Does Air Berlin’s demise signal end of the road for budget carriers?

Courtesy Reuters

Air Berlin is folding up its wings, caused by falling pasxsenger numbers. Last month alone saw a dip of 25 per cent compared to July last year. Its biggest shareholder, Gulf carrier Etihad Airways which owns a 29.2 per cent stake, is not forthcoming with the needed financial support.

Does Air Berlin’s demise signal the end of the road for unaffiliated budget carriers, many of whom are benefitting from the currtent low price of jet fuel? Or that it is at least a forewarning of a more difficult time ahead for them in the continuing battle between them and legacy airlines which are at the same time supported by their own budget offhsoots?

That’s what Ryanair fears, accusing the German government and national carrier Lufthansa of conspiring to carve up Air Berlin. Ryanair said: “This manufactured insolvency is clearly beign set up to allow Lufthansa to take over a debt-free Air Berlin which will be in breach of all known German and EU competition rules.” A Lufthansa-led monopoly, it said, would drive up domestic fares.

How then will the game play out after Air Berlin?

Ryanair’s apprehension as a competitor is real. Air Berlin’s exit will mean a stronger Lufthansa and its budget offshoot Eurowings. Yet already Lufthansa is a dominant player with 76 per cent of its capacity focused on the German market. The Lufthansa Group posted record earnings for the first six months of 2017, increasing revenue by 12.7 per cent to €17 billion and net profit by 56.6 per cent to €672 million. Eurowings and other airlines in the Group including Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines and Swiss Interantional Airlines, also posted positive results. So as a group, Lufthansa has quite some msucle to flex in Europe, and the vacuum left by Air Berlin is likely to be filled by Eurowings.

On the other hand, it may be countered that competition is all but dead since airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet also have access to the German market. However, comparatively, their market share is small; Germany represents only 7 per cent of Ryanair’s capacity and 9 per cent of EasyJet’s. There is possibility that Air berlin’s demise may mean more demand for seats on these carriers, if not opening up the market for more competition. Hence the German government has denied Ryanair’s accusation that it had breached anti-trust rules.

Clearly the competition will intensify, whether it is a battle between legacy airlines and unaffiliated low-cost carriers or one between budget airlines themselves is not any more a matter of note. The competition has levelled, with budget carriers attempting to do more and legacy airlines even adjusting down to match. Legacy airlines including Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France are fighting back, and the old strategy of doing it through a subsidiary equivalent is receivign a revival. Besides Lufthansa, British Airways (as part of the International Airlines Group which is already supported by Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling) has introduced Level, and Air France annoucned plans to launch Joon which, however, it says, is not a low-cost carrier.

The competition does not stay the same for long in the aviation business. Little surprise that Etihad has decided to step back from its acquisition spree.

Travelling across Europe in summer: Expect flight delays

Travelling across Europe during the summer can be a nightmare should anything happen to disrupt the flow of the peak traffic. It may be worse this summer, and travellers should expect delays. Already there are stories of a number people who have missed their flights.

British Airways, Ryanair and EasyJet have advised their customers to allow plenty of time to get through the airport because of enhanced immigration checks. Ryanair suggests that customers arrive at least three hours before departure time.

The European Commission said this is “the price of security”. It is not something most people want to argue about for their safety. New measures to check potential terrorist threats have been introduced, but it looks like some airports are not ready for the implementation. Passengers complained about inadequate border control booths and staff to handle the usual surge in summer travel.

The summer months in the past had also experienced disruptions caused by industrial action. For now, strike action by security workers at Barcelona Airport every Friday, Sunday and Monday since August 4 to last throughout the season has added to the woes of travellers. Let’s hope other disgruntled airport staff and airline crew do not see this as an opportune time to join them.

It may make sense to put off travel to outside the peak months, but for many people this just isn’t possible because of work, school and other commitments.

Air France to “boost” performance with new low-cost carrier

Legacy airlines in Europe have long been feeling the pinch from low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet. Now it looks like Norwegian Air Shuttle and WOW Air are pushing them to look farther before they lose more ground.
Lufthansa already offers a low-cost trans-Atlantic option from Europe to Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami and Seattle in the United States.

The International Airlines Group which owns British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingusm and Vueling has just added another low-cost carrier – Level – to its stable. Level, based in Barcelona, will fly to Los Angeles and Oakland in California USA, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, and Buenos Aires in Argentina. Fares start at the familiar €99 reminiscent of the Norwegian and WOW Air’s promotions.

