abide by China’s Taiwan ruling

https://www.todayonline.com/world/us-airlines-plan-accept-china-demands-naming-taiwan?cid=emarsys-today_TODAY%27s%20evening%20briefing%20for%20July%2025,%202018%20%28ACTIVE%29_newsletter_25072018_today

Refer Much Ado About China’s Geography, June 30, 2018
https://airlinesairports.wordpress.com/2018/06/30/much-ado-about-chinas-geography/

Airlines brace for the hard times of a troubled Europe

Two British Airways aircraft, with British Airways plane taking off in background.

Two British Airways aircraft, with British Airways plane taking off in background.

IT is easy to blame Brexit. International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways (BA) and EU carriers Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus, says the weak pound has caused its operating profits for Q2 (Apr to Jun) to fall below forecasts, even the number (€555m) (USD618m) is higher than a year ago ((€530m). The weak pound has cost the airline €148m.

But, of course, BA is a key contributor to IAG’s bottom line. IAG is not too upbeat about the immediate future as it “continued to experience a weaker trading environment in our UK point-of-sale business, which represents around one third of total revenue.”

The situation is definitely not helped and in fact made worse by the slew of terror attacks across the continent. Other European airlines such as Air France-KLM and Lufthansa are also under a lot of pressure to keep the numbers up, warning that travellers would avoid coming to popular destinations in their home countries.

Air France-KLM reported a 5% dip in revenue for Q2 to €6.22bn. The airline said: “The global context in 2016 remains highly uncertain… resulting in an increasing pressure on unit revenues and a special concern about France as a destination.”

So the problem is not entirely Brexit. And as the pound weakens and reduces purchasing power, and so too as travellers stay away from popular tourist destinations across Europe, the paradox is that airlines will be persuaded to reduce fares to shore up the demand for seats.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, referring to recent bombings, said: “Airlines have to respond with lower prices to keep people flying.” This will at the same time exert pressure on rival airlines to similarly take the same course. Mr O’Leary predicted average fares to fall approximately 7% this year.

Fortunately the continuing low fuel prices are working in the airlines’ favour although many are already complaining about the need to lower prices. So don’t expect the fuel surcharge to come down.

Ryanair to offer all-business class

Courtesy PA

Courtesy PA

Budget carrier Ryanair is back in the news with new offerings. The carrier will be offering an all-business flight on its Boeing 737-700 jet, but that will be operated as a corporate charter and not its mainline service.

The aircraft will be fitted with 60 leather seats with a 48-inch pitch. And, of course, what’s premium class with some fine dining? It is not budget business as the association may suggest.

Ryanair’s charter division will provide the cockpit and cabin crew and charge on an hourly basis. Likely p=routes may take up to 6 hours, a little longer than the usual flight time of the budget model.

Ryanair is known to introduce controversial ideas and go where many others dare not go. In fact, some airlines had tried the all-business class before and failed.

The Irish carrier has in the last couple of years cleaning up its image to be more service oriented even as it offers competitive no-frill services. It had at one time considered venturing into the budget long haul, but its best bet is really wider expansion in the region it is familiar with much to the displeasure of legacy airlines such as Air France-KLM and Lufthansa.

A spokesman for the airline has confidently said: “We offer the most competitive rate in Europe.”