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China’s aviation industry is growing rapidly, in line with its burgeoning economy. The CAAC is the aviation authority under the Ministry of Transport of the People's Republic of China responsible for civil aviation and the investigation of aviation accidents and incidents. The military controls Chinese airspace (restricted), in addition to flight clearances and authorisations. Non-commercial air travel is subordinate to military traffic and as such, general and private aviation in the country is rare.
Airports in China
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Airline groups are now common, if not ubiquitous in Asia today. Their evolution, still often at experimental stage, involves addressing issues like multiple brand management, connectivity, coordination and associated issues. They are not easy to manage, but appear to be generating some success as established full service airlines adapt to new marketplace conditions.
Part 1 of this analysis of northeast Asian airline groups, with their "houses of brands", covered Mainland China and Hong Kong.
Part 2 reviews the courses being followed by airlines in Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Each of these markets has its own characteristics, influenced by domestic features, by government peculiarities - notably in Japan - and by the beliefs of the airline managements themselves.
Most Asian full service airlines have responded to LCC competition by establishing groups, in some ways similar to Europe's, but usually with greater differentiation in role and establishment. As a result they have for some time been houses of brands. There was typically limited consolidation in these sprawling mansions; there was also little coordination between the airlines in the group. This has led to redundancy, missed opportunities and confusing marketing. But the Asian market is dynamic, competitive pressures are increasing and constant adaptation is necessary. With experience now of these conditions more strategic thinking is emerging, along with the management resolve to shed complacency.
Brand consolidation is still some time off. Taiwan’s EVA Air and China Airlines are mulling consolidation with their respective regional arms UNI Air and Mandarin Airlines. But on the whole, the number of brands in Asia is growing, especially in mainland China. The initial changes at Asian airline groups include better coordination of group airlines.
The hybridisation of airlines blurs the lines between full service and low cost airlines in Europe and the US – if those terms are even any longer applicable. Yet in Asia the landscape has been more segmented.
But now that appears to be changing. With little fanfare, China Airlines has made a leap towards unbundling services. For now it is a tentative move: China Airlines is offering a new hand baggage-only fare between Taipei and Tokyo Narita. It is not the base/entry fare but rather is subject to inventory control, and for example is more available during off-peak flights.
China Airlines intends to expand the offering gradually to more routes. It may seem a perplexing countermeasure for LCCs, when China Airlines has its own LCC subsidiary – Tigerair Taiwan, whose second largest route is to Tokyo Narita. Yet the fare is also a way to compete with other full service airlines, which are for now still larger than LCCs. China Airlines is exploring what else it can do for differentiation, but is reluctant to make any changes that impact the passenger experience after check-in. There are many ways for this to evolve – from China Airlines and competitors. What appears certain with this unbundling is that there is no going back. For China Airlines, or for the Asia Pacific industry.
The past month has been, as the Chinese might say, an interesting time for Virgin Australia. Two major new Chinese shareholders, HNA and Nanshan Group, an aggravated departure by one shareholder and now the announcement of a major restructuring, delivered to an unsuspecting world at 30 minutes’ notice, seemingly leaving behind its (previously) largest shareholder, Etihad – this has all occurred in a blur.
A financial restructuring has been in the wind for some time, but there was little to explain the breathless announcement of a one-for-one share issue on 15-Jun-2016. This involves a fully underwritten AUD852 million equity raising; together with a previously announced proposed AUD159 million placement to HNA Innovation, the total amount raised will slightly exceed AUD1 billion.
It sounds like good news for a cash-strapped Virgin Australia, but working out the winners and losers is more challenging as the dust settles.
Northeast Asia is often thought of as a laggard for LCC development. After all, 11% of seats within the region are operated by LCCs compared with 56% in Southeast Asia and 40% in Western Europe. But attendees at CAPA's LCCs in North Asia summit at Tokyo Narita (7/8-Jun-2016) heard how these figures disguise significant inroads in certain markets: LCCs account for 40% of domestic Korea capacity, 38% of Japan-Korea and 30% of Taipei Taoyuan-Osaka Kansai.
CEOs from LCCs in Japan, Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan attested to their opportunities but also the challenges. Restrictive slots and traffic rights were a common theme and so too were protectionism, a slowly evolving regulator, and airspace constraints. Northeast Asian LCCs exclusively make up the U-Fly Alliance, while Northeast, Southeast and Australian LCCs are members of the Value Alliance. Southeast Asia is characterised by joint venture airlines operating with a single brand while Northeast Asia has more independent airlines.
LCCs gaining market share in the domestic China market will have the greatest impact on the region's overall share. Asia's airlines have varying strategies to access China growth. By deploying LCCs, Singapore Airlines serves more Chinese destinations than Cathay Pacific.
China, along with instability in the Middle East and the latest health concern, have become catch-all excuses for those looking to describe the challenges faced by aviation. Concerns elsewhere may be legitimate and, in the case of Brazilian economic weakness, showing serious impacts.
Yet China’s aviation outlook is more than just bright; it is arguably the strongest it has been in its history. Chinese aviation is heading for an upturn over the next few years as part of its 'golden era' of development, forecast to run for perhaps 10-15 years.
International operations are producing growth and change on a profound scale, from the sheer size of the market to impacts on partnerships and global alliances. The domestic market continues to be delineated by the State-owned and private airlines. A rush of start-ups is under way, some of them better models than others. The shift to low cost output continues apace.