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Industry Analysis: Airline Companies Essay

The airlines industry contains diverse types of players that compete in distinctive niches each with different business models. Airline companies owned by the State characterized the airlines industry into the 1980s. Because of privatization, this model no longer exists in Europe or in the U.S., but it is still present in Asia and Africa. Standard airline companies offer scheduled flights with flight connections, at least two classes on board, and other services such as in-flight entertainment, frequent flyer program airport lounge, food, etc. The majority of their revenues are earned through ticket sales. Low-cost airline companies offer scheduled flights with only one class on board and without additional service on board like in-flight entertainment, frequent flyer programs, airport lounges, etc. Their business model is different from the standard company because they have a different form of income through the ticket price. Ryanair and EasyJet fall into this category.

Regional airline companies offer scheduled flights, usually with small airplanes and for short distances; they previously worked on behalf of other big airline companies (standard, major, government-owned) some of which owned a regional company to provide short route flights. Examples are US Airways Express owned by US Airways and Air Dolomiti owned by Lufthansa. Cargo airline companies offer freight transport. Some cargo airlines are divisions or subsidiaries of larger passenger airlines like Air France Cargo or Alitalia Cargo, but there are also independent companies like DHL and FedEx. Industry competitors are also known to build alliances. Reasons for airline companies to build alliances: scale economies, access to markets or technology, market power, and lower operating costs. Many alliances start as a code-sharing network whose benefits are cost reductions from sharing of sales offices, investments and purchases in order to negotiate extra volume discounts, operational staff (ground handling personnel and check-in and boarding desks), and operation facilities (catering or computer systems).

We can find drivers for different types of alliances and divide them into three categories: deregulation of the industry, changes in customer preferences, and changes in technology and infrastructure. Deregulation has opened up the market and led to intensifying competition and consequently a battle to secure market presence and decreased costs. Changes in customer preferences comprise such factors as overall globalization of businesses, the diminishing role of airline nationality in customers’ choices and the preference by customers for high flight frequencies, and seamless connections to nearly any point in the globe. Technological and infrastructural changes include the introduction of medium size long-range aircrafts and the development of sales and distribution technology (i.e. the Internet and many airports in many areas). The strength of buying power that firms face from their customers, and thus the sharing of the value created by the transactions, depends on two factors: buyer’s price sensitivity and their relative bargaining power.

The airline industry shows two sources of potential price sensitivity. First, the importance of flight cost as a proportion of total cost of travel; this is exemplified in leisure travel where price typically represents twenty-five percent of total travel costs. The exact percentage varies depending on the length and type of travel, and increases in the non-liberalized markets. Secondly, the low or non-existent differentiation perceived by the customers increases the willingness of the buyer to switch airlines on the basis of price. Deregulation has increased price competition and has exposed buyers’ price sensitivity. A study by Gillen, Morrison and Stewart found substantial demand elasticity. It established that business travelers are usually less price-sensitive (less elastic) than leisure travelers, and that elasticity on short-haul routes are generally higher than on long-haul routes, a result explained by the presence of potential substitute for the first.

The bargaining power of buyers relative to that of the seller is considerably by the size and concentration of buyers relative to producers as well as the buyers’ switching costs. The airline industry has achieved 598 billion of revenue in 2011, carrying 2.75 billion passengers. These figures clearly show that a large number of buyers have very small individual purchases compared to industry revenue, thus losing a single traveler has a low impact on the total revenue. Although we can say that this first factor is favorable for the airlines, in the airline industry switching costs are relatively low, because of the minimal search costs to find alternative suppliers, and learning costs, linked to the specific knowledge required to use a product, as well as the total absence of emotional cost, and psychological and social risk. Airline companies have successfully tried to increase them through frequent flyer programs, which create advantages to the customer for their loyalty. Finally we can state that the relative bargaining power of buyers is medium, because of the opposite effects of the two described factors.

However, when considering the high price sensitivity and the relative economic power of buyers their share of the created value is relatively high. Prices and profits within an industry depend on buyers’ propensity to substitute its products with existing alternatives based on their prices and performance. Air transportation does not have any perfect substitutes for intercontinental flights, however, short-haul routes, have potential substitutes: car, bus, and train. Cars are higher in convenience, allowing the traveler to reach the place nearest the final destination, but are limited by potential traffic and other complications. Moreover the trend of rising gas prices in recent decades has dramatically reduced the feasibility of driving. Busing is a similar substitute to driving, but is less convenient though frequently less expensive. We consider trains to currently act as the main substitute to air transportation.

