Europe’s Discount Airlines ‘Democratized’ Air Travel. Now They’re Going Belly-Up

In 1992, the U.S. witnessed the trial of John Gotti, the election of President Bill Clinton and the devastating arrival of Hurricane Andrew on the Florida coastline, causing a then-record $25 billion in damage. Further afield, it was also the year that Prince Charles initiated the world’s most-watched break-up by separating from Princess Diana.

So, it’s only natural that the creation of something as obscure as the European Union’s Internal Market for Aviation went largely unnoticed. But the deal revolutionized travel in Europe and is now getting renewed attention as the era of cheap flights it ushered in begins to fade.

Prior to its creation, European air travel was split into a series of distinct, largely captive, domestic markets, each often dominated by a single state-owned national flag carrier such as British Airways or Air France. The Internal Market rejuvenated this low-competition, high-fare environment by replacing the patchwork of national regulations with a single set of EU rules that removed restrictions on the routes, fares, and flights that airlines could operate. For the first time ever, European airlines could fly in and out of any airport they wished and charge customers any price they wanted

Travel for the masses

The result? Plummeting flight prices as the likes of Ireland’s Ryanair and the U.K.’s easyJet stepped into the newly relaxed—and massively expanded—market with a low-cost business model that eliminated all non-essential services. Its fliers got no complimentary food, no in-flight entertainment, and had no option for business-class seating. What they did get, however, was the opportunity to explore Europe in a way never deemed possible before: a family trip from Milan to Paris now costs 16 times less than in 1992—with the minimum price of a ticket falling from over €400 ($450) to about €25 ($28) today.

The once luxurious experience of air travel was essentially stripped down to the studs; once reserved for the wealthy tourist or the well-looked-after business traveler, it was now downright accessible. And Europeans hopped onboard—by the hoards.

Intra-European air travel has tripled since then, with over a billion passengers marching down jet bridges in 2017 alone. Air travel now accounts for 3.3% of all EU employment and 4.1% of the bloc’s entire GDP, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). The aviation industry supports 12.2 million jobs and accounts for $823 billion in economic activity.

RYANAIR/new routes & fares
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has hailed the EU’s Internal Market for Aviation as a “stand-out” success. (Matthew Fearn/PA Images via Getty Images)
Matthew Fearn—PA Images via Getty Images

No wonder Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described the Internal Market as “the stand-out achievement of the EU” in celebration of its 25th anniversary back in 2017. Former easyJet CEO Carolyn McCall said the deal “democratized air travel for all” on the same occasion.

Budget airlines go under

Despite the soaring success of low-cost aviation in Europe over the past two decades, ominous clouds have recently started to gather. While Ryanair and easyJet account for 19% of the EU aviation market, other low-cost carriers that sought to capitalize on Europe’s wide-open market have run out of runway.

“[T]here is a very long tail of poorly performing airlines,” says Brian Pearce, chief economist of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Since August 2017, the sector has waved goodbye to a string of discount airlines, including Air Berlin, Monarch, Primera, Small Planet, Azur, Cobalt, VLM, PrivatAir and Icelandic carrier WOW, which collapsed last month.

At the same time, British low-cost carrier Flybe—which recently canceled dozens of flights amid talk of jobs cuts—is currently being rebranded as Connect Airways under a consortium involving Virgin Atlantic. The fate of Italy’s bankrupt flag carrier Alitalia hangs in the balance—as does that of Slovenia’s Adria Airways, which was recapitalized to the tune of €4 million ($4.5 million) in December after the Civil Aviation Agency of Slovenia ordered it to provide evidence of its financial stability.

So, why is the dream of accessible air travel in Europe starting to dim?

‘They just get squeezed’

“The reason you’re seeing a series of failures—which are mostly smaller airlines—reflects the fact that Europe has an awful lot of airlines,” says Pearce. “There are something like 200 airlines offering scheduled services within Europe,” he says. “If you look at the North American market, including Canada, it’s less than 100.” Eighty percent of airline seats in the U.S. and Canada are supplied by just seven airlines; in Europe, it takes 28 airlines to supply the same number, according to Pearce.

The relative success of the European air industry—which recorded a 5.7% annual increase in flight traffic across 2018—has encouraged airlines to make more and more seats available through a combination of extra flights and larger aircraft, to the point that they have now run ahead of actual passenger demand.

At the same time, carriers had to budget for higher costs in much of 2018 due to increased wages and a 20.5% rise in global fuel prices. Unlike the U.S., a number of airlines also chose to hedge their fuel contracts, meaning they continue to pay higher prices at a time when fuel costs have actually dropped 3.2% compared to the equivalent period in 2018.

The result is that ticket prices have dropped, and in a period of rising costs, this has proved to be fatal for some low-cost carriers.

“They just get squeezed because the margins are very low, and they just run out of finance in the end, says Dan Elliott, Director in Transport and Water at Frontier Economics

It is for this reason that Europe’s most flown-on airlines are those that combine broad financial shoulders with a laser-like focus on costs. Together, Ryanair, easyJet and the big-three major network airlines Lufthansa, International Consolidated Airlines (Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia and Vueling), and Air France-KLM accounted for 50% of all EU air travel in 2018, according to Scope Ratings.

“Ryanair will negotiate on absolutely everything and they can’t afford to sleep for a second because even a minor change in the price of airline fuel, multiplied up over the amount of output they have suddenly becomes enormous,” says aviation expert John Strickland from JLS Consulting.

Secrets for success

Yet it’s not all bleak news for Europe’s smaller low-cost carriers. On Wednesday, Hungarian newcomer Wizz Air, founded in 2004, announced that earnings in the final quarter of the year to March 31 had been in line with expectations and that net profit would be at the upper half of its previous guidance range of €270 million ($303 million) and €300 million ($336 million). Shares of Wizz Air rose by 4.8% on the news, valuing the company at about $2.9 billion. As with Ryanair and easyJet, the airline is able to handle the considerable seasonal troughs by selling winter flights for as little as $12 to drive ancillary revenue, such as bag checking, car hire, and hotel bookings.

RyanAir Pilots Go On Strike Across Europe
Wizz, Ryanair, and easyJet are three of the discount airlines that are riding out the market’s turbulence. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Sean Gallup—Getty Images

“In some ways, the seats are becoming a catalyst to other revenues,” says Strickland. “Ryanair themselves have said that they want to become the Amazon of travel. The idea is that you go to the Ryanair website and book all sorts of things and not just flights.”

Problem is, Wizz is very much an exception to the rule. The IATA estimates that 70% of European operating profits are now being generated by the big-three long-haul network airlines, while much of the remaining 30% comes from Wizz, Ryanair and easyJet, plus medium-sized Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot.

“A significant number of smaller and medium-sized European airlines are loss-making or barely profitable,” states an IATA economics report released in January.

“If you look at the European airline industry in aggregate, it’s actually producing pretty good profits at the moment,” says chief economist Pearce. “The issue is that a large proportion of those profits are being produced by the big guys.”

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