A bleak year for airlines

It looks quite certainly a bleak year for airlines as Covid-19 keeps people away from travelling. The outbreak has become more extensive than anticipated, short of being classified as pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Cutting capacity

Many airlines are cutting back or suspending services not only to destinations in China where the outbreak started but also across the world.

Among them are:

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines, which has cancelled almost 700 flights across its network through to May. Its low-cost subsidiary Scoot has cancelled all flights to China.

Cathay Pacific, which so far has seen flights reduced by more than 75 per cent till the end of March, with hints of more to be scrapped.

Qantas, which has reduced capacity to Hong Kong and suspended flights to Shanghai and Beijing. It is also reporting weak demand for seats on flights to Singapore and Japan as well. Capacity to Asian destinations will be reduced by 15 per cent until the end of May. Its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar is also adjusting capacity as a result of the weaker domestic market.

Air France, which has taken out flights to China until the end of March.

British Airways, which has cancelled not only flights to China but also more than 200 flights from London to destinations in the United States, Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Ireland in the latter half of March.

Ryanair, which will cut up to 25% of flights in and out of Italy from 17 March to 8 April..Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary said: “There has been a notable drop in forward bookings towards the end of March, into early April.”

EasyJet, which is cancelling some flights because of “a significant softening of demand and load factors into and out of our Northern Italian bases”.

United Airlines, which has suspended flights to China and axed flights to South Korea, Japan and Singapore as demand across the Pacific has fallen by as much as 75 per cent. Delta Air Lines has also cancelled flights to China.

Air Canada, which has cancelled all flights from Toronto to Hong Kong until the end of April.

Middle-east airlines, which are affected by action taken by the Gulf authorities. Iran as the epicentre of the outbreak in the region has seen flights to its airports cancelled by neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Events cancelled

The threat of the disease spreading easily at public events has led to many of them being cancelled, which in turn will affect the airlines which would have enjoyed a boon in carriage numbers.

Courtesy United Airlines

United Airlines for one has scaled back additional flights between San Francisco/Newark and Barcelona planned for the Mobile World Congress which has been cancelled.

Now all eyes are on the 2020 Summer Olympics to be staged in Tokyo.

Business travel, as noted by British Airways chief Willie Walsh, has been affected by the cancellation of large conferences. Some large corporations are also restricting executive travel.

International cruises, which pose a similar threat following the outbreak of the disease on the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama, have also suffered from reduced patronage or cancellations, and this in turn reduces feeds from airlines from across the globe to the ports of call.

Reduced profitability

Expectedly airlines are predicting reduced profitability although some of them are optimistic about the impact as not being as drastic as it seems.

Air France-KLM warned its earnings would be affected by as much as €200 million (US$224 million).

Qantas said the COVID-19 outbreak would cost the airline up to A$150m (US$99m).

Air New Zealand expects the impact to be in the range from NZ$35 million (US$22 million) to NZ$75 million as travel demand to Asia drops.

Finnair is expecting a significant drop in operating profit this year.

Airlines which rely heavily on Asian traffic are naturally more affected, even more so budget carriers such as AirAsia and its long-haul arm AirAsiaX. Particularly vulnerable are airlines which are struggling to stay afloat, such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, which is cutting back on long-haul operations, and Hong Kong Airlines, which is 45 per cent owned by Hainan Airlines of the HNA Group, which itself is facing a sell-off by the Chinese government.

Cost cutting

Besides reducing or cutting capacity, expectedly many airlines are looking at cutting cost.

EasyJet is looking into reducing administrative budgets, offering unpaid leave, and freezing recruitment, promotion and pay rises.

Singapore Airlines is implementing paycuts of 10 to 15 per cent for senior executive management. General staff will be offered a voluntary no-pay leave scheme.

Cathay Pacific is asking employees to take unpaid leave.

Courtesy Airbus

Perhaps the impact is most felt at Hong Kong Airlines which has slashed in-flight services to a bare minimum and dismissed staff, targeting 400 of them.

What’s next?

While the industry contnues to grapple with the prolonged saga of the B737 Max jet predicament, the coronavirus outbreak could not have come at a worse time on its heels. In both cases, it is the uncertainty that poses the biggest problem. Soem airlines are pessimistic that the threat will blow over by the end of March, which is unlikely, while others are more cautious in their forecast, looking at the end of May. It is this uncertainty that makes one wonder if any of them might not survive the wait.

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.

