North Pacific airline route development: Part 1 - Market growth and the Asian airlines' strategies

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The North Pacific market has expanded well above global averages over the past five years and looks set to continue to expand rapidly. There are great differences in the performances of Asian and North American airlines, just as regulatory variances between their respective governments influence growth rates.

Today round two in the battle for the trans-Pacific market has begun. In the last decade ultra-long-haul non-stops by Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines, were introduced – and each withdrawn recently. Meanwhile, more northerly-based Cathay Pacific's non-stops to east coast North America have grown strongly. Hub power has been a core value; Bangkok and Singapore were geographically disadvantaged (fuel-inefficient aircraft did not help the cause). Kuala Lumpur, whose Malaysia Airlines did not have non-stops, was a smaller and less effective hub that caused MAS ultimately to withdraw one-stop Los Angeles and New York service.

Over the past decade the trans-Pacific duelling was among North and Southeast Asian airlines, as their North American airline peers remained preoccupied with bankruptcy, followed by consolidation. Now, with airlines on both sides of the Pacific contesting the market, the new fight for trans-Pacific markets is among the regions: Seoul versus Hong Kong, Seattle versus San Francisco. Renewed and reconfigured fleets are enabling expansion, supported by economic growth, changed visa rules, and, in the case of the US (but not the more restrictive Canada), liberal and often open skies air service agreements.

The market fundamentals are the same, but airline drives to expand have varied: for Japanese and Taiwanese carriers, new opportunities; for Asiana, Chinese and US carriers, to catch up; and for Cathay, to defend its already stronger position.

Rapid expansion will continue to impact yields and profits negatively, but airlines will remain focused on the long term. Growth will continue and as it does partnerships will grow deeper. There is still much upside potential, but in the meantime the marketplace will be competitive and challenging.

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