Japan Airlines eyes a bigger slice of budget market

Courtesy Reuters

It is taking Japan Airlines (JAL) a long time to launch a budget subsidiary, but it’s never too late if the budget market continues to grow. One may say that the Japanese carrier is treading with extreme caution, and even if the economic arguments are no stronger now than before, there can be no better reason than the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 for the belated introduction.

At home, rival All Nippon Airways (ANA) has been operating two budget carriers, namely Peach and Vanilla (which was the rebirth of a failed joint venture with AirAsia), and has plans to merge the two carriers in preparation for medium-haul international flights.

Foreign low-cost competitors include AirAsia, Singapore Airlines’ Scoot and Hong Kong Express. And, of course, there is Jetstar, the budget arm of Qantas, in which JAL has a minority share. It is therefore not exactly correct to say that the Japanese national carrier has not tapped into the budget market earlier, though not in as big a way as the others.

The yet-to-be-named budget carrier, to be based at Narita International Airport, will commence operations with two jets in mid-2020, offering medium and long-haul flights to Asia, Europe and the Americas. It will operate to some of the destinations already served by JAL.

The timing cannot be coincidental, as this is when ANA is expanding the operations of Peach into the international market. Until then, JAL seems quite content that the competition is limited to the domestic market, but with Peach offering another option for loyal Japanese travellers besides others to fly beyond and into Japan at lower fares, it cannot be taken lightly.

The budget market in Asia is a growing business. JAL director Masaru Onishi said the airline will cater to a broad group of Japanese and foreign passengers, and will take a more experimental approach to its product than the full-service parent carrier. There will be a mix of budget and premium options for meals and seats. The airline aims to be profitable within three years.

JAL may be Johnny-come-lately, but it has ambitious plans for its budget offspring. The competition is set to intensify, not just with compatriot ANA but also with other foreign carriers.

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Qantas continues to fly high, confident about the future

Courtesy Getty Images

Qantas continues to fly high with new confidence while most other airlines cringe at the prospect of reduced profitability or even losses in the wake of rising fuel prices.

The Australian national carrier posted a record profit of A$1.6 billion (US$1.2 billion) for the year up to June 30, 2018 – 14 per cent higher than last year and 5 per cent higher than the last record profit in 2016. All that despite incurring a fuel bill that increased by almost A$200 million, and which is expected to go up another A$690 million the current year.

Qantas chief Alan Joyce said: “We’re facing another increase to our fuel bill for FY19 and we’re confident that we will substantially recover this through a range of capacity, revenue and cost efficiency measures, in addition to our hedging program.”

The confidence is something of a rarity these days as the fortune of the industry becomes increasingly volatile these days, and most airline leaders choose to be conservative in their forecast moving forward, often citing the uncertainty of the fuel price and, of course, competition.

Qantas has risen to become Asia-Pacific’s – if not the world’s – star performer.

The airline’s performance was boosted by a record profit of A$1.1 billion, up 25 per cent, in the domestic market, achieved through the combination of Qantas and Jetstar’s network, schedule and product strengths in key markets.

Internationally, the airline’s earnings rose7 per cent on the back of a 4-per cent increase in capacity, achieving a load factor of 84 per cent. The new Perth-London route is said to be the highest rating service in its network, and this should cause some concern to its rivals plying the kangaroo route, Singapore Airlines being one of them.

Mr Joyce emphasized that “capacity discipline” was key to Qantas’ success. With strong forward bookings, the airline can certainly afford to be optimistic.

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.

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.