It was midday on October 1 when Anders Ludvigsson found out that Primera, the small European airline he worked for, had just 12 hours before it was due to declare itself bankrupt. There was a mid-afternoon meeting where office staff were told, and five minutes later the news leaked to crew members through WhatsApp and Facebook. Flights ceased at midnight.
“We had been in trouble since I joined,” says Mr Ludvigsson, a former director of flight operations who had started at Primera in 2006 as a pilot. “There was always some sort of crisis coming up.”
The financial crisis, tumbling eurozone economies, the soaring oil price: Europe’s airlines have not been immune to shocks in the past decade, least of all the smaller ones.
Like other low-cost carriers, Primera prided itself on its nimble business model, which gave it an advantage over older airlines. “We could open up small bases with the same quality, without having infrastructure in place,” says Mr Ludvigsson. “We opened and closed routes very freely. If they didn’t work out, we closed them.” But that flexibility could not protect it against unexpected blows, including corrosion on one of its aircraft and delayed deliveries of others.
Then Primera ran into a new wave of problems. At the same time as cancelled flights over the summer required passenger compensation, jet fuel was nearly double the price of the previous year. The airline had needed to risk expanding, he says, because “being static is slowly shrinking”. But it was “a gamble that didn’t come off”.
With the Christmas travel season in full swing, a number of other airlines in Europe are facing similar dilemmas. They have tried to expand rapidly in a market that has seen a flurry of new entrants and different business models.
Europe’s consumers have enjoyed the benefits of a booming aviation industry, with the number of flights rising by 44 per cent to 38.1m in 2018 from a decadeago, according to the International Air Transport Association, and fares falling as low-cost carriers flourished across the continent. Ryanair’s average ticket price, for example, fell from €45 in 2012 to €39.40 in 2018.
But that success has started to breed its own problems for airlines as troubles ranging from a higher oil price to congested skies start to pick off the weaker carriers. Behind them stand Europe’s largest airlines, keen to consolidate and strengthen their grip on the market. Events like last week’s closure of the UK’s Gatwick airport after drones were sighted in the area, leaving thousands of passengers stranded, will not help.
Winter is a “horrendous” period for airlines, when a seasonal lull means that receipts are low but bills are high, says Gert Zonneveld, analyst at Canaccord Genuity. “When airlines go bust, they tend to go bust towards the end of the year . . . because that’s when the cash balances are the lowest.” The struggle for some is to survive until spring, when bookings increase.
The first big warning sign appeared last year, when three large European carriers went bankrupt in quick succession: Monarch in the UK; Air Berlin; and Alitalia. The last of these is still flying with the backing of the Italian government, potentially contravening EU state aid rules, but it awaits a new owner.
This autumn, a number of smaller airlines failed. As well as Latvia-based Primera, Cobalt of Cyprus, Germany’s Azurair, Lithuania’s Small Planet Airlines and the Swiss SkyWork all went out of business.
Two further carriers have had precarious experiences: UK regional airline Flybe, which put itself up for sale in November after poor results, and Iceland’s Wow Air, which hastily agreed to a takeover by Icelandair only for it to fall through and a private equity buyer to step in. Norwegian has also had a volatile time, rebuffing takeover offers from IAG, owner of British Airways.
Aviation experts believe that the pressure on the sector is only going to intensify, as seasonal factors combine with macroeconomic problems.
The high price of jet fuel is a recurrent factor in recent bankruptcies. Although the price has recently fallen back to around $75 a barrel, it has spent most of this year between $80 and $90 and came close to $100 in early October. Eighteen months earlier, it had been as low as $50. S&P Global Platts, a data provider, has estimated that the elevated price has added $48.6bn to airlines’ 2018 fuel bill, compared with last year.
Airlines have also cited the cost of new European compensation regulations for passengers as a factor. Jozsef Varadi, chief executive of Hungary-based Wizz Air, now one of Europe’s “big six” airlines, says the “squeeze in the marketplace” comes from both fuel costs and the new compensation system. “Those who are not viable from a financial standpoint cannot live up to the challenge,” he adds.
The industry faced a big bill for the disruption caused by congestion over Europe’s skies this summer — the worst on record. In July, Europe’s travellers experienced more than 135,000 minutes of in-flight delays on average each day. Put another way, that was 94 days’ worth of delays every day — more than double the year before.
Industrial action by French air traffic controllers and ground-handling staff, as well as a lack of air traffic control capacity and extreme weather — from the “Beast from the East” snowstorms in February to summer’s heatwave — all contributed to these delays. Individual airlines added their own problems: Ryanair had to deal with days of strikes by pilots and cabin crew as part of a continent-wide industrial dispute.
Michel Dembinski, who is regional head of aviation in Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ’s structured finance office, says the industry is paying attention to “a number of indicators in a ‘heat map’ to monitor changes”, including interest rates, aircraft lease rates and fuel costs. “If they start showing too much stress, an adverse reaction may lead to restrictions in capital liquidity and weaker cash flows for airlines. The weaker airlines will be the first impacted.”
Jarrod Castle, analyst at UBS, believes a turn in the cycle is not far off. “Airlines’ valuations are saying we’re going into another financial crisis,” he says.
The fate of one airline has been played out very publicly. When Icelandair announced it wanted to take over its national rival, Wow Air, in an all-stock deal worth $25m, at the start of November, it already seemed like a comedown for Wow, whose founder had said he was expecting to raise $200m-$300m in an initial public offering within 18 months.
At the time, the industry was still heralding Wow, which won the title of low-cost airline of the year at the Centre for Aviation awards in Berlin in November. Announcing the prize, Capa’s executive chairman, Peter Harbison, said: “It is a mark of Wow Air’s success that its biggest and closest competitor’s only response is to buy it.”
