Europe’s aviation challenges

HOPE of Europe-based airlines bouncing back into good times on the back of an improved economy is not turning out to be as expected. Much of the good news reported last year seems to be short-lived.

Air France-KLM is among the airlines that have issued profit warnings, even though it expects higher earnings compared with 2013. The issue is the trending back down in growth. The airline is expecting to fall short of the forecast with revenue falling from 2.5 billion euros (USD 3.39 billion) to between 2.2 billion and 2.3 billion euros. It has cited rising competition from other carriers on the long-haul especially to North America and Asia, over-capacity as a consequence of the competition, weak cargo demand, and currency restrictions in Venezuela for the negative impact on its profitability.

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters


Lufthansa has already announced a similar profit warning ahead of Air France-KLM. The German flag carrier is expecting lower than forecast profits – 1 billion euros compared to a high of 1.5 billion euros. Consequently it is also reducing its 2015 earnings forecast from 2.65 billion euros to 2 billion euros. Also citing competition for its woes, Lufthansa faces the same currency restrictions in Venezuela, which would reduce its profitability by 60 million euros. Additionally, the airline was plagued by a pilot strike in April that cost it another 60 million euros. The slowdown is evident in reduced seats offered over the winter, according to Lufthansa chief financial officer Simone Menne.

Irish airline Aer Lingus has also issued a warning on reduced profits estimated to be 10 to 20 per cent lower than last year’s, following a strike by cabin crew last month that caused disruption to some 200 flights and, according to a statement issued by the airline, “significant damage to Aer Lingus’ trading and forward bookings for several months into the future.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) was optimistic about a positive year for the global industry, expecting 2014 profits (US$3.2 billion) to almost double that of 2013 (US$1.7 billion). Although it has revised its forecast a little downward on account of new uncertainties in fuel prices as a consequence of geopolitical risks threatening Ukraine and the Middle East, and of capital outflows moving away from emerging economies largely to a strongly revived US economy, it will still be a much better year globally. But compared with other regions, the latest performance statistics for June showed that breakeven load factors are highest in Europe – the result of low yields and high regulatory costs. So, even though the region scored the second highest load factors, its financial performance fell behind the United States, the Middle East and Asia Pacific.

Of the top 10 countries ranked by the number of international passengers identified by IATA, five are in Europe: United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, France and Italy. About a quarter of the world`s tourist arrivals are concentrated in Europe (excluding Russia). Yet the situation is not all that rosy. The weakness of Europe seems to stem from inherent issues that have caused home airlines to direct their umbrage at the competition posed by foreign carriers, rather than the other way around as impacted first by external factors.

While foreign carriers in the Middle East and Asia Pacific have often been accused of unfair competition from a lower cost base and in some cases allegedly supported by government subsidies, the corollary is that airline operations in Europe are faced with high costs that include wages and airport charges, high taxes, cumbersome regulations and the propensity of costly industrial strikes. Some of the costs are levied directly on air travellers or through the airlines, since invariably the fees are passed on to the passengers. The UK is notorious for the suite of fees, among them the Air Passenger Duty which continues to escalate and which has become a significant source of revenue for the authorities. A new carbon tax would have been introduced in 2013 if not for the protest by the international community.

Courtesy Etihad Airways

Courtesy Etihad Airways

On the competition posed by foreign carriers, the biggest threat appears to come from cash-rich Middle East airlines. When Lufthansa`s newly appointed CEO Carsten Spohr took over the helm in May, he identified the Gulf carriers as the most daunting challenge for his tenure, and that tackling this would be a priority for him. The Gulf carriers are widely recognized as the big three in the Middle East, namely Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. Mr Spohr suggested that Gulf carriers are not competing on a level playing field. The rate at which Etihad picked up stakes in European carriers (and around the world) has raised concerns of a Middle Eastern dominance that would be detrimental to their survival. Among the carriers that Etihad has bought into are Air Berlin, Air Serbia, Darwin Airlines and most recently Alitalia. Etihad`s CEO James Hogan defends his airline`s strategy as one of rescuing ailing European carriers on the brink of collapse, though not denying it is at the same time seeking growth through partnership.

