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Vueling's new CEO, Javier Sanchez-Prieto, is leading a programme ('Vueling NEXT') to improve its profitability, both through revenue enhancement and cost efficiency gains. Among other aims this hopes to reduce Vueling's high levels of seasonality, to raise aircraft utilisation and to improve labour productivity. Given ambitious financial targets by IAG – action is needed.
Part 1 of CAPA's analysis of Vueling examined its capacity growth and profitability trends since its acquisition by IAG in 2013. Vueling's operating margin and return on invested capital are on a downward trend, hence the new initiative to reverse these trends.
This second part of CAPA's analysis considers the profit improvement programme. During this programme Vueling's fleet will remain broadly flat to 2018, before resuming growth thereafter. Focus markets for Vueling are domestic Spain and Spain-Europe. It has strengths in these markets but faces growing competition from its lower-cost rival Ryanair, which has also been raising its service quality – closing the gap to Vueling's more premium positioning on the LCC spectrum.
Since the end of 2015 Vueling has slipped from being IAG's best performer on the key financial metric of return on invested capital to its worst performer for the four quarters ended 3Q2016. The group's LCC has suffered more than its sister airlines from disruption in Europe, caused by ATC strikes and terrorist activity.
However, since its acquisition by IAG in 2013 Vueling's revenue growth has not matched its capacity growth and unit costs have grown. The benefits of lower fuel prices have been dissipated by higher ex-fuel unit costs, including lower labour productivity. Vueling's new CEO, Javier Sanchez-Prieto, is now leading a programme ('Vueling NEXT') to improve its profitability.
Part 1 of this CAPA analysis of Vueling examines its capacity growth and profitability trends since becoming part of IAG. It also looks at the development of its RASK and CASK. Part two will highlight the seasonality in Vueling's schedule and look at the profit improvement programme.
CAPA's previous analysis of the 3Q2016 results of Europe's big three legacy airline groups highlighted a fall in their collective operating margin, after growth in 1H2016. This report shows that Europe's five leading LCCs, in aggregate, also suffered a fall in profit and margin in the quarter.
Three of the five – Ryanair, Norwegian and Wizz Air – improved their profit margin in the quarter, but easyJet's drop in margin was heavy enough to bring down the collective result. Pegasus' margin also declined.
Nevertheless, the LCC five remain collectively far more profitable than the legacy three. Moreover Europe's two most profitable airlines, Ryanair and Wizz Air, look set to increase their margin lead this year. Even easyJet, which has had a bad year by its standards, achieved a higher margin for calendar 9M2016 than the most profitable of the big three legacy groups, which was IAG.
The divergence of results in the European sector suggest that not all airlines are following the same cycle. However the collective margin decline for the continent's leading LCCs, and its major legacy airline groups, at least gives reason to question whether or not the cyclical upswing may have run its course.
In spite of challenging market conditions and falling profits, easyJet remains on the offensive in its fight for market share with legacy airlines. It is also making contingency plans to apply for an EU AOC to ensure continued intra-European traffic rights in the post-Brexit future.
easyJet's revenue per seat, pre-tax profit and return on capital employed all fell in FY2016 (year to Sep-2016), the first reversal since before CEO Dame Carolyn McCall took the helm in FY2010. In spite of lower fuel prices, easyJet could not lower its cost per seat fast enough to offset the drop in unit revenue. Load factor was just above flat at 91.6%, so the drop in revenue per seat was all price-related. A series of external events put pressure on pricing – including terrorism, ATC strikes and the UK's Brexit vote.
Some airlines might tighten their capacity growth in the face of weak pricing, but easyJet plans to accelerate its seat growth from 6% in FY2016 to 9% in FY2017. It has its sights on an opportunity to take share from legacy airlines in airports where it already has a strong market position.
IAG's Capital Markets Day on 4-Nov-2016 was the first since its formation in 2011 when it lowered any of its medium term financial targets. It cut its 2016-2020 average EBITDAR goal, in spite of adding in Aer Lingus for the first time. This followed two cuts to 2016 operating profit guidance during the course of this year, as a result of "a tough operating environment". It has been hit by adverse currency movements, mainly resulting from the UK's Brexit vote, in addition to ATC strikes and terrorist events.
To its credit, IAG has responded to the more challenging trading conditions by lowering its planned capacity growth and capital expenditure during its 2016-2020 strategic plan. These steps are necessary if it is to have a chance of meeting its ambitious goal to sustain a 15% return on invested capital. This target is unchanged, despite the lower profit outlook.
