Low Cost Carriers (LCCs)
A key structural change in aviation over the past decade has been the proliferation of low-cost carriers (LCCs). The low-cost model has overwhelmingly been the favoured mode of airline start-up over the period, and their spread around the world, into both short- and long-haul markets, has caused a fundamental shift in the competitive dynamic of the industry.
'Classic' characteristics of the low-cost model include:
- High seating density;
- High aircraft utilisation;
- Single aircraft type;
- Low fares, including very low promotional fares;
- Single class configuration;
- Point-to-point services;
- No (free) frills;
- Predominantly short- to medium-haul route structures;
- Frequent use of second-tier airports;
- Rapid turnaround time at airports.
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This six-monthly update of the CAPA world airline operating margin model continues to expect industry margins in 2015 to 2017 above previous cyclical peaks, albeit falling slightly in 2017. This is in spite of unexceptional global GDP growth, which has not regained its long term trend rate since 2010.
The higher level of airline operating margin from a given GDP growth rate has been due to several factors. Lower oil prices have played their part, particularly since mid-2014, as does a higher level of global traffic growth than would previously have been expected from relatively sluggish GDP growth. In addition to these external issues, perhaps the most significant factor is a greater degree of capacity discipline. This is now most deeply rooted in the US, which is now by far the most profitable airline region, helping to drive the global result.
On a more cautionary note, the IMF has recently cut its global GDP forecasts, citing Brexit and other geopolitical risks. In addition, profit warnings in recent weeks from IAG, easyJet and Lufthansa are a reminder that cyclical upswings do not last forever. A test of the airline industry's improved profitability will be its resilience in a downturn.
Norwegian Air continued its trend of improving profitability in 2Q2016, when it marked its sixth successive quarter of year-on-year increases in its operating margin. It achieved a further gain in load factor, in spite of double-digit capacity growth. The biggest sources of its growth were its US widebody routes and its operations in Spain, where it has recently opened a seventh base at Palma de Mallorca.
To a large extent its recent positive trend of growing profits has been the result of lower fuel prices. Ex fuel unit costs have been rising for several quarters, outpacing increases in unit revenue. Norwegian has only managed to achieve margin gains because of lower fuel CASK.
Norwegian's operations should become more efficient if it received US foreign airline permits for its Irish and UK subsidiaries, although there is currently little sign that this is about to happen. A new order for 30 A321LRs (part of the A320neo family) should also help Norwegian's unit cost performance and give it more choice over aircraft deployment on shorter long haul routes.
After a period of unit revenue growth following the global financial crisis, Air Europa came under heavy pricing pressure in 2015. Renewed growth by Iberia has intensified competition to Latin America, while LCCs are putting strain on short haul yields.
Air Europa does not report profits, but it is its parent company Globalia's largest business by revenue. The privately owned Globalia group has been profitable since 2013 but suffered a fall in profits in 2015, when its Air Division's revenue declined by 3% in spite of traffic growth. The group balance sheet has low liquidity and Globalia is reportedly considering an IPO.
Widebodies now represent more than half of Air Europa's seats and 20 out of 27 outstanding orders. This reflects the importance of its Latin American network and its ambitions to continue long haul growth, as detailed in part 1 of this report. Moreover, the widebody orders are for Boeing 787s – to replace A330s, generating cost efficiency gains. CAPA estimates that Air Europa's unit cost is above that of LCCs, but closer to them than to FSCs. It has a good track record of labour productivity growth, which will be useful in its quest for further CASK reduction.
Monarch Airlines restructure 2: lower fuel, labour productivity drive return to profit. Risks remain
Part 1 of CAPA's analysis of Monarch's restructuring examined capacity cuts and the shrinking of the fleet and network. An obvious sign of success is that the Monarch Group and Monarch Airlines returned to profit in FY2015. The restructuring helped to stabilise load factor, reduce the seasonality in the business and improve its on-time performance. However, average daily aircraft utilisation continued to fall and load factor has fallen again in the first part of FY2016.
Part 2 of CAPA's analysis examines how the restructuring improved Monarch's financial performance. The return to profit by the UK LCC was driven both by a rise in unit revenue and a fall in unit cost – that cost itself helped by lower fuel prices and improved labour productivity.
Looking ahead, Monarch's Boeing 737MAX deliveries from 2018 should benefit the bottom line. However, in the meantime leisure-focused markets face considerable volatility from geopolitical and macroeconomic uncertainties, not helped by the UK's recent Brexit vote. Although back in profit, Monarch still needs shareholder support to fund its liquidity needs and there have been some reports – denied by the airline – that its owners may be considering a sale. The restructuring now gives it a base from which to address its challenges.
The privately owned Monarch Group no longer publishes a glossy annual report for all to see, a practice that has been discontinued since its 2014 acquisition by turnaround specialists Greybull Capital. Such reticence is sometimes a sign of having something to hide. Not so here; the group's statutory accounts for the year ended Oct-2015 were recently filed with the UK's Companies House. They show a strong return to profit for the Monarch Group, whose largest business is Monarch Airlines.
In the previous year, FY2014, the airline had grown too rapidly and plunged into a heavy loss, while the Monarch Group had almost run out of cash. A subsequent restructuring programme, devised by the management and backed by the new shareholders, sought to restore profitability. The FY2015 accounts demonstrate the success of the restructuring, which involved capacity cuts (mainly in the summer), fleet reduction, withdrawal from charter and long haul flying, a shrinking of the workforce and new labour contracts. With profits restored, Monarch is now growing once more.
This first part of CAPA's analysis of Monarch's restructuring examines the changes to its capacity, schedule network and fleet. Part 2 will consider its improved financial results and future prospects.
In a 10-Jun-2016 presentation to equity analysts in London Lufthansa's Karl Ulrich Garnadt, the executive board member responsible for Eurowings, talked of his excitement for this "very ambitious, far reaching, very important" project for the Lufthansa Group. The group is developing an innovative partnership approach to allow other airlines to join its LCC activities under the Eurowings brand.
In 2011 the combined Lufthansa/Germanwings non-hub point-to-point network served 110 destinations and offered 24 million seats, of which only approximately nine million were operated by the LCC subsidiary. In 2016 the new Eurowings network has 135 destinations and offers 26 million seats (this comprises those operated by Eurowings and those yet to be transferred from Germanwings, while none are operated by Lufthansa).
The transfer of traffic from Lufthansa to Germanwings helped to turn around losses of more than EUR200 million. Germanwings' traffic and fleet are now progressively being transferred to the lower-cost Eurowings – the umbrella brand for the group's LCC operations. Germanwings/Eurowings achieves a RASK premium compared with other European LCCs. However, its low margin suggests that this is not enough by comparison with its CASK, which will remain higher than those of other LCCs.