Yet, to be fair, European carriers themselves have seen much consolidation among themselves too. Air France and KLM have merged. Lufthansa owns Swiss International. British Airways, Iberia and Vueling make up the International Airlines Group. According to IATA, improved profitability in Europe may be attributed in part to efficiencies brought about by consolidation, not necessarily among airlines within the region itself but also across borders such as the partnership between British Airways and American Airlines and the acquisition of a 49-per-cent stake by Delta Airlines in Virgin Atlantic. But it is a hard fact to swallow when, as an example, Air France-KLM could have had upped their ante in Alitalia and become majority stakeholder but have had their stake reduced substantially instead with the participation of Etihad.

Mr Hogan said: “Gulf carriers are not the cause of Europe’s aviation challenges.” Rather, an airline like Etihad has seized the opportunity availed by the region’s weakness, itself blessed by its rich resources and thanks no less to Europe’s liberal aviation policies for which it (Europe) should be commended.

European carriers have said that the competition has forced down ticket prices and resulted in over-capacity. It is easy to see what happens to margins if costs are not similarly managed, Interestingly Lufthansa sees the answer in low-cost services to be launched to Asia and possibly extended to Australia, packing in more seats in its wide-body jets to lower seat costs which will in turn mean lower fares. The elusive dream of a viable budget long-haul in spite of the failed Hong Kong-London run by Hong Kong’s Oasis Airlines and the short-lived services to London and Paris from Kuala Lumpur by AirAsia X continues to lure. Norwegian Air Shuttle became the latest operator to take up that challenge when it launched services from London’s Gatwick Airport to Los Angles, Fort Lauderdale and New York. But Norwegian’s derring-do is on a different plane as Lufthansa’s strategy aimed at countering the cheap fares offered by the competition, that if you can’t beat them, join them and hopefully beat them at their game.

On that score, Lufthansa may have already been defeated if Mr Spohr is thinking of targeting the Gulf carriers, which have so far deemed it not necessary to go down that road which continues to be lined with the usual financial risks of high costs and low yields, and the traveller’s reservations about the lack of basic creature comforts for the long hours of flying. It is therefore not the safest of bets for Lufthansa.

Mr Spohr has not decided whether Lufthansa would go it alone or join hands with Turkish Airlines. There is a redeeming feature here. Turkish and Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport could be the challenge to Gulf carriers and Dubai International in the race to be the hub connecting Europe and the rest of the world with some help. This is the kind of counter move that can really reshape the competition rather than merely playing the same game that has been mastered by the competitor.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Will IATA’s optimism for 2014 hold?

iataTHE International Air Transport Association (IATA) rings in New Year cheer for its member airlines as it predicts record profits for the airline industry in 2014, revising upward the earlier forecast of US$16.4bn to US$19.7bn.

The association cites three reasons for its optimism: cost cutting by the airlines, cheaper jet fuel and rising demand for travel.

Cost cutting measures are really recovery measures more than the cause of good results if the experience of the industry is anything to go by in recent times. More importantly should be the issue of making this a daily discipline, in good times or bad, so as to sustain a well deserved profitability. Lauding it post-trauma can be deceptive, and may lead to complacency.

Cheaper jet fuel is of course good news, but the volatility of the product is not something that one can bet on. So it is as good as it is known, with no sign of a major political flare-up in the main oil producing regions in the offing. The cost of fuel has been an easy factor to blame for most airlines’ poor performances; if they continue to slide despite the good news, then they may finally get to where the real problem lies.

Demand for travel is swinging back, albeit not quite as fast as expected. All eyes are on Europe, where the trouble has been deep-seated for a long time. Yes, more people are travelling, but the real test will be one of yield. IATA said profit margins would be squeezed, noting much higher revenues of US$743bn generating an estimated profit of US$19.7bn next year compared to revenues of $579bn generating a profit of US$19.2bn in 2010.