Rising budget tide: Alitalia unbundles, IAG launches budget long-haul

Courtesy Getty Images

YET another legacy airline is going budget. Italian flag carrier Alitalia will adopt the unbundling model of budget carriers by charging for what will now be considered perks – seat selection, luggage and in-flight meals and drinks. This will be implemented for flights of four hours or less.

Alitalia CEO Cramer Ball said the airline had “absolutely no alternative” but to follow suit, coming soon after British Airways started charging for meals. He said: “If we can’t compete throughout Italy and Europe against low-cost carriers, then we lose air travellers that connect into intercontinental flights.”

Ryanair, EasyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, WOW Air, Eurowings (owned by Lufthansa) and Vueling (owned by International Airlines Group – IAG – which also owns British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus) are among the budget carriers viewed as close competitors.

Unbundling is not new even among legacy airlines. US carriers such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are already offering “basic economy” whose low fare does not come with cabin baggage allowance and seat selection, and holders of such tickets will be boarded last.

Courtesy IAG

In the wake of the rising budget tide, IAG announces its decision to launch a long-haul budget carrier – Level – to complement Veuling’s short-haul. Level, which becomes the fifth brand within the group, will be based in Barcelona with flights to the Americas that include destinations such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Buenos Aires and Punta Cana.

IAG chief executive Willie Walsh said: “Barcelona is Vueling’s home base and this will allow customers to connect from Vueling’s extensive European network onto Level’s long-haul flights.”

Clearly, legacy airlines can no longer hide behind their pride of providing a service that is safe from the aggression of budget carriers. It is up to the consumers to decide, whether the extra dollars charged justify the perceived better standards. In today’s price-sensitive market, the bottom-line counts, and legacy airlines unbunding the fare package will make an easier comparison.

They will be faced with the challenge to convince the travellers of that something extra over and above price that they will continue to provide but which budget carriers may not have the capability or capacity to offer, such as mileage perks, compensation for flight delays and product shortcomings, ease of booking, schedule flexibility, and after-sale customer attention.

Many budget carriers, for example, do not have adequate Plan B when a flight is cancelled or delayed, and your chances of getting out of that situation soonest is better with legacy airlines in light of their frequency, connections and codeshare arrangements.

International Airlines Group partnership works

Courtesy British Airways

Courtesy British Airways

The success of International Airlines Group (IAG) in the last two to three years is proof that its strategic partnership works. The group, made up originally of British Airways (BA) and Spanish carrier Iberia and subsequently Vueling which is a budget operator, was joined by Aer Lingus in August this year.

Excluding Aer Lingus, IAG posted a pre-tax profit for Q3 (Jul to Sep) of €1.1bn (US$1.2bn), an increase of 48% from last year. Chief executive Willie Walsh said: “We’re reporting strong quarter results with a positive contribution from all of our airlines.” Encouraged by a better Q3 than Q2, the group is confident that its operating profits for the full year could be as high as €2.3bn, reaffirming its previous forecast of over €2.2bn but looking more optimistically at a higher number. Operating profits for the first nine months were €1.8bn.

Compared to Europe’s largest partnership airline Air France-KLM which continued to report deepening losses (its Q2 loss of €79m was larger than that of €11m a year ago) even as fuel costs held steady in the lower range, IAG on the other hand is gaining new strengths. If the weakening euro has affected Air France-KLM adversely, so has it affected IAG, particularly for BA as the major partner of IAG. But the state of the currency can work both ways, whether positively or negatively, depending on the specific market. In fact Air France-KLM, as does IAG, stands to gain from operations outside continental EU, particularly the United States.

It would be pretentious to suggest that there is a formulaic – even more pretentious of an inherent – magic in the IAG partnership that contributes to its success. Partnerships are forged for several reasons, and not few of them were motivated by political, even personal, reasons. Invariably the investment is almost always about synergy, or premised upon the potential for synergy. The IAG proposal was not without reservations and scepticism among analysts. The merger was completed in January 2011. In its second year, IAG plunged from a profit of €527m to a loss of €997m, prompting chief executive Willie Walsh to admit that it might have been better to delay but not scuttle the marriage as he remained convinced of its benefits.

Walsh said: “This is an important step in the process towards creating one of the world’s global airlines that will be better equipped to compete with other major airlines and participate in future industry consolidation.”

Give credit to Walsh for his vision and leadership. As the industry moved into mega alliances, BA too needed to expand and extend beyond its traditional borders, and when the industry not long after was dragged down by a global economic meltdown, the increased pressure of competition in a reduced market demanded an urgent shift to focus on cost efficiency to try and retain market share. Anti-merger Iberia supporters expressed concern that the Spanish carrier would be swallowed up by the larger British carrier. While Walsh reiterated that Ibe5ria would retain its identity, he did not mince his words when he mentioned how Iberia was lagging behind BA and was in a “fight for survival”.

