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.

What…? A New MAX Issue?

Courtesy Getty Images

Just as it all seems to be good news for Boeing with IAG placing a tentative order for the B737 MAX jet, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has uncovered a new potential risk during simulator tests.

Some carriers such as American Airlines have been optimistic that the grounding would be lifted soon, but the new discovery can only mean pushing the date further down the road.

The FAA has clarified that’s not the priority for now. This was made clear in a statement that it issued: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the Boeing 737 Max to passenger service. The FAA will lift the aircraft’s prohibition order when we deem it is safe to do so.”

The FAA seems determined to reassert itself after being criticized for lacking in oversight following the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters. It sees an important role now in discovering and highlighting potential risks, and has engaged the service of a Technical Advisory Board, which is an independent panel.

On the latest finding, FAA said it is “a potential risk that Boeing must mitigate.”

IAG probably did not see this coming, but it is to be assumed that the order is only as good as when the MAX is fully certified to be airworthy.

However, each time a new issue surfaces, public confidence sinks to a new low.

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.

IAG levels up

Courtesy Level

International Airlines Group (IAG) which also owns British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus is expanding the scope of its new low-cost carrier Level. Originally intended to be a long-haul budget operator, it will now also offer short-haul services from Austria.

The Europeans may not be aware of how Scoot, set up as a budget carrier by Singapore Airlines (SIA) for the long-haul, soon took on the short-haul as well and ended up assimilating its short-haul budget sibling Tigerair. (See After the merger of Scoot and Tigerair, will it be Singaproe Airlines and SilkAir next? Aug 29, 2017)

While IAG’s move is motivated by the competition with rivals such as Ryanair and EasdyJet, we note that IAG already owns a short-haul bydget carrier namely Vueling which operates out of Barcelona, which is also the springboard for Level’s long-haul. Will this lead to intra-competition? But, of course, there is only so much one may suggest of the comparison between IAG and SIA since Europe is a much bigger arena than Singapore.

In the bigger picture, IAG’s new focus on budget travel yet again testifies to the thriving low-end market and the competition that it poses to legacy airlines. (See Ryanair affirms market for budget travel, May 22, 2018) Level, which commenced operations last year, was intended to check the aggression of other low-cost long-haul operators such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and WowAir. Interestingly, IAG tried but failed to acquire Norwegian, and expanding Level may be a strategy to boost its viability in a wider market, foster brand familiarity and promote intra-connectivity.

IAG chief executive Willie Walsh said: “We are launching this new short-haul subsidiary to provide Austrian consumers with more flight choices across Europe. These flights will be branded as Level to build upon the huge success of our new long-haul low-cost operation.”

Read between the lines.

Why would IAG be interested in acquiring Norwegian Air Shuttle?

Courtesy Norwegian Air Shuttle

The International Airlines Group (IAG)’s interest in acquiring a stake in Norwegian Air Shuttle reflects the rising threat of the budget long-haul. Norwegian is among the few budget carriers that have broken the barriers to take budget operations beyond the limits of the 4-hour convention.

The competition is felt especially on the trans-Atlantic routes, where Norwegian and WOW air have made waves and which in turn have spawned budget offshoots by European legacy airlines, among them Lufthansa’s Eurowings, Air France’s Joon and British Airways (BA)’s Level as well as caused some carriers on both sides of the pond to introduce basic economy fare on their flights.

In fact, IAG which owns BA, Iberia and Aer Lingus, already has a Spanish budget arm known as Vueling. Yet why would it be interested in acquiring Norwegian?

Let’s face it: A legacy airline’s budget offshoot is understandably never quite like an independent budget operator. Otherwise the like of Level should have no fear of the competition posed by the like of Norwegian. Unfortunately the influence of the parent airline, however unintended, may be hard to disguise, and this could be the hitch.

Apparently IAG had already acquired a minority 4.6% stake in Norwegian. And if IAG seeks to increase its interest in the budget long-haul carrier, it may be seen as an attempt to “normalize” the playing field by the rules of the big guys. It would be a dent in the competition, if not eliminating a threat, at least limiting its influence.

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.

The isolation of Qatar Airways

Courtesy Alamy

AT a time when its neighbours – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Libya and Yemen – cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, winning the Skytrax world’s best airline award could not have tasted sweeter to the Qatari flag carrier. It displaced last year’s winner, Emirates Airlines, which fell to 4th ranking.(See Consistency defines Skytrax best airlines, Jun 21, 2017)

The Gulf countries are stopping flights between them and Qatar, and closing their airspace to Qatar Airways. According to Qatar’s chief executive Akbar Al Baker, this has resulted in the cancellation of 52 routes and adding flying routes to others. He was quoted as saying at the Paris Air Show where the award was announced: “At these difficult times of illegal bans on flights out of my country by big bullies, this is an award not to me, not to my airline, but to my country.”

Now Qatar Airways is setting eyes on getting a slice of OneWorld partner American Airlines. It is hoping to buy up to 10 per cent of the US carrier. Investing in foreign carriers is not something entirely new to Qatar Airways. In 2015, the Gulf carrier acquired 10 ten per cent of the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. This was subsequently increased to 20 per cent.

Qatar Airways also owns 10 per cent of South American carrier LATAM and is finalizing a deal to acquire 49 per cent stake of Italy’s Meridiana Fly. It has also expressed interest in Royal Air Maroc and setting up a joint venture in India.
Mr Al Baker has hinted at more acquisitions in the pipeline, but said the airline“is not going to collect crap.”

The timing of Qatar Airways’ interest in American Airlines smacks of more than just part of an expanding acquisition program although it is just as obvious being so. While other Gulf carriers may see the Trump’s restrictions on travel from the region and ban on in-flight carriage of electronic gadgets as a setback, Qatar Airways is keen to expand further into the United States. The isolation by the Gulf neighbours has made it all the more imperative for it to seek stronger relations elsewhere across the globe.