Looking at the Top 25 carriers overall in the latest Top-Performing Airlines rankings, readers might be tempted to ask about the absence of the industry's “big names,” including airlines that seemingly have been around forever. And where, in particular, are the large U.S. and European legacy carriers, which are typically prominent players in the industry?
The smaller airlines (with revenues under $2 billion) constitute four of the Top Six airlines overall, and eight of the Top 15 (see overall rankings at AviationWeek.com/tparanking). Only three carriers from the large category (revenues greater than $6 billion) are in the Top 15, and one of those, , with revenues of $6.36 billion, barely meets the category cut-off point. Interestingly, the other two large-category airlines are both based in Asia: and Singapore.
Another surprising fact is that many of the top-rated carriers didn't exist as of 1970. Only two of this year's Top 10 airlines were extant in 1970, and only nine of the Top 25. Why 1970? The advent of themarked the start of the widebody aircraft era. Subsequently, the first modern low-cost carrier (LCC) appeared on the scene in the form of , in 1971; and assumed its present identity (having previously been a part of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines) in 1972.
In addition, it is also noteworthy that none of the Top 10 airlines operate using a classic large hub-and-spoke system. Only Singapore,and fit this description among the Top 20 overall, and the Turkish and Air China hubs are relatively recent developments in terms of airline history. Indeed, it is necessary to go down to the 22nd-ranked carrier, , before a true large legacy hub operator is encountered. And the highest-ranked U.S. legacy carrier? in the 29th spot. The best of the U.S. “Big Three”? , at No. 47. (In fairness, Southwest, ranked 28th, is not in the Top 25 either.)
It should be obvious from the results that longevity, large size and hub-and-spoke traffic flows are not necessarily guarantees of financial success in today's airline business. This is not to say that the three characteristics just cited necessarily cause failure; they do not. However, the newer/smaller/more nimble airlines generate better overall results than their older/larger/possibly less-nimble competitors.
This has relevance from both policy and investment perspectives. In the U.S. and Europe, “mega-mergers” have been approved in recent years creating giant airlines, or groupings of them, but as we see in reviewing the TPA results, this has not produced entities that outperform their smaller competitors. They may have become “too big to fail,” or, from a political perspective, too big to let fail, but to date, they have not demonstrated their inherent superiority as businesses, even with advantages such as restricted-entry international routes and, in much of the world, control of airport slots at important locations.
From a financial perspective, it is worth pointing out that in the U.S. market, the new mega-legacies all stem from recent application of the bankruptcy-protection process. Should investors, particularly in the equity sector, be concerned? Who can say this cannot happen again, or spread to other areas and markets?
There has been considerable discussion of the need for fewer, if any, restrictions on cross-border ownership (and control) of airlines. A related question should be whether it is better to continue with the existing cast of carriers, or to evaluate if key industry assets such as slots and route rights might be deployed in different, and possibly more economically effective, ways. This would mean that carriers would not necessarily continue to exist either as standalones or as part of mergers that simply combine both networks. While this would be painful for the stakeholders (shareholders, employees, debtholders) of those existing airlines that didn't make the cut, a better global airline system might result.
The concept of a more radical restructuring is worth consideration in a world that is both economically interdependent and which relies increasingly on air transportation for the effective functioning of the global economy. This is not a proposal to eliminate old and large carriers just because they possess those characteristics; after all, ANA, which fits both descriptions, is in the TPA's Top 10. What's needed is a more in-depth look at why the Top-Performing Airlines have managed to achieve this status, followed by an effort to see how the appropriate attributes of success can best be applied across the global airline business. The results could prove to be both interesting, and possibly, disconcerting.
|1||Allegiant Travel Co.||74.8|
|2||Regional Express Holdings||69.3|
|9||All Nippon Airways||61.0|
|10||Alaska Air Group||60.4|
|17||Turk Hava Yollari||51.5|
|29||US Airways Group||44.5|
|42||Norwegian Air Shuttle||41.0|
|47||Delta Air Lines||39.6|
|52||United Continental Holdings||36.8|
|53||Tiger Airways Holdings||36.8|
|55||Latam Airlines Group||34.9|
|58||International Airlines Group||33.7|
|59||El Al Israel Airlines||32.6|
|64||Malaysian Airline System||29.4|
|70||Pakistan International Airlines||8.2|