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Fuel helps bolster LCC cost performance, but labour deals create significant headwinds for Southwest
The last of Europe's leading listed airline groups reported 1H2016 results on 19-Sep-2016. This now allows analysis of the aggregate trends for the 15 largest European airline groups listed on the stock market that publicly report financial results for the first six months of the calendar year. These groups account for 53% of ASKs flown to/from/within Europe by all airlines and 71% of ASKs flown by European airlines (week of 19-Sep-2016, source: OAG).
Collectively, these 15 groups enjoyed an improvement in operating margin in 1H2016 versus 1H2015. This was achieved in spite of heavy downward pressure on unit revenue – thanks largely to lower fuel prices, which allowed them to cut unit costs more rapidly. However, there was a wider range of levels of profitability in the individual results compared with last year.
Moreover, in margin terms, there was a trend towards the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker. Further, there has been a number of profit warnings in the sector – particularly since the UK's Brexit referendum. This may mean that further improvements in the aggregate results of Europe's listed airline sector will be harder to achieve in 2017.
Part 1 of CAPA's analysis of Spanish LCC Volotea highlighted its rapid growth, but noted that its load factor left room for improvement. The Spanish LCC flies almost two thirds of its seats in domestic Italy and France, but operates in a total of 12 countries and 66 airports across Europe. It concentrates on small and medium-sized airports, with Italy and France dominating its list of leading routes.
This second part of CAPA's report on Volotea looks at its generally favourable competitive position on its leading routes (it is the biggest airline on 15 of its top 20 routes). This positive competitive standing has been carried onto the majority of the 32 routes that Volotea has launched in the past year, although its low frequencies and very strong summer bias limit its appeal to business passengers and give it a leisure focus.
Volotea's average trip length sits between those of regional airlines and Europe's principal LCCs. This is evidenced by the fact that two of its most frequent competitors are Hop (Air France's regional airline) and Ryanair (Europe's leading LCC). Volotea's fleet strategy is now to replace its 125-seat Boeing 717s with 150-seat A319s. This will result in it butting up against LCCs more often.
Volotea is an unusual creature. It's a Spanish airline, but has almost two thirds of its seat capacity in domestic Italy and domestic France. It's an LCC, but mainly operates 125-seat Boeing 717 aircraft – much smaller than the 737-800 and A320 aircraft more typically flown by European LCCs. Nevertheless, more than four years after its 2012 launch, it is one of the fastest-growing airlines in Europe, with passenger growth of 39% in 2015 and a similar rate expected in 2016.
This first part of a two-part series on Volotea looks at the airline's growth record and load factor development. It analyses the geographic distribution of Volotea's capacity across Europe and examines its network of small and medium-sized airports. It also presents the airline's leading routes, which are dominated by Italy and France.
Part 2 of CAPA's analysis of Volotea will consider the airline's competitive position and its recent route launches. It will also analyse its low-frequency schedule and high seasonality levels, in addition to its fleet strategy.
On 8-Sep-2016 LOT Polish Airlines announced its "2020 profitable growth strategy". This involves a goal to achieve "sustainable viability", after a restructuring programme which returned LOT to operating profit in 2014 after six loss-making years. Its privatisation may even be back on the agenda.
LOT currently ranks behind LCCs Ryanair and Wizz Air by share of traffic in Poland, which offers superior traffic growth potential versus Europe as a whole. The airline aims to increase passenger numbers from 4.3 million in 2015 to 10 million in 2020, growing its fleet from 43 to 70 aircraft. LOT's expansion will focus on long haul, particularly North America and Asia, where it currently has only five routes and where competition is considerably lower than on short/medium haul. Initial plans include the launch of Warsaw-Seoul this winter and a return to Warsaw-New York Newark next summer.
According to data from LOT, its restructuring has left it with a fairly efficient cost base by legacy airline standards and this will be important in competing with LCCs (but there is still a cost gap with LCCs). LOT's growth will focus on long haul but will need short-haul European feed – and partnerships. Although LOT no longer appears to be considering leaving the Star Alliance, it remains excluded from American and Asian JVs. Further, those JVs preclude members from working with LOT. Partnership growth will be as critical as it will be challenging.
CAPA's 170-page "Global Airport Finance and Privatisation review 2016 – the day has come for the PPP" is is the fourth in a series of CAPA reports on airport privatisation and investment published since Jan-2015.
During that time a number of deals have been concluded and announced across the world though their volume remains below the levels prior to 2008. One of the key trends is an identifiable increase in activity in public-private partnerships (PPPs) globally.
In a world where obtaining a viable return on investment remains a difficult task it is evident that investor sentiment once again favours long term transport infrastructure. Airports are among the well tested models for investment.
Pegasus Airlines is having a difficult year. Its 2Q2016 results revealed a year on year widening of its operating loss for the third successive quarter. A series of geopolitical and terrorist events in Turkey have weighed on demand for international travel in particular.
Although Pegasus slowed its capacity growth in 2Q, this did not arrest the trend of plunging unit revenue. In spite of low fuel prices, Pegasus has not been able to match the fall in RASK with a sufficient reduction in its unit cost.
In response to its weak 2Q and 1H results, Pegasus has issued a profit warning, lowering its guidance for FY2016 and implying an operating loss for the year. After a number of years of double digit passenger growth, it now targets an increase of only 5%-7% this year (it previously expected 13%-15%). A more cautious approach to growth makes sense in the current environment.
Despite low fuel prices that have carried the global airline industry to record margins, airberlin's 2Q2016 losses have widened. This was its fifth successive quarter of unit cost growth outpacing unit revenue growth (they both fell, but unit revenue fell faster). Airberlin improved its cost structure, but CEO Stefan Pichler said that 2Q "was more challenging than expected on volumes and yield". It now seems likely that 2016 will be yet another year of red ink for airberlin, which is 30% owned by Etihad.
