Ryanair's 117million pax in 2016 tops European airline groups. The first time an LCC topped rankings
For the first time ever in Europe, in 2016 a low cost airline carried more passengers than any other airline or airline group, as Ryanair's 117 million passengers pushed Lufthansa Group's 110 million into second place. Ryanair had beaten Lufthansa itself, but not the whole Lufthansa Group. IAG's first full year of including Aer Lingus helped it to take third place from Air France-KLM. Europe's number two LCC, easyJet, was ranked fifth.
The big five can be expanded into a big seven to include Turkish Airlines and the Aeroflot Group, although these two had contrasting growth rates in 2016. A chasing pack of middle sized airline groups includes three LCCs (Norwegian, Pegasus and Wizz Air) and three legacy airlines with varying challenges to establishing sustainable profitability (SAS, Air Berlin Group and Alitalia).
Most of the faster growing airline groups in the top 20 are LCCs and the main growth drivers for Europe's big three legacy groups are their LCC subsidiaries. Just outside the top 20 are some fast growing legacy airlines in Eastern Europe, demonstrating the potential there. Nevertheless, unless there is a big merger or acquisition, Ryanair looks set to remain at number one for some time.
Norwegian plans to add US routes to its Edinburgh base, a development considered in part 1 of this report, adding to its growing list of European long haul bases. However, its Edinburgh-US routes will use new Boeing 737MAX-8 aircraft – its first deployment of narrowbodies for long haul. It has also ordered 30 Airbus A321neoLRs for long haul use. Narrowbodies open up new possibilities for routes between the UK (or other European markets) and the US east coast.
Norwegian also plans to add non-US destinations to its UK long haul network, with details expected during the course of 2017. Norwegian's flexibility to develop its long haul operations from the UK would be improved by the grant of a US foreign carrier permit to its UK-registered subsidiary, Norwegian Air UK.
Norwegian has had to surmount many obstacles to build and grow its global network – which may also include Latin America in 2017, when it will accelerate long haul ASK growth to 60%. However its rapid expansion, currently driven mainly by long haul growth, has led to a rapid increase in debt, and is likely to weigh on unit revenue. Norwegian's undoubted strategic innovation can only be sustained if it is financially successful.
Norwegian's plans to add Edinburgh to its long haul bases are a further indication of its constantly evolving strategic development. Driven mainly by long haul, Norwegian returned to strong growth in 2016 after a respite in 2015. Norwegian's 2017 expansion plans will make the LCC Scandinavia's largest airline by passenger numbers, ahead of the legacy airline rival SAS.
The UK is Norwegian's biggest European long haul market outside Scandinavia. This has so far been based entirely on its network at London Gatwick, where its weekly seat capacity to the US now equals that of the market leader Virgin Atlantic. However, Norwegian is looking beyond Gatwick and will add trans-Atlantic routes from Edinburgh in 2017, for the first time deploying a narrowbody (Boeing 737MAX-8) on its long haul network. It has yet to announce the US destinations from the Scottish capital, and also plans to fly to the US from other UK cities.
This report considers Norwegian's Edinburgh long haul plans in the context of its existing UK operations. Part 2 looks at Norwegian's use of narrowbodies for long haul and the application by its UK subsidiary for a US permit. Part 2 also touches on the financial impact of Norwegian's rapid growth.
Two years on from its Dec-2014 launch Aeroflot's LCC subsidiary Pobeda is firmly established as the fifth largest airline in Russia by seats, with a 6.8% share in the domestic market (week of 19-Dec-2016, source: OAG). Bucking the trend of declining traffic in the Russian market – which is being dragged down by falling international demand – Pobeda is growing rapidly.
Although still strongly domestically focused, the Moscow Vnukovo-based airline commenced international operations in Feb-2016 and will have launched 12 international routes during the course of 2016.
On a city pair basis, 23 of the 41 Pobeda routes in 2016 are not operated by other Aeroflot Group airlines. There are 17 Moscow routes (and one from Saint Petersburg) flown by both Pobeda and Aeroflot from different airports. An important part of the Aeroflot Group's multi-brand strategy, Pobeda is the only LCC in Russia and has stimulated demand among price-sensitive passengers in point-to-point markets.