IATA chief Tony Tyler said: “It is a tough environment in which to run an airline. Competition is intense and yields are deteriorating.”

Competition is a given. The good news is that despite its growing influence, the airlines according to IATA will turn in a record profitable year. Of course, if expectations are not met, this can always be cited as a reason.

But then, IATA is known to revise its forecast once too often. Can you blame it? Things change, you see.

Plunging Cathay profits: What went wrong?

Photo courtesy Cathay Pacific Airways

Photo courtesy Cathay Pacific Airways

WITH Cathay Pacific Airways – one of the world’s leading airlines – announcing an 83-per-cent plunge in annual profit, one must begin to wonder what went wrong.

Almost five years since the onset of the global economic crisis, the fortunes of the airlines can be best alluded to the unpredictable movements of the yo-yo. It was only at the end of last year that the International Air Transport Association (Iata) could with some confidence finally revise its profit forecasts upwards instead of downwards: from US$4.1 billion to US$6.1 billion for 2012, and from US$7.5 billion to US$l4 billion for the current year.

Could Cathay be an exception to the rule? For all the hype about product improvement all round including the new Premium Economy class and a new regional business class, the Hong Kong-based airline posted a net profit of HK$916 million (US$118 million), down from HK$5.5 billion a year ago.

Cathay has attributed its poorer performance to a number of factors.

First, higher fuel costs. Cathay reported that throughout much of 2012, fuel prices were at sustained high levels and the Cathay Group’s fuel costs increased by 0.8 per cent compared to 2011. What’s new anyway, when this should similarly affect all airlines across the industry? Yet, in spite of that, some airlines such as Japan Airlines are reporting improved performances. The volatility of the fuel price has been an easy target to blame no matter what degree its impact is on performance. It may not apply to Cathay, but in fact the average jet fuel price had been falling from Sep to Dec 2012 before rising again.

What is more of a concern is the reason for the decline in the fuel price, as explained by Iata chief Tony Tyler: “The reduction in fuel prices is a great thing for the airline industry but they are coming down because of concerns over world economic activity. If the world enters an economic slump, that will be even worse for the industry than the higher fuel price was on its own.”

Second, a drop in demand for corporate travel. This is a more cogent argument as the industry continues to be hard hit by the economic stagnation or slow recovery if at all it is happening, particularly in Europe and the United States. Cathay, which banks on its premium product, is naturally affected more than other airlines that thrive on the low-end traffic.

In a statement issued by the airline, Cathay chairman Christopher Pratt said: “Premium class yields were affected by travel restrictions imposed by corporations.”

Again, this is not a new lesson gleaned only yesterday but widely recognized during the global financial crisis which all but favours cheaper alternatives. Cathay is not alone in this predicament; rivals such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Qantas face the same threat.

In a counter-move, Cathay introduced the premium economy class to retain downgraders and attract those who are prepared to pay a little more but not that much more to upgrade to enjoy the frills of an in-between class. It is tempting to conclude that this strategy – perhaps to the relief of SIA which has until now snubbed the idea – is not working judging by the results posted by Cathay, but its full impact is yet to be realised. If the global economy continues to weigh down, it may well prove to be Cathay’s lifeline.

That brings us to the third point as to what went wrong then. Cathay attributes it to increased competition. Mr Pratt said: “An increasingly competitive environment added to the difficulties.” That may be true, but when an airline such as Cathay which is among the world’s most successful carriers resigns to that, it comes across as being somewhat less plausible and lame, and smacks of something amiss.

Competition is a given in this industry. So what has Cathay done or is doing to check the competition? To be fair, it has done much more than most airlines. It has rolled out new product improvements and improved its in-flight service. The airline is ranked consistently among the industry’s favourites, particularly its business class, by air travellers. By all account, its strategy should place it in the forefront of the competition, so what is missing that it should ascribe its falling performance to increased competition? If there’s such a thing as a success formula to suit different environments, has it got the equation not quite right?