In 3Q2016, IAG's rolling four quarter return on capital fell, after rising more or less continuously since it began to target this measure in 2013. It has consistently been more profitable than either of its two main European legacy airline group rivals (Air France-KLM and Lufthansa). Nevertheless, the downward step highlights the challenge in meeting its own demanding target.
Ryanair and Fraport announced on 2-Nov-2016 that the Irish ultra-LCC will open its 85th base at Frankfurt Airport, Lufthansa's main hub. Ryanair will base two aircraft at the airport and launch four new leisure routes in Mar-2017. With a daily departure to each of Alicante, Faro, Malaga and Palma de Mallorca, it expects to attract 400,000 passengers pa.
Although Ryanair has been increasing its primary airport presence for some time, CEO Michael O'Leary had previously said that Frankfurt Airport was one of the few, alongside London Heathrow and Paris CDG, that Ryanair would not serve. Frankfurt was seen not only as too expensive, but also as too congested for Ryanair's short turnaround times. Details of Ryanair's agreement with Frankfurt Airport have not been disclosed, but it is likely that the airline has secured favourable terms in return for traffic growth targets.
Ryanair's move into Frankfurt is relatively small compared with its operations in Berlin Schoenefeld and Cologne/Bonn, but this development supports its growth ambitions in Germany. Ryanair's average revenue per passenger is half that of Lufthansa's network airlines. Its move increases the competitive pressure on Germany's national airline.
Air France-KLM, Lufthansa & IAG: 3Q2016 results may signal a cyclical peak in Europe airline margins
Air France-KLM, Lufthansa Group and IAG collectively reported a fall in operating profit and operating margin in 3Q2016, after growth in 1H2016. Individually, only IAG avoided a decline in its operating margin. IAG also remained the most profitable, and Air France-KLM the least profitable, in the most important quarter of the year.
The margin contraction in 3Q resulted from a bigger fall in unit revenue relative to 1H, without a matching fall in unit cost (in spite of lower fuel prices). Passenger unit revenue fell by 6% to 7% for all three (adjusted for currency movements), with long haul markets especially weak. Unit revenue was particularly soft on routes to Asia Pacific and on the North Atlantic (and, for Lufthansa Group) on the South Atlantic.
The combined operating margin of the three has been a good indicator for European airlines overall in the past. The outlook for FY2016 for each still suggests that there will be margin improvement for the year as a whole. This could be in line with, or slightly above, the cyclical peak reached in 2007 – before the global financial crisis. Against this backdrop, the decline in margin in 3Q2016 suggests that further improvement may be difficult in 2017.
One of the five oldest airlines in the world that are still in operation, CSA Czech Airlines is also the smallest airline in SkyTeam by passenger numbers. After several years of losses the airline returned to profit in 2015 and expects another positive result in 2016, albeit below last year's level. CSA Czech Airlines is growing once more this year, after a restructuring programme involving reductions in its fleet, capacity and headcount it has also developed a profitable contract flying business. Together with lower fuel prices, its restructuring has helped to achieve the airline's turnaround.
CSA Czech Airlines has a predominantly European network. Its only intercontinental route is from Prague to Seoul, the hub of its part-owner – codeshare partner and fellow SkyTeam member, Korean Air. Its biggest destination market is Russia, but this is followed by the Western European countries France, Italy and Germany. It has a relatively low share of seats at its hub in Prague, where LCCs have a significant share and Ryanair has opened a base this winter. However, although CSA faces strong competitors on routes to non-SkyTeam hubs, competition is limited elsewhere by its targeting of niche regional routes and its use of codeshare agreements (including with Travel Service, another part owner).
The latest investment in the Monarch Group by its majority shareholder Greybull Capital avoided the loss of its ATOL licences and the possible suspension of operations. Moreover, it has given Monarch the opportunity to bridge the gap between now and the planned delivery of the first of its new 30 Boeing 737MAX aircraft in 2018.
Nevertheless, Monarch continues to face significant challenges. Europe's short/medium-haul markets are feeling significant downward pressure on unit revenue – particularly in the leisure markets that Monarch serves. This is due to overcapacity and concerns about terrorism in key Monarch markets. Brexit and the sharp devaluation of GBP (it has fallen by 30% against the EUR over the past 12 months) are further challenges for the LCC.
Although Monarch quickly quashed rumours of its financial difficulties in late Sep-2016 and then secured new funds, its commentary indicated that its profit for the year to Oct-2016 would be lower than in the previous year. It has an uneven track record of profitability and has often flown with close to empty cash reserves. Those reserves have been partially replenished, but only sustainable improvements in profitability will avoid the need for further cash calls in the future.
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.