IATA Halves Projected 2010 Loss Forecast for Air Transport Industry

Strong start to year seen as flat capacity translates into better yields and stronger revenues, but International Air Transport Association head Bisignani warns on oil price, overcapacity

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Geneva — March 11, 2010 — The International Air Transport Association (IATA) halved its loss forecast for the industry for 2010 as the group said that a much stronger recovery in demand is extending the year-end gains into the first months of this year, with relatively flat capacity translating into some yield improvement and stronger revenues.

The association dropped its projected loss for the air transport industry to $2.8 billion for this year, down from the $5.6 billion loss that the group had forecast in December 2009. IATA also lowered its 2009 loss estimate to $9.4 billion from the previously forecast $11.0 billion loss. Revenues for this year are expected to come in at $522 billion for the industry as a whole.

Improvements are driven by economic recovery in the emerging markets of Asia-Pacific and Latin America, where carriers posted international passenger demand gains of 6.5 percent and 11.0 percent respectively in January. North America and Europe are lagging, with international passenger demand gains of 2.1 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively, for the same month.

"We are seeing a definite two-speed industry," said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general and CEO. "Asia and Latin America are driving the recovery. The weakest international markets are North Atlantic and intra-Europe which have continuously contracted since mid-2008."

Forecast highlights include:

Improving Demand: Cargo demand (which fell by 11.1 percent in 2009) is expected to grow by 12.0 percent in 2010. This is significantly better than the previously forecast 7.0 percent growth. Passenger demand (which fell by 2.9 percent in 2009) is expected to grow by 5.6 percent in 2010. This is an improvement on the previous forecast in December of 4.5 percent growth.

Load Factors: Airlines kept capacity relatively in line with demand throughout 2009. A strong year-end recovery pushed load factors to record levels when adjusted for seasonality. By January the international passenger load factor was 75.9 percent while cargo utilization was at 49.6 percent.

Yields: Tighter supply and demand conditions are expected to see yields improve — 2.0 percent for passenger and 3.1 percent for cargo. This is a considerable improvement from the precipitous 14 percent fall experienced by both in 2009.

Premium Travel: Premium travel, while slower to recover than economy travel, now appears to be following a cyclical recovery in volume terms. But it is still 17 percent below the early 2008 peak. Premium yields, which are 20 percent below peak, may be suffering a structural shift.

Fuel: With improved economic conditions, the price of fuel is rising. IATA raised its expected average oil price to $79 per barrel from the previously forecast $75. That is an increase of $17 per barrel on the $62 average price for 2009. The combined impact of increased capacity and a higher fuel price will add $19 billion to the industry fuel bill, bringing it to an expected $132 billion in 2010. As a percentage of operating costs, this represents 26 percent, up from 24 percent in 2009.

Revenues: Revenues will rise to $522 billion. That is $44 billion more than previously forecast and a $43 billion improvement on 2009.

"Revenues are half-way to recovery — US$42 billion below the 2008 peak and $43 billion above the 2009 trough," said Bisignani. "Important fundamentals are moving in the right direction. Demand is improving. The industry has been wise in managing capacity. Prices are beginning to align with the costs — premium travel aside. We can be optimistic but with due caution. Important risks remain. Oil is a wildcard, overcapacity is still a danger, and costs must be kept under control throughout the value chain and with labor."

Regional Differences Sharp

According to the IATA report, regional differences in airlines prospects are likely to be sharp this year:

>>Asia-Pacific carriers will see the $2.7 billion 2009 loss turn to $900 million in profits on the back of a rapid economic recovery being driven by China. Cargo markets are particularly strong, with long-haul cargo capacity for shipments originating in Asia experiencing a capacity shortage. Demand is expected to grow by 12 percent in 2010.

>>Latin American carriers will post an $800 million profit for the second consecutive year. The region's economies are less debt-burdened than the U.S. or Europe. Economic ties to Asia helped isolate the region from the worst of the financial crisis. Carriers in parts of the region have benefitted from liberalized markets, which have facilitated some cross-border consolidation, giving greater flexibility to deal with changing economic conditions. Demand is expected to grow by 12.2 percent in 2010.

>>European carriers will post a $2.2 billion loss — the largest among the regions. This reflects the slow pace of economic recovery and faltering consumer confidence. Demand is expected to grow by 4.2 percent in 2010. Intra-European premium travel is expected to recover more slowly. In December it remained 9.7 percent below previous year levels.

>>North American carriers will post the second largest losses at $1.8 billion. The jobless economic recovery continues to burden consumer confidence. Demand is expected to improve by 6.2 percent in 2010. But with intra-North America premium travel still down 13.3 percent as of December, the region remains in the red.

>>Middle East carriers are expected to experience demand growth of 15.2 percent in 2010, but will see losses of $400 million. Low yields in long-haul markets connected over Middle East hubs is a burden on profitability.

>>African carriers are likely to post a $100 million loss for 2010, halving 2009 losses. Demand is expected to improve by 7.4 percent. But this will not be sufficient for profitability as they continue to face strong competition for market share.

Structural Adjustments

"The stark contrast between profitability among Asian and Latin American carriers while losses continue to plague the rest of the industry clearly demonstrates the fact that airlines have not been able to develop into global businesses," suggested Bisignani. "The restrictions of the bilateral system prevent the kind of cross border consolidation that we have seen in industries such as pharmaceuticals or telecoms. Airlines are battling the challenges of the financial crisis without the benefit of this important tool. It's time for change."

In November 2009, IATA's Agenda for Freedom initiative facilitated the signing of a multi-lateral statement of policy principles focused on liberalizing market access, pricing and ownership. Seven governments (Chile, Malaysia, Panama, Singapore, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and the United States) and the European Commission signed the document. Kuwait joined the group by endorsing the principles in March.

"The second stage talks between the U.S. and Europe are the big opportunity for 2010," said Bisignani. "The slow recovery in both regions should be an invitation for change. Liberalizing ownership would boost both markets. Even more importantly, as these markets combined represent about 60 percent of global aviation it would send a strong signal for global change. Brands, not flags, must guide the industry to sustainable profitability. That cannot happen until governments throw away the outdated restrictions of the bilateral system."