Courtesy Air France

Following in their footsteps is Air France, which announces the formation of a new subsidiary low-cost airline – Boost as its working name – planned to commence operations in winter. The airline will fly from the main hubs of the Air France/KLM group to destinations in Italy, Spain and Turkey initially, and then farther to destinations in Asia. Norwegian is already flying to Bangkok and will in October connect London with Singapore.

But Boost will be taking on full-service airlines as well, such as the Middle East carriers of Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways which are already ruffling the feathers of the regional big birds of Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

The developments point to a gradual convergence of the low-cost and full-service product perceived value wise. It’s the antithetical success of low-cost carriers pushing to bridge the gulf and the failure of legacy airlines not being able to maintain if not increase the differentiation. It looks like the European tug-of-war is pulling the legacy airlines towards the centre line.

US & UK ban laptops on board: Will this become the security standard?

Courtesy Emirates

SOON after the United States bars passengers on foreign airlines taking off at ten airports in Africa and the Middle East from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone, the United Kingdom announced a similar ban although the list of airlines and airports may be different.

The ban will affect items such as laptops, tablets, e-readers, cameras, printers, electronic games and portable DVD players. However, these articles may be carried in checked baggage.

Affected airlines and airports

The US restriction affects nine airlines: EgyptAir, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and the Gulf big three of Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. The airports affected are sited in Amman (Jordan), Cairo (Egypt), Casablanca (Morocco), Doha (Qatar), Dubai and Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Istanbul (Turkey), Jeddah and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), and Kuwait City (Kuwait). It is estimated about 50 flights daily would be affected.

The British ban affects 14 airlines arriving from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon,Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey. While the US ruling exempts US carriers flying from the listed airports, the British restriction applies as well to home-based airlines British Airways and EasyJet.

Why the restrictions?

The reason for the bans is of course one of security, aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on commercial airlines. The US Department of Homeland Security said: “Terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”

The British government said it recognised the inconvenience these measures may cause but “our top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals.”

Few air travellers, if any, will take issue with enhanced security measures since it means a safe flight. Any averse reaction is to be expected, as when full-body x-ray and search became mandatory at US airports. The inordinately long wait to clear security at US airports has since then become an accepted practice.

However, it will do well not to ignore the arguments put forth by experts who may not yet be fully convinced. Technology experts have questioned the premises which in their mind appear to be at odds with basic computer science.

What goes with the ban?

The ban on laptops means no one will be able to work during a flight, something that businessmen and women will sorely miss. Keeping yourself or your kids entertained with electronic games of your personal selection will be a thing of the past if you do not like what the airline offers in its system. What about that novel you thought you might at last be reading during the long journey, having loaded it in your e-book?

Sure, you can pack these (and your camera) in your checked baggage to loaded in the aircraft hold, but it defeats the purpose if they are intended for use during the flight. Also, if these are expensive equipment, passengers are often reluctant to pack them in checked baggage for fear of losing them or having them damaged. Some observers are predicting a rise in incidents of theft in the baggage holding area and cargo hold, and airlines will be confronted with the messy business of handling claims. Apparently baggage theft skyrocketed when Britain imposed a similar ban in 2006.

Laptops, tablets, cellphones and cameras are among the items that are already being subjected to additional security checks before they are cleared as carry-ons. It can only point to the suspicion that the current procedures are not robust enough.

Looking at the bigger picture, some experts fear the ban seems lopsided. First, if a laptop as an example may be used as an incendiary device, it is equally dangerous in the cabin as it is stowed in the baggage hold. Second, the ban targets named originating airports, but a terrorist suspect could always connect a flight from a presumed safe airport or fly on a presumed safe airline. Third, in the case of the US, to make exceptions for flights originating in the US is turning a blind eye to the possibility that mischief could also be traced to a home source.

Some airlines may benefit from the ban

It looks like an unexpected turn of events for the US big three of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines in their quest to get the US government to act against the perceived unfair competition by the Gulf big three (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar). The ban may well benefit the American trio as travellers are likely to want to travel with their electronic devices on board than to have them stowed in the baggage hold. A pertinent question would be how the US carriers would ensure the devices brought on board are safe the way that other carriers may not be able to do so?

Similarly, in the case of the UK ruling which covers also budget carriers, legacy airlines will have the edge if, unlike budget carriers, they do not charge for checked baggage. Easyjet, for example, will be challenged to think up an innovative approach to this issue.

And will airlines across the industry introduce loans of security-screened laptops on board for a fee?

