Traffic and Capacity
Airlines seek to match capacity (supply) with traffic (demand), to produce consistently high load factors, to help them maintain their pricing and yields (see CAPA's Aviation Glossary for more background in traffic terminology). It is a difficult balancing act, made more challenging by volatile global economic conditions. Traffic is generally growing much faster in the emerging markets of the Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa and Latin America and Eastern Europe regions, compared to the more mature aviation markets of Western Europe and North America.
CAPA covers hundreds of traffic reports from airports, airlines and industry bodies every month. Our Diamond Members can opt to receive them as they happen via CAPA Alerts.
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United Airlines expects to attain a positive passenger unit revenue performance in 2Q2017, which would mark the first positive result for the airline in that metric since early 2015. The airline’s PRASM results in 1Q2017 were in line with its initial forecast, which was more conservative than those of its larger US rivals. American and Delta refined their 1Q2017 unit revenue forecast downward, while United kept its guidance intact, and its performance fell within its initial estimates.
The airline’s 2Q2017 positive unit revenue outlook is driven by many factors, including a shift in its management of close in bookings to reduce reliance on advance purchase discounts. Latin America and the US domestic market continue to be bright spots for United, while declines in Pacific unit revenue continue to moderate. United’s better than expected unit revenue performance in trans-Atlantic markets in 1Q2017 should moderate as point of sale tilts more toward Europe later in the year.
Markets seem still to be digesting United’s decision to increase its planned 2017 capacity growth by 1.5ppt. United is stressing that much of the growth is driven by increased gauge, and the growth is designed to restore United to its natural share in the US domestic market.
ULCCs Frontier and Spirit hold orders for more than 150 Airbus narrowbodies to support the proliferation of the model across the US. Frontier’s fleet is projected to grow by 83% from YE2016 to 2021 – from 66 to 121 aircraft. Spirit’s current fleet forecast shows 46% growth from YE2017 to 2021 – from 108 aircraft to 158 aircraft.
Each airline is taking nuanced approaches to financial management of its fleet. Spirit has opted to purchase some aircraft off lease in order to enlarge its number of owned aircraft, while Frontier, which is just embarking on the process of accessing public markets, will use operating leases as its primary financing vehicle.
The planned growth by each airline reflects conclusions reached by Frontier and Spirit about the opportunities for the ULCC model in the US, despite changing market dynamics – namely a push by large US global network airlines to create pricing segments to compete more effectively with ULCCs. Despite the focus on price matching by larger airlines, Frontier and Spirit remain bullish on the opportunities for stimulation in the US market.
After toying with the idea of engaging in an initial public offering for more than year, the US ULCC Frontier Airlines now intends to go public as its major shareholder, ULCC specialist Indigo Partners, sets its sights on Argentina. Frontier has arrived at and passed many ULCC milestones, including producing unit costs excluding fuel below the USD6 cent benchmark for the ULCC model, placing it on par with its fellow ULCCs Spirit Airlines and Allegiant.
Frontier markets its product differently from other US ULCCs, giving passengers the options to purchase product in a bundled form or a la carte, but it still maintains ultra low fares. However, Frontier couldn’t escape the pricing pressure that permeated the US market in 2016, joining the majority of the country’s airlines in posting distinct yield and unit revenue declines.
Obviously, despite the pricing pressure and changing dynamics in the US market, Frontier remains bullish on the opportunities for ULCCs in the market place, concluding that numerous markets exist for it to operate profitably with low fares.
During the past several years Frontier’s network focus has been somewhat murky. Now Frontier’s network strategy is targeting high fare, underserved routes. And like its rival Spirit, Frontier also singles out medium sized markets that offer some protection from larger competitors.
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.
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.
jetBlue Airways feels confident about its unit revenue trajectory, even as its 1Q2017 performance in that metric will be weaker than at some of its larger industry peers. The company has stopped short of predicting when its unit revenue will turn positive, opting not to set expectations that could fail to materialise.
Still, jetBlue believes its current and future network composition will position the airline to bolster its revenue generation, along with contribution from its Mint premium product, branded credit card pacts and fare bundles.
The company remains confident it can deliver competitive margins at growth rates in the high single digits for the near term. The majority of jetBlue’s growth centres on its focus cities, where it holds dominant positions. It continues to build out Boston and Fort Lauderdale, touting its ability to leverage its strong position in those markets to drive revenue.
For the past several years jetBlue has undertaken numerous initiatives to build up its corporate base, ranging from making its schedule offering attractive in Boston to the creation of Mint. The gamble on Mint has paid off, and helped jetBlue capture significant corporate share in Boston. But jetBlue fundamentally remains weighted toward leisure passengers, and the company believes a higher leisure passenger base should help it to maximise returns.