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.
Ryanair and Fraport announced on 2-Nov-2016 that the Irish ultra-LCC will open its 85th base at Frankfurt Airport, Lufthansa's main hub. Ryanair will base two aircraft at the airport and launch four new leisure routes in Mar-2017. With a daily departure to each of Alicante, Faro, Malaga and Palma de Mallorca, it expects to attract 400,000 passengers pa.
Although Ryanair has been increasing its primary airport presence for some time, CEO Michael O'Leary had previously said that Frankfurt Airport was one of the few, alongside London Heathrow and Paris CDG, that Ryanair would not serve. Frankfurt was seen not only as too expensive, but also as too congested for Ryanair's short turnaround times. Details of Ryanair's agreement with Frankfurt Airport have not been disclosed, but it is likely that the airline has secured favourable terms in return for traffic growth targets.
Ryanair's move into Frankfurt is relatively small compared with its operations in Berlin Schoenefeld and Cologne/Bonn, but this development supports its growth ambitions in Germany. Ryanair's average revenue per passenger is half that of Lufthansa's network airlines. Its move increases the competitive pressure on Germany's national airline.
Air France-KLM, Lufthansa & IAG: 3Q2016 results may signal a cyclical peak in Europe airline margins
Air France-KLM, Lufthansa Group and IAG collectively reported a fall in operating profit and operating margin in 3Q2016, after growth in 1H2016. Individually, only IAG avoided a decline in its operating margin. IAG also remained the most profitable, and Air France-KLM the least profitable, in the most important quarter of the year.
The margin contraction in 3Q resulted from a bigger fall in unit revenue relative to 1H, without a matching fall in unit cost (in spite of lower fuel prices). Passenger unit revenue fell by 6% to 7% for all three (adjusted for currency movements), with long haul markets especially weak. Unit revenue was particularly soft on routes to Asia Pacific and on the North Atlantic (and, for Lufthansa Group) on the South Atlantic.
The combined operating margin of the three has been a good indicator for European airlines overall in the past. The outlook for FY2016 for each still suggests that there will be margin improvement for the year as a whole. This could be in line with, or slightly above, the cyclical peak reached in 2007 – before the global financial crisis. Against this backdrop, the decline in margin in 3Q2016 suggests that further improvement may be difficult in 2017.
One of the five oldest airlines in the world that are still in operation, CSA Czech Airlines is also the smallest airline in SkyTeam by passenger numbers. After several years of losses the airline returned to profit in 2015 and expects another positive result in 2016, albeit below last year's level. CSA Czech Airlines is growing once more this year, after a restructuring programme involving reductions in its fleet, capacity and headcount it has also developed a profitable contract flying business. Together with lower fuel prices, its restructuring has helped to achieve the airline's turnaround.
CSA Czech Airlines has a predominantly European network. Its only intercontinental route is from Prague to Seoul, the hub of its part-owner – codeshare partner and fellow SkyTeam member, Korean Air. Its biggest destination market is Russia, but this is followed by the Western European countries France, Italy and Germany. It has a relatively low share of seats at its hub in Prague, where LCCs have a significant share and Ryanair has opened a base this winter. However, although CSA faces strong competitors on routes to non-SkyTeam hubs, competition is limited elsewhere by its targeting of niche regional routes and its use of codeshare agreements (including with Travel Service, another part owner).
Until 2014 Turkey was one of the most reliably fast-growing air traffic markets in Europe. In 2015 passenger numbers levelled off, and in 2016 traffic is set to decline. The impact of geopolitical events, including a series of terrorist attacks, the civil war in neighbouring Syria and the failed coup attempt in Jul-2016, has weighed heavily on demand for international travel to/from Turkey.
Foreign airlines switched capacity away from Turkey in summer 2016, but the country's two largest operators – Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Airlines – continued to grow. However, following years of double-digit growth by both, Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Airlines are taking unusual steps this winter. According to data from OAG, Turkish looks set to implement year-on-year capacity cuts, while Pegasus appears to be planning flat capacity for the period from Nov-2016 to Mar-2017. It seems likely that both airlines will again cut their growth targets for 2016.
Moreover, Pegasus is seeking wet-lease customers for six of its current fleet of 73 aircraft. Perhaps more significantly, Turkish is to reschedule 165 aircraft deliveries planned for 2018-2022, cutting its planned fleet size in 2021 from 439 to 400.
On 8-Sep-2016 LOT Polish Airlines announced its "2020 profitable growth strategy". This involves a goal to achieve "sustainable viability", after a restructuring programme which returned LOT to operating profit in 2014 after six loss-making years. Its privatisation may even be back on the agenda.
LOT currently ranks behind LCCs Ryanair and Wizz Air by share of traffic in Poland, which offers superior traffic growth potential versus Europe as a whole. The airline aims to increase passenger numbers from 4.3 million in 2015 to 10 million in 2020, growing its fleet from 43 to 70 aircraft. LOT's expansion will focus on long haul, particularly North America and Asia, where it currently has only five routes and where competition is considerably lower than on short/medium haul. Initial plans include the launch of Warsaw-Seoul this winter and a return to Warsaw-New York Newark next summer.
According to data from LOT, its restructuring has left it with a fairly efficient cost base by legacy airline standards and this will be important in competing with LCCs (but there is still a cost gap with LCCs). LOT's growth will focus on long haul but will need short-haul European feed – and partnerships. Although LOT no longer appears to be considering leaving the Star Alliance, it remains excluded from American and Asian JVs. Further, those JVs preclude members from working with LOT. Partnership growth will be as critical as it will be challenging.
All-premium UK-US airlines. BA cuts LCY frequency; La Compagnie quits LTN; Odyssey to launch in 2017
There have been two notable recent developments in the market for all-business class services on the North Atlantic: British Airways is to reduce its London City-JFK A318 frequencies and France's La Compagnie is to withdraw from Luton-Newark to concentrate its 74-seat Boeing 757 operations on Paris-Newark (its only other route).
BA's 32-seat London City operation has been suffering from significant load factor declines, particularly on the outbound flights. These flights make a refuelling stop in Shannon, where passengers can pre-clear US customs, but this may not be a sufficient incentive for some passengers to take an indirect flight. La Compagnie expressed concerns about uncertainties in the UK post-Brexit, but its route economics must anyway have been struggling, due to Luton's lack of suitability as a premium market and its lack of feed.
So far there has been no reaction to these developments from the new-start Odyssey Airlines, which plans to launch an all-business class London City-New York service in 2017. It will no doubt be attempting to find a balance between relief that its level of competition has reduced, and some anxiety that its launch may coincide with a softening of market demand.
Panama’s Copa Airlines is joining other Latin American airlines in expressing cautious optimism that some negative trends in the region are starting to stabilise, after a tough couple of years of challenging economic conditions. Copa, in particular, believes that weakened demand is beginning to improve, driven in part by some currencies within Latin America that are strengthening against the USD.
For 2H2016 Copa is continuing to post stronger close-in bookings that began to improve in 2Q2016, which is a positive sign for airlines operating in the region. Some of the upswing in bookings stems from capacity reductions by most Latin American airlines, to right-size supply with demand. That capacity discipline should continue in 2017, since all of the region’s major airline groups have worked to defer aircraft deliveries in order to maintain a proper supply-demand balance and lower capex commitments.
Similarly to other Latin American airline groups, Copa has worked to shore up its balance sheet to withstand overall economic weakness in many of its markets. Its cash balances at the end of 2Q2016 increased from the first quarter, and its leverage was the best among some of Latin America’s publicly traded airlines.