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Austrian Airlines is the national airline of Austria and is based at Vienna International Airport. Along with its charter arm, Lauda Air, the carrier operates both domestic and international networks, particularly to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Austrian's regional carrier, Tyrolean Airways, merged with Austrian on 01-Apr-2015.
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Austrian Airlines: 70% of female staff vote to continue with red tights and shoes as part of uniform
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IAG, Lufthansa & Air France-KLM: don't risk RASK. Lessons from 1Q2015 unit revenue & capacity growth
The 1Q2015 financial results of Europe's Big Three legacy airline groups again highlight their diverging pathways. Although all three recorded improved results versus last year, IAG underlined its superiority by posting a positive operating profit in what is seasonally the weakest quarter.
CAPA analysis often highlights the importance of cost discipline and much of IAG's success relative to Air France-KLM and Lufthansa is due to the head start it gave itself in pushing restructuring, particularly of labour costs. This remains crucial.
However, the focus of this report is to analyse the 1Q2015 unit revenue (RASK) performance of the Big Three and the relationship between RASK growth and ASK growth. Our analysis confirms that RASK performs better under conditions of tight capacity discipline, but also highlights some crucial differences between the Big Three and between their major route regions.
China Southern Airlines has become the sixth airline group in the world – and the first outside the United States or Europe – to transport over 100 million passengers a year. Founded only in 1988, China Southern reached this milestone in 2014 faster than the other groups carrying over 100m passengers: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Lufthansa Group, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines. Ryanair expects to carry 97m passengers in 2015, likely leading it to carry 100m shortly thereafter.
The Air China and China Eastern groups are expected also to cross the 100m mark. Fast growth at the HNA Group could also see it carry 100m passengers around the turn of the decade. This would be impressive given the group has limited public capital, but would also give China four groups with over 100m passengers, matching the US.
China Southern is big, but this fast growth, partly organic, partly through merger, has come at the expense of efficiency. It may have the highest growth prospects but it also has considerable work ahead to become agile. It could also have the most at risk as its core domestic market faces new competition while long-haul performance continues to lag.
Some prominent airlines in Europe and elsewhere take explicit aim at the Gulf carriers "stealing" traffic via sixth freedom flows, which they argue "belongs" to them. Yet, though this transfer traffic comprises about 80% of the Gulf airlines' US flights, the US airlines in their still-protective rhetoric against Gulf carriers do not target this sixth freedom element. The source markets for Gulf carriers' US flights are highly fragmented, and even the largest source markets – from Hyderabad to Dhaka to Kabul – are not served by US carriers and seldom have high frequency, if any, from their international partners. "Delta has never been a big player in that market," Delta chief revenue officer Glen Hauenstein has acknowledged.
Instead, some vociferous US airlines are more strongly opposed to growing fifth freedom services across the Atlantic. But there is an irony: Delta, the most outspoken, has its own fifth freedom network; it is not insignificant, at about half the size of Emirates'. Emirates' Milan MXP-New York JFK service sparked concerns, but American and Delta quietly acknowledge their own international stagnation paved the way for Emirates' entry. German researchers believe Emirates will be able to open only a "handful" of fifth freedom trans-Atlantic routes, and these will depend on legal changes since many UAE-Europe air service agreements (besides Germany) do not provide for fifth freedom trans-Atlantic flights.
So what explanation is there for some US airlines reacting so strongly against what is at worst a minor competitive threat that can be avoided through proactive commercial decisions – and partnerships?
According to Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr, 3Q2014 "was no walk in the park". The group's business was affected by weak revenue conditions, external events such as Ebola and the Ukraine crisis - and more strikes by Lufthansa pilots.
In spite of this, Lufthansa remains on course to meet its 2014 operating profit target of EUR1 billion (although this was lowered at the half year point and is lower than the 2013 result on a like for like basis). However, Lufthansa has abandoned its 2015 operating profit target of EUR2 billion (which was cut from EUR2.65 billion in mid 2014), citing a "darkening economic outlook".
Mr Spohr's agenda continues to be very full. He must seek further cost reduction in the network airline business, while continuing to position as a premium product; repair relations with Lufthansa's pilots; develop and grow new lower cost point to point airline platforms; and capture growth in the more stable aviation services markets. And he must return Lufthansa to a profit growth trajectory after years on a falling trend.
After reporting 1Q results that were modestly better than last year before one-off costs, Lufthansa Group's 2Q2014 results show a deterioration in its underlying profits. Weaker revenues, especially in Asia Pacific and on the North Atlantic and in the cargo segment, and the effect of strikes and the Venezuelan currency devaluation weighed on the 2Q figures.
These factors were flagged by the company last month when it lowered its 2014 and 2015 operating profit targets and the reduced targets are unchanged. The group has reiterated its previous unit cost reduction target and so the lower profit outlook is entirely due to the revenue environment.
A new MoU between Air China and the Lufthansa Group to establish a joint venture covering Europe-China routes still awaits many – in fact, nearly all – details. But it is not difficult to see this JV enhancing the position of each airline, assuming it meets EU competition requirements. Competitors will seek to grow existing JVs while establishing new ones. In some instances they will be responding to the Air China-Lufthansa JV, and in other instances they have been ready but held off due to an uncertain regulatory environment. Allowing another JV potentially increases the pressure for more to follow.
But more immediately, and closer to the purposes of Air China and Lufthansa, the JV will at least partly remove lingering tensions between Air China and Lufthansa Group, the two largest carriers between Europe and China. Air China has overshadowed Lufthansa, with more growth to come as Air China sits astride what will be the world's single largest aviation market. But Air China requires precious beyond traffic that Lufthansa can control, as well as more extensive international experience. Between them, the two account for 35% of Europe-China flights, and 84% of Germany-China flights.
For Lufthansa, a China JV adds to those in Japan and North America, while this is the first long-haul JV for Air China. Meanwhile Gulf carriers are not this JV's primary target; their access in China is relatively restricted and routes to Europe via the Gulf are circuitous.