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Christmas: 'tis the season of airline schedule variations

The Christmas holiday is a high profile period for air travel in many parts of the world. It is a time when many people fly to be with friends and relations, or to escape it all by taking a vacation. It is a time when travellers look for deals on prices, airlines try to optimise their revenue management models and, sometimes, unions seek maximum impact by choosing to stage strikes.

Against this backdrop, this report looks at OAG schedules data for both passenger and cargo capacity this winter to examine which regions are most exposed to seasonal schedule variations at Christmas.

In all regions, both passenger and cargo capacity will step up in the week before Christmas 2018 (except for Middle East, where it stays flat). It will then decline somewhat in Christmas week in each region (although Europe and Middle East are the only regions where Christmas week capacity is below the winter average).

Europe's passenger schedule and Latin America's cargo schedule are most exposed to Christmas variations, whereas Asia Pacific's schedules barely seem to notice Christmas in either market. For all regions, there is no other time in the winter schedule when week-on-week percentage changes in capacity are so great.

Summary

  • Seat capacity steps up in the week before Christmas in all regions and then falls in the Christmas week (except in Asia Pacific).
  • Europe's and Middle East's Christmas week seat capacity is below the winter average. Europe's passenger schedule is most exposed to Christmas; Asia Pacific's the least.
  • Cargo payload also steps up in the week before Christmas in all regions and then falls in the Christmas week in all regions.
  • Latin America's cargo schedule is most exposed to Christmas; Asia Pacific's is least exposed.

Seat capacity steps up in the week before Christmas in all regions…

Looking at the regional patterns of weekly seats this winter, there is a clear increase in seat capacity in the week before Christmas (the week commencing 17-Dec-2018) relative to the week before that for each world region, except in the Middle East, where it remains flat.

Weekly seats by region, winter 2018/2019

 

This week-on-week percentage increase is the greatest in North America, at 6.7%, followed by Latin America, at 5.6%, then Africa, 4.5%, Europe, 4.0%, and Asia Pacific, where it is 1.6%.

In Middle East, it stays flat.

…and then falls in the Christmas week (except in Asia Pacific)

For most regions, with the only exception of Asia Pacific, this pre-Christmas increase is followed by a dip into the Christmas week (the week of 24-Dec-2018). In percentage terms, the biggest week-on-week decline is in Europe, where the drop is 10.6%.

In Middle East, seat numbers fall by 6.4% into the Christmas week, with North America experiencing a drop of 3.5%, Africa undergoing a fall of 1.4% and Latin America a fall of 1.0%.

By contrast, Asia Pacific seat count grows by 0.5% in the Christmas week relative to the week before.

Europe and Middle East: the only regions where the Christmas week seat capacity is below the winter average

A clearer regional pattern emerges if the weekly data are looked at as a percentage of all winter season seats. An average winter week has just under 4.8% of total winter seat numbers (based on there being 21 weeks in the season).

In Asia Pacific, the share of seats for both the week before Christmas and the Christmas week is very close to this 4.8% figure.

In Europe, the week before Christmas has just over 4.9% of winter seats, while the Christmas week has just 4.4% (the lowest of any region for the Christmas week). In Middle East, winter seat share falls from 4.9% the week before Christmas to 4.6% in the Christmas week.

In the other three regions, the week before Christmas has almost 5.0% of winter seats. In the Christmas week this falls to 4.8% in North America, and 4.9% in both Latin America and Africa.

Europe and Middle East are the only regions where the Christmas week has less capacity than an average winter week.

For Europe, this probably reflects the continent's typically longer holiday period, where VFR and leisure traffic peaks the week before Christmas as people travel to their holiday destination and there is less traffic during the Christmas week when people stay at their destination.

In North America, Latin America and Africa, travel remains more buoyant during the Christmas week, although there is also a pre-Christmas peak, possibly reflecting shorter holidays. After Europe, North America has the second greatest variation in capacity between the pre-Christmas week and the Christmas week.

