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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LATAM Airlines Group is forecasting higher system capacity growth in 2017, but also slightly higher margins as a slow economic recovery in Latin America sets in. The company has significantly cut its domestic capacity in Brazil during the past couple of years, but decreases for 2017 are less intense as LATAM balances rightsizing capacity with maintaining a certain level of market share.
Despite the tough conditions in Latin America that persisted throughout much of 2016 LATAM continued building its network utility for the long term, launching several new flights from its hub in Lima and new long haul service to Johannesburg. The company’s international expansion continues into 2017 with new long haul flights to Melbourne, as well as additional intra Latin America service.
One big strategy shift LATAM is beginning to undertake in 2017 is the launch of a new pricing structure to compete more effectively with low cost airlines operating in the region. Key to successfully executing that strategy is keeping its cost in line, in order to adapt its pricing models to new competitive realities within the Latin American market.
The four largest US airlines are moving closer to returning to positive unit revenue in 2017 after each of those companies has issued an improved unit revenue forecast for 4Q2016, driven by stronger yields and continued improvement in close in bookings. The yield improvement indicates that the US domestic environment is gaining some pricing traction after two years of weak fares, and the results on close in bookings continue a trend that emerged in the US market during late 3Q2016 and continued through the rest of the year.
Delta and Southwest have both publicly cited a bump in demand since the US presidential election in Nov-2016. Delta has expressed cautious optimism that the US revenue environment has turned a corner, and the positive momentum is driving the company’s confidence of climbing out of a negative unit revenue performance in 1Q2017.
Key to sustaining unit revenue momentum is keeping capacity in check over the course of 2017. American, Delta, United and Southwest have all declared their intentions to lower capacity growth in 2017, and show no intentions of revising those targets upwards. Rising fuel cost and non fuel cost inflation are the major headwinds for US airlines in 2017, which has resulted in Delta declaring margin compression for the year.
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.
After Alitalia’s board approved the second phase of its business plan on 22-Dec-2016, CEO Cramer Ball stressed the importance of achieving the support of its workforce. He said, “Everyone has to pull in the same direction to make Alitalia a viable, sustainable success story and help the airline achieve its ambition of long-term growth and profitability”. Alitalia suffered strike action from some flight crew in 2016.
Full details of the plan, which has received the support of Italy's government, have not yet been made public. Alitalia's network strategy includes further long haul growth and a reworking of its short haul operation, with an emphasis on feeding long haul via Rome and Milan. Other elements of the plan include cost-cutting, reduced headcount and possible changes to joint venture agreements. Details are to be presented to Alitalia’s workforce in Jan-2017.
Also on 22-Dec-2016, Alitalia's shareholders approved short-term funding and gave management 60 days to begin negotiations with key stakeholders - lessors, suppliers and distribution companies, in addition to trade unions. Alitalia needs their support for deep cost reduction measures, in order to win the long-term financing needed to secure the airline's future.
US low cost carriers and ULCCs observed many of the same trends in the country’s marketplace at the end of 2016 as their large global network rivals – namely, that weak pricing trends in the domestic market were improving. Each airline has its own nuanced view of that general operating environment, but they feel encouraged by what they hope is an inflection point in pricing that will lay the groundwork for a return to positive unit revenue.
Those lower cost and ultra-low cost airlines also face similar challenges to their larger counterparts – cost pressure from new labour contracts and rising oil prices. And like their larger rivals, most of the lower cost US airlines are plotting lower capacity growth in 2017 as a means to improve their respective revenue performances.
For now, pricing improvement that began in late 3Q2016 and a bump in demand after the US presidential election are sustaining the cautious optimism expressed by US airlines as 2017 gets under way. But no US airline is ready to declare that pricing traction in the country’s domestic market is on a sustained upswing.
This is Part 2 of two reports examining the outlook for US airlines in 2017.
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.