Geneva - The International Air Transport Association (IATA) downgraded its airline industry outlook for 2011 to $8.6 billion from the $9.1 billion it estimated in December 2010. This is a 46% fall in net profits compared to the $16 billion (revised from $15.1 billion) earned by the industry in 2010. On expected industry revenues of $594 billion, the $8.6 billion 2011 profit equates to a net profit margin of 1.4%.

“Political unrest in the Middle East has sent oil over $100 per barrel. That is significantly higher than the $84 per barrel that was the assumption in December. At the same time the global economy is now forecast to grow by 3.1% this year—a full 0.5 percentage point better than predicted just three months ago. But stronger revenues will provide only a partial offset to higher costs. Profits will be cut in half compared to last year and margins are a pathetic 1.4%,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

Forecast highlights:

Fuel: IATA raised its 2011 average oil price assumption to $96 per barrel of Brent crude (up from $84 in December), in line with market forecasts. Including the impact of fuel hedging, which is roughly 50% of expected consumption, this will increase the industry fuel bill by $10 billion to a total of $166 billion. Compared to levels in 2010, oil prices are now expected to be 20% higher in 2011. Fuel is now estimated to represent 29% of total operating costs (up from 26% in 2010).

Growing economies give airlines the opportunity to recover some of these added costs with additional revenues. For example, since early 2009, rising oil prices added 25% to unit costs while average fares (excluding surcharges) rose 20%. But in 2011 higher revenues are not expected to be sufficient to prevent the rise in oil prices from causing profits to shrink by 46% from 2010 levels.

Demand: An increase in global GDP forecasts to 3.1% (from 2.6% in December) bodes well for continuing strong demand for air transport. In line with this, IATA revised its passenger demand growth forecast to 5.6% (from 5.2%) and its cargo growth forecast to 6.1% (up from 5.5%). Overall, this will generate a 5.7% expansion in tonne kilometers flown.

Capacity: Published airline schedules indicate a capacity increase of 6%, slightly lower than the 6.1% previously forecast. Of this, 5% will come from the 1,400 new aircraft being introduced to the fleet over 2011. The additional 1% is expected to come from the normalization of underutilized capacity in the twin-aisle fleet.

Yields: With capacity expected to increase by 6% in 2011 and demand by 5.7%, the gap is 0.3 percentage points. This has narrowed from the previously forecast gap which was 0.8 percentage points. While there has been some weakening in passenger load factors, as of January they remained near record levels at a seasonally adjusted 77.7%. Freight load factors are also high compared to previous cyclical peaks. These tightening supply and demand conditions give scope for yield improvements. Passenger yields are expected to grow by 1.5% (up from the previous forecast of 0.5%) and cargo yields by 1.9% (up from the previous forecast of no growth).

Premium Travel: Premium traffic is an important contributor of a network airline’s profitability. Purchasing managers’ confidence is a leading indicator for business travel. In January, the JP Morgan/Markit Purchasing Managers Index hit a record high. Moreover, strong corporate reporting at the end of 2010 and expanding world trade will continue to drive business travel in 2011, albeit at a slower pace than we saw during the 2010 post-recession rebound.

Risks: Rising oil prices are always a challenge for airline profitability. If they are accompanied by strong growing economies and world trade, airlines have some opportunity to command prices that can offset the rising fuel costs. If, however, rising energy prices stall global economic growth there is a strong downside risk to this forecast. With oil prices now being driven by speculation on geopolitical events in the Middle East rather than strengthening economic growth, this is a significant downside risk.

“This year the industry is performing a balancing act on a very thin tight-rope of a 1.4% margin. It is a structural problem that the industry has faced with an average margin of just 0.1% over the last four decades. There is very little buffer for the industry to keep its balance as it absorbs shocks. Today oil is the biggest risk. If its rise stalls the global economic expansion, the outlook will deteriorate very quickly,” said Bisignani

IATA also highlighted the risk of increasing taxation, particularly in price sensitive leisure markets. In 2010, the industry saw new and increased taxes in the range of 3-5% of ticket prices in the UK, Germany and Austria. Recently, Iceland, India and South Africa have joined with plans for additional taxation. “This is a price sensitive business. Aviation has the power to stimulate economies. But that ability is being compromised by adding taxes at a time when we are struggling to cope with high fuel prices just to maintain anemic margins,” said Bisignani.

Regional highlights:

Asia-Pacific carriers are expected to deliver the largest collective profit of $3.7 billion and the highest operating margins of 4.6%. This is down substantially from the $7.6 billion that the region’s carriers made in 2010 and from the previously forecast $4.6 billion for 2011. While the strong economic growth in the region is still driving profitability, inflation fighting measures in China are slowing trade and air cargo demand. The key reason for the downgrade from December’s forecast is that the region is more exposed to higher fuel prices, due to relatively low hedging on average.

North American carriers are expected to deliver $3.2 billion profit, unchanged from the previous forecast and down from the $4.7 billion profit made in 2010. Higher oil prices will damage profitability in 2011, but earlier cuts in capacity have led to much stronger conditions for yields than elsewhere. The US economy has also been stronger than expected. Compared to our December forecast, better revenues in 2011 will offset higher fuel costs.

European carriers are expected to make a $500 million profit. This is up from the $100 million previously forecast, but well below the $1.4 billion that the region’s carriers made in 2010. It is the carry-over from better than expected 2010 second-half performance that has led to forecast revisions. The ongoing banking and government debt crisis are keeping domestic home markets fragile. But the weak Euro is continuing to provide stimulus to export industries, outbound freight and long-haul business travel which is driving the upgrading of the region’s profit forecast. Even so, Europe’s carriers remain the least profitable among the major regions with an EBIT margin of 1.1%.

Middle East carriers are expected to return a profit of $700 million. This is considerably better than the $400 million previously forecast, but down from the $1.1 billion profit that the region posted in 2010. Political instability in the region is expected to take its toll in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya which combined account for about 20% of the region’s international passenger traffic. This is balanced by the Gulf area which benefits from economic activity related to high oil prices and whose hubs continue to win long-haul market share. Load factors have also improved significantly for these airlines, as new capacity is being added at a slower pace than demand increases.

Latin American carriers are forecast to post a $300 million profit. This is down sharply from the $1 billion that the region made in 2010 and from the previously forecast $700 million. Strong economic growth and international trade in the region are driving travel and cargo demand and the region’s profits for airlines. Exposure to higher oil prices is the key reason for the expected deterioration in the region’s profitability this year.

African carriers are expected to break even. This is unchanged from the previous forecast but down from the $100 million profit that the region posted in 2010. Strong economic and transport demand growth on the back of foreign direct investment and rapidly growing trade links with Asia is keeping the region’s carriers out of the red. However, they face intensifying competition from Middle Eastern carriers and others for lucrative business traffic.

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Notes for Editors:

  • IATA (International Air Transport Association) represents some 230 airlines comprising 93% of scheduled international air traffic.
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