Scoot raises fares, but Jetstar and AirAsia are not following suit

IT is only a matter of time before more airlines move to raising their fares, purportedly on the ground of rising fuel costs. The question is when is a good time, as they watch for signs of support in the market.

Courtesy Scoot

Budget carrier Scoot took the lead in announcing a 5-per cent hike in its fares from September 1. According to the airline, fuel makes up on average 32 per cent of its total operating costs and has risen by more than 30 per cent.

What is interesting is how other regional carriers are not ready to jump on the bandwagon, not yet. Jetstar said its fares will remain stable at the moment, while AirAsia said: “We have built a lot of resilience into our business by being vert disciplined about non-fuel costs, and we are confident we have sufficient latitude to manage any change in oil price.”

Has Scoot made the move a little too soon when its competitors are not ready to follow suit? History has shown that the market usually takes the cue from the leading airline. With its closest rivals holding out, one can expect the competition to intensify in a market that is driven by price more than service and brand. Higher fares may also soften the market, and this only adds to the competition. Anyway, do not bet on Jetstar and AirAsia to hold their fares steady if jet fuel costs continue to escalate, but they clearly see an advantage in moving a little slower for now.

Interestingly, Singapore Airlines, which owns Scoot, has said it is not raising its fares.

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As fuel prices go up, so will fares

IT looks like the good times are running out. Airlines, faced with rising fuel costs, are raising fares. Delta Air Lines for one is expecting its fuel costs for 2018 to be US$2 billion higher than they were a year ago. Its CEO Ed Bastian warned travellers that “with higher fuel prices, you;re going to expect to see ticket prices go up as well.”

And Delta is not the only airline heading in that direction. Other carriers are likely to follow suit if they have not already done so.

On the other side of the Pacific, Air New Zealand (Air NZ) and Jetstar have raised domestic fares by five per cent, and Air NZ is reviewing fares for international routes. According to Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon, every dollar increase for a barrel of fuel “adds $10 million of costs to Air New Zealand’s bottom line.”

Mr Christopher Luxon, Photo courtesy Air New Zealand

International Air Transport Association (IATA) chief executive officer Alexandre de Juniac warned that against this background, “next year will be less positive.”

Mr Luxon of Air NZ painted this picture of the likely scenario: ”The normal cycle in aviation is that fuel goes up, prices rise, demand may fall and capacity gets reduced.”

So what are airlines doing about it, apart from raising fares because that alone has its limitations in view of the competition and the impact it may have on the consumer’s propensity to travel?

Delta has already made known its intention to withdraw flights serving the less popular destinations. So too will other carriers after the summer peak.

Beyond that, many airlines are ramping up hedging. Major European airlines including budget carriers Ryanair and EasyJet, for example, are increasing the ratio of hedged fuel to as high as 90 per cent of needs. Low cost carriers especially, because of their limited ability to hedge, were badly hit the last times when fuel prices careened upwards. But hedging is not a completely safe bet. Equally so, many airlines also reported significant losses when fuel prices came down.

The good news is that with more fuel-efficient aircraft in operation, the impact of the increased fuel costs may not be as hard on the airlines. Higher fares are as good as being ready to be rolled out, but the question is how far can the airlines go without losing customers, particularly at a time when the price of the fare is likely to matter more than allegiance?

Again, to quote Mr Luxon, ”All airlines, whether you’re in Australia or around the world are working hard to see how they can take prices up and ultimately how much of that cost increase can you recover through pricing.”

Qantas continues winning streak

It’s happy days again for airlines, more specifically carriers in Asia Pacific which is identified as a growth potential for the industry.

Just over a week ago, Singapore Airlines announced Q3 (Jan-Mar 2018) group profit of S$330 million (US$250 million), increasing by S$37 million or 12.6 per cent (see Singapore Airlines does better without Tigerair, Feb 15, 2018).

Courtesy Qantas

This is now followed by Australia’s Qantas reporting record half year profits (Jul-Dec 2017) of A$976 million (US$761 million), increasing by 14.6 per cent. This came in the face of higher fuel costs, a competitive domestic market and challenges in international capacity growth. The result beat the previous first half record achieved in 2016.

