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The German airline airberlin made another record loss in 2016 and has reported net losses in eight of the past nine years. It has lost a cumulative EUR1.9 billion in the five years since Etihad became a shareholder. The only small net profit, in 2012, was because Etihad bought its loyalty scheme. The first results for this year show that losses worsened in 1Q2017.
The better news is that, with shareholder Etihad's support, airberlin has sufficient liquidity to continue, and it has a restructuring plan with a new CEO. If the story of losses, Etihad support, restructuring and a new CEO sounds familiar, it is because it is. Airberlin has been through this almost as many times as Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day.
Crucially, though, the latest restructuring does seem genuinely radical. As new CEO Thomas Winkelmann has said, airberlin used to be a "Jack of all trades", but master of none. Past restructurings made it a Jack of fewer trades, but never fully resolved this lack of focus. The current plan brings it focus as a network airline – scaling down, and largely exiting from leisure. There is still much execution to be done, and competitive conditions are unlikely to ameliorate, but Mr Winkelmann may have a better chance than his predecessors.
Iberia's 'Plan de Futuro' restructuring restored its profitability in 2014 and it achieved its third straight positive operating result in 2016. Its owner, IAG, rewarded it with a return to capacity growth after years of cuts and new aircraft orders. Iberia's improved returns, and a drop in performance by sister airline Vueling, lifted it from the bottom of the IAG pack in 2016.
Nevertheless, Iberia is still not earning its cost of capital and is some way short of IAG's even higher target return. Iberia's capacity growth is slowing, as it concentrates more on load factor gains in a market characterised by overcapacity. Seat numbers are levelling off in its key long haul market of Latin America, although there is some growth in North America and the 2016 launches of Shanghai and Tokyo routes will feed through to growth in NE Asia this year. In Europe, Iberia is also maintaining flat capacity in the face of rapid LCC expansion.
The second phase of 'Plan de Futuro' targets further margin expansion, but Iberia may have a bigger challenge taking the next step upwards than it did to restore profits. Meanwhile, IAG's growth focus has shifted to its new long haul low cost operator Level.
Why so unprepared? It seems inconceivable that the structure of an industry with so many artificial constraints can remain intact much past 70 years, while all around it has changed.
This decade alone has been witness to major disruptions in the travel and transportation industries. Most prominent have been in ride sharing – Uber – and in hospitality – Airbnb. Telecommunications, media and music industries have also been turned on their heads; banks and payments are in the firing line; retail generally is being rapidly transformed. There is scarcely an industry whose fundamental structure remains intact. Except the airline industry.
In all cases disrespectful startups, usually applying relatively simple but sophisticated IT solutions, have taken on legacy operations. The legacy industries under attack typically involve extensive capital investment, and are often characterised by significant, unhelpful, and highly intrusive government regulation that restricts competition.
Certainly the legacy airlines have had to deal with a new breed of low cost operations, long and short haul. But almost without exception those legacy operators are still there, fundamentally unchanged.
In terms of other industries, this is no more than fiddling around the margins. And time is running out.
Both Finnair and TAP are based in peripheral corners of Europe: Finnair in the extreme northeast and TAP in the southwest. Both are based in countries with relatively small populations, but they have developed networks that capitalise on their geographic location to carry connecting traffic from across Europe and elsewhere to long haul destinations in other continents.
TAP's main long haul market is Upper South America (primarily Brazil), but it also has a secondary long haul niche in Africa. Finnair's main long haul market is Northeast Asia, with an additional presence in South and Southeast Asia. Both also operate to the US. On short haul, LCC competition has been a bigger threat to TAP than to Finnair, but cost savings are important to both.
TAP and Finnair have similar traffic volumes, unit costs and average trip lengths. Moreover, both have struggled to generate sustainable profitability. This report compares and contrasts Europe's two leading independent exponents of the location based long haul niche strategy. Both are set to accelerate their long haul growth.