In fact, the circumstances turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Iberia, which was buffered by BA for the stringent cost-cutting measures that followed and whose action was legitimized by the dire straits it found itself rather than risk going bust altogether. It was a good match, both airlines operating few overlapping routes. And as Walsh noted, “It combines BA’s strength position on the mature North Atlantic market with Iberia’s strong position in the fast growing South Atlantic market.” It was a Walsh tour de force, the kind of business intrepidity that Air France-KLM was not prepared to flaunt, perhaps wisely, when faced with the prospect of increasing its stake in the beleaguered Italian carrier Alitalia. The mega frenzy can lead to costly makeovers and adjustments, draining resources of the parent. Clearly IAG was not a passive investment for BA, unlike the lacklustre partnership between Singapore Airline (SIA) and Virgin Atlantic while it lasted before SIA sold it to Delta Air Lines at a loss.

IAG bounced back into profitability in 2013, posting a profit of €227m, which more than tripled a year later to €828m. The question now is how much stronger can IAG get with Aer Lingus coming on board. The Irish flag carrier made an operating profit of €45m from the day it joined IAG.

Courtesy PA

Courtesy PA

It was not surprising that Aer Lingus felt the same initial reservation as Iberia when approached by IAG, but the successful integration of the Spanish carrier did much to allay the concern. Aer Lingus would too retain its independent identity. The good news for IAG was that Aer Lingus was joining as a profitable partner with expanded operations across the Atlantic. Wrenching the Irish carrier from Ryanair in a possible takeover by the budget carrier was a feat for BA through IAG, literally putting a lid on the competition as low-cost carriers across Europe continue to challenge the legacy market. Air France-KLM for one is feeling the pinch.

Adding Aer Lingus to IAG provides numerous opportunities for synergy and extensive connectivity to Ireland (as far as BA is concerned), particularly as landing slots for expansion at London Heathrow become a scarcity. Walsh, a former chief of Aer Lingus, said connecting Heathrow and Dublin would be a priority and assured the continuation of Aer Lingus’ profitable regional routes. The Irish government is cherishing the hope that Dublin would assume new importance as a hub for trans-Atlantic operations.

For Aer Lingus, tapping into the bigger IAG network would help fuel its growth. Internationally, IAG partners would be better positioned to meet the competition from other airlines, particularly Middle East carriers such as Emirates and Etihad Airways. European carriers such as Air France-KLM and Lufthansa are struggling to stave off competition by Gulf carriers, which recently were also criticized by US carriers United, American and Delta of unfair competition supported by state subsidies.

Interestingly, Qatar Airways already has a 10% stake in IAG. Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker saw it as “an excellent opportunity to further develop our westwards strategy,” linking the airline with two major European hubs and strong transatlantic networks. Qatar has a strong network eastwards, from the Middle East across India to Asia and Australia, and this largely complements the IAG network. The question now is how much more of IAG will Qatar eventually own as the group, additionally with a strong American Airlines alliance, looks poised to grow stronger.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

International Airlines Group soars

British Airways PlcIT was a week of good news. Following Qantas’ stellar turnaround, the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways (BA), Iberia and Vueling posted soaring pre-tax profits of €828 million (US$89.8 million) for the year ending 31 December 2014.

However, while Qantas swings like a yo-yo, plagued by uncertainty of its action in spite of its vaunted transformation programme, BA has demonstrated a steadier course in progressing all three partners towards profitability. (See Qantas’ stellar turnaround: To whom is the credit due? Mar 6, 2015)

IAG’s success was attributed largely to the turnaround of Spanish airline Iberia which IAG CEO Willie Walsh said “remarkable, both financially nd operationally.” Stringent cost-cutting measures that had resulted in 4000 job redundancies since 2011 and the use of more efficient aircraft have worked. The target was for Iberia to break even in 2014, and it had done better than that, posting an operating profit of €50 million, compared with an operating loss of €166 million last year and, as a result, almost doubling IAG’s operating profits to more than €1 billion.

BA posted an operating profit of €1.2 billion compared to last year’s €762 million. Low-cost partner Vueling posted an operating profit of €141 million.

IAG has raised its forecast for 2015 by 20 per cent. However, it said all three airlines in its conglomerate are facing stiff competition, particularly from low-cost carriers, across Europe.

Qatar Airways nets a prized catch, expanding westwards

IT may seem somewhat crazy, but it is definitely not surprising in today’s aviation landscape of fast changing and crisscrossed relationships, some of them making most unlikely bedfellows. The ends justify the means.