The development of high-speed rails, mainly in Europe and Asia, allows for a huge decrease in the transportation time by train. Considering that trains are often cheaper than flights and allow travelers to reach a destination nearest their final one, they represent a formidable substitute for air transportation. We observed the existence of high supplier power in the airlines industry. These suppliers predominantly consist of airplane providers, airports, labor unions, and fuel providers. These suppliers increase competition in the airline industry as well as decrease the profit potential for airlines by raising prices, decreasing product quality, and by making products scarce. Boeing (US) and Airbus (EU) largely dominate the global airline supply industry. The reduction in product availability resulting from long waitlists, including Boeing’s three years waiting period for the 777 jet, and design/production delays cause complications for airlines attempting to update or expand their fleets. The new airplanes are designed to increase fuel-efficiency therefore, delays to upgrade may result in higher fuel costs and airlines that do not plan accordingly may also spend more on maintenance and repair costs.

Airlines’ technological competitive advantage may largely depend upon being at the top of the waiting list. Boeing and Airbus have the advantage of scarce product availability and expensive prices which gives them high supplier power. Airlines must pay airport-landing fees. Each airport has different rates for landing fees that are based a measurement of aircraft size that is also unique per airport. In 2007 IAD charged $2.13 per 1,000 pounds of maximum landing weight. This price is on the lower end of a spectrum that can peak around $4.59 charged by DFW the same year. High traffic airports will charge greater airport-landing fees knowing that airlines will pay them in order to have access to those customers. Although the airports’ supplier power is not as high as the airplane providers, they still have a high supplier power because they are able charge higher prices. In addition, the majority of airline industry labor is unionized, which contributes to high supplier power in the industry. This means that in the event of disagreements between airlines and their employees there is an organized system for the employees to unite under.

Unions include, Association of Flight Attendants, the Air Line Pilots Association, National Association of Air Traffic Controllers, and the Transport Workers Union. Collective bargaining by these unions raises the cost of labor for airlines making it more difficult to compete on a low cost strategy. Rising fuel costs are also a constant struggle for airlines to maintain. Fuel costs are estimated to be approximately thirty percent of operating cost for each airline. Some companies combat this by hedging costs, but even with these measures airlines have very little control over fuel prices. The ability of fuel providers to decrease the profit potential for airlines and increase fuel costs gives them high supplier power. The capital investment required to start an airline industry alone is a huge barrier to entry. Some of the required equity includes many fixed assets that lead to low profit margins and perhaps the lowest return on equity among competing airlines.

The industry is also characterized by a large contribution margin; variable costs are particularly low compared to fixed. Variable costs are: landing fees, paid by the carriers according to the number of passengers, and catering and selling fees, paid mainly to online sellers and travel agencies. Staff, fuel, airplane maintenance and leasing, and amortization and depreciation determine fixed costs. Given the high contribution margin, volatility in the volume of passengers seriously impact companies’ operating profit losing a customer means a large loss for the company. Government regulation limited competition with rules about prices and routes, but deregulation drove the industry towards ticket price competition. Because of this the traditional business model became unsustainable for almost everyone already present in the business. The deregulation of the airline industry has also given rise to the competitive pricing environment, which enables airlines to freely set prices in order to compete.

Airlines have created complex pricing models that essentially improve their service to customers. With the combination of affordable ticket prices and increased availability of travel options, the total customer base has increased significantly. Moreover this difficult situation is compounded because of the low switching cost and lack of brand loyalty. Depending on geographical location and competition, the airports and airplanes comprise such a significant portion of the cost that it is very challenging for any airline to make a profit. Large airlines are able to offset these costs with economies of scale. Airlines must invest in R&D, technology, and management in order to provide services to customers at some profit. Large airlines have also established a global presence that makes it extremely difficult for small, local startup airlines to gain some degree of advantage.

A hub of concentrated alliances in vital geographical locations also make it difficult for new airlines to compete. Such alliances provide a network among allies that enable them to efficiently capitalize on their marketing and advertising strategies. Large marketing and advertising efforts are spent in the hope of capturing a large share of the market, and frequent flyer programs are created in an effort to secure this market share. Nevertheless, the regulatory hurdles within the airports are extremely challenging for new entrants. There are a number of federal requirements that airlines must obtain within an airport to include the use of airfields, terminal facilities, limitations on capacity, specifically take-offs and landings, to resolve the issue of air traffic congestion.