Fourth, the weak cargo demand in major markets, particularly from Asia to Europe. No doubt this has affected Cathay’s overall profitability. If it is any consolation, close rival SIA is also similarly afflicted. There are no clear signs that the situation will improve substantially in the near term. In light of the weaker outlook, Cathay has cancelled an order for eight Boeing 777-200 freighters but instead placed an order for three Boeing 747-8 freighters which will carry 16 per cent more revenue-producing freight than predecessor Boeing 747-400. Cathay chief executive John Slosar said the larger airplane would result in fuel savings for the revamped fleet.   

Fifth, high operating costs, especially of the long haul routes that according to Mr Pratt were dominated by “older, less fuel-efficient Boeing 747-400 and Airbus A340-300 aircraft”. Last year, the company announced plans to accelerate retirement of the less fuel-efficient 747-400 as it continues with the fleet upgrading programme for both airlines in its fold – Cathay and Dragonair. In January, Cathay ordered 10 Airbus A350-1000 and converted 16 of its existing order for A350-900 to the larger A350-1000. These 350-seaters will ply high-density routes which include non-stop flights to Europe and North America.

The future should look rosier. Mr Slosar said: “This is an important strategic development for Cathay Pacific. The A350-1000 aircraft will bring us world-beating fuel efficiency.” 

Last, incommensurate cost-cutting measures that include offering unpaid leave to crew and reducing capacity on some routes which unfortunately, according to Mr Pratt, “were not enough to offset in full the effects of high fuel prices and weak revenues.”

And we have come one full circle. So what makes one airline more likely to succeed than another when almost every one of them alike ascribes its failed performance to the same factors?

Mr Pratt said: “Our core strengths remain the same ever: a superb team, a strong international network, exceptional standards of customer service, a strong relationship with Air China and our position in Hong Kong. These will help to ensure the success of the Cathay Pacific Group in the long term.”

Sounds familiar, you may say, except for specific references applicable only to Cathay.

Mixed signals: All Nippon Airways upgrades forecast, Air France-KLM reports a difficult year

ONLY in March did the International Air Transport Association (Iata) cut its 2012 profit projection for the airline industry from US$3.5 billion to US$3 billion. Iata director-general Tony Tyler cited high oil prices as the main bugbear as the European crisis showed signs of averting, warning that the industry would plunge into the red if the situation did not improve.

Many airlines have been reporting reeling from the high fuel costs or suffering losses if not reduced profits as a consequence. Among the latest reports is that posted by Air France-KLM, which incurred first-quarter net loss of 368 million euros (US$483 million) even as revenue increased by 6 per cent to 5.6 billion euros. This was attributed to higher fuel and staff costs.

But there is good news in the East as All Nippon Airways (ANA) upgrades its forecast, and higher workforce, expecting consolidated net income of 28 billion yen (US$349 million) in fiscal 2011, compared to earlier forecast of 20 billion yen (US$249 million). The revised figure is also an improvement of 20.6 per cent compared to 23.3 billion yen the year before, thus turning an expected reduced quarter profitability into an improved one.

According to ANA, the optimism was boosted by strong demand in tourism, gradual recovery of the Japanese economy following the earthquake and tsunami in March last year, and cost improvement measures – this, in spite of the global concern about rising fuel costs. Looking ahead, the airline expects further improvement, banking on its strength as a network carrier and the launch of low-cost airline operations (Peach Aviation and AirAsia Japan) to improve overall group performance.

So it is not bad news all round. The winner will be one who is able to spot opportunities in adversity, maintains a discipline of dealing with the hard times and not losing sight of its vision, and takes timely action to be ready to pick the fruits when they are ready for the plucking. ANA appears to have mapped its future with some measure of success, bucking the general global trend.