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Airline Capacity - Halfway Back...and Routes at Risk

OAG's John Grant and Becca Rowland examine the rise in airline capacity and the services at risk as recovery from Covid-19 improves, then pauses.

Airline Capacity Rising

With one of the world’s largest airlines making nearly 800 schedule changes in one day and at the same time having to release over 17,000 dedicated employees, the challenges of running a scheduled airline are not getting easier. Global capacity has crept up to 60 million seats this week; some 4% up on last week and breaking through the halfway point to recovery; at 50.4% of last year’s capacity it’s a positive statement (image - Heathrow Airport).

There are undoubtedly some markets where capacity is returning to previous year levels and others where further growth remains out of reach pending lockdowns being eased but with demand continuing to lag the outlook remains worrying from so many angles for both the industry and wider travel sector.

There is increasing evidence of a two speed recovery process across regions with North East Asia, Central/Eastern Europe and Western Europe all with more than 60% of the capacity reported in mid-January when we first started reporting on the Covid-19 event. At the same time regions such as Lower South America continue to see less than 20% of their base capacity whilst Upper South America has less than 13% of its January levels.

Capacity continues to grow in regional markets with Western Europe leading the way in terms of week on week growth with a near 15% increase and some 1.5 million seats added; continuing concern around new lockdowns and quarantines are probably still being considered by airlines and it may be that some reductions in capacity will follow for next week. However, if that level of growth did continue into next week’s data then Western Europe would leapfrog North America into second place.

Only one of the top ten regional markets reported a decline week on week; South East Asia where capacity fell by nearly 11% as some country markets responded to spikes in reported Covid-19 cases and some airlines adjusted capacity in response to current demand levels.

The United Kingdom reported the largest weekly capacity increase amongst the top ten countries with a near 20% increase and some 230,000 additional seats added. Easyjet added a further 115,000 seats to their network of which 20,000 were to Spain (that may now be changing!) and both Greece and France had seen a further 12,000 seats added.

(Kevan James)

China continues to be the largest country market with over 15 million seats a week and is now at over 90% of the base point in January. Domestic capacity is now at 15.1 million seats a week compared to 14.7 million at the beginning of the year and with 99% of all current Chinese capacity being purely operated on domestic services, the importance of those additional 1.6 million international seats per week is probably more pressing for overseas carriers than locally based airlines.

Different approaches to capacity management are clearly taking place across the Big Three US airlines; both Delta Air Lines and United have added back considerable capacity week on week whilst American Airlines have scaled back. It’s fascinating to watch how these three airlines are moving and adjusting capacity and it would be interesting to know how much of those capacity changes are demand related compared to responding to competitive capacity changes.

Amongst the top ten airlines Easyjet are now the closest to their January levels of capacity, just some 7% adrift although January is traditionally one of the lowest months for production for the airline.

With airlines continuing to announce further early retirements amongst their fleets and the obvious focus on longer haul aircraft types, we’ve taken a quick look at the number of scheduled flights this week by the more popular aircraft types. Not surprisingly the medium range single aisle Airbus and Boeing aircraft dominate and while there are more Airbus scheduled services this week the Boeing 737 continues to recover faster than its major competitor. And on an optimistic note while the B777 is only operating at some 29% of its January levels, scheduled operations have increased by nearly 18% this week. For those interested the A380 is scheduled to operate some 64 flights this week, in mid-January the schedule was for some 2,205; just 3% of January’s planned services.

(Kevan James)

So, as we enter the height of the summer season some 638 scheduled airlines are operating; the same week last year 716 operated and given the market conditions and outlook for the coming months it is likely that many of those will be probably not be operating again in the near future.

For many airlines August is their busiest month at least from a volume perspective; average yields are typically lower than some months as the mix of traffic and particularly business demand is at its lowest point. For many airlines, current capacity levels and lagging demand suggest that cash reserves will not see any noticeable improvement in the next few months and with the winter season approaching faster than any recovery that’s something every airline, airport and tourism CEO will be pondering if they are indeed on the beach.

© John Grant/OAG

Routes at Risk - The Long-Haul Routes Which European Secondary Airports Could Lose

Industry commentators have been guessing when it comes to the number of airline routes and networks that we will see back by the end of the year. What we do know is that they will inevitably be reduced. They will be smaller because there will be fewer passengers flying for some time, and airlines will scale back networks in response to lower demand (image - Kevan James).

As we have already seen, some airlines such as Turkish Airlines with its domestic route network are choosing to come back with a full range of destinations but reduced frequency. In contrast, others intend to operate a scaled back network but maintain frequency on the routes they do operate, the model we are seeing with Qatar at Doha. Either way, many airports – and especially secondary airports - will see the number of destinations which can be reached from them reduced. While the news has been filled with stories about the challenges for airlines, the coming months will be just as challenging for airports as they work hard to retain air services, connectivity and airline customers.

