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 (limited) data from LOT, its restructuring has left it with a fairly efficient cost base and this will be important in competing 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.
All-premium UK-US airlines. BA cuts LCY frequency; La Compagnie quits LTN; Odyssey to launch in 2017
There have been two notable recent developments in the market for all-business class services on the North Atlantic: British Airways is to reduce its London City-JFK A318 frequencies and France's La Compagnie is to withdraw from Luton-Newark to concentrate its 74-seat Boeing 757 operations on Paris-Newark (its only other route).
BA's 32-seat London City operation has been suffering from significant load factor declines, particularly on the outbound flights. These flights make a refuelling stop in Shannon, where passengers can pre-clear US customs, but this may not be a sufficient incentive for some passengers to take an indirect flight. La Compagnie expressed concerns about uncertainties in the UK post-Brexit, but its route economics must anyway have been struggling, due to Luton's lack of suitability as a premium market and its lack of feed.
So far there has been no reaction to these developments from the new-start Odyssey Airlines, which plans to launch an all-business class London City-New York service in 2017. It will no doubt be attempting to find a balance between relief that its level of competition has reduced, and some anxiety that its launch may coincide with a softening of market demand.
Panama’s Copa Airlines is joining other Latin American airlines in expressing cautious optimism that some negative trends in the region are starting to stabilise, after a tough couple of years of challenging economic conditions. Copa, in particular, believes that weakened demand is beginning to improve, driven in part by some currencies within Latin America that are strengthening against the USD.
For 2H2016 Copa is continuing to post stronger close-in bookings that began to improve in 2Q2016, which is a positive sign for airlines operating in the region. Some of the upswing in bookings stems from capacity reductions by most Latin American airlines, to right-size supply with demand. That capacity discipline should continue in 2017, since all of the region’s major airline groups have worked to defer aircraft deliveries in order to maintain a proper supply-demand balance and lower capex commitments.
Similarly to other Latin American airline groups, Copa has worked to shore up its balance sheet to withstand overall economic weakness in many of its markets. Its cash balances at the end of 2Q2016 increased from the first quarter, and its leverage was the best among some of Latin America’s publicly traded airlines.
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.
Air Canada is undertaking a significant international push, just as the UK has voted to exit the European Union and terrorist attacks have swept Belgium, France and Turkey. Despite the pressure those circumstances are creating for revenue and yields, Air Canada has a reasonably positive outlook for demand in 3Q2016.
The airline has posted declines in yields and unit revenues for numerous quarters, but stresses that outcome remains a by-product of its strategy to grow internationally. Expansion by the company’s low cost subsidiary rouge has increased Air Canada’s mix of leisure customers and its growing average stage lengths have also pressured unit revenues. However, the company continually declares that its expansion is margin-accretive.
Air Canada no longer provides specific capacity guidance but has no plans to slow its growth in 2016, the bulk of which is directed to international markets. The company’s message is that its capacity increases should in fact be absorbed, even accounting for a major capacity push that started in late 2Q2016.
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.
Following easyJet's fall back into loss in 1H2016 (six months to Mar-2016), it still expected that the summer months would more than offset this, allowing another year of profit growth. A profit warning after the UK's Brexit vote dashed this hope in late Jun-2016. EasyJet's 3Q2016 (April to June) trading statement casts a bigger shadow over its outlook, as weak unit revenue is not being offset by unit cost reduction. According to CAPA calculations, easyJet's 3Q2016 pre-tax profit fell by 59% year on year.
European LCCs Norwegian and Wizz Air have reported improved profits for the same quarter and are on track to achieve stronger full year results, but easyJet is not alone among European airlines in lowering earnings expectations in recent weeks. IAG and Lufthansa have also issued profit warnings. Growing macroeconomic and geopolitical uncertainties are weighing on unit revenue. For some, there is no longer a sufficient release coming from lower fuel prices, which also contribute to unit revenue weakness by encouraging additional capacity.
The majority of European airlines have yet to report April-June results, most notably Ryanair, Air France-KLM and IAG. Nevertheless, the reporting season seems likely to herald a more cautious phase of the airline cycle.