“A recession is when you have to tighten your belt; depression is when you have no belt to tighten. When you’ve lost your trousers – you’re in the airline business.” – Sir Adam Thomson, Founder British Caledonian Airways
A dash of wit or an instance of profound foresight, make of it as you wish but although the late Sir Thomson uttered those words back in 1984, their relevance remains true today. Historically the airline business is one that has seen more than its fair share of bankruptcies, bailouts and buyouts over the years. The market environment is unpredictable, the competition cut throat and cost structures ridiculously burdensome. However despite all of this, commercial air travel has been around for around 100 years and it seems that in all probability, the airline industry will be here to stay, in one form or another, far into to the foreseeable future. The question is though; in what form will commercial air travel continue to exist? Below follows an extract from a recent dissertation I wrote on the matter:
“I think historically, the airline business has not been run as a real business. That is, a business designed to achieve a return on capital that is then passed on to shareholders. It has historically been run as an extremely elaborate version of a model railroad, that is, one in which you try to make enough money to buy more equipment.” — Michael Levine, Executive VP Northwest Airlines, 1996.
According to a June 2013 press release by IATA, the International Air Transport Association, the return on capital in the airline industry for the 2004 – 2011 period is around 4.1%. Although an improvement over the previous period assessed from 1996 – 2004 of 3.8%, this is a rather poor return when compared to investing assets of similar risk in other industries. 7.5% being the average return on capital that investors would expect. (IATA 2013) Thus from a shareholder’s perspective, Mr Levine is quite correct in his assessment.
However, despite the industry’s poor return on capital, one area where the industry has created enormous value is in lowering the cost of air travel for passengers. Over the past 40 years, IATA reports that the cost of air transportation has more than halved. (IATA 2013) This was obtained as a direct result of better fuel efficiency on the part of aircraft and engine manufacturers as well as more streamlined utilisation of assets and infrastructure on the part of airlines. This is thanks no doubt in recent years to the emergence of LCCs.
Up until the early 1990s, Western Europe was the sole domain of the state-owned full service network carrier. A moderately growing market with an established status quo governing which airlines served which markets was the order of the day. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of protectionism and the opening up of the Western European market heralded an era of uncertainty for the originally dominant market players.
The appearance of Ryanair and then easyJet were a shock to the establishment with their cut-price policies, rapid expansion rates and unique value propositions. While their flamboyant CEOs snapped up the public lime-light with at times rather controversial proposals, to the average man in the street, it was now possible to book ridiculously low priced tickets for previously unheard of weekends away to exciting destinations such as Barcelona, Dublin or the Greek island of Pathos. Businesses started to send their managers on low cost airlines too for their meetings all over Europe, horrified by the fact that the Full Service Network Carriers might be over-charging them. Air travel in Western Europe had changed forever.
The Full Service Network Carriers, in response to this maddening competition shed jobs, dropped routes and went to great length to lower costs in general. In this cut throat environment some airlines were bailed out by their government shareholders while others listed on stock exchanges to get access to much needed capital. Many airlines merged or joined alliances while the rest, unable to compete any longer, simply closed down never to fly again.
Essentially two questions need to be asked:
- Low cost airlines, is their approach set to become the dominant business model of the aviation industry?
- Do Full Service Network Carriers need to adapt themselves more along the lines of Low Cost Carriers in order to remain competitive?
Addressing the first question, low cost airlines have a place in the future of aviation in Western Europe. They offer a service that adds value to certain passenger segments and, as long as they are able to keep growing, deliver reasonable value to shareholders too.
The key question for LCCs is growth. The onset of legacy costs and the general saturation of the Western European market at present will mean that the current dominant LCCs will be forced to look beyond their traditional airspace and start considering offering more flights to North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The possibility of long haul flights should not be ruled out either. What could also be of use in capturing more passengers from the traditional long haul Full Service Network Carriers is for LCCs to consider providing through-baggage-check-in to enable passengers booked on a regional LCC flight to then plug into a full service carrier long haul flight. This move however, might be opposed by Full Service Network Carriers, unless the LCC forms part of that airline’s group of companies. (As is the case of Germanwings with Lufthansa and Vueling with Iberia and British Airways)
Regarding the second question, Full Service Network Carriers on the other hand have already changed their business models substantially to meet the LCC threat. In flight services in economy class are progressively more threadbare. Seating is tighter in an effort to squeeze in more passengers and the check-in process is starting to resemble that of the LCC online check-in systems.
It is only on long haul flights that the traditional Full Service Network Carriers are able to make money. This represents a defendable niche for their operations as the LCCs, at least in Western Europe, have deliberately avoided taking the Full Service Network Carriers on in this game.
Clearly both business models have changed over the years and unsurprisingly, in some aspects of the product offering, both models appear to be moving towards each other. The diagrams in Annexure 4 provide a nice illustration of this trend. The interesting thing is LCCs are becoming more like Full Service Network Carriers. As stated in a report by Sabre Airline Solutions, “This is mainly because price, although it is still a key competitive factor, it is no longer the only driver of their business strategy. LCCS are now starting to explore other areas such as multi-channel strategies” as a way of increasing revenues. (Sabre Report, 2013)
The logical end of the trend is the emergence of more hybrid-type carriers taking place. This will occur from both ends of the operating model spectrum – the LCCs by increasing their product offerings and the Full Service Network Carriers starting to provide more LCC services on short and medium haul routes.
This is the situation in Western Europe in general. There is one country though that stubbornly seems to be marching to a different beat in the face of the onslaught of the LCCs in recent years. That country is France. No more is the historical “French Exception” more apparent than in the aviation industry. France has the lowest number of LCC departures than any other country in Western Europe. The reason for this is twofold.
Firstly the stranglehold that Air France holds over the French market and secondly, more than ever, because of the prevalence of an extremely effective high speed train network within the country.
Regina Clewlow, an expert on Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in her paper, The Impact of High-speed Rail and Low-Cost Carriers on European Air Passenger Traffic, “the improvement of rail travel times was found to be a significant factor in reducing short-haul air traffic in Europe. Furthermore, analysis of demand at the airport level revealed that the presence of high-speed rail contributed to lower domestic air passenger traffic.” (Clewlow, 2013)
She then goes on to say, “While the introduction of high-speed rail has played a significant role reducing domestic air travel in Europe, over the same time period low-cost carriers have had a more significant influence increasing air travel, through primarily medium-haul, intra-EU rights. Considering both trends, the result has been a significant net gain in the total passenger-kilometres travelled in Western Europe.” (Clewlow, 2013) As new high speed rail networks continue to be built around Europe, domestic short-haul air travel traffic in the continent will come under more pressure.
Passengers will continue to benefit while the airline companies themselves will continue to suffer. As Warren Buffet in his 2008, annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders said, “The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favour by shooting Orville down.”