In addition, the bargaining power of suppliers makes it difficult for new airlines to enter. Today, the two major airline suppliers, Airbus and Boeing, have already established exclusive agreements with firms within their value chain that make it very difficult for new entrants to enter the industry. The high-risk of the airline industry is one of the aspects that make it very unattractive. In the firm analysis we wish to focus and understand how a traditional flagship company and a new low cost carrier has faced this strategic challenge in an unattractive industry.


The Ryan family with little capital and a staff of twenty-five people founded Ryanair in 1985. In 1986 Ryanair obtained permission from the regulatory authorities to challenge the British Airways and Aer Lingus, flagship of Ireland, a high fare duopoly on the Dublin-London route. In 1991, after an uncertain start and loss accounts, Michael O’Leary got the task of restructuring the company by adopting the economic model “low fares / no frills”, which was used successfully by Southwest Airlines. In 1995, Ryanair overtook Aer Lingus and British Airways to become the largest passenger airline on the Dublin-London route (the biggest international scheduled route in Europe) proving that Ryanair’s low fares, high frequency formula continues to win acceptance in every market between Ireland and the UK. The European Union finally completed the “Open Skies” deregulation of the scheduled airline business thereby enabling airlines to compete freely throughout Europe. In January 2000, Ryanair launches Europe’s largest booking website – www.ryanair.com and becomes the only source of low airfares in Europe.

Ryanair spotted opportunities in the market arising from the inefficient traditional business model adopted by the flagship companies; issues such as inflexible labor roles, high staff numbers and salaries, and extravagant airport fees could work adequately only within the previous regulatory constraints. In this environment Ryanair has been able to build a cost competitive advantage that offers air transportation services that are more valuable to its customers than similar offers for a simple reason, price. The airline, in its effort to achieve becoming the lowest cost European airline, has implemented a double faced strategy: it has completely changed its core and complementary services mix and it strives to reduce costs in any possible way, thus dramatically reducing its the core service, air transportation, price, and created new sources of revenue.

Ryanair has a different kind of revenue in respect to the other airline carriers. For standard airline companies revenue is made by ticket prices, but not for Ryanair. The goal of the firm is to grow the number of passengers through cost reduction, which allows the company to offer low-ticket prices. Ryanair targets price sensitive consumers, such as young people or occasional travelers that usually use substitute products like trains and cars. The company offers tickets for a price that does not allow them to cover all operative costs, but their cost structure is built so they get other revenue from additional services. Ryanair charges their customers for the accessory services they offer; the only service that is included in the ticket price is the flight. There is no food service during the flight, there are no assigned seats on the plane, customers must pay for checked baggage, and they pay an extra fee for booking with a credit card. These service charges account for the thirty percent of the company’s total revenue.

On average they charge every passenger 10.8€ when the normal price of a one-way ticket is 50€. With this business model the company does not need to hire as many employees because some the services are provided by the customers, one example is the check in line that is mandatory if you do not want to pay 50€ for every boarding card. This has brought the company to an important cost advantage position with respect to competitors, and their cost structure allows them to win every price war battle. Under the guidance of O’Leary, Ryanair has always sought to reduce its costs, sometimes “maniacally”. The first element of this effort is their fleet. The company’s fleet history can be split into two epochs. In the beginning, Ryanair followed the behavior a lot of small low-cost companies and bought whatever best met its needs in terms of price, passenger volumes, and financing abilities, this resulted in a fleet with many different types of aircrafts with many different capacities and requirements.

This attitude changed in 2002 when Ryanair ordered a hundred of Boeing 737-800, its first move in creating a standardized fleet. Currently the airline has a fleet of 305 Boeing 727-800s with a unique design characterized by having the maximum density possible and the lowest average age among competitors. All these features allow for lower maintenance costs, training costs, fuel consumptions, and cheaper parts and equipment supplies. Regarding aircraft usage, Ryanair has some particular features, mainly focused on reducing turnaround time and fuel consumption, such as choosing to land at secondary, less congested, airports, avoiding large hubs, relying on point to point routes thus maximizing aircraft flying time, and imposing strict fuel consumptions limits on its pilots to avoid repetitive refueling. Ryanair’s human resource policy clearly shows its effort to cut costs.