Courtesy British Airways

Courtesy British Airways

Qatar Airways has acquired a 10% stake in International Airlines Group (IAG), better known as the owner of British Airways (BA) and Iberia. IAG also owns Spanish budget carrier Vueling. The act of acquisition itself by the cash-rich Middle East carrier does not surprise. Qatar lags behind rival Etihad Airways in this respect; Etihad already owns Alitalia (49%), Air Serbia (49%), Air Serbia (49%), Air Seychelles (40%), Etihad Regional (formerly Darwin Airlines) (33.3%), Air Berlin (29.21%), Jet Airways (24%), Virgin Australia (10%) and Aer Lingus (2.987%).

But coming lately, Qatar has bagged a prized acquisition, considering IAG’s bases at two major European hubs, in particular London Heathrow, and the strong transatlantic networks of BA and Iberia. Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker said: “IAG represents an excellent opportunity to further develop our westwards strategy.” It should be a strong partnership. Together, their networks cover Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia.

In 2013 Qatar became a member of OneWorld, becoming the only one of the big three Gulf carriers to join a global airline alliance. More than an apparent Qatari interest in things British, this was a step forward to forge a closer relationship with BA. Qatar said it may increase its stake in IAG for which it paid £1.15 billion (US$1.73 billion). However, EU regulations have placed a cap on non-EU ownership at 49%.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Quite unlike Etihad, which has entered the arena as a white knight in many cases, Qatar is buying into one of Europe’s more profitable outfits. Clearly it is a strategic move. While European carriers are becoming wary of Gulf carriers making inroads in the EU market, the competition is at the same time a race among the big three Middle East carriers themselves- Qatar, Etihad and Emirates Airlines. This has become all the more prominent in recent years as they out-compete each other within their region and seek aggressively to push out their geographical boundaries, leveraging on the success of home bases such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha as hubs for international traffic connecting Asia Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The rivalry for supremacy is clear in a jibe made by Mr Al Baker on the race to top the chart for extreme luxury in the air, something that carriers outside the Gulf are less disposed to think about at the same level. He said: “We always raise the bar for our dear friends around the area to try to copy us.” (The big deal about extreme luxury, Jan 19, 2015)

Courtesy PA

Courtesy PA


The timing could not have been better for Qatar as IAG looks likely to succeed in a new takeover bid of Irish carrier Aer Lingus after two failed attempts previously. This would gain IAG more take-off and landing slots at Heathrow. What is interesting is the composition of Aer Lingus partners, which include Ryanair (29.8%) and Etihad. Any opposition to the deal is likely to come from the Irish government which owns 25% of Aer Lingus, but it may be a price well worth paying for the crucial air links between cities in Ireland and Heathrow as the world’s largest hub (until topped by Dubai recently) and beyond. Ryanair has itself attempted unsuccessfully to take over Aer Lingus and objected vehemently to IAG’s proposal in the past for reasons that are not difficult to see. IAG’s chief executive officer Willie Walsh and Ryanair’s chief Michael O’Leary are not exactly the best of friends. But if money talks, the latest offer of €1.3billion (US$1.47 billion) by IAG may well carry the day.

Airline relationships in today’s industry are more complex, if not blatantly promiscuous. While global alliances offer the broad framework for cooperation, it is not uncommon to find rival airlines connected in some way through a third party. The numerous cross-border codeshare arrangements are testimony to the multi-faceted connections. Less than half the world’s airlines belong to any of the three global alliances: Star (27 members), SkyTeam (20 members), and OneWorld (15 members). Although many major carriers are already members, there are notable exclusions such Virgin Atlantic (although CEO Richard Branson who made an about turn in 2012 announcing Virgin might join one of the alliances soon) and the other two of the big three Gulf carriers Emirates and Etihad. While Aer Lingus itself is unaffiliated, and so are part owners Ryanair and Etihad, IAG’s influence cannot be precluded although it has said Aer Lingus would continue to operate independently.

It is best to adopt a detached view of the business. Alliance membership may but not necessarily suggest a like-mindedness that brings friends to the same table. There is no reason why friends and foes alike may not put their money in a common proposition that will help further their respective positions. OneWorld membership may have eased Qatar’s way into the IAG stable, making it easier for Mr Walsh to be “delighted to have Qatar Airways as a long term supportive shareholder.” Not sure if he would be any less delighted if it had been Emirates or Etihad. But for Qatar, as part owner of IAG which is set to take over Aer Lingus, it is stealing a march on rival Etihad.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.