LOT Polish Airlines: new LA service highlights value of long haul; short haul heat from LCCs remains
On 3-Apr-2017 LOT launched its longest direct service, between Warsaw and Los Angeles, deploying Boeing 787-8 aircraft. Los Angeles is LOT’s fourth North American destination and its first regular service to any US west coast destination. It is also the only direct flight anywhere between Central Europe and the US west coast. Warsaw-Newark and Krakow-Chicago route launches will follow later in summer 2017.
As it is with its other long haul routes, which also include three Asian destinations, LOT is aiming the new LA service not only at O&D traffic from Warsaw, but also squarely at passengers travelling to Southern California from across the Central European region. LOT is the only significant long haul operator in the region and the only one serving Los Angeles. Its Warsaw Chopin hub is the only airport between Vienna and Moscow with more than 1,000 long haul flights per year.
On short/medium haul, competition from LCCs Ryanair and Wizz Air is intense. Both have more seat capacity in Poland than LOT, whose new unbundled fare structure reflects the need to adopt some of their tactics. Long haul, where there is far less competition for LOT, is set to remain its strategic growth priority.
For Latvia's national airline, 2016 was a pivotal year. Riga-based airBaltic completed a multi year restructuring programme, increased its passenger numbers for the first time in five years, secured a capital increase and a private investor, and became the launch customer for the Bombardier CS300. On 28-Mar-2016 it further celebrated its successes by announcing a return to positive EBIT, alongside a net profit, for last year.
It has achieved its turnaround in the face of strong competition from foreign LCCs, justifying its positioning as a "hybrid LCC". Data provided to CAPA confirm that its unit cost level is also broadly consistent with the LCC tag. It is now seeking further investment from a strategic investor – preferably another airline. It also faces a decision about the replacement of its Dash 8 turboprop fleet.
AirBaltic CEO Martin Gauss told CAPA that the airline plans for passenger growth to accelerate from 12% in the past year to 16% in 2017, taking traffic levels back above 3 million passengers. For an airline based in a country inhabited by only 2 million people, this suggests that airBaltic has been making some judicious network decisions.
In 2017 the Aegean Airlines Group will make its first cut in seat capacity and fleet numbers since 2012. This follows three years of rapid expansion by the group since its Olympic Air acquisition in 2013. Olympic's all turboprop fleet focuses on the domestic market but also helps to feed Aegean's international network, particularly through its Athens hub. Cuts will focus on the domestic market.
Aegean will also make an important longer term fleet decision in 2017, or early 2018. The majority of its aircraft leases will need to be replaced between 2019 and 2023, and it is weighing the options. Aegean currently operates Airbus narrowbodies, but will consider the Boeing 737MAX in addition to the A320neo family.
Aegean's last capacity cut was in 2012, the end of a four year period of losses when Greece was in a deep multi year recession. Since then it has made healthy profits, but while profitable its operating margin fell in 2016 for the second successive year. Greece has experienced rapid capacity growth from LCCs, led by Ryanair. A decline in Aegean's unit revenue over three years has now prompted a pause for what its Executive Vice Chairman has called "consolidation and readjustment".
On 15-Mar-2017 Alitalia’s Board of Directors approved yet another turnaround plan. After losses throughout this century and yet another postponement of Alitalia's planned return to profit, this time pushed back from 2017 to 2019, each successive plan becomes more vital to its survival.
Alitalia's latest plan envisages revenue growth of 30% and cost reductions totalling EUR1 billion by 2019. It includes narrowbody fleet cuts, offset by seat densification, load factor gains and improved utilisation. It plans modest widebody growth, with expansion of capacity to the Americas in particular.
A major focus is to improve Alitalia's competitiveness on short/medium haul, which is increasingly dominated by LCCs, and which is vital to feed its long haul. All the usual features of becoming more competitive versus LCCs are in the plan: lower unit costs, unbundling and a simplified fare structure as a result of headcount reductions and other savings in operating costs.
Labour productivity improvement remains crucial to the plan's success. The plan’s funding, and Alitalia's future growth, will be subject to trade union agreement to a new collective agreement and headcount reductions. However, the immediate union response was to call a strike after management presented the plan to employees. Surely this has to be the last chance.
