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One of two administrative regions of China, Hong Kong has experienced an advancing aviation industry for a number of years. Hong Kong's only civil airport is Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), a leading passenger gateway in Asia and one of the busiest airports in the world in terms of international passengers and cargo flights. With over 85 airlines, HKG is the hub for Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Air Hong Kong, Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express. Although Hong Kong does not have a national airline, Cathay Pacific would be the closest to such. The Civil Aviation Department is the aviation authority in Hong Kong, responsible for providing air traffic control services as well as reporting to the Government.
Airports in Hong Kong
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China Eastern Airlines is taking the lead amongst the country's state-owned carriers in developing an LCC presence. This follows Beijing's embrace and active promotion of LCCs, which it sees as spearheading new growth and being in line with the country's increasing austerity and efficiency targets. China Eastern has converted its subsidiary China United Airlines, based at the smaller Beijing airport of Nanyuan.
China United only flies domestically, and mostly to secondary cities, but in Jan-2015 applied to regulator CAAC to expand its business licence to international services. China United is expected to be given the right to fly internationally from its Beijing home but also Shenzhen.
Shenzhen's international development has been stunted – possibly due to lobbying from Air China partner Cathay Pacific, which feeds on the Shenzhen market – and local carrier Shenzhen Airlines has a minimal international presence. Shenzhen Airlines is majority owned by Air China, meaning China United's international expansion could eventually challenge the Air China group at multiple levels. With time there will also be an impact to the Hong Kong market, although crossing the border is still far from seamless.
Finnair is raising the competitive stakes in using its Helsinki hub to offer the quickest connections between Europe and Asia and in 2015 will have about 10 flights a day to North and Southeast Asia. Before Finnair arrived in Asia in 1976, there was SAS, which commenced Asian flights in 1949 and held the title for all sorts of records and unique operations. But Finnair started to catch up, and it – not SAS – was the first to fly non-stop from Europe to China. A decade ago, Finnair had only a slight edge over SAS in Asia but now Finnair has three times the number of flights and four times as many seats as SAS in Asia.
Strong and active unions and an unwieldy ownership structure, together with an inefficient fleet, have hobbled SAS, but it is hoping to make some inroads in Asia, although opportunities will be limited. A new Stockholm-Hong Kong service opens in Sep-2015 while a nascent partnership with Etihad lays the groundwork for closer cooperation in the future and when Etihad commences services to Scandinavia. Emirates and Qatar already serve the region. SAS' Asian network is largely out of Copenhagen, and the airline probably would hope the Stockholm departure for Hong Kong will limit Finnair's poaching of Swedish traffic.
While Cathay Pacific hopes to remain in passenger views one of the world's best airlines, financially it appears to be settling in for a period of mere average performance. Its long-term cost growth remains ahead of passenger yield improvements while cargo yields are low. The situation could be worse – compared say with Singapore Airlines – but the outlook shows more challenges than opportunities. Yield declines are all but certain as transit traffic and near system-wide competition increases, especially in North America (where yields were down 4%). Europe was the only market for yield growth, but this may change with 2015's new routes and competitive growth. Staff productivity is at record lows and ongoing wage negotiations may limit damage rather than give a leap ahead in efficiency.
2014's group profit increased 20% to HKD3.2 billion (USD412 million) while the airline profit before tax figure increased only 1.4% to HKD2.4 billion (USD311 million). The group operating margin was 4.2%. Cathay reported a HKD911 million (USD117 million) hedging loss in 2014 with HKD12.5 billion (USD1.6 billion) in unrealised losses through 2018. Older aircraft retirements are in the final stage, limiting further cost savings, while receiving A350s and 777Xs ahead of competitors will provide a few years of cushion. Cathay is approaching fragility in a harsh industry where changes can be sudden and deep.
Air Canada is maintaining a reasonably positive outlook on demand in early 2015 across all geographies, with the exception of certain pockets of pressure including some areas in Western Canada where the energy sector is a significant economic driver.
The airline’s results in 2014 reflect its business adaption during the last couple of years of increasing its leisure passenger mix and long-haul flying, which pressure yields. But Air Canada stresses the incremental capacity driven by the longer stage lengths and change in passenger composition is low-cost incremental capacity that improves margins and profitability.
Air Canada largely proved the validity of that theory in CY2014 as operating margins and adjusted profits increased for the year. The airline is facing some cost pressure in CY2015 due the falling value of Canada’s currency against the USD, but believes its foreign denominated revenues create some hedge against some of its expenses paid in USD.
During the past decade, Cathay Pacific opened only three long-haul passenger markets that are still served today. But over 18 months in 2014 and 2015, Cathay will open six long-haul markets, with more likely to come. Three of those markets – Doha, Newark and Manchester – have already launched while Zurich opens in Mar-2015, Boston in May-2015 and, the most recent one announced, Dusseldorf, in Sep-2015.
The new long-haul markets bring Cathay's long-haul destination count to 30 and will help it continue to rebalance its network towards long-haul as short-haul flying becomes too competitive. Cathay's long-haul flying accounted for 63% of ASKs in 2006, 58% in 2011 and then a recent low of 55% in 2013. Cathay ended 2014 with 56% of ASKs in long-haul market, and by late 2015 this is due to be around 58%, according to the schedules it has filed.
China's regulator the CAAC decreed that Air China is the largest carrier in the China-US market, ending the "domination" of US carriers. However this was based on Air China operating to six US cities while the largest US carrier, United, links China with only five US cities.
On almost every other metric – seats, frequency, city pairs – United (Air China's Star Alliance partner) is far larger and will grow in 2015 as it expands its Chengdu service and adds a second daily flight from San Francisco to Shanghai, the first example of a US carrier having more than a daily flight on a Chinese routing.
Perhaps more important though is the fact that the CAAC saw fit to announce the comparison, a clear statement that China's international airlines are on the march, particularly in one of their most important strategic markets.