Traffic and Capacity
Airlines seek to match capacity (supply) with traffic (demand), to produce consistently high load factors, to help them maintain their pricing and yields (see CAPA's Aviation Glossary for more background in traffic terminology). It is a difficult balancing act, made more challenging by volatile global economic conditions. Traffic is generally growing much faster in the emerging markets of the Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa and Latin America and Eastern Europe regions, compared to the more mature aviation markets of Western Europe and North America.
CAPA covers hundreds of traffic reports from airports, airlines and industry bodies every month. Our Diamond Members can opt to receive them as they happen via CAPA Alerts.
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Following easyJet's fall back into loss in 1H2016 (six months to Mar-2016), it still expected that the summer months would more than offset this, allowing another year of profit growth. A profit warning after the UK's Brexit vote dashed this hope in late Jun-2016. EasyJet's 3Q2016 (April to June) trading statement casts a bigger shadow over its outlook, as weak unit revenue is not being offset by unit cost reduction. According to CAPA calculations, easyJet's 3Q2016 pre-tax profit fell by 59% year on year.
European LCCs Norwegian and Wizz Air have reported improved profits for the same quarter and are on track to achieve stronger full year results, but easyJet is not alone among European airlines in lowering earnings expectations in recent weeks. IAG and Lufthansa have also issued profit warnings. Growing macroeconomic and geopolitical uncertainties are weighing on unit revenue. For some, there is no longer a sufficient release coming from lower fuel prices, which also contribute to unit revenue weakness by encouraging additional capacity.
The majority of European airlines have yet to report April-June results, most notably Ryanair, Air France-KLM and IAG. Nevertheless, the reporting season seems likely to herald a more cautious phase of the airline cycle.
The operational challenges Canadian low cost airline WestJet has encountered in its launch of widebody flights to London has done little to quell investor concern about the carrier’s ability to execute low cost long haul flights successfully. Mechanical problems with the Boeing 767s have triggered cancellations and operational challenges, which has created passenger frustration, and resulted in reaccommodation and other expenses that are not insignificant.
WestJet has been working to smooth out the operational teething pains of the twin aisle jets, and is assuring that the hiccups are temporary. However, the less than ideal launch could call into question WestJet’s ability to spread the low cost model and stimulate traffic from Canada in the North Atlantic market. The company is attracting a higher level of scrutiny since it is the first LCC based in North America to attempt to spread the model on long haul flights.
Despite the shaky launch of its long haul flights with widebodies, WestJet cannot ignore long-term opportunities presented by the long haul market from Canada – with a value in the billions. WestJet can ill-afford to cede all the revenue to rival Air Canada and non-Canadian airlines operating on trans-Atlantic routes. In the short term the airline finds itself in a position of now attempting to engender passenger confidence that its operational snafus are temporary, and its product proposition remains intact.
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.
Air Europa's 28-Jun-2016 launch of a new daily Madrid-Bogota service returns the spotlight to its Latin American network. This is the airline's most important route region both by capacity and by revenue, and it remains at the heart of its future plans. Air Europa has 13 Latin American destinations – compared with Iberia's 19 – and has been linked with plans for several more.
By seat capacity on Spain-Latin America Air Europa is half as big as Iberia but its share has increased by 10ppts over the past decade, while Iberia's has fallen. Iberia was four times Air Europa's size in this market in 2006. Nevertheless, a re-energised Iberia remains a formidable competitor and there is a small, but growing, band of new entrants.
Air Europa's parent company Globalia is reportedly considering an IPO, having previously been in talks with HNA Group about a possible investment by the Chinese conglomerate. Air Europa is likely to defer plans for the launch of routes to China while it concentrates on Latin America.
Part 2 of this analysis will look at Globalia's financial track record. It will also examine Air Europa's unit revenues, fleet and unit cost positioning.