Personnel, both cabin crew and pilots, has a dominant variable component on salary, this is based on hours flown, the same or increased duties relative to other airline employees, training, uniform costs at the employees own expense, and no trade union representation. Despite the inevitable high turnover ratio and disgruntled employees, these policies allow the company to have a very flexible and relatively cheap labor force. Another important cost advantage is in flying to secondary airports; this policy allows the company to dramatically reduce its fees cost. Frequently Ryanair is the only one that carries in these airports, therefore their and all the linked business’ subsistence revolves around the company having a large bargaining power and some government subsides. Ryanair changed the environment of the industry.

Before air transportation was perceived like an elite way of travelling, in fact high prices of the tickets pushed people to use substitutes for the short haul routes, such as car and train. Ryanair’s prices changed the people mind, allowing airplanes to be used more often for short vacation on weekends or even daily. Its main competitor is EasyJet, which uses a “lighter” low cost business model, focusing on different kind of customers such as business travelers, although with lower margins. The two main differences are its use of primary airports, giving more convenience to the customers, and its unionized labor force. Our analysis regarding to the potential recommendation for Ryanair has started from the consideration that its business model has been successful in facing the challenge and we have identified three possible directions. First, Ryanair could enter into the intercontinental market with new routes between Europe and the U.S.

This market is characterized by high ticket prices (a minimum of 500€ round trip). Although the company could utilize some of its sources of cost advantage, such as intercontinental point-to-point routes, personnel policy, revenue from supplementary services, its cost advantage is not completely replicable in this context. Indeed it would have to buy new long distance carriers with more capacity. Sacrificing their fleet standardization and intercontinental flights requires high turnover time for refueling, and the possibilities of using secondary airports are limited by legal issues concerning the necessity of opening new borders. Another potential recommendation is to enter the Chinese domestic market which is a fast growing market (forecasting states that it will represent the 23% of the worldwide growth in passenger number in 2010-2020) and the second largest air travel market in the world behind USA.

However, there are some current constrains, mainly that airport systems are still in development, with a total number planned to increase from 175 to 270 in 2010-2020, and a relatively restricted middle class, only 10% of the country population although strongly growing. According to the present market environment we believe that this might be the best alternative in 5 to 10 years. We believe that currently the best recommendation is maintain its focus on Europe, increase its market share in countries mainly served by Easyjet, such as Turkey and East Europe. We recommend that Ryanair enter the intercontinental market, characterized by high-ticket prices, with new routes between Europe and the U.S. Ryanair could benefit by utilizing some of its sources of cost advantage. Ryanair could use secondary airports in the U.S. and through its intercontinental, point-to-point, routes focusing on the main tourist and business cities. Its personnel policy could also be applied in this market; by offering low core service prices they could increase their revenue with supplementary services. Ryanair could develop an alliance with Southwester Airlines using the same airport and split their transatlantic flights, thus increasing the passenger volume for both companies in their core business continental flights. Lufthansa

Since its inception in 1953, the Lufthansa German Airline has been regarded as a premier airline company that has become the largest airliner in Europe. They have diversified both locally within Europe and globally. Their key strategic efforts have led them to be the founders of the world’s largest airline alliance, Star Alliance. They have diversified into various business segments to include “passenger airline groups, logistics, MRO, catering and IT services. With this combination of efficient business segments, the airline group has been able to generate more than 30.1 billion euros, the highest revenues compared to other European airlines. Lufthansa’s main strategy is to increase the equity/value of the company, maintain and also improve their exceptional reputation on customer satisfaction, be very robust during economic fluctuations, and maintain profitability. In an industry involving high operational costs; where competitors are increasing moving towards cost advantage strategies Lufthansa aims to meet their strategic goals through a differentiation advantage that emphasizes customer service, alliances, and its reputation as a premium full-service airline.

An important resource for Lufthansa is its extensive fleet. Lufthansa Passenger Airlines has a fleet that currently consists of more than four hundred aircrafts; they also enjoy a first-mover advantage by being the launch customers or early adopters of many different aircrafts. These include acting as a launch customer for Boeing 747-8I in 2006 and being the second to operate the Airbus A380 in 2010. By consistently participating in fleet renewal Lufthansa is able to regularly update to more cost-efficient and more environmentally friendly aircrafts. In July of 2011 a Lufthansa Airbus A321 was used in a six-month bio fuel trial expected to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 1,500 tons in the trial period. Lufthansa’s extensive and modern fleet enable the airline to have extensive global reach, cutting edge aircraft technology to increase efficiency, and environmentally conscious technology to define a new environmental industry standard. This attention to fleet quality ensures that customers have an excellent flying experience that is not hampered by old and inefficient planes. Passengers are also able to enjoy the distinctions accompanied with first, business, and economy class.