Impressively, Qantas Domestic and budget subsidiary Jetstar’s domestic flying operations combined posted their highest ever first half Underlying EBIT of A$652 million. Qantas controls nearly two-thirds of the Australian market. However, Qantas International, in the words of Qantas chief Alan Joyce, “held its own” with a six per cent decline in profit against a slight increase in revenue.

Mr Joyce remained upbeat about future earnings propsects – the kind of sentiment that is not often expressed by many an airline CEO these days. Surely the airline must be doing something right, and Mr Joyce would remind you that the Transfomration program he introduced in 2014 has certainly borne good fruit.

As Mr Joyce put it, “After several years of turning this business around, Qantas now has a momentum behind it.” He added: “Today’s result comes from investing in areas that provide margin growth and a network strategy that makes sure we have the right aircraft on the right route.”

After Qantas, Air New Zealand is expecting to also announce record profit, boosted by tourism growth.

EasyJet to shake up market

Courtesy EasyJet

EasyJet “will shake up the market,” said the low-cost carrier’s chief commercial officer Peter Duffy. The airline operating out of London Gatwick has entered into an arrangement with Norwegian Air Shuttle and WestJet to allow booking of connecting flights to Singapore and destinations in North America that include New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and Toronto on its website.

This is another indication of how LCCs are no longer content with just the so-called niche market as they enter into the arena of the big boys. Such connections are usually forged among legacy airlines competing with each other, an advantage compared to stand-alone LCCs confined to point-to-point traffic. So EasyJet’s initiative – said to be the first global airline connections service by a European low fares carrier – is set to change the rules of the game.

Already Norwegian, encouraged by the prospect of an increased number of passengers through the partnership that will help it expand its wings, is talking about the possibility of linking up with Ryanair. EasyJet also said the tripartite arrangement will expand to include more airlines.

The agreement is not completely an LCC club as it includes WestJet, Canada’s second largest airline after Air Canada. This is breaking new ground, challenging the advantage enjoyed by legacy airlines which are supported by subsidiary or joint-venture LCCs, among them Lufthansa/Eurowings, British Airways/Level/Vueling, Qantas/JetStar, and Singapore Airlines/Scoot.

It is interesting how the modus operandi of the LCC keeps evolving, and consumers stand to benefit from the increased competition. For now, EasyJet customers connecting partner flights will have to collect their bags in transit, to be handled via the Gatwick Connects desk in the baggage reclaim area. No reason why this will not improve in time.

Budget and transatlantic competition heat up

Courtesy Vueling Airlines

Courtesy Vueling Airlines

International Airlines Group (IAG) announced plans to commence low-cost transatlantic flights from Barcelona to the United States by budget carrier Vueling. IAG also owns British Airways (BA), Iberia and Aer Lingus.

Legacy airlines (and airline groups) are increasingly recognizing the competition posed by budget carriers, and it is not new that some of them have set up budget operations such as Lufthansa’s Eurowings, Qantas’ Jetstar, and Singapore Airlines’ Scoot. In the US, the Big Three airlines of American, United and Delta are introducing no-frills fares on normal services to compete with low-cost counterparts such as Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier.

Where the competition is most felt is the transatlantic sector, which has seen a surge of cheap fares offered by operators such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and Iceland’s WOW Air, discomforting both US and European counterparts.

WOW Air is well-known for its $99 fare for travel between the US and Europe – destinations such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Edinburgh and Bristol – with a free stopover in Reykjavik. It has begun enticing US Westcoasters with fares as low as $65.

Norwegian also offers $99 fares with promotional offers as low as $69.

Budget doyen Ryanair has long announced its ambition to also ply the transatlantic routes.

While home-based US airlines are protesting the entry of Norwegian, European airlines are taking a more active approach to compete head-on. IAG will be able to advantage Vueling with the network of partner airlines. Eurowings is already operating nonstop from Cologne and Bonn to the US, and it has plans to add more destinations.

In a price-sensitive market for as long as the current situation holds, budget carriers may be driving the trend. Legacy airlines will be challenged to make their advertised difference in product worth the additional dollars in fares, at the same time keeping their budget rivals at bay in a two-prong approach to the competition.

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.

Optimism and more good news

IT’s been a long time coming, the optimism and good news that the industry badly misses as more airlines report better, even record, performances as fuel prices show no certainty of bottoming out. From Chicago to London, Singapore and Sydney, the mood is celebratory.

