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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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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.
In Part 1 of this CAPA report on Norwegian Air International's application for a US foreign carrier permit, we discussed the policy debate that this has unleashed. We suggested that those opposing NAI were motivated by a desire to raise anti-competitive barriers against a new and more efficient business model.
This second part of our report looks at Norwegian's impact on the incumbents' traffic on its US routes, particularly on the five city pairs where there is at least one direct competitor that is calling on the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to deny NAI's application. Two thirds of Norwegian's US routes, accounting for almost half of its US seats and frequencies, are new markets.
Our analysis of data from OAG Traffic Analyser suggest that, on Norwegian's New York routes from the three Scandinavian capitals, it has both taken traffic from existing participants and stimulated market growth. On London to New York and Los Angeles, its smaller size and a market contraction make its impact less clear, but it is probably also attracting new traffic in addition to starting to take market share.
On 1-Jun-2015, Norwegian made another attempt at asking the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to allow its Irish-registered subsidiary, Norwegian Air International (NAI), to operate transatlantic routes under the EU-US open skies agreement. NAI's case, filed in Dec-2013 and completed in Feb-2014, has been pending for longer than any other such application.
To address its opponents' stated concerns that NAI is a "flag of convenience", whose only purpose is "social dumping", Norwegian now says that it will employ pilots and cabin crew only from Europe and the US. If there was a clear reason to deny the application, surely this would have been decided by now. Many informed parties, including the European Commission, the lead negotiators of the EU-US agreement, consumer and trade organisations and competitor airlines do not believe that there is such a reason.
Meanwhile the DOT has allowed itself to be hijacked by the anti-competitive agenda of the Big Three US airlines and a number of labour unions. In this report, we outline the arguments surrounding this case. In a second part, we will look at the impact of Norwegian's transatlantic operations on competitors' traffic share.
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.