United States of America
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Air Travel is frequently the most practical method of covering the large distances between cities in the USA. The domestic air system is extensive, with dozens of competing airlines, hundreds of airports and thousands of flights daily. The US is the world's largest aviation market. Domestic airlines have mostly rebounded since September 11. Delta (now merged with Northwest), United (merging with Continental) and US Airways (merging with American) have each entered and emerged from bankruptcy still flying, though mergers and downsizing have had an impact on the travel experience. The US has five major international airlines that function in a similar manner and size as a national carrier; American Airlines, United Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways. The expansion of LCCs such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue has increased competition and lowered prices domestically and in some cross-border markets.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is an agency of the United States Department of Transportation with authority to regulate and oversee all aspects of civil aviation in the US. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the government agency responsible for security in all modes of transportation and is solely responsible for carrying out screening of passengers and their baggage (both checked and carry-on) at 450 airports across the US.
Airports in United States of America
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Delta Air Lines believes that it will receive approval for its proposed immunised joint venture with Aeromexico in 4Q2016. But opponents of the tie-up – most notably Hawaiian Airlines and jetBlue – are ratcheting up their arguments that without a formal open skies agreement between Mexico and the US antitrust immunity is a non-starter.
jetBlue and the Mexican airlines Interjet and Volaris have also spoken out about the disproportionate number of slots that Aeromexico and Delta will hold at Mexico’s largest airport and gateway – Mexico City Juarez. jetBlue is urging regulators evaluating Aeromexico and Delta’s ATI request to require the divestment of 30 slot pairs at Juarez in order to ensure smaller airlines can compete effectively against the larger airlines dominating the Mexican transborder market.
Given the political uncertainty in the US, it is tough to predict whether the DoT will issue a decision on the joint venture before the Nov-2016 presidential elections. Whatever the outcome Delta will still exert considerable influence over Aeromexico, given its plans to up its stake in Mexico’s largest airline. ATI seems to be a cornerstone of Aeromexico’s transborder strategy, and without the benefits of joint venture Delta will assume the role of a vocal shareholder, rather than a full strategic partner.
Mexico-US transborder airline market Part 1: Interjet and Volaris capitalise on new US opportunities
Mexican low cost airlines Volaris and Interjet are engaged in a significant transborder push in 2016. Combined, the airlines will launch a dozen routes to the US as a new bilateral lifts restrictions on the number of airlines operating routes between the US and Mexico. With many countries in Latin and Central America experiencing economic weakness, the US is a safer bet for expansion in the near term.
Volaris and Interjet target different passenger segments, and the airlines have little overlap on the new flights that they are launching to the US. Volaris cites numerous route opportunities in the US transborder market, and has grown rapidly in that space during the past several years. Interjet has grown more slowly but has quickly broadened its US reach in 2016, entering some markets that already have ample service.
Although US airlines still dominate the transborder market Mexican airlines are working to chip away at the sizeable gap between them, growing their international passenger numbers 10% year-on-year for the first five months of 2016.
(This is Part 1 of two reports examining the Mexico-US transborder market. Part 2 will focus on the proposed joint venture between Aeromexico and Delta).
jetBlue Airways appears to be making a major network move in 2017, with a potential return to Delta-dominated Atlanta after a short-lived stint at the airport in 2003. Both jetBlue and the US industry have undergone significant change during that thirteen-year time period. jetBlue has widened its passenger base to encompass business passengers along with VFR (visiting friends and relatives) customers, and has successfully introduced a premium cabin within the LCC business model. Changes in the US domestic market include sweeping consolidation and the rise of ultra-low cost airlines, which have arguably created permanent disruption in airfare pricing.
Dynamics have also shifted in Atlanta during that time period. Although Delta remains the dominant airline, Southwest has acquired AirTran and put less emphasis on Atlanta as a hub. Ultra-low cost airlines have also made moves in Atlanta during the past couple of years. Those changes could create an opening for an airline that offers a different product proposition in the market.
jetBlue’s return to Atlanta depends on the airport granting the airline’s request for specific gates. A launch of flights would be mutually beneficial for both jetBlue and Atlanta. jetBlue gains access to one of the largest US domestic markets and Atlanta would broaden its number of airlines spanning three distinct business models – full service airlines, medium frills LCCs and ULCCs.
Economic and political upheaval in Brazil during the past couple of years has essentially isolated many of the country’s companies, including airlines, from credit markets. Some of the country’s legislators made a bold move earlier in 2016 to lift all foreign ownership restrictions on airlines; but that specific element of legislation was vetoed by the country’s interim government in order ensure other pieces of a larger bill were ratified.
The push for 100% foreign ownership still appears to have some momentum in Brazil’s uncertain political climate. The country’s transportation minister has reportedly stated that the debate over foreign ownership is not over, and he aims to push for re-opening the discussion about ownership caps in the country’s Senate.
In the meantime, Brazil’s 20% foreign ownership cap remains at status quo in a fast-changing Latin American aviation landscape where Avianca is courting foreign investors and Qatar has just tabled its plans to take a 10% share in LATAM. It would be an unprecedented move for Brazil to allow for 100% foreign ownership of its airlines but raising the cap to 49% seems reasonable, and could possibly help Brazil’s largest airline Gol as it works to restructure billions in debt. But changes in ownership laws may not result in investors flocking to Gol when other Latin American airlines offer less risk to investors.
US ULCC Frontier continues to make numerous changes to its network. In early 2016 it unveiled a network blitz, tabling 42 new routes that start in Apr-2016 and continue through Jun-2016, including a return to the smaller market of Colorado Springs. It also joined Allegiant Air in injecting some ULCC competition into Pittsburgh, and it continued expansion from Orlando International airport.
At the same time Frontier has opted to reduce its footprint in Atlanta after joining fellow ULCC Spirit Airlines in making a push from the airport in 2015. Atlanta is a market dominated by two of the large US network airlines – Delta and Southwest. It is not clear whether that has bearing on Frontier’s evaluation of its strategy in Atlanta but Orlando is largely an O&D market, which could be better suited for Frontier’s ULCC operations.
The only conclusion that can be drawn from many of Frontier’s network moves is that no distinctive pattern emerges. There are major competitors in every market that it is leaving, but that is also the case for the remaining routes the airline is serving from Atlanta. Despite the shifts by Frontier, a small ULCC presence remains in one of the world’s busiest airports.
Enter Qatar Airways. As Etihad Airways looks to bed down its investments in other airlines, Qatar is gradually expanding its airline investment portfolio. Qatar's 15% stake in IAG is now being followed with a 10% stake in LATAM for USD613 million – nearly 1.5 times Qatar's net profit of USD446 million, disclosed (for the first time) on the day prior to the LATAM equity announcement. It is a safe investment; LATAM group has a strong market position and its share price has remained strong even in the face of a brutal downturn in Latin American economies.
Qatar gives LATAM needed cash and a distant shareholder. Latin America is the smallest market by far for Gulf airlines, but while currently in the economic doldrums, has a longer term potential for growth. It is also a key future market for US airlines, albeit very small on the Gulf airlines' networks. Qatar is spending nearly EUR2.5 billion on equity investments, still smaller than Etihad's but illustrating a willingness to acquire airline assets, for investment and strategic reasons. In this case the immediate strategic purpose for Qatar is less apparent.
Star Alliance's privately owned Avianca is also considering a strategic shareholder; that would mean five of Latin America's eight largest airline groups could have an airline investor from outside the region.