Airberlin's ongoing restructuring continues to involve capacity and headcount cuts to improve cost efficiency. In addition, airberlin is seeking cost synergies by coordinating some support functions with Etihad Airways Partners airlines.
Still predominantly a short/medium haul operator, airberlin is expanding its long haul network with new routes in the US and the Caribbean. This long haul expansion, accompanied by the launch of a short/medium haul premium product, attempts to position airberlin more squarely as a full service network airline. This is a further move away from its LCC past, just as LCCs are encroaching on long haul in addition to short haul.
Lufthansa Group's detailed 2Q2016 results confirmed the headline numbers that it pre-released with a profit warning on 20-Jul-2016. After increasing its operating profit in 1Q, the group suffered a decline in 2Q. Among Europe's big three legacy airline groups, Lufthansa was the only one to report lower 2Q profits. In 1H2016, IAG again has the best operating margin of the three, followed by Lufthansa and then Air France-KLM. However, LCCs Ryanair and Wizz Air are more profitable than any of them.
Lufthansa's full 2Q report provides an opportunity to compare the capacity growth and unit revenue performance of each of the Lufthansa Group, Air France-KLM and IAG for 2Q2016. Unit revenue has been soft for some time for all three, but seems to be weakening further. Lufthansa cautioned that advance bookings, especially on long-haul, have declined significantly, citing repeated terrorist attacks in Europe and greater political and economic uncertainty.
Against this backdrop, IAG and Lufthansa have reduced their capacity growth plans, while Air France-KLM has retained its 1% ASK growth outlook for its network airlines. CAPA's analysis highlights the inverse relationship between capacity growth and RASK growth. Further capacity haircuts may follow.
IAG increased its 2Q2016 operating profit modestly, but only because Aer Lingus boosted this year's numbers (it was not in the group in 2Q2015). The quarter was affected by externalities: negative currency impacts and softer demand conditions resulting from terrorism, the Brexit vote, macroeconomic weakness in Latin America and air traffic control strikes in Europe. The resultant deteriorating unit revenue trend was offset by lower unit costs, mainly due to lower fuel prices.
Three of IAG's four operating airlines improved their margin in 1H2016 but Vueling's declined, since the external disruption affected it the most. Vueling's operating margin has been on a downward trend since its acquisition by IAG in 2013. Its capacity growth plans for FY2016 have now been trimmed, also scaling back the group's growth for the year.
IAG now expects 2016 operating profit growth of a low single-digit percentage, much less than the 40% increase previously anticipated but still an increase. This outlook is more positive than that given recently by Lufthansa, which expects a fall in profit this year. Moreover, IAG remains a higher margin group than either of Lufthansa or Air France-KLM, and should be better placed if there is to be a full-scale downturn.
Jet2.com is more summer-biased than almost any European airline, in spite of a capacity cut last summer. This reflects its strong leisure focus and its interdependence with the tour operator Jet2holidays. In the year to Mar-2016 Jet2holidays supplied 40% of the UK LCC's passengers, up from 17% in FY2013, since when it has been responsible for all of the airline's traffic growth.
Dart Group owns and runs both Jet2.com and Jet2holidays as the single business segment Leisure Travel (95% of group operating profit). The underlying operating profit of the Leisure Travel segment more than doubled for the year to Mar-2016, reaching the highest margin since FY2009, thanks to yield growth and increased sales of higher-end package holidays.
Strong advance sales insulate Jet2.com and Jet2holidays from the impact of Brexit in the short term. Nevertheless, their strong dependence on summer leisure demand exposes them to any volatility that may result from growing geopolitical and macroeconomic risks. Moreover, an order for 30 new Boeing 737-800s marks a departure from Jet2.com's strategy of buying and operating old aircraft that are close to being fully depreciated. This may increase the pressure on the airline to deploy its assets on a more year-round basis.
The first of Europe's big three legacy airline groups to report results for 2Q2016, Air France-KLM improved its operating margin and still expects higher operating free cash flow for FY2016. However, it remains less profitable than the other two big legacy groups, IAG and Lufthansa, and is still reluctant to give a profit target for FY2016.
Air France-KLM's commentary on the outlook implies that it now expects to make a lower profit this year than previously anticipated, even if this is likely to be higher than in 2015. In effect, this completes a full set of profit warnings from the big three legacy groups, since IAG and Lufthansa have already signalled a lowering of their profit outlook for 2016.
By contrast, LCCs have generally been more positive in their 2Q reporting and outlook (with the notable exception of easyJet). All European airlines have highlighted a weakening outlook for unit revenue, due to industry capacity growth plus geopolitical and macroeconomic risks, but low cost airlines such as Ryanair and Wizz Air appear better placed to cope with this outlook, given their lower unit costs. At this point in the cycle, new Air France-KLM CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac will need to balance growth against productivity.
Ryanair's results statement for 1Q2017 (Apr-Jun quarter) came as something of a relief for the European airline sector. The continent's leading LCC and largest airline by passenger numbers reported modest growth in profits and – more importantly – reiterated its FY2017 target of a 12% increase in annual net profit.
This came hard on the heels of a profit warning from Europe's number two LCC easyJet. Added to positive quarterly results from Norwegian and Wizz Air recently, Ryanair's announcement provides a more optimistic tone, at least for the low cost end of the market.
That said, Ryanair is also preparing the ground for a possible further weakening of an already depressed pricing environment in Europe, pointing to geopolitical uncertainties, including terrorist activity and Brexit. With a lower cost per passenger than any competitor and a very strong balance sheet, Ryanair is well placed for any airline market downturn.