Europe's passenger schedule is most exposed to Christmas; Asia Pacific's is least exposed

The total impact of Christmas could be thought of as the combined difference from normal operations in the week before Christmas and the Christmas week. This can be measured by adding the percentage point difference in capacity share between an average winter week and each of these two weeks.

This approach indicates that Europe is the most exposed region to Christmas in terms of passenger capacity schedule variation. For Europe, the combined impact is 0.5ppts (a difference of 0.2ppts for the week before Christmas and 0.3ppts for the Christmas week).

Europe is followed by Latin America (0.4ppts), Middle East, Africa and North America (all 0.3ppts), and Asia Pacific (0.0ppts).

Proportion of winter 2018/2019 seats in the week before Christmas and the Christmas week

 

Cargo payload also steps up in the week before Christmas in all regions…

There are similar patterns for weekly cargo payload. All regions experience an increase in cargo payload in the week before Christmas relative to the week before that, except in the Middle East, where it remains flat.

Weekly cargo payload (kg) by region, winter 2018/2019

 

This week-on-week percentage increase is the greatest in Latin America, at 5.4%, followed by North America, at 5.0%, then Africa, 3.3%, Europe, 1.8%. Again, it is lowest for Asia Pacific, where it is 1.2%.

…and then falls in the Christmas week

For all regions, this pre-Christmas increase is followed by a dip into the Christmas week.

The biggest percentage decline is again in Europe, where the drop is 6.2%. In North America, cargo payload falls by 3.5% into the Christmas week and in Middle East, it drops by 3.3%. Africa undergoes a fall of 1.9% and Latin America a fall of 0.7%.

Asia Pacific cargo payload falls by only 0.1% in the Christmas week relative to the week before, but this contrasts with the increase in its seat count.

Europe and Middle East: also the only regions where the Christmas week cargo payload is below the winter average

In Asia Pacific, cargo payload as a percentage of the winter total remains virtually unmoved from the average of 4.8% in the week before Christmas and in the Christmas week.

In Europe, the week before Christmas has almost 4.9% of winter cargo payload, while the Christmas week has just under 4.6% (again, the lowest of any region for the Christmas week). For Middle East, cargo payload is 4.8% of the winter total in the week before Christmas and just above 4.6% in the Christmas week.

As with seat capacity, Europe and Middle East are the only regions where the Christmas week has less cargo payload than an average winter week.

In the other three regions, the week before Christmas has a higher peak than in Europe (4.9% of total winter cargo payload in Africa, almost 5.0% in North America and more than 5.0% in Latin America).

In the Christmas week this falls to 4.8% in Africa, less than 4.8% in North America and just over 4.8% in Latin America.

Latin America's cargo schedule is most exposed to Christmas; Asia Pacific's is least exposed

Measuring the overall impact on cargo as for seats, Latin America is the most exposed region to Christmas, with a total impact of 0.5ppts (0.3ppts difference from average in the week before Christmas and 0.2ppts in the Christmas week).

Europe is next (0.3ppts overall), followed by Africa, North America and Middle (each 0.2ppts). For Asia Pacific, there is practically no impact (0.0ppts).

Proportion of winter 2018/2019 cargo payload (kg) in the week before Christmas and the Christmas week

 

Europe is most exposed overall to Christmas schedule variations

For most airlines, passenger traffic is more significant than cargo traffic.

The two measures: passenger and cargo of Christmas impact presented above can be combined to form a single overall measure by weighting the cargo impact at one tenth of the passenger impact, adding them together and converting to an index where the highest exposure (that of Europe) is equivalent to 100.

The overall exposure to Christmas schedule variations of each of the world's regions is ranked according to the chart below. Europe has the highest overall exposure (index of 100) and Asia Pacific the lowest (index of 7).

For airlines and airports alike, the seasonal capacity fluctuations bring operational challenges. These are typically met with seasonal good cheer.

Exposure to Christmas schedule variation* by region, index (Europe = 100)

 

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