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The domestic aviation sector in Sweden has seen dramatic changes in the past decade. Despite a general decline in the domestic market due to expansion of better roads and rail connections, deregulation has seen the number of air operators increase. New groupings in the form of air-travel organisers (which provide aircraft and crews to other airlines), and more low-cost carriers (LCCs) have entered the domestic market, bringing increased competition for certain destinations. SAS is still the dominant player in the Swedish air travel market. This holds for both domestic and international service, given that the company’s hub, located at Stockholm-Arlanda Airport, is where a large part of Swedish air traffic connects. The Swedish Civil Aviation Department is responsible for regulatory oversight, while Swedavia manages the country’s major airports. LFV is the state-run air navigation services provider.
Sweden is dependent upon efficient air travel connections both on the domestic front and to important European and global markets. Through a combination of increased competition, attractive prices and a wide variety of destinations, the Swedish air travel market is likely to grow over the coming years.
Airports in Sweden
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The last of Europe's stock market-listed airlines recently reported financial results for 2014, providing the opportunity to compare levels of profitability. Ranking them by operating margin, there is a wide range of performance from healthy double digit to negative figures.
LCCs typically performed better than legacy airlines. Most of the higher margin airlines improved in 2014, while most of those at the lower end of the scale suffered a fall in margins. Convergence of business models does not show itself in convergence of financial performance.
Beyond the listed airlines, Europe has a large number of mainly small and unprofitable airlines, which drag down the aggregate margin of the continent's airline sector. Europe's traffic growth and load factors are relatively healthy by world standards, but its margins are held back by its fragmented market structure.
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.
The economic backdrop in Western Europe was sluggish in 2014 and remains fragile into 2015. In particular, the eurozone nations continue to struggle to recover fully from the global recession. A Jan-2015 poll of economists conducted by the Financial Times suggests that most experts expect GDP growth in the eurozone to be around only 1% in 2015.
This is a little better than 2014, but well short of the cyclical peak growth rates in excess of 3% that have not been seen since 2007.
For 2015, the two most important strategic issues facing Western Europe’s legacy airlines, particularly the Big Three flag carrier groups, will be restructuring in their core businesses and maximising their low-cost vehicles.
SAS fell back into net loss in FY2014 and its operating profit margin was only 1.0%. It is achieving its cost reduction targets and moving towards a more effcient operation. Moreover, product and network initiatives have helped to stimulate load factor improvements and growth in the number of frequent flyer members using the airline.
However, in a highly competitive market-place characterised by capacity growth and downward price pressure, unit cost did not fall enough to offset the drop in unit revenue. SAS has now announced further cost savings plans and is reorganising its regional flying activities.
SAS has achieved much over the past two years, streamlining the group and cutting costs. It has lowered its CASK by 10% since 2012, bringing it more in line with other European FSCs. The problem is that the main competitive threat comes from the LCCs and SAS' cost base is still much higher than theirs. It seems it must always work harder just to tread water.
At its Capital Markets Day in late Nov-2014, Flybe asserted that it "does not compete with low cost carriers, flag carriers or mid-haul leisure airlines". Moreover, our analysis shows that it rarely competes with other regional airlines. In fact, Flybe faces no competition of any kind on 78% of its city pair routes in its Dec-2014 schedule. Moreover, it is Europe's largest independent regional airline and Europe is the world's largest regional market.
In spite of these advantages and what looks to be a relatively efficient cost base by comparison with other European regional airlines (according to our analysis), Flybe has yet to re-establish sustainable levels of profitability. Much has been achieved since the change of senior management in 2013, but the regional airline's fundamental CASK disadvantage will remain a challenge even as it increases its focus on turboprops rather than regional jets.
This second part of CAPA's report on airport ground handling reviews the consolidation of the ground handling industry and emerging alliances.
With the global airport ground handling business estimated at over USD80-100 billion per annum in revenues, this is a sizeable activity, with new paradigms emerging as liberalisation spreads and as new major forces like China and (potentially) India and other emerging markets adopt new principles.
Consolidation has occurred and new alliance moves are being made, but added competition has conspired to ensure that in most cases profit margins are small. So there may be more moves to come.