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European airlines remain “in the air”

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A number of European airlines are today dealing with severe financial pressures and troubles as costs continue to rise and competition strengthens. It seems that what the future holds for the airline industry is not really a blessing.

European airlines
Even Ryanair, leading European discount airline, is facing fare pressures.

Although long-term innovation could breathe new life into the aviation sector, in the short term, overcapacity and rising costs threaten the viability of Europe’s low-cost airlines

In recent years many European airlines have bankrupted, including Italy’s Alitalia, Germany’s Germania and Air Berlin, the UK’s Flybmi and Monarch, Denmark’s Primera Air and Lithuania’s Small Planet Airlines, Iceland’s WOW Air, Slovenia’s Adria Airlines and so on. The wave of bankruptcies was not really something unexpected. What is more, due to the severe industry pressures, it is unlikely that these companies are the last victims of the turbulent market.

In order to understand the drivers behind the industry, one should first understand the fact that airline industry is in fact a global business. As such it gets more and more exposed to countless risks, from geopolitics and terrorism to disease. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) European airlines were subject to negative industry developments especially due to industry-wide problems such as rising fuel prices and weakening world trade.

The European airlines industry is in terms of net sales second largest market, just after North America. Net sales grow steadily – in 2019, for example, as a result of 200 million more passengers; but so are the costs. The market hit record net profits in years 2015 and 2016, which stimulated airlines, especially the discounters, to further invest aggressively. According to Chris Tarry, founder of aviation consultancy CTAIRA, overcapacity is today one of the key reasons that earnings are getting squeezed. “We went through a turning point a few years ago, and it’s going to get tougher before it gets easier.”

IATA forecasts the melting of net profits in aviation industry globally. In Europe, airlines are expected to generate $8.1bn (€7.24bn) of net profit, down from $9.4bn (€8.41bn) in 2018. Airlines are under pressure to fill seats to break even due to low yields caused by high competition in the open aviation area, significant regulatory costs and inefficient infrastructure. Europe is also one of the most exposed regions to weak international trade.

How severe the rivalry within the aviation industry became can be noticed also from the commentary of Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, Europe’s biggest budget airline, who pointed out that as a result of falling fares even they are expecting a financial performance that is below initial expectations.

European airlines consolidation is on the horizon

The US and European airline markets differ significantly. According to The Economist the US have 59 airlines and top five players represent cca 70% market share, while the EU has 135 airlines and top five players represent cca 50% market share. One can easily notice that EU is significantly more fragmented. In Europe, overcapacity is driving the price war around fares that has endangered aviation profits. The US, meanwhile, doesn’t face such a “destructive competition”.

Industry experts are discussing the differences in consolidation between the EU and the US for several decades already. Having a profit below the level of peers in other markets means that European airlines are loosing the battle. It seems like the market is now giving European airlines a lesson for their passive approach. The leading players were well aware of the fact how much the industry lags behind the US in terms of consolidation. The problem today is that consolidation of the European airlines cannot really take place over night, since the market is very fragmented. The change may take its time and this may severely impact the position of the European players in the meantime. As per KPMG’s 2019 Tackling Headwinds, even the recent bankruptcies  can be seen as “back-door” consolidation.

Based on the above, we should be expecting to see more acquisition activity, more market exits and more bankruptcies also in the future. And more and more managers are getting to the same conclusions nowadays.

Environmental-awareness and industry transformation

The aviation industry accounts for about 2% of total global emissions and growing steadily. They could further rise by a factor of 3-7x in the next few decades. Environmental-awareness concerns thus indeed significantly impact industry development and the regulatory pressures are about to strengthen in the future. Some countries are already getting more concrete with their measures – France, for example, plans “eco-tax” on all flights from French airports, which will then be used for investments in more environmentally friendly transport.

One thing is clear, airlines importantly contribute to the current climate crisis. A research published in the journal Science pointed out that each seat on a round-trip flight from London to San Francisco is responsible for emitting enough CO2 to melt about 5 square metres of Arctic sea ice.

The environmental-awareness does not mean that people will stop flying. Quite opposite. People want to fly. At least this is how Lufthansa’s CEO Carsten Spohr see the market preferences (NZZ am Sonntag). What is about to change is the industry pressure. This is also the reason why the industry is already thinking to address the emissions problem by creating electric passenger aircraft. Although in early stages, UBS forecasts that the market for electric and hybrid planes could prolong the long-term industry growth and reach $178bn (€159bn) by 2028. The leading players will most likely remain Airbus and Boeing.

Although long-term innovation could breathe new life into the aviation sector, in the short term, overcapacity and rising costs threaten the viability of Europe’s low-cost airlines. When the market finally pulls out of its current tailspin, it is likely that only the strongest airlines will remain airborne.

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