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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All is not well in Air France-KLM. The group has reported another decline in quarterly profits. Its 2Q2015 operating result was down by 2% and insufficient to bring 1H2014 into positive territory after an operating loss in 1Q2015. Currency movements, specifically the weaker EUR versus USD, had the effect of inflating both revenue and costs, but the net impact accounted for the deterioration in the operating result.
Nevertheless, this should not detract from Air France-KLM's very weak unit revenues, which appear immune to attempts at improving the product and may only respond to capacity cuts. Either way, unit cost reduction will remain crucial if the group is to return to a sustainable profit path. Long haul routes in particular are under threat.
The development of its medium haul low cost airline, Transavia, continues to be rapid in France, but the scale and profitability of this operation are weak compared with Europe's leading LCCs. However, the establishment of Transavia Europe, with bases beyond France and the Netherlands, could be back on the agenda after a change in leadership at the French pilot union.
Setting aside the impact of a provision for possible claims related to historic flight delays, the Dart Group increased its underlying operating profit by 3% in FY2015. This was driven by its leisure travel segment, which now aggregates its leisure airline Jet2.com and its package holidays business Jet2holidays.com and accounted for almost all of the group's profit.
However, operating margin slipped slightly, both for the group and the leisure travel segment, as costs grew a little faster than revenue. It is no longer possible to ascertain whether the causes of this lay with the airline or the package holidays business (or both), since they no longer report separate results.
We do know that the holidays business has grown in importance to the airline and supplied one third of its passengers in FY2015. Jet2.com is one of Europe's most seasonal airlines, with a seasonal peak weekly seat capacity (Jul-2015) nine times that of its lowest weekly seat capacity (Jan-2015, source: OAG). This strong summer leisure focus risks means that the airline and the group have a lot of their eggs in the same basket.
Norwegian Air Shuttle 2Q2015 back to operating profit. Long haul load factor 91%; leasing draws near
Norwegian's 2Q2015 results show further positive momentum after FY2014's slump into losses. Not only did unit revenue grow, driven by a sharp increase in passenger load factor, but also unit cost fell.
However, the fall in unit cost (and more than half of the improvement in operating profit versus 2Q2014) was due to lower fuel prices. Norwegian's ex fuel unit costs have risen year on year for the past three quarters. The current quarter, 3Q2015, will be the key to FY2015 results and Norwegian's management appear comfortable with booking trends and the yield outlook.
Norwegian also gave data on its long haul network, two years after its launch. Passenger numbers in 2Q2015 more than doubled from 2Q2014 and the long haul load factor was 91% in 1H2015. Norwegian must now prove its claim that this part of the business can make a positive contribution to profits. And it has no time to relax: its next new business, aircraft leasing, will be fully operational in 2016, when it plans to lease out all four A320neo aircraft due from Airbus.
Eastern/Central Europe offers significant opportunities to LCCs. The region's faster-growing, lower-wage economies are relatively under-penetrated by the low cost model, and by air travel in general, compared with Western Europe. Furthermore, outside Russia, Turkey and Greece, the region contains very few sizeable legacy airlines and even fewer in strong financial health.
Wizz Air and Ryanair, already established as the two leading airlines in Eastern/Central Europe (ex Russia, Turkey and Greece), look well placed to build further here. According to OAG data for the week of 13-Jul-2015, number one ranked Wizz Air is growing seat capacity by 25% year on year, while number two Ryanair's seat numbers in Eastern/Central Europe are up 22% from their level a year ago.
Wizz Air's recent aircraft order demonstrates its resolve to stay in pole position. However, breaking the region into its component markets, Ryanair often comes out ahead of Wizz Air in countries where they both compete. Whichever one of Europe's two lowest unit cost airlines can win the fight for cost leadership will likely be the long term winner in Eastern/Central Europe.
Air France-KLM's 6M2015 passenger traffic figures indicate RPK growth of just 0.7% for the group, compared with 5.8% for IAG and 3.6% for the Lufthansa Group. With a passenger load factor of 84.2% for the period, Air France-KLM is filling more of its seats than IAG (79.3%) and the Lufthansa Group (78.3%). Its capacity discipline is welcome, but has been forced on it by successive losses.
Moreover, its poor financial track record highlights the challenges faced by Air France-KLM in making a profit from these seats - and cost cutting remains a priority. Key to this is labour productivity improvement. A recent agreement signed by KLM pilots is a positive step in this regard, by contrast with ongoing deadlock between Air France and its pilot union.
In this report, we consider Air France-KLM's main strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
We suggest that Air France-KLM should be more positive in developing commercial relationships with Etihad and Chinese partner airlines and more aggressive with the growth of its LCC subsidiary Transavia (if pilots allow it).
The Italian market continues in a state of flux. It looks like 2015 will join 2014 as a growth year, following contraction in 2012 and 2013. Alitalia has stabilised its total seat capacity after years of decline, but continues to lose market share to fast-growing rivals. Europe's three biggest LCCs - Ryanair, easyJet and Vueling - are pursuing what seems like relentless expansion across Italy, but Wizz Air is also building a presence.
Furthermore, the leading airlines in Italy continue to jostle for places in difference parts of the market. This is illustrated by easyJet's recent decision to close its Rome Fiumicino base from Apr-2016 and to redeploy aircraft through the expansion of bases at Milan Malpensa and Naples and at a new base at Venice Marco Polo.
Ryanair overtook Alitalia as the biggest airline in Italy by seats in 2013 and offers far more destinations. As it continues to improve customer service quality and to increase the proportion of primary airports in its pan-European network, Ryanair's position as market leader in Italy and the lowest cost producer in Europe will make it hard to beat.