All is not well in Air France-KLM. The group has reported another decline in quarterly profits. Its 2Q2015 operating result was down by 2% and insufficient to bring 1H2014 into positive territory after an operating loss in 1Q2015. Currency movements, specifically the weaker EUR versus USD, had the effect of inflating both revenue and costs, but the net impact accounted for the deterioration in the operating result.
Nevertheless, this should not detract from Air France-KLM's very weak unit revenues, which appear immune to attempts at improving the product and may only respond to capacity cuts. Either way, unit cost reduction will remain crucial if the group is to return to a sustainable profit path. Long haul routes in particular are under threat.
The development of its medium haul low cost airline, Transavia, continues to be rapid in France, but the scale and profitability of this operation are weak compared with Europe's leading LCCs. However, the establishment of Transavia Europe, with bases beyond France and the Netherlands, could be back on the agenda after a change in leadership at the French pilot union.
EasyJet: 3Q update signals another year of solid profit growth in spite of lower on time performance
EasyJet's 3Q update sent its share price up by 4% as investors cheered its better than expected revenue per seat performance, reflecting strength in the UK and on beach routes across Europe. Although this measure fell year on year - partly as a result of currency movements, but also illustrating some pricing weakness - the decline was less than expected. Moreover, the 4Q trend now appears to be positive.
Cost per seat, excluding currency movements, was slightly higher than expected, but this was the result of flight disruption caused by third parties, particularly French ATC strikes. Apart from this, there do not appear to be any cost surprises. One area of concern is easyJet's deteriorating on time performance statistics, although management insists that this is now improving.
Overall, and in spite of some challenges in the operational and macro environment, easyJet is in a relatively confident mood. Its FY2015 guidance sees pre-tax profit growth of around 10%, slower than the 21% achieved in FY2014, but still a solid performance.
Setting aside the impact of a provision for possible claims related to historic flight delays, the Dart Group increased its underlying operating profit by 3% in FY2015. This was driven by its leisure travel segment, which now aggregates its leisure airline Jet2.com and its package holidays business Jet2holidays.com and accounted for almost all of the group's profit.
However, operating margin slipped slightly, both for the group and the leisure travel segment, as costs grew a little faster than revenue. It is no longer possible to ascertain whether the causes of this lay with the airline or the package holidays business (or both), since they no longer report separate results.
We do know that the holidays business has grown in importance to the airline and supplied one third of its passengers in FY2015. Jet2.com is one of Europe's most seasonal airlines, with a seasonal peak weekly seat capacity (Jul-2015) nine times that of its lowest weekly seat capacity (Jan-2015, source: OAG). This strong summer leisure focus risks means that the airline and the group have a lot of their eggs in the same basket.
After forecasting a return to profit for FY2015 in Jan-2015, the Monarch Group reported narrower losses for 1H2015 (Nov-2014 to Apr-2015). This indicates progress with its restructuring programme, although the very seasonal pattern of its business means 2H2015 will be crucial.
Monarch Group has not yet published its FY2014 annual report, but CAPA has examined its FY2014 accounts, recently filed with the UK Registrar of Companies. These reveal a heavy loss in FY2014, mainly due to the Group's airline. Monarch Airlines grew too rapidly and suffered both from a fall in unit revenue and an increase in unit cost. Moreover, the Group almost ran out of cash.
In 1H2015, capacity was cut, slowing the fall in unit revenue. Moreover, unit cost fell, partly due to lower fuel prices, but also thanks to the restructuring programme. The sale of the Group towards the end of Oct-2014 brought new shareholders and much needed liquidity, saving it from collapse and giving it a second chance. Monarch's progress in 1H2015 shows that it intends to take it.
Barcelona El Prat: Europe's leading airport for LCCs a battleground in fight for business travellers
easyJet's recent announcement that it plans to open a new base at Barcelona El Prat Airport from Feb-2016 provides an opportunity to examine the recent traffic history of Europe's leading LCC airport. Barcelona is home to IAG subsidiary Vueling, the biggest operator at the airport and Europe's third largest LCC. Vueling's nearest competitors here are Ryanair and easyJet, ranked first and second among European LCCs.
The narrative at Barcelona remains substantially about short and medium haul and the main protagonists continue to be Europe's leading LCCs. However, there is an emerging sub-plot, albeit one that remains in the background for now. This concerns the global super-connectors, who aim to turn Barcelona's paucity of long haul destinations to their advantage.
Traffic growth at Barcelona was strong before the global financial crisis, but slumped in 2008 and 2009. It bounced back quickly in 2010 and 2011, before the demise of Spanair interrupted the resumption of rapid growth. After various twists and turns in the traffic growth path of the three leading airlines at Barcelona, all three now look ready to battle hard, particularly for business passengers.
SAS narrowed its underlying loss in 2QFY2015, after stripping out the gain on the sale of two slot pairs at London Heathrow. The Scandinavian airline is enjoying a more benign capacity environment this year, particularly in short and medium-haul markets, and is cutting its own capacity. This allowed it to grow its unit revenue at a faster pace than its unit cost, prompting a modestly more positive outlook for FY2015.
Although SAS has invested in product improvements and is growing its revenues from members of its Eurobonus scheme, low cost competition in Europe is making short-haul markets increasingly price-based. FY2015's positive unit revenue conditions may not last, especially within Europe.