American carriers were the first to celebrate. The US big three– American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines – all reported record recovery last year, and are reintroducing snacks on domestic services (instead of lowering the fuel surcharge) as a way of giving back to their customers. (As the price of crude oil plummets, fuel surcharge holds sway, Jan 23 2016)

This article takes a look at four major airlines in three other different regions (Australia, Europe and Asia) that recently posted their report cards, and see how they measure up to the mood.

Courtesy Bloomberg

Courtesy Bloomberg

Qantas

The good run continues with Australian flag carrier Qantas’ record performance for the first half of its current financial year (Jun-Dec 2015). The airline reported an underlying profit before tax of A$921 million (US$685 million), which is A$554 million more than last year’s first half. Revenue was up 5 per cent. Chief executive officer Alan Joyce announced that every part of the Qantas Group contributed strongly to the result, with record profits reported by Qantas Domestic and the Jetstar Group.

Qantas Domestic reported earnings of A$387 million, compared to A$227 million last year, maintaining a strong market share of 80 per cent. The Jetstar Group’s earnings were A$262 million, compared to A$81 million last year. Revenue for the Australian market went up 10 per cent, and for the first time, Jetstar Japan contributed positively to the profit of the Asian network since its start-up in 2012.

Qantas International which used to be the bleeding arm of the Qantas Group reported earnings of A$279 million, compared to $59 million last year. This was its best performance since before the global financial crisis. The airline has benefitted from the weak Australian dollar which has helped boost inbound tourism for Australia. Qantas’ cornerstone alliance partnership with Emirates, American Airlines and China Eastern has strategically strengthened its global network, overcoming an apparent geographical disadvantage of its home base in a far corner of the world.

All this, Mr Joyce would be the first to tell anyone, is not a matter of luck or necessarily a given in today’s more favourable economic climate. He said: “This record result reflects a stronger, leaner, more agile Qantas. Without a focus on revenue, costs and balance sheet strength, today’s result would not have been possible. Both globally and domestically, the aviation industry is intensely competitive. That’s why it’s so important that we maintain our cost discipline, invest to grow revenue, and continue innovating with new ventures and technology.”

Give credit where it’s due. Sceptics may finally admit that Mr Joyce’s “transformation program” is not only bearing fruit but producing a good crop and reshaping Qantas into a more agile and innovative business. “Our transformation program has allowed us to save significant costs,” said Mr Joyce. “It’s never been a simple cost cutting agenda.”

Qantas expects to increase domestic capacity by 2 per cent, international by 9 per cent and Jetstar International by 12 per cent in the second half, averaging 5 per cent for the full year for the Group.

Courtesy Bloomberg

Courtesy Bloomberg

International Airlines Group

At the other end of the Kangaroo route is the unmatched success of the International Airlines Group (IAG) of which British Airways is a partner along with Iberia, Vueling and, more recently, Aer Lingus. IAG’s profits increased by almost 65 per cent to €1.8bn (US$1.98 billion) in 2015, which IAG chief Willie Walsh said had “undoubtedly been a good year”. The Group carried 88.3 million passengers last year, an increase of 14 per cent, overtaking Lufthansa to become second only to Air France-KLM in Europe.

In very much the same way that Mr Joyce was able to turn round the loss-making international division of Qantas, Mr Walsh could pride himself as the man who steered Iberia into profitability following its merger with BA in 2011. The Spanish carrier underwent a painful restructuring but it has paid off. . Unlike Qantas which prefers commercial alliances, IAG adopts a more aggressive strategy of acquisitions. The consortium of BA, Iberia and Aer Lingus stands the Group in good stead to grow trans-Atlantic traffic which forms the largest part of its business.

IAG expects similar growth next year, targeting an operating profit of €3.2bn

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Singapore Airlines

In Asia
, Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group reported a third quarter (Oct-Dec 2015) profit of S$275 million (US$200 million), 35 per cent higher than that of last year’s third quarter. However Group revenue declined by 4 per cent to S3.9 billion because of lower passenger yields and the continuing lacklustre performance of its cargo operations. Parent airline SIA faces stiff competition from Middle East carriers, and its subsidiaries SilkAir, Scoot and Tigerair are not spared the rivalry from regional budget carriers. Still it is good news that falling oil prices had resulted in a reduction of the fuel costs by S$354 million, a drop of more than 40 per cent.