The Lufthansa Group's juggling act continues to impress with the sheer number of balls that it has sought to keep in the air over the past year.
Striving for labour productivity improvements in its mainline operations, while also attempting to minimise industrial unrest; expanding its Eurowings low cost brand through organic growth, while also integrating the acquisition of Brussels Airlines and the wet lease of aircraft from airberlin; facing the growing threat of Ryanair's entry into its biggest hub at Frankfurt, while seeking to maintain a good relationship with the airport's owner Fraport; keeping positive momentum in its financial performance after earning more than its cost of capital in 2014-2016, while the global cycle may have reached a peak.
In the same week as reporting solid, if unspectacular, financial results for 2016, Lufthansa has achieved a break through agreement with its pilots over pay and conditions. As a strategic tool, Eurowings helped it to reach this agreement, but the LCC subsidiary now needs to become financially successful.
Later in Mar-2017, Ryanair will start its first four Frankfurt routes, to which it will add 20 more next winter. Eurowings will need to be part of Lufthansa's response to this growing competitive threat.
Since adopting its strategy of rapid growth, driven by capturing global connecting traffic flows via its Istanbul Ataturk hub, Turkish Airlines (THY) has expanded its capacity in ASKs at double digit rates for 13 consecutive years. However, in 2016 it plans ASK growth of only approximately 3%, with cuts in the winter 2016/2017 season. Moreover, its long haul capacity will be almost flat in 2017, and it seems probable that it will not repeat its habitual increase in the number of passengers transferring between international flights this year.
The prompt for this unprecedented change in THY's growth path was a slump into loss in 2016, also unprecedented – at least, since the airline adopted its connecting strategy in 2004. This loss was itself the result of a slump in demand for air travel to/from Turkey, coupled with overexpansion. The consequent slide in unit revenue could not be mitigated by a matching cut in unit cost, in spite of lower fuel prices.
Recent management changes at THY raise the possibility of a new approach, but the airline cannot hide its pride over its history of growth and market share gains. It will need to balance this against the imperative to restore profitability.
Pegasus fell into loss in 2016, extending an unbroken trend of falling operating margins from the peak in the year of its stock market flotation in 2013. A series of geopolitical and terrorist events in Turkey weighed on market demand, leading to a drop in traffic in 2016.
Against this difficult backdrop, Pegasus slowed its expansion to single digits after years of double digit growth, but this remained ambitious in a falling market. In addition, its fleet grew faster than its traffic, piling on cost that did not generate sufficient revenue. It is now wet leasing aircraft to other airlines and deferring some new deliveries.
Pegasus' capacity growth is set to slow further in 2017, but it still looks fairly aggressive in a market that is again falling (according to OAG data). An increased focus on cost management may bring down ex fuel unit cost, but against this are rising fuel prices. Pegasus is likely to find a return to break even in 2017 to be a real challenge. In 2013 its margin was similar to those of its fellow ultra LCCs Ryanair and Wizz Air, but it has followed a worryingly divergent path since then.
In recent years, the Aeroflot Group has undergone a significant transformation. From 2009 to 2016 the group's passenger numbers increased fourfold, its load factor improved by 11.3ppts and its revenue grew almost five times.
During this time the group's structure has moved from one of non integrated subsidiary airlines to a clearly focused multi brand approach targeting different market segments. The Aeroflot Group has also refocused its fleet strategy, reducing the number of aircraft types from 18 in 2011 to seven in 2016.
Some measure of the success of Aeroflot's transformation, beyond the obvious growth in scale, can be seen from its improved financial results. In 2016 it reported record profits, in spite of a second successive year of a shrinking economy in Russia. These results were helped by lower fuel prices and by currency movements, but Aeroflot Group's operating margin of 12.8% was better than those of other major European legacy airline groups.
Aeroflot's achievements also owe much to the government directed consolidation of the Russian market in recent years. Indeed, the Russian government's influence has long been a guiding force in Aeroflot's development.