Looking into 2016, SAS is planning to return to capacity growth, through long-haul expansion. It is looking at adding further long-haul aircraft to its fleet, beyond the four A330s and eight A350s currently on order. However, competition on long-haul markets is also fierce.
Flybe reported a pre-tax result for FY2015 in line with expectations, confirming that its restructuring is starting to have a positive impact. Confusingly, the reported FY2015 result fell into loss after having recovered in FY2014, but this was blurred by a series of non-recurring/non-operating items. Flybe also reported what it calls an "illustrative" pre-tax result, by which measure its profit grew and this more closely reflects the progress made under CEO Saad Hammad.
Passenger unit revenue grew, driven by capacity cuts and sharp load factor gains, stimulated by falling yield. However, revenue from contract flying and charter operations fell and the increase in underlying profit owed much to unit cost reduction.
Flybe also signed a contract flying agreement for SAS and sold its stake in its Finnish joint venture. Moreover, it made progress with a number of other legacy issues, including exiting from its Embraer E175 order and securing additional used Bombardier Q400 aircraft. A key outstanding issue is finding a solution to its surplus E195 aircraft. In FY2016, it must aim for an improved result without having to rearrange the numbers.
Reporting its first financial results since its Feb-2015 IPO, Wizz Air announced that its underlying net profit jumped by two thirds in FY2015. In another year of double digit capacity and revenue growth, it managed to grow its unit revenue while simultaneously lowering its unit cost.
Ranked by operating profit margin for the 12M period to Mar-2015, Wizz Air is equal second with easyJet and behind only Ryanair in the list of Europe's most profitable airlines. The IPO has also left it with a robust balance sheet, a useful attribute in the volatile airline industry.
Wizz Air's guidance for FY2015 implies much slower profit growth of less than 20%. Lower fuel prices and a competitive market backdrop look likely to put unit revenue under pressure. Moreover, further unit cost reduction is harder when costs are already very low. Nevertheless, Wizz Air's low cost base and impressive ancillary revenue performance, together with strong market share in Central and Eastern Europe, position it to remain one of Europe's more successful airlines.
Ryanair's FY2015 net profit jumped 66%, a return to profit growth after a rare dip in FY2014. It was helped by lower fuel prices, but, unlike many other European airlines, Ryanair would still have reported improved FY and 4Q results with no change in its average fuel cost per seat versus last year.
Average fares barely changed (up 1%), but load factor jumped to 88%, from 83% in FY2014, driving up revenue per seat, even in Q4 when average fares fell sharply. Ryanair's new customer service initiatives and improved airport network may not yet be attracting consistently higher fares, but they are persuading more passengers onto its aircraft. What's more, revenue per seat growth outpaced the resultant increase in cost per seat.
Ryanair is being cautious about fares into FY2016, but still expects another 10% growth in profit. Moreover, the combination of product and service improvements and a wide discount to competitor fares should benefit pricing in the longer term, even as further load factor gains become less dramatic.
Airberlin narrowed its operating loss in 1Q2015 compared with 1Q2014, by growing unit revenue faster than unit cost, which was almost flat year on year. Unit revenue appears to be benefiting from network changes and a new revenue management system (and also from currency movements). However, the relatively contained unit cost performance owed much to lower fuel prices, without which the operating loss would have increased. Moreover, the airline said that seasonal effects such as Easter also had a positive impact on the result.
Airberlin still expects that yield improvement will lead to a "noticeable" improvement in earnings in 2015 after heavy losses in 2014. However, it says that "current foreseeable business development in 2Q has so far not fulfilled expectations". It continues to face significant challenges in its turnaround.
easyJet's 1H2015 results statement made for interesting reading. On the one hand, it reported its first positive pre-tax profit figure for the winter half in more than a decade (effectively due to lower fuel costs).
On the other hand, easyJet's outlook statement predicted a fall in 2H revenue per seat at constant currency, in contrast with the increase achieved in 1H. This is partly because of faster capacity growth, both by easyJet and competitors in its markets (to use easyJet's own words, "inefficient capacity is likely to stay in the market longer"), but also reflects the impact of lower fuel prices on air fares.
EasyJet is still set to record double digit growth in FY2015 pre-tax profit and to remain one of Europe's most profitable airlines. Nevertheless, after a very successful five year period between FY2009 and FY2014, when its pre-tax profit increased by a factor of eleven, it is perhaps not surprising that it is now in a more sustainable growth phase.
Finnair narrowed its operational loss in the seasonally weak 1Q2015. After capacity cuts and restructuring in 2014, it has returned to modest capacity growth. Revenue was stable as growth in passenger and ancillary revenue was offset by falling cargo and travel services sales. The narrower loss was thanks to decreased costs, with lower fuel prices playing a significant part. Ex fuel unit costs were up slightly, even after stripping out currency movements.
New labour agreements reached last year and the delivery in 2H2015 of Finnair's first four A350 aircraft should provide cost benefits in the future. In addition, Finnair has announced a new strategic focus placing the "customer experience" and "world-class operations" at its heart, presumably hoping this will bolster unit revenue. Finnair has also broadly reiterated its medium to long term financial goals, but remains a long way from achieving them.
One of Finnair's strategic focus areas is Northeast Asia, where it retains an ambitious growth target, but this does not square with last year's capacity cut and this year's slow growth in Asia. The A350 is expected to reinvigorate its Asia strategy.