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Arab Air Carriers show that not all are created equal, but the rest of the world can learn from them
At the CAPA World Aviation Summit in Amsterdam in Nov-2013, one of the recurring themes was the success of Middle East airlines. Abdul Wahab Teffaha, Secretary General of the Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO), gave his thoughts on the development of Arab airlines, their success and the lessons to be learned.
Building on their geographical location, supportive government policies and relative political stability, some AACO carriers – notably Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways – have developed business models combining cost efficiency, high growth and a premium service. Of course, this formula has not been replicated everywhere in the region and it is a little misleading to talk about Arab carriers as a homogeneous group.
Nevertheless, other participants in the aviation sector, whether operator or government and whether in the Arab world or elsewhere, could learn some useful lessons from the success of the Gulf Three in particular.
The growth of China’s “Big Three” airlines – Air China, China Eastern and China Southern – has been spectacular. China Southern’s RPKs have increased from 20 billion in 2000 to nearly 140 billion in 2012. Outside China, the airlines' growth has generally been noticed in terms of international flights, leading to some misconceptions about the sector.
While the Big Three are increasing international flights, they are also increasing domestic services in the same proportion. Domestic RPKs in 2012 accounted for 79% of China Southern’s total RPKs – little change from 2000’s figure of 78%.
This is perhaps baffling to those aware of the huge potential of the outbound Chinese market. While the demand exists, Chinese carriers have failed to capitalise on it – and for good reason. International yields are often significantly lower than domestic yields, and international services are often unprofitable. The implication for the international community is huge: China will continue to hesitate to dispense traffic rights until its airlines have stronger performance, which will enable them to balance foreign growth. But many of the problems are well within their power to solve.
Regional political uncertainty and social turmoil have not been able to stop low-cost carriers in the Middle East from reporting another profitable six months. Two of the region’s key privately owned LCCs, the Sharjah-based Air Arabia and the Kuwait-based Jazeera Airways, have both posted strong profits in 1H2013.
In addition to this, the region’s other two LCCs, the privately owned nasair and the emirate of Dubai-controlled flydubai are anticipating profitable full year results. flydubai reported a maiden profit in 2012 and is looking to continue this momentum into 2013.
nasair has not yet reported a break-even year, despite being launched in 2007, but a restructuring in late 2012 has already seen the carrier reporting profits on a monthly basis.
The EU-US Open Skies agreement came into force on 30-Mar-2008. The year before, in 2007, IATA had released a major report looking at the benefits of airline liberalisation. After internal deregulation within the US and the EU, and some limited moves in other parts of the world, the agreement was (and still is) the most significant step towards global aviation liberalisation. The North Atlantic is the world’s largest intercontinental air traffic market and the eyes of the world were on it as it took this step.
The EU-US Open Skies agreement opened up markets on both sides so that any carrier from either side could fly between any point in the EU and any point in the US. It also provided for a second stage of negotiations aimed at loosening foreign ownership controls. This was signed in 2010, but has not so far been implemented.
With the fifth anniversary of Open Skies approaching, this analysis takes the opportunity to review the state of the North Atlantic market since 2008. The launch of Open Skies into the jaws of a global recession blurs its impact, but the main detectable results of Open Skies seem to be in the increased concentration of capacity in the hands of mega carriers and alliance joint ventures, with consequent benefits for load factors and yields.
Airline profitability prospects have improved for 2012, with IATA upwardly revising its 2012 financial forecast on 01-Oct-2012, predicting a USD4.1 billion profit compared to USD3 billion forecast in Jun-2012.
However, IATA director general and CEO Tony Tyler cautioned that “we should not get too excited” about the revision, with profits still to be less than half the USD8.4 billion earned in 2011 and considerably lower than the USD19.2 billion achieved in 2010. A return to those levels is not anticipated any time in the near future.
Despite the upward revision, profit margins also remain anaemic, with Mr Tyler noting that the revision only increased net profit margins from 0.5% to a still “miniscule” 0.6%.
Airline industry profitability is expected to pick up modestly to USD7.5 billion in 2013, amid slightly faster growth, lower oil prices combined and an upwardly revised GDP forecast.
Jazeera Airways is now six months into STAMP, the business programme designed to take the positive momentum from its financial turn-around programme and return the carrier to a growth trajectory. The programme is based around three key pillars: enhancing yields; improving the carrier’s load factors to a modest 68% by 2014; and leading in market share on the routes it operates in and out of Kuwait.
All of this will be achieved while the carrier maintains the same network of 19 destinations out of Kuwait for the next three years.
Even though Jazeera Airways managed to report a record new profit of KWD3.8 million (USD13.5 million) in 1H2012, the first half of the year has not been an unqualified success for the carrier. While it turned its seventh and eighth consecutive quarterly profits, the carrier’s passenger traffic and load factors have suffered due to the regional unrest in the Levant.