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One area where United Airlines has made important strides during the last few years is in overhauling its balance sheet. Its efforts have gained some recognition from credit agencies for its progress in paring down debt and improving leverage ratios; but similarly to its rival American Airlines – attaining an investment-grade credit rating is not a huge priority for United. The airline believes it can achieve some benefits that investment-grade companies enjoy with the current state of its balance sheet.
In order to sustain the progress it has made in balance sheet repair United plans to amend its aircraft order book to slash capex commitments during the next couple of years, including the deferral of 61 Boeing narrowbodies. United is hinting that other fleet changes could be under consideration, including deals similar to the agreement it forged during 2015 to lease used Airbus A319s.
This is Part 2 in a two-part series reviewing United’s financial and revenue-generating opportunities.
Project Hope: Malaysia Airlines outlook hinges on spinning off new high-density A380 charter airline
Malaysia Airlines is planning to set up a new airline to operate its A380 fleet on religious pilgrimage charters to Saudi Arabia. All six of the airline’s A380s will be reconfigured from 386 to up to 700 seats by the end of 2018, and transferred to a new operator's certificate.
Malaysia Airlines is hoping to attract a combination of foreign and local investors to take control of the planned new airline and all six A380s. The group is calling the plan “Project Hope” – an appropriate name given its current predicament with the A380 fleet.
The flag carrier’s A380 operation has been highly unprofitable and the aircraft is too big for operation to London – its only remaining long-haul route. Malaysia Airlines is now committed to acquiring six A350s, which will be used to replace the A380 on London. As selling or subleasing the A380s is not possible given the virtually non-existent demand for the type, establishing a new charter airline is the only sensible option – although still with some risk, given the need to find investors.
Two of Canada’s aspiring ultra-low cost airlines made a major breakthrough in Nov-2016 after they were granted exemptions from foreign ownerships restrictions, which allow foreign entities to hold up to 49% of Enerjet and Jetlines. Now Enerjet has taken on some heft by partnering with the global ultra-low cost airline investor Indigo Partners, which was instrumental in Spirit Airlines’ ULCC transition and now owns the ULCC Frontier Airlines. Another new Canadian ULCC, NewLeaf Travel, boasts former Spirit Airlines CEO as chairman of the board.
It is tough to predict how those influential backers will affect the outcome of efforts by the new crop of ULCCs to successfully execute the model in Canada. Although Canada is one of the few mature aviation markets without a true ultra-low cost competitor, the nuances of the Canadian domestic market could create challenges for the long-term viability of NewLeaf, Enerjet and Jetlines in the marketplace.
Jetlines and Enerjet, operating as FlyToo, aim to debut in Canada’s market during 2017. Unsurprisingly the country’s two airlines Air Canada and WestJet plan to compete vigorously with the start-ups, with WestJet vowing to defend its franchise and match the fares of its new competitors.
Cautious optimism exhibited by Copa Airlines at the end of 2Q2016 that challenging conditions in Latin America were showing some signs of improvement has turned into a full-blown declaration that the worst is over in the region. Although yields remain depressed, Copa turned a corner in its passenger unit revenue performance in 3Q2016, posting positive results driven by healthy load factors. Copa continues to experience strengthening demand, and believes it is only a matter of time before yields turn a corner.
The changing conditions have resulted in Copa issuing a slight upward revision to its margin guidance for 2016, and the airline has outlined a framework for restoring its operating margins to the high teens during the next couple of years. Copa’s preliminary growth project for 2017 is an ASM increase of approximately 5% driven largely by aircraft ultilisation.
As optimism builds that Latin America is starting to turn an economic corner, Copa is undertaking a strategic business move by shifting its business model in Colombia to a low cost operation. The new entity Wingo is debuting in Dec-2016; Copa holds the view that the shift in business model is low-risk, and highlights the fact that Wingo does not carry the same challenges as low cost subsidiaries created by other airlines.
Air Canada’s yield and passenger unit revenues during 3Q2016 remained broadly in line with those of the previous quarter, which is a different outcome from the results posted by many of its North American peers. However its top line revenues grew nearly 11%, and its costs fell at a lower rate than those of many other North American airlines.
The airline’s yields and passenger unit revenues began falling earlier than those of most other airlines based in North America, and Air Canada’s recurring explanation is that lower yields and unit revenues are an expected byproduct of changes in its business model – the creation of its low cost unit rouge, a higher mix of lower-yielding leisure travellers, and longer average stage lengths. As yields and unit revenues continue to decline, Air Canada continues to deliver on its own established financial goals for EBITDAR, ROIC and leverage ratios.
Air Canada’s focus has been on international expansion during the past few years, and that trend will continue for the foreseeable future. In 2017 the airline is expecting nine Boeing 787s scheduled for delivery and its capacity is likely to mirror 2016’s double-digit growth – given that the company will accept delivery of nine new widebodies this year. The bulk of its growth will again be directed to international routes as several new long haul markets are scheduled to come online in 2017.
Canada’s second largest airline WestJet believes it can attain a positive unit revenue result in 1Q2017, joining many other North American airlines in outlining specific timeframes for the reversal of negative trends. Unlike performance of most airlines in the region that are predicting sequential improvements from 3Q2016 to 4Q2016, WestJet’s performance will worsen during the last three months of 2016. The factors driving WestJet’s deeper unit revenue decreases include timing of the year-end holidays, competitive capacity pressure in warm weather markets, and fare matching of the start-up competitor ULCC NewLeaf.
Although WestJet believes it will make an important turn in its unit revenue performance in early 2017, it faces some cost inflation for the full year as it adds a larger number of smaller Bombardier Q400 turboprops, which have higher operating costs but in fact also help drive bottom line profitability. Although at this point WestJet cannot forecast its unit revenue performance for FY2017, its goal is to post unit revenue growth that outpaces unit cost increases.