Characteristically diffident and not as confident as either Qantas or BA, SIA said it expects travel demand to remain volatile, citing the increased competition and the pressure that it will continue to exert on yields and loads. But all three airline groups have experienced increased loads, driven by discounted fares as a result of of intense competition and made possible by the lower fuel costs. According to International Air Transport Association (IATA), breakeven load factors are highest in Europe because of low yields from the open competition and high regulatory costs, yet the region is achieving the second highest load factor after North America and generating solid growth.

It is going to be a rosier 2016. IATA forecast air travel to grow 6.9 per cent, the best since 2010 and well above the 5.5 per cent of the past 20 years. Demand is fueled by stronger economic growth and made attractive by lower fares. It is unlikely that the oil price will rise and airlines may even expect smaller fuel bills, making up 20 per cent of an airline’s total operating costs compared to what it used to be at 40 per cent. This will be further enhanced by the acquisition of new aircraft that are more fuel efficient.

In this connection, SIA has something to crow about as it took delivery last week of the first of 63 Airbus A350 firm orders after a long wait of 10 years. The first tranche of ten aircraft which it hopes to take complete delivery by the end of the year have a seat configuration of 42 business, 24 premium economy and 187 economy. An ultra-long range version of the model will be used to resume SIA’s non-stop services from Singapore to Los Angeles and New York in 2017. The modified A350 is said to be more fuel efficient than the A340 previously used. It will be configured premium-bias.

SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said: “The A350 will be a game-changer for us, allowing for flights to more long-haul destinations on a non-stop basis, which will help us boost our network competitiveness and further develop the important Singapore hub.”

Opinions are divided as to whether SIA has moved a little too slowly and as a result is playing catch up when once it used to lead the field. By all indications of the good times finally rolling back for the industry, it is not too late to leapfrog the competition to make up for lost time. SIA is banking on the rejuvenation of the demand for premium travel, the product it has always been reputed for.

The IATA forecast points to weak markets in South America and Africa – two regions that are of little interest to SIA – but continuing robust growth for North America which has been a key market for SIA since it commenced operations thereBut the competition will be tough, particularly from Middle East carriers tapping traffic in Asia-Pacific and redirecting it through their Gulf hubs. Already United Airlines has announced its launch of a non-stop flight between San Francisco and Singapore in June this year, ahead of SIA. (United Airliens steals a march on Singapore Airlines, Feb 15 2016)

According to IATA, consumers will see a substantial increase in the value they derive from air transport this year. Indeed, air travellers will benefit from the optimism as airlines become more inclined to improve their product, and the increased competition will likely see the airlines introducing more creature comforts beyond the snacks and peanuts. Qantas for one is upgrading its airport lounge at London Heathrow as part of a program to create a flagship global lounge at important destinations started three years ago. Hong Kong, Singapore and Los Angeles are already enjoying the new facility. Qantas is also developing across its domestic network an industry-leading wi-fi service that has the ability to deliver the same speeds in flight that people expect on the ground.

Mr Joyce said: “Our record performance is the platform to keep investing in the experiences that matter to our customers and take Qantas’ service to new levels.”

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Thai Airways International

Positive signs of the times are best presented by the performance of Thai Airways which posted a quarterly profit of 5.1 billion (US$141.7 million) baht ending Dec 31, 2015 reversing a loss-making trend. This compared to a 6.4 billion baht a year ago, and softened the full year’s loss to 13.05 billion baht, 16 per cent lower than 15.57 billion baht last year, partly attributed to a decrease in fuel costs of 20 per cent. The airline introduced a program “to stop the bleeding” last year aimed at introducing cost-saving measures, cutting unprofitable routes and down-sizing the fleet.

Plagued by political problems at home and safety concerns based on the findings of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Thai Airways has been struggling to stay afloat amidst increased competition from regional carriers. It is to be expected that stronger-muscled airlines such as Qantas, British Airways and SIA are likely to rise faster with improved economic conditions, but when things are beginning to look up for the more troubled carriers while noting that in good times as in bad the fortunes of various airlines can be widely diverse, the industry can at last be a little more confidently optimistic.