Low Cost Carriers (LCCs)
A key structural change in aviation over the past decade has been the proliferation of low-cost carriers (LCCs). The low-cost model has overwhelmingly been the favoured mode of airline start-up over the period, and their spread around the world, into both short- and long-haul markets, has caused a fundamental shift in the competitive dynamic of the industry.
'Classic' characteristics of the low-cost model include:
- High seating density;
- High aircraft utilisation;
- Single aircraft type;
- Low fares, including very low promotional fares;
- Single class configuration;
- Point-to-point services;
- No (free) frills;
- Predominantly short- to medium-haul route structures;
- Frequent use of second-tier airports;
- Rapid turnaround time at airports.
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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.
On 17-Mar-2017, IAG announced the launch of its newest airline brand, 'Level', which it will use to operate the group's first long haul low cost flights from Jun-2017. The launch routes will be from Barcelona to Los Angeles, Oakland, Buenos Aires and Punta Cana. It will compete head to head with Norwegian on the Los Angeles and Oakland routes.
In Dec-2016, IAG had said that it had not yet decided whether to create a new brand or to operate its planned Barcelona long haul low cost routes under one of its existing brands British Airways, Iberia or even Aer Lingus. Vueling was ruled out, although its strength at Barcelona will provide connecting feed. IAG's solution is to create Level, a new airline brand, but to operate it initially with Iberia pilots and cabin crew.
IAG has also confirmed that Level will deploy two new 314 seat Airbus A330-200s (293 economy and 21 premium economy) and will create up to 250 jobs based in Barcelona. Level, IAG's first entirely new airline brand, will also look to expand to add flights from other European cities.
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.
Ukraine: traffic recovery prompts Ryanair to join Wizz Air in LCC growth. Ukraine Int'l also expands
Two announcements by leading LCCs in quick succession may mark a significant development in Ukraine's aviation market. One came on 13-Mar-2016 from Wizz Air, the largest low cost airline in Eastern/Central Europe; the other on 15-Mar-2016 from Ryanair, the largest LCC (and largest airline) in all Europe.
Both expect opportunity in Ukraine's very low levels of air travel and low LCC seat share. Wizz Air, already Ukraine's leading low cost airline, will add four more new routes in summer 2017, to the four previously announced. Ryanair will enter Ukraine with 11 routes, adding competitive tension to the emerging low fares market there. The battle between the two for supremacy in Eastern/Central Europe opens up a new front.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's air traffic levels are enjoying a recovery from the slump of 2014 and 2015 caused by major geopolitical disruption and a severe recession. Passenger numbers jumped 21% in 2016.
The country's flag carrier and biggest airline, Ukraine International Airlines, has taken part in the traffic growth, but will need to ensure it can do this profitably after a period of losses. Risks remain, but the conditions are in place for further growth in Ukraine's air traffic.
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.