Mergers and Consolidation
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Russia's Ministry of Economic Development issues directive for acquisition of 75% stake in Transaero
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There has never really been a consensus on the question of what defines success in the airline industry. However, that now seems to be changing and opinion is coalescing around the idea that financial performance is the best demonstration of success.
Chapter 11 bankruptcy, followed by consolidation has helped profitability in North America, but this process has slowed to a trickle in Europe’s more fragmented airline sector, forcing each European airline to devise its own formula.
Judging by operating margins in 2014, European Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) are enjoying greater success than Full Service Carriers (FSCs). Unit cost analysis highlights the continuing CASK gap, emphasising the imperative for cost efficiency, and also allows a more detailed strategic segmentation of Europe’s airlines. Ultra-LCCs seem particularly successful, but one of the keys to LCC success is to have pan-European operations.
The last of Europe's stock market-listed airlines recently reported financial results for 2014, providing the opportunity to compare levels of profitability. Ranking them by operating margin, there is a wide range of performance from healthy double digit to negative figures.
LCCs typically performed better than legacy airlines. Most of the higher margin airlines improved in 2014, while most of those at the lower end of the scale suffered a fall in margins. Convergence of business models does not show itself in convergence of financial performance.
Beyond the listed airlines, Europe has a large number of mainly small and unprofitable airlines, which drag down the aggregate margin of the continent's airline sector. Europe's traffic growth and load factors are relatively healthy by world standards, but its margins are held back by its fragmented market structure.
Long considered, perhaps unfairly, to be the ‘bottom feeder’ of the air transport business, the global airport ground handling business is now estimated to be worth over USD80 billion per annum according to its trade association, ASA - while some say USD100 billion.
By comparison the airline industry turned over around USD700 billion in 2013.
Ground handling’s status may be growing but this particular business segment has unique issues that frequently dominate its agenda.
Part 1 of this report deals with the impact of liberalisation, the counter-intuitive inefficiency of multiple ground handlers and the recent UK Supreme Court's potentially disruptive decision on claims for delayed flights. Part 2 will review the consolidation of the ground handling industry and emerging alliances.
The new ultra low-cost airline competition is more aggressively probing the soft underbelly of established pricing at Cleveland and Cincinnati as Spirit Airlines plans to enter the Cleveland market in early 2015. Spirit’s moves follow a rapid expansion by fellow ULCC Frontier Airlines in Cleveland after United dramatically downsized its smallest hub by cutting roughly 60% of its daily departures from the airport.
Now that Spirit plans to introduce flights from Cleveland, the market is also set to become the most visible test case of the US market’s ability to support two ultra low-cost airlines. Spirit and Frontier will compete on most of Spirit’s new routes from Cleveland alongside major airlines.
It is also Spirit’s most blatant competitive response to Frontier since Frontier was purchased by former large Spirit shareholder Indigo Partners. Spirit has offered little public comment about Frontier’s transition to the ultra low-cost model Spirit pioneered in the US roughly a decade ago; but perhaps Spirit’s network moves speak volumes about how it views a new ULCC entrant in the market place.
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.
Similar to its US legacy peer Delta, American Airlines recorded positive 1Q2014 financial results in what American’s management described as “the most difficult winter season any of us have ever experienced in this business”.
American recorded a profit despite canceling roughly 34,000 flights (which is approximately double the flights cancelled by Delta) and taking a USD115 million revenue hit from the disruptions in its operations. Even as the storms wreaked havoc for most carriers, the US domestic market was one of American’s best performing regional entities during 1Q2014.
While the carrier is expressing positive sentiment about the demand environment through its estimated 4% to 6% passenger unit revenue growth in 2Q2014, American’s executives admit the company faces the toughest integration challenges in 2015. One major challenge is in migrating to a single reservations systems platform.
Meanwhile, American is moderating its public optimism, preferring to adopt a modest understatement of the outlook - while hoping for a successful outcome.