Normally, you wouldn’t expect to see a stock rise 5% on the day that the airline concerned, at the top of its earnings cycle, warned of looming price wars, massive disruption to its peak season business and grave regulatory risks, but that’s what Ryanair Plc (RYA OF) has managed.
Europe’s biggest airline by passenger numbers Monday joined the ranks of airlines complaining of big hits to its earnings from the Brexit effect, chronic strikes by French air traffic controllers and the fall-out from the Brussels airport bombing in March. It warned that average fares would fall by up to 12% over the next nine months and said that if anything, that forecast may be too optimistic. And while it didn’t put a figure on the damage done by the U.K.’s ‘Brexit’, it said it would start moving flights away from the U.K. routes that have been its cash cow for most of the last few years.
“In the near term we expect that Brexit uncertainty will lead to weaker sterling, slower growth in the U.K. and EU economies and downward pressure on fares until the end of 2017 at least,” the company said, adding that the political and economic uncertainty created by the vote “will be damaging to economic growth and consumer confidence.”
The fact that the shares bounced so hard in response is down to the fact that, if anything, the market was expecting an even bleaker outlook, after similar warnings from rivals EasyJet (EJTTF), Deutsche Lufthansa AG (FLAKY) and Wizz Air, a discount airline focused on central and eastern European routes.
The truth is, the airline sector has more than just Brexit to worry about these days. Fuel costs have bottomed, which means that the pressure on margins is now more likely to be downwards; the pound has fallen, hitting demand in one of Europe’s biggest markets; political instability has led airlines to move capacity from routes to Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia to the Western Mediterranean, depressing the traditionally high-margin business of carrying summer tourists. And terror attacks in France, Belgium and now, for the first time, Germany are hitting demand even for routes in countries long considered safe.
“All of that has an impact on consumer confidence,” EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall warned last week. “It is one of the most difficult environments we have seen in a very long time.”
The bright side, for Ryanair at least, is that its low-cost model, strong balance sheet (over €3 billion in net cash) and high return on equity make it best positioned of all its rivals to withstand such a battering, according to Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Robin Byde.
In addition, says Wyn Ellis of Numis Securities in London, Brexit may well not be the regulatory disaster that pessimists have feared.
“I’d be very surprised if there weren’t still open skies over Europe” at the end of the Brexit process, Ellis said. The very nature of air travel means that reciprocal rights of access are in everybody’s interest, with no-one wanting to upset the applecart, according to both analysts. Compared to the much more vexatious issues of, say, agricultural subsidies or banking, air travel should be a relatively easy chapter in the U.K.’s divorce settlement from the EU.
Since the Brexit vote, its stock has fallen only 15% and Wizz Air 20%, while Lufthansa is down 26% and Air France-KLM (the most exposed to French-related disruptions) is down 34%. All that suggests that business model, rather than Brexit, is the key differentiator. True, EasyJet is down 31%, but McCall argues that the airline has a “well developed contingency plan” in the event that Brexit impedes its access to the EU market.
Lufthansa, which is still fighting a running battle with its pilots over pay and conditions, warned last week that “advance bookings, especially on long-haul routes to Europe, have declined significantly, in particular due to repeated terrorist attacks in Europe.” And that was before a spate of four incidents including attempts at mass killing in Germany itself.