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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 SAS Group returned to net profit in FY2013, mainly through successful cost reduction. There was no growth in revenues, in spite of 6% ASK growth by the core SAS airline. In addition to cost cutting, the group’s restructuring in the year also included the sale of 80% of its Norwegian regional subsidiary Widerøe and the sale of 10% of its ground handling operation to Swissport as a first step in what is intended eventually to be a full disposal.
Improved profitability was essentially the result of SAS lowering its unit costs, CASK, faster than the decline it suffered in unit revenues, RASK. In both cases, this extends the trend of recent years. However, in spite of attempts to shore up demand (with some success – it has grown membership of its EuroBonus FFP), the slide in RASK accelerated in 4Q2013. This was partly currency related, but also reflects tough competitive dynamics in SAS’ markets.
Moreover, its CASK reduction in the year, while commendable, still leaves it with one of the highest levels of unit costs in Europe. SAS is not out of the woods yet - but the profit is a welcome result.
SAS made a bigger profit in 3QFY2013 (May-Jul) than in the same period a year ago, building on the positive momentum developed in 2Q, when it narrowed its losses after reporting wider losses in 1Q. Its ‘4Excellence Next Generation’ restructuring plan delivered further savings in the quarter and SAS has made good progress with most of the key savings and liquidity measures identified in the plan. It has confidently reiterated its FY2013 target of positive earnings.
SAS has also announced plans to order new long-haul aircraft and should complete the sale of Wideroe and the outsourcing of ground-handling in the near future. Focusing the network around the needs of frequent flyers and investing in cabin refurbishment should provide some differentiation from, and appeal relative to, LCC competitors on both short-haul and long-haul. Nevertheless, SAS is still a high-cost carrier and remains vulnerable to price-based competition.
This is the second in a three part series of reports on the Southeast Asia-Western Europe market. The first part analysed the position of Southeast Asian carriers as Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Garuda Indonesia prepare to join four peers in operating non-stop flights to Europe. This part looks at the position of European carriers, where there also has been a new entry along with expansion by some of the existing carriers.
Norwegian became the eighth European carrier and first LCC to serve the Southeast Asian market in Jun-2013, when it launched services to Bangkok from Oslo and Stockholm. Norwegian brings a return of low-cost services to the Asia-Europe market following the withdrawal of AirAsia X, which dropped its A340-operated London and Paris routes in Mar-2011. AirAsia X is now focusing on routes within the Asia-Pacific region and flights of less than nine hours, using A330-300s.
Norwegian has big ambitions for Southeast Asia and is preparing to open a base at Bangkok which could support additional flights to Europe. But for now Norwegian's main focus is on more rapid expansion in the North Atlantic, where flights are shorter and potentially more conducive to the long-haul low-cost model.
In 2QFY2013 (Nov-2012 to Apr-2013), SAS has turned around pre-tax losses to report a profit (before non-recurring items) and reversed the pattern of 1QFY2013, when its losses widened. It has made progress with cost reduction and looks to be on track to achieve its FY2013 financial targets. It has also recently agreed to sell its Wideroe subsidiary and made further progress in its fleet modernisation programme.
SAS' recent launch of new fare classes SAS Go and SAS Plus scarcely looks to be the “new service concept” that it claims, but at least the Nordic region’s largest carrier is attempting to differentiate itself from its many and growing competitors. In 2012, President and CEO Rickard Gustafson said the restructuring plan was a “final call” for SAS. It seems that, at least for now, the group has not yet missed the flight.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) continues to be on the lookout for new partnership opportunities, including potential equity stakes in airlines from key emerging markets such as China and India. While the SIA Group has undergone a dramatic strategic shift over the last two years, the partnership component of its new long-term strategy remains largely unwritten.
Close tie-ups with Virgin Australia, which includes an equity stake which was recently increased to 19.9%, and SAS could be followed by new partnerships with Asian carriers. The SAS and Virgin Australia partnerships, both of which have come under the leadership of SIA Group CEO Goh Choon Phong, are noteworthy but neither carrier serves Singapore or operates from a growth market.
SIA needs a larger portfolio of robust partnerships. But it can make a difficult bedfellow. Forging the right partnerships could prove to be the most challenging aspect of the new SIA strategy.
European airline margins have underperformed other regions for years. There are many reasons for this, but our analysis suggests that Europe’s relative lack of consolidation may be a significant one, since margins appear to be correlated with market concentration. Even after a number of significant deals over the past decade, the European market is less concentrated than North America, where consolidation has gone further, to the benefit of margins. Europe is also less concentrated than Asia-Pacific (analysed as its sub-regions), whose margins have consistently been the highest.
If consolidation brings structural benefits, are there still European deals that can make a difference? Europe has a long tail of small carriers, which are unlikely to have a significant impact, but comparison with North America points to the potential for further combinations among the top five. Nevertheless, there are hurdles to such deals, not least of which are the ongoing restructuring programmes at Europe’s Big Three and the incompatibility of LCC/FSC mergers, but some second tier groups could be targets.