On 20-Dec-2016 Flybe announced its first ever routes from London Heathrow and the appointment of a new chief executive. Europe's largest regional airline will launch Heathrow to Aberdeen and Edinburgh at the start of summer 2017. Former CityJet head, Christine Ourmieres-Widener, will become CEO of Flybe from 16-Jan-2017, replacing Saad Hammad, who left on 26-Oct-2016.
Flybe already operates to the two Scottish cities from London City in competition with British Airways. Its Heathrow turboprop services will compete directly with BA's narrowbody jets, and there is also competition from Ryanair and easyJet from other London airports on the city pairs. Flybe has previously baulked at Heathrow's high charges, but has now changed its mind.
Flybe's new Heathrow services will use slots previously used by Virgin Atlantic's Little Red on the same routes. Little Red failed to fill its aircraft and ceased operating after two years. Flybe will be hoping that its smaller aircraft and lower frequencies will be easier to fill. Extending its codeshare agreements with its long haul partners to include Heathrow routes would help. It will also do Flybe no harm that it already participates in the Avios loyalty scheme owned by IAG, the parent of Heathrow's largest airline British Airways.
A vote on 14-Dec-2016 by British Airways 'mixed fleet' cabin crew raises the real threat of strike action - and, as is often the case, in the lead up to a peak holiday period. This would be the first serious industrial action since strikes by cabin crew protesting at the 2010 introduction of mixed fleet crew. BA, and its parent IAG, have been praised by many observers (including CAPA) for their resolve in driving through important restructuring programmes in legacy airlines, while their European peers have fallen behind the field. A crucial part of this has been to generate labour productivity improvements, often in the face of union resistance.
British Airways has a good track record in improving the efficiency of its workforce, as measured by ASKs per employee. In 2015 it made its highest-ever operating profit margin, beating Europe's other major legacy airlines, and it looks likely to improve on this once again in 2016. However, it does not have a great record of lowering unit labour cost.
Moreover, BA is currently experiencing falling unit revenue. With help from lower fuel prices receding, cutting ex fuel unit cost will be vital if BA is to fight off the margin squeeze resulting from unit revenue weakness. Labour is a key element of ex fuel cost, so the cabin crew dispute is a test of BA's resolve.
A harsh truth for SAS is that improvements to its network and product, and its focus on Scandinavia's frequent travellers, have not isolated it from unit revenue weakness. Moreover, in spite of very creditable progress with unit cost reduction, it still has a high cost base. In FY2016 its operating margin started to turn down again. In addition to further targeted cost savings SAS is now considering further, more radical, changes to its production model.
In particular, it is assessing whether or not to establish operations outside Scandinavia for some of its European traffic. The European airline market includes a fast-growing and price-sensitive leisure segment, where SAS tries to compete against much lower cost operators that are not weighed down by Scandinavia's very high labour costs.
Even Scandinavia's most significant LCC, Norwegian, has established bases in the UK and Spain, and many other LCC competitors have bases across the continent. Indeed, it would seem that SAS, once an opponent of Norwegian's plans to use Ireland as a trans-Atlantic base in search of lower labour costs, has borrowed a page from its rival's book on how to re-write airline strategy.
Vueling's new CEO, Javier Sanchez-Prieto, is leading a programme ('Vueling NEXT') to improve its profitability, both through revenue enhancement and cost efficiency gains. Among other aims this hopes to reduce Vueling's high levels of seasonality, to raise aircraft utilisation and to improve labour productivity. Given ambitious financial targets by IAG – action is needed.
Part 1 of CAPA's analysis of Vueling examined its capacity growth and profitability trends since its acquisition by IAG in 2013. Vueling's operating margin and return on invested capital are on a downward trend, hence the new initiative to reverse these trends.
