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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 European Commission (EC) has released a report on Member States' application of the European Union (EU) rules on airport charges — the fees airlines pay to airports for the use of runways and terminals — which are sometimes estimated to account for up to 10% of airlines' operating costs. The Directive currently applies to around 75 airports in the European Economic Area, which comprises the 27 member states of the EU together with three of four states that are members of the European Free Trade Association; namely Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. (Croatia has applicant status to the EU).
The report shows that since the introduction of the rules in 2011 following a 2009 Directive, larger European airports have become more transparent when taking decisions about these charges. In general, consultations between airports and airlines, as required by the Directive, are now being carried out and Member States' independent supervisory authorities have been set up.
SAS yield decline outweighs cost cuts to give wider losses in 2Q. Market share versus profitability?
SAS posted another pre-tax loss in 2QFY2014 after a weak 1Q result. For 1HFY2014, its pre-tax loss before non-recurring items was more than three times that of the same period a year earlier. It continued to make good progress with its 4XNG cost reduction programme, achieved further load factor gains and improvements in labour productivity and aircraft utilisation. However, the positive effect of these factors was wiped out by plummeting yields, attributed by SAS to overcapacity in Scandinavian markets.
In response to the weakening revenue and profitability environment, SAS has announced a new cost savings target and is taking action to "win the battle for Scandinavia's frequent travellers" through improvements to its product offering. Its recent re-capitalisation gives it more time to attempt to build a sustainably profitable business, or at least one that may become part of the next phase of European consolidation (whenever that might be).
IATA's latest airline industry financial forecasts highlight the different performance of the different regions of the world. North America is the most profitable region, measured by its net margin (net profit as a percentage of revenues) and Africa the least profitable. Europe has the second lowest margin, but has gained a little on fourth ranked Asia Pacific. Latin America has improved the most since 2012 to rank second, just ahead of the Middle East.
North America has had a relatively good recovery, while Asia Pacific's margins have fallen from their 2010 peak. Even North America's net profit is only 4.3% of revenues, its best since the late 1990s, but still a very thin margin.
Analysis of the relationship between net profit margins and various explanatory factors appears to confirm that market concentration is a key one. Europe's perennial underperformance in airline margin terms – in spite of the region's wealth, high propensity for air travel and high load factors – owes much to the fragmented nature of the market. Nevertheless, a European deal that is truly transformational in terms of its market structure remains unlikely for now.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) is focusing on further expanding its partnership portfolio to provide a more comprehensive network and boost feed. New deals have been forged over the last six months with Air New Zealand, Asiana, EVA Air and Turkish Airlines as part of an ongoing initiative which is expected to generate more new or expanded partnerships by the end of 2014.
SIA has already more than doubled its codeshare segments over the last three years as it has added eight new partners and strengthened several existing partnerships. The group is now negotiating several more new partnerships while seeking opportunities to improve connectivity with existing partners.
In this analysis CAPA examines the increasingly important role partnerships are playing in SIA’s European, African and Middle Eastern networks. In a second part, to be published later this week, CAPA will focus on SIA’s need to rely more on partners to expand across the Americas.
An impending three day strike by Lufthansa pilots – described by the carrier as "one of the biggest walkouts" in its history – highlights what continues to be a challenging labour relations environment for Europe's legacy carriers. In spite of years of competition from LCCs and cost efficient long-haul players, and after significant progress with restructuring programmes, such disputes remain common.
Labour-related issues are affecting a number of other airlines, including Austrian Airlines, Air France, Aer Lingus, SAS and Finnair. Even LCC Norwegian Air Shuttle faces key strategic questions in connection with the use of low-cost labour to grow its nascent long-haul business. In general, however, LCCs enjoy a less unionised environment and greater labour flexibility.
It is not uncommon for labour unions to become more militant as the profit cycle picks up, but airlines cannot always hide behind this excuse. As IAG CEO Willie Walsh has said*, "it is not about unions, but management. Management needs determination and can do it if it wants to…Cost creep is requested by unions, but made by management”.
When it announced a return to profit for FY2013 in Dec-2013, SAS warned that 1QFY2014 would be “extremely weak”. Its prediction has proved correct. The SAS Group’s 1Q pre-tax loss (before non-recurring items) widened by 57%. It continued to make good progress with its 4Excellence Next Generation (4XNG) cost reduction plan, but highly competitive market conditions weighed heavily on unit revenues.
SAS President and CEO Rickard Gustafson commented that the quarter was “marked by overcapacity and lower growth, which put pressure on margins across the entire market.” In this respect, SAS may be contributing to its own problems as it plans faster growth than the market this summer.
Its cost cutting and product improvement credentials are strengthening with each passing quarter, but its capacity growth is clearly not being absorbed profitably by the market.