Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Market Outlook: Positive signs but it is still early days

By Chris Tarry

Although there are signs of a recovery underway in most markets, at least in volume terms, if anything there is an even greater need to focus on activity levels and compare these with the 2007-08 peak, rather than getting too excited about rates of change over the last 12 months.

For many airlines "an improvement" may mark the first steps on the path to restoring previous levels. But the extent of the decline means that there is a long way to go, while the nature of the recovery will begin to highlight where the change has been structural rather than just cyclical.

Of course, individual airlines will have different experiences. Just as the nature and effects of the downturn were non-homogeneous, so too will be the recovery. There will be major differences geographically as well as between long- and short-haul airlines.

There are undoubtedly a number of airline managers who share this view. "The market continues to be unpredictable and the uncertainty regarding the timing of the recovery is considerable," says SAS in its December traffic release.

In this respect, it is not only the timing of the restoration of previous levels of traffic, but also the structure or the mix of traffic between economy and premium.

Past experience demonstrates there is always a lag in the recovery in premium traffic, while the share of premium traffic - particularly on short-haul routes - has been in almost continuous decline since the early 1990s.

This time around there has been a structural and negative shift in short-haul premium traffic and the prospect of any meaningful recovery is close to zero.

IATA's latest premium monitor data adds weight to this view. Year-to-date figures for October show intra-European down some 27% and intra-North American 21%. This comes on top of similar falls in September.

At the same time as SAS management expressed its concerns over the nature and timing of the recovery, others saw encouragement from an improvement in long-haul premium during December.

British Airways says long-haul premium continued "to show signs of improvement", while Air France says unit revenues in December continued their recovery thanks to "a more marked improvement" in long-haul premium traffic.

Indeed BA has begun to break out changes in its short- and long-haul premium traffic, although not on a consistent basis.

Its short-haul premium was down 20% in November, compared with an a 1.5% long-haul premium increase, and a 1.7% decline in total premium traffic.

Similarly, December long-haul premium was up 1.6% compared with the same month in 2008, while short-haul premium was some 10% lower with a total premium decline of 0.7%.

Given that the reference point for recovery should be 2007, it is worth recalling that in the year to November 2008, BA's premium traffic fell 10.8%, and by 12.1% for the year to December 2008.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that the turning point has been reached, but there is a long way yet to go before volumes and values recover to previous levels.

This is equally clear at an industry level. Here the decline in total premium traffic in October was 9.3% year-on-year, and 18% for the year to date. This was marginally better than the near-14% fall in the year to September, and 19% for the year to date.

However it is again important to look at the reduction on a two-year basis, both in terms of volume and revenue. In this respect, overall premium traffic in October 2009 was almost 20% lower than October 2007, while revenue from premium passengers appears to be about a third lower than it was in October 2007.

Of course, there can only be a recovery once a turning point has been reached and, as we have commented previously, it is perhaps only less worse rather than really any better.

Indeed, in some cases, particularly short-haul premium traffic, there has been a structural change and anybody expecting a meaningful recovery in this segment will be in for a disappointment.

Furthermore, where we are now should focus attention on the wider changes that are occurring and will continue to occur in the short-haul market place.

This reinforces the structural nature of the changes in the industry, which appear increasingly evident through the data.

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