The future

Although the ban is said to be temporary (as indicated by the US), will there be a change of mind to make it permanent, like the ban on liquid obtained before security clearance? Amuse yourself about a future when all you are allowed to bring on board are the clothes you are wearing and a wallet. Everything else needed or desired for the journey as determined by the authorities and the airlines may be purchased after take-off.

For now, some airlines may mull over the use or disuse of a happy passenger working on his or her laptop in their ads.

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!

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.

Enter the ultra-budget airline

Courtesy NewLeaf

Courtesy NewLeaf

LESS than a month after Canada’s latest carrier Airlines revealed plans to offer ultra-low fares operating from its base in Winnipeg to six cities within the country, namely Abbotsford, Halifax, Hamilton, Kelowna, Regina, and Saskatoon, it announced it was “temporarily postponing service” and would refund all transactions already made. The first service was to be launched in February.

Newleaf’s fate now rests in the hands of the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) which is reviewing the carrier’s aviation licence. Apparently Newleaf was selling seats through a charter arrangement with Kelowna-based Flair Airlines Ltd which held the CTA operating licence. The question is whether the indirect Newleaf should itself be holding a licence directly.

Newleaf CEO Jim Young’s reaction was one of optimism. He said: “We welcome a regulatory system in which businesses like ours can thrive in Canada as they do in other countries.”

That aside, the ultra-budget airline that is sometimes referred to as a discount airline is not an entirely new phenomenon. In his somewhat premature announcement of the launch of the airline, Young said: “Lower landing fees mean we have savings we can pass on to you.” The key word is “affordability”. According to him, “Ultra low-cost carriers are some of the most financially successful airlines in the world today.”

Young may be referring to operators such as Iceland’s WOW Air and the longer haul Norwegian Air Shuttle. WOW Air, for example, is offering US$99 fares connecting Boston and San Francisco in the US with the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. It is next looking at connecting with Montreal and Toronto in Canada.

While you might remind Young of how as many airlines so-called budget too have come and gone, Newleaf is already expressing interest to expand its operations to other destinations within Canada and in the United States.

Young, who was at one time CEO of Frontier Airlines, explained: “By unbundling the entire service you get to choose what you want.” That basically is the budget model, and one that is further trimmed down on costs. As an example, he cited how NewLeaf would be able to save money in part because it does not offer its seats on any third-party travel websites, which charge airlines a fee to post and make sales there. Considering the nature of its operations, that makes economic sense. After all, Young did not see Canada’s two other major carriers – Air Canada and Westjet – as Newleaf’s competitors. He said: “If I had a competitor, it would be the airlines that Canadians are driving across the border for.” He was referring to Canada’s loss of market share to US airlines such as Allegiant Air operating out of airports south of the border, close enough for Canadians to drive across to take advantage of the lower fares.

Young added: “We’re looking to create a new market and stimulate people who aren’t flying today. What I’m going after are people that will make the three-and-a-half hour drive in the middle of winter to go to Grand Forks because they’ve got to get to some place warm or can’t afford to fly from here.”

That argument about developing new market has been the slogan of many a budget upstart, and which has contributed to the success of some of them to go where the full service airlines would not go. Newleaf is therefore targeting a limited but niche leisure market on the back of a strategy that focuses on second-tier airports. It can count on that as a strength to drive its growth, particularly at a time when it could take advantage of the current low fuel costs. Too many no-frill operators in the past had been hit badly by soaring oil prices. The challenge for Newleaf will come when other upstarts similarly motivated jump into the same arena, or when one of the legacy airlines decide that the market has grown big enough for them to join the competition most probably through a subsidiary offshoot such as Rouge, the budget arm of Air Canada.

Legacy airlines across the world have become increasingly wary of the growth of the budget carriers, particularly after the 2008 global economic crisis when air travel trended downwards to cheaper fares. Budget carriers are now competing in the same market, not only for seats in the traditional economy class but also for travellers who want some perks but at lower fares as they introduce their version of business class. North American domestic operations by the major airlines are already adopting the budget model to charge for meals and baggage among a slew of chargeable.

The temptation of growing bigger than intended is always present. This unbridled ambition has led to the downfall of many operators in aviation history, perhaps the reason why the doyen of the budget model Ryanair remains undecided whether it should launch long haul services across the Atlantic, and why some discount carriers such as Allegiant have stayed small. Will Newleaf, when granted the licence to operate, given its ambition to expand far and wide, go down this same road?

Perhaps not, as it would appear that the current budget model exemplified by carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet is not trim enough, and if lower cost will stimulate demand, there is room for Newleaf to grow. Yet one begins to wonder how much lower you can go.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.