This second part of CAPA's analysis considers the profit improvement programme. During this programme Vueling's fleet will remain broadly flat to 2018, before resuming growth thereafter. Focus markets for Vueling are domestic Spain and Spain-Europe. It has strengths in these markets but faces growing competition from its lower-cost rival Ryanair, which has also been raising its service quality – closing the gap to Vueling's more premium positioning on the LCC spectrum.
Since the end of 2015 Vueling has slipped from being IAG's best performer on the key financial metric of return on invested capital to its worst performer for the four quarters ended 3Q2016. The group's LCC has suffered more than its sister airlines from disruption in Europe, caused by ATC strikes and terrorist activity.
However, since its acquisition by IAG in 2013 Vueling's revenue growth has not matched its capacity growth and unit costs have grown. The benefits of lower fuel prices have been dissipated by higher ex-fuel unit costs, including lower labour productivity. Vueling's new CEO, Javier Sanchez-Prieto, is now leading a programme ('Vueling NEXT') to improve its profitability.
Part 1 of this CAPA analysis of Vueling examines its capacity growth and profitability trends since becoming part of IAG. It also looks at the development of its RASK and CASK. Part two will highlight the seasonality in Vueling's schedule and look at the profit improvement programme.
CAPA's previous analysis of the 3Q2016 results of Europe's big three legacy airline groups highlighted a fall in their collective operating margin, after growth in 1H2016. This report shows that Europe's five leading LCCs, in aggregate, also suffered a fall in profit and margin in the quarter.
Three of the five – Ryanair, Norwegian and Wizz Air – improved their profit margin in the quarter, but easyJet's drop in margin was heavy enough to bring down the collective result. Pegasus' margin also declined.
Nevertheless, the LCC five remain collectively far more profitable than the legacy three. Moreover Europe's two most profitable airlines, Ryanair and Wizz Air, look set to increase their margin lead this year. Even easyJet, which has had a bad year by its standards, achieved a higher margin for calendar 9M2016 than the most profitable of the big three legacy groups, which was IAG.
The divergence of results in the European sector suggest that not all airlines are following the same cycle. However the collective margin decline for the continent's leading LCCs, and its major legacy airline groups, at least gives reason to question whether or not the cyclical upswing may have run its course.
In spite of challenging market conditions and falling profits, easyJet remains on the offensive in its fight for market share with legacy airlines. It is also making contingency plans to apply for an EU AOC to ensure continued intra-European traffic rights in the post-Brexit future.
easyJet's revenue per seat, pre-tax profit and return on capital employed all fell in FY2016 (year to Sep-2016), the first reversal since before CEO Dame Carolyn McCall took the helm in FY2010. In spite of lower fuel prices, easyJet could not lower its cost per seat fast enough to offset the drop in unit revenue. Load factor was just above flat at 91.6%, so the drop in revenue per seat was all price-related. A series of external events put pressure on pricing – including terrorism, ATC strikes and the UK's Brexit vote.
Some airlines might tighten their capacity growth in the face of weak pricing, but easyJet plans to accelerate its seat growth from 6% in FY2016 to 9% in FY2017. It has its sights on an opportunity to take share from legacy airlines in airports where it already has a strong market position.
IAG's Capital Markets Day on 4-Nov-2016 was the first since its formation in 2011 when it lowered any of its medium term financial targets. It cut its 2016-2020 average EBITDAR goal, in spite of adding in Aer Lingus for the first time. This followed two cuts to 2016 operating profit guidance during the course of this year, as a result of "a tough operating environment". It has been hit by adverse currency movements, mainly resulting from the UK's Brexit vote, in addition to ATC strikes and terrorist events.
To its credit, IAG has responded to the more challenging trading conditions by lowering its planned capacity growth and capital expenditure during its 2016-2020 strategic plan. These steps are necessary if it is to have a chance of meeting its ambitious goal to sustain a 15% return on invested capital. This target is unchanged, despite the lower profit outlook.
In 3Q2016, IAG's rolling four quarter return on capital fell, after rising more or less continuously since it began to target this measure in 2013. It has consistently been more profitable than either of its two main European legacy airline group rivals (Air France-KLM and Lufthansa). Nevertheless, the downward step highlights the challenge in meeting its own demanding target.