(Kevan James)

For Europe’s secondary airports winning long haul routes has often been a symbol of success, of gaining traction as a global player. New long-haul routes in particular have been something to shout about in the media, and something to show other airlines that the airport is worthy of consideration, and even something to boost their profile with the local community. But they can also be among the most vulnerable routes when the going gets tough at such airports. These routes may support connecting traffic but most likely connecting passengers will be connecting at the other end of the route. The secondary airport will still be the point of origin or destination. If the local market cannot support sufficient traffic volumes and adequate yields, in more normal circumstances there would be plenty of other routes where the airline could deploy the aircraft but these days they might be as likely to ground it.

So, what are the prospects for long-haul services at some of these airports? Broadly, there are three patterns for long-haul services at secondary airports in Europe.

First there are airports like Geneva (GVA) and Athens (ATH) which have a network mostly where just one carrier operates each route. Airlines have each market to themselves and the lack of competition allows for higher yields and stable demand.

A look at the routes which were operated from GVA last year with a range of over 3000km shows there were 19 such routes but only one, the route to Hurghada, was operated by more than one airline. Swiss flew to New York JFK, while United operated to Newark (EWR) and Washington (IAD). There were plenty of flights to the Middle East but each route had a sole operator; Emirates to Dubai (DXB), Etihad to Abu Dhabi (AUH), Saudi Arabian Airlines to Jeddah, and so on.

Similarly, at ATH, of 14 long haul routes operated in 2019 only 4 had multiple airlines and these were all to North America.

While a number of these routes may have ceased temporarily while we wait out the COVID-19 pandemic, many have continued to operate throughout and one planned start-up appears to have gone ahead; at GVA the planned Ethiopian Airlines non-stop from Addis Ababa (ADD) which was due to commence service from 1st July 2020 appears still scheduled to fly this month.

This shows that these routes, and this pattern of having one airline on each route, is fundamentally sound and these are the second tier airports which may see least disruption to their networks.

A second group of Tier 2 European airports are those like Hamburg (HAM) where many of the 15 long haul destinations available in 2019 were aimed at sun seekers. The airport also has had flights to Dubai and Newark too, but most of the longer haul destinations are places such as Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands which has seen nine different scheduled airlines operate from HAM at some point since 2016. Many of these leisure destinations have a history of multiple airlines offering seasonal or low frequency services, and a lot of churn. Stuttgart (STR) has a similar long-haul airline and destination profile.

As long as passenger demand returns, which it will in time, these airports will continue to serve a catchment area which wants to get away to the sun. Services will come and go, change frequencies and operate seasonally, but demand will remain.

(Heathrow Airport Ltd)

The third group of secondary airports are those with perhaps most to be concerned about. Airports like Manchester (MAN), Brussels (BRU), Helsinki (HEL), Berlin (TXL), Dusseldorf (DUS) and Stansted (STN) can be said to fall into this category. It isn’t that they will lose a large number of services but that air services they have worked hard to win may be jeopardised and the path to recover them may take years.

Take Manchester, for instance. The airport worked extremely hard to build a convincing business case for a China service and won the Beijing service operated by Hainan in 2016. With Hainan Airlines struggling at the start of the year, the Beijing operation has not been in service since February. The daily Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong initially reduced frequency and then stopped in April although the Singapore Airlines service which stopped operating in March has resumed flights this month.

Unfortunately for Manchester, it would be surprising if these airlines were not reviewing long haul destinations. Manchester is, after all, a secondary airport and there are already flights operated to London Heathrow, the UK’s primary international hub. Combine this pattern with airlines needing to preserve cash and to ensure all operations make a network contribution, some airline failures, and secondary airports will inevitably see some long-haul services axed.

What else could be at risk? At London Stansted, the double daily Emirates service stopped in March and has yet to resume. With other London airports served from Dubai, will this be another more permanent casualty?

Helsinki has also lost its Dubai service for the moment. Is it secure? For Helsinki more of a problem may be the possible loss of Norwegian’s air services. The airline has advised that it wouldn’t be returning until well into December, almost 6 months away.

For Dusseldorf the Bangkok operation only really got going in 2019. Is that at risk?

Brussels has managed to retain its African operations through the pandemic – a Brussels airlines flight to Hurghada, an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa and a RwandAir service to Kigali – but, like Manchester, has seen Hainan Airlines flights to Shanghai and Shenzhen cease, at least for now.

These airports will need to work hard to retain all their long-haul operations but in all likelihood they’ll be fighting harder to ensure their short-haul and regional services are maintained in the face of aggressive market re-positioning by low cost European airlines. Long haul destinations may feel like a distraction for the foreseeable future but once lost they may never come back.

© Becca Rowland/OAG

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