The airline was praised “for pioneering the long-haul, low-cost” model, using its Reykjavik hub to connect 20 destinations in Europe and North America. However, some of those routes are lossmaking, given Wow’s low fares. It will charge, for example, £130 to fly from New York Newark to London Gatwick from next month, though its business model expects that passengers will add pricier “ancillaries” such as carry-on bags and extra legroom.
But two days after the ceremony, Icelandair cancelled the deal, having received a due diligence report on Wow. Bogi Nils Bogason, chief executive of Icelandair Group, said the result was “certainly disappointing”, while Skuli Mogensen, Wow’s chief executive and founder, said it had been a “challenging project”. Icelandair’s own shares fell almost a quarter in the following week.
The deal’s collapse put Wow at risk, given that it had already announced a profit warning in a letter to bondholders and complained about creditors “demanding stricter payment terms than before, further putting pressure on our cash flow”. It had issued €60m of bonds in September but with a high interest rate of 9 per cent.
In the letter, Mr Mogensen indicated how precarious Wow’s survival was, saying “funding initiatives” had become “a necessity for the business” on top of the bonds. He said he had invested €5.5m cash in the bond “as I was convinced the funding would be sufficient to take us to an IPO in the next 18 months”, but the airline needed more money.
The day after the deal collapsed, private equity firm Indigo Partners, which already owns Hungary’s Wizz Air and Mexico’s Volaris Airlines, offered to invest in Wow. The parties did not disclose terms, except to say Mr Mogensen would remain the principal shareholder. The announcement could not have come at a better time for Wow. Mr Mogensen “really desperately needs to be able to put out some news like that, that somebody else is coming in”, says one Icelandic analyst.
When airlines fail, their brands may disappear but their assets are often snapped up by stronger players — and consolidation is something Europe’s bigger airlines are keen to see.
In the US, after mergers, acquisitions and the failure of smaller rivals, four airlines control 80 per cent of the domestic market by seats; in Europe, by contrast, even the top 10 airline groups can only muster 70 per cent. North American airlines have reaped the benefit of this consolidation: their margins for earnings before interest and tax have gone from 3.4 per cent in 2012 to 11 per cent in 2017, according to Iata. In Europe, that was 0.7 per cent in 2012 and 6.9 per cent last year.
Daniel Roeska, an analyst at Bernstein, says the industry is reaching a cyclical peak and “smaller airlines will fail more rapidly over the next two years”, given their bloated fuel bills, creating “consolidation opportunities in the European sector”.
Mr Castle at UBS says there is a coherence to consolidation. “It’s not like the capacity doesn’t get redeployed in some manner when things improve. Slots get taken over. The planes might go somewhere else. What you do see after each downturn is more consolidation of profits: the big ones get stronger.”
Consolidation helps solve one problem: overcapacity. In the fourth quarter of 2018, Europe’s low-cost carriers planned to increase the number of seats by 11 per cent, and the continent’s overall seat count by 7.7 per cent. Those numbers are actually decreases on previous plans: airline after airline announced it would grow more slowly, allowing it to protect its yields and pass on some of the higher fuel bills.
“If you look at the European market, there’s too much supply,” says Mark Manduca, an analyst at Citi. “We see the small guys looking for working capital, deferred revenue, prepayments, cash on the balance sheet.”
Carsten Spohr, chief executive of Lufthansa, told the Financial Times in November that the airline industry needed to give up the “fantasy of growth going on forever” after a summer of strikes, delays and cancellations. He says aviation capacity in Europe, measured by the number of seats, had increased about 6 per cent a year since 2016. This exceeds the industry’s broad guide for sustainable growth of twice gross domestic product, which has recently been 2 per cent in Europe.
Problems with airspace, airports and delivery of aircraft show that “this industry has reached its maximum growth rate”, says Mr Spohr. “What we need is healthy growth in line with infrastructure and manufacturers’ capacity and airline capacity.
“We can’t excuse ourselves, we are part of it.”
‘Zombie airlines’: how to spot the signs of vulnerable carriers
It is not easy to predict which airlines will fail, but there are characteristics industry observers look out for: weak balance sheets, high costs, ageing fleets. UBS analyst Jarrod Castle calls some of them “zombie airlines”, which “seem to survive for a lot longer than anyone believes they will”. Some benefit from state support, others have private owners who are prepared to invest in the hope of an upturn.
Wizz Air’s Jozsef Váradi says “irrationalities” allow unlikely carriers to survive. “If you look at it from a central and eastern European perspective, you have a bunch of small national incumbents who haven’t made money, who’ll never make money, but are still going because the governments believe they need a national carrier for some reason.”
Within Europe, the strongest players are legacy carriers such as IAG (owner of British Airways), the Lufthansa Group and Air France-KLM, or the bigger low-cost carriers like Ryanair, easyJet and Wizz. Daniel Roeska at Bernstein argues that Europe’s leading airlines are “far more resilient today than they previously were” and could capitalise on “disruptive opportunities” in a downturn.
Consolidation has certainly been on the agenda for these airlines. IAG won Monarch’s Gatwick slots in 2017 and took a small stake in Norwegian, a rival on its transatlantic routes, this year as a prelude to a takeover, but had its offers rebuffed.
Lufthansa and easyJet took over different units and routes of Air Berlin, while both have been interested in acquiring Alitalia.
However, Mr Roeska says American-style consolidation is “a topic for the next 10 years”, and strict ownership rules meant global dealmaking would take the form of “partnerships, joint ventures and equity stakes”, rather than mergers and acquisitions.