First class seats convert into a bed and seats in all classes feature personal Audio-Video-On-Demand screens. In addition, attentive staff on all flights generously offers a wide range of complimentary food and beverage. Many terminals include lounges for First Class flyers; Frankfurt Airport even features a First Class Terminal that sports a full-service restaurant, bar, cigar lounge, relaxation rooms, offices, and even bath facilities. 55,236 employees as of 2012 are trained to deliver the highest quality customer service. Lufthansa operates as an upscale airline and is therefore able to charge premium pricing to absorb the costs of providing such exceptional customer service. Despite the higher ticket prices the services and ease of use for customers are incomparable to other airlines and often leads first time passengers to become loyal users. Lufthansa services eighteen domestic destinations and one hundred and ninety seven international ones. Its global reach is one of Lufthansa’s key resources; it allows the company to provide greater and improved service to customers.

These resources are greatly supplemented by the abilities of the other activities of the Lufthansa Aviation Group and by their participation in the Star Alliance. The Lufthansa Aviation Group is a parent company made up of the passenger airline business, logistics, maintenance, repair, and overhaul, catering, and IT services. The ability of these sister companies greatly supplement the resources of the passenger airline business. The Star Alliance is another key resource that now operates with twenty-eight partners and services four hundred and ten worldwide destinations. The alliance captures twenty-eight percent of the global market measured by revenue passenger kilometers. Because the frequent flyer program Miles & More is transferable among all members it aids to broaden the scope of Lufthansa’s reach. The alliance makes up the world’s largest airline alliance and is the world’s first multilateral airlines alliance. The abilities of Lufthansa’s other alliances would not be possible without OAG, who describe themselves as, “the most powerful schedule connections analysis tool for modeling flight connections between every airline flight, anywhere.”

OAG’s services provide them with current, detailed, and accurate data that enables Lufthansa to drive efficiency and optimize its business processes. The changes Lufthansa makes from this data analysis increase customer satisfaction while reducing costs and increasing revenue. It helps monitor competitor activity, identifies codeshare opportunities, and manages partner schedule synchronization. Due to the timeliness of this data the firm has the capability to quickly react to market changes and counter-attack other competitors’ advantages. Excellent customer service is ensured through the critical connection of this data that enables Lufthansa to continuously improve the customer completion and baggage processing metrics. Lufthansa’s fleet renewal, customer service, terminals, and alliances are scarce resources that are difficult to imitate. The fleet, terminals, and alliance are difficult to imitate because of the sheer size and scale of these resources, whereas its service is costly and would be difficult to incorporate into any firm that does not have the cost structure and capital resources to support it.

As the majority of airlines already compete by cost advantage, we feel that Lufthansa would be disadvantaged if they attempted to replicate that strategy. Therefore, we recommend that Lufthansa expand its premium customer service differentiation advantage by partnering with hotels that also provide excellent customer service in areas near its terminals. As Lufthansa’s fliers already value their premium customer service this partnership would ensure that passengers’ luxury experience would not end upon reaching their destination. The range of hotels to partner with will correspond with flight class and frequent flyer status. First Class passengers will have the option to stay in top tier hotels and Economy Classes will have the option to book with upscale hotels that are more price sensitive. The Miles & More program will be expanded so that fliers earn credits by staying with these luxury partner hotels.

The hope is that the fliers will have such a wonderful experience with the complementary services that they will express their delight to current hotel customers. As the hotel customers already value premium customer service it is our hope that in the future they will be inclined to book with Lufthansa as they offer such service. The success of this partnership has the potential to result in a revenue sharing agreement, in which Lufthansa will receive a percentage when passengers book with a partner hotel through Lufthansa. Their risk will also be reduced, as they are engaging in a partnership instead of attempting to enter this foreign industry alone. Although this partnership would be Lufthansa’s first non-aviation venture we believe that they will benefit by offering such a complementary service. The goal of this partnership is to connect customers that value upscale customer service with Lufthansa, who enjoys a reputation as an upscale full-service airline, to increase their market share; market share that their cost advantage competitors sorely need.

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