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欧洲廉价航空公司如今遭遇破产潮

Phil Boucher 2019年04月11日

20多年前的一份协议如今正在逐渐引发人们的再度关注,因为它所带来的廉价航运时代已经开始谢幕。

1992年,美国见证了黑手党约翰·戈蒂的审判、总统比尔·克林顿的当选以及飓风安德鲁在佛罗里达州海岸的毁灭性登陆,其损失达到了创纪录的250亿美元。在美国本土之外,查尔斯王子与戴安娜王妃也在当年上演了一场举世瞩目的分手大戏。

因此,像欧盟内部航运市场协议的制定这种不起眼的小事,自然而然也就难以吸引多少眼球。但该协议颠覆了欧洲的旅行市场,而且如今正在逐渐引发人们的再度关注,因为它所带来的廉价航运时代已经开始谢幕。

在内部航运市场创建之前,欧洲航空旅行产业分属于一系列基本封闭、各自为政的本土市场,每一个市场由一家国有旗舰航空把持,例如英航或法航。内部市场的建立用一套单一的欧盟规定取代了零散的各国法规,并借此为这个竞争不激烈、高票价的环境注入了活力。这套规定取消了对航空公司运营航线、票价和航次的限制。欧洲各大航空公司首次可以按照自己的意愿在任何机场起飞降落,并按照自身的情况来制定票价。

面向大众的旅行

结果如何?像爱尔兰的瑞安航空和英国的易捷航空取消了一切非必要的服务,并以这种低成本业务模式挺进了新放开、飞速扩张的航空旅行市场,大幅拉低了机票的票价。旅客无法享受到免费食品、机舱娱乐系统,也没有商务舱可选。然而他们却因此获得了一项福利:以一种在以前看来绝不可能的方式来探索欧洲。一家人从米兰到巴黎的票价如今还不到1992年的十六分之一。最低票价从此前的400欧元(约合450美元)跌至如今的25欧元(约合28美元)。

以前被看作是奢华体验的航空旅行最终被褪去了所有华丽的外衣;曾经为富有旅游者或享受优厚待遇的商务差旅人士预留的航空旅行如今已变成了大路货。大批大批的欧洲人坐上了飞机。

欧洲境内航空旅行产业规模自那之后翻了三番,仅2017年的乘客数就突破了10亿大关。航空运输行动小组称,航空旅行产业如今占到了欧盟就业总数的3.3%,占欧盟GDP的4.1%。该产业提供了1220万个就业岗位,其经济贡献额达到了8230亿美元。

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.

瑞安航空的首席执行官迈克·欧利瑞将欧盟的内部航运市场协议称为“杰出”的成功。图片来源:Matthew Fearn/PA Images via Getty Images

难怪瑞安航空的首席执行官迈克·欧利瑞在2017年庆祝公司成立25周年时将内部航运市场协议描述为“欧盟的杰出成就”。易捷航空的前任首席执行官卡洛琳·迈卡尔在周年庆典时表示,这一协议实现了大众航空旅行的民主化。

廉价航空公司的破产潮

尽管欧洲低成本航空公司在过去20年中取得了辉煌的业绩,但该行业的上空也出现了越来越多的阴霾。虽然瑞安和易捷占据了欧盟19%的航空市场,但其他希望利用欧洲完全开放市场的低成本运营商却噩耗连连。

国际航空运输协会的首席经济学家布莱恩·皮尔斯表示:“运营业绩不佳的航空公司并不在少数。”

自2017年8月以来,多家廉价航空公司已经淡出了人们的视线,包括柏林航空、Monarch、Primera、Small Planet、Azur、Cobalt、VLM、PrivatAir以及上个月倒闭的冰岛航空公司WOW。

与此同时,传闻要裁员的英国低成本航空公司弗莱比航空最近取消了十几个航班。该公司如今被重新命名为Connect Airways,成为一家财团的子公司,该财团的成员包括维珍大西洋航空公司等。意大利已破产旗舰航空公司意大利航空的命运依然悬而未决,斯洛文尼亚的亚得利亚航空亦是如此。在斯洛文尼亚民航总局要求亚得利亚航空提供其财务稳健性的证明之后,该公司在去年12月的再融资额高达400万欧元(约合450万美元)。

那么,航空民主化的远大理想缘何辉煌不再?

“它们只不过是活不下去了”

皮尔斯说:“大多数破产的航空公司都是小公司,为什么破产的公司如此之多,其原因在于欧洲航空公司实在是太多了。大约有200家航空公司提供欧洲境内的定期航班服务。如果看一下包括加拿大在内的北美市场,你会发现这个数字还不到100家。”皮尔斯指出,美国和加拿大80%的座位数仅由7大航空公司把控,但在欧洲,同样比例的座位数却掌控在28家航空公司手中。

欧洲航空产业的相对成功——2018年航班数量年增速达到了5.7%——激励着航空公司通过增加班次和购买更大的机型来提供更多的座位,其当前的座位数增速甚至已经超过了乘客的实际需求。

与此同时,由于薪资的上升以及全球燃油价格上涨20.5%,航空公司在2018年的大部分时间里一直忙于控制成本的增加。与美国不同的是,多家航空公司还选择对其燃油合约进行套期保值操作,意味着它们不得不在燃油成本实际上较去年同期下跌3.2%的情况下继续支付高额油价。

结果,机票价格在这个成本不断上升的时期越来越便宜,这一现象对于一些低成本航空公司来说是致命的。

Frontier Economics的运输与水务总监丹·伊利亚特说:“这些航空公司只不过是活不下去了,因为利润率非常低,而且资金最后也耗尽了。”

正是因为这个原因,欧洲最受欢迎的航空公司都是那些财大气粗、对成本控制极度苛刻的公司。Scope Ratings称,瑞安、易捷以及汉莎、国际联合航空集团(成员包括爱尔兰航空、英航、伊比利亚航空和伏林航空)和法航荷航集团这三大主流航空公司占据了2018年欧盟航空旅行50%的市场份额。

JLS Consulting的航空专家约翰·斯德里克兰德说:“瑞安航空绝不放过任何一个讨价还价的机会,而且连一刻都不敢放松警惕,因为哪怕是航空燃油的一个微小变化,一旦乘以公司的用量,就会立即变成一个天文数字。”

成功的秘诀

然而这对于欧洲小规模廉价航空公司来说并非都是坏消息。上周三,新加入市场的匈牙利威兹航空(成立于2004年)宣布,公司截至今年3月31日最后一个财季的收入符合预期,而且其净利润处于此前指引范围2.7亿欧元(约合3.03亿美元)至3亿欧元(约合3.36亿美元)的上半区间。公司股价应声上涨4.8%,推动其市值达到了29亿美元。与瑞安和易捷一样,该航空公司通过在冬季推出12美元这样的超低票价,来应对漫长的季节性低谷期,并推动附带项目营收的增长,例如行李寄放、租车和酒店预订。

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 last 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.

威兹、瑞安和易捷这三大廉价航空公司成功挺过了市场湍流。图片来源:Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

斯德里克兰德说:“从某些方面来讲,这些座位将成为其他类目营收的催化剂。瑞安自己也说过,它希望成为旅行行业的亚马逊。这个理念在于,人们会登陆瑞安的网站,并预订一切事物,而不仅仅是航班。”

问题在于,威兹在这一方面倒是一个例外。国际航空运输协会估计,三大长途网络航空公司如今贡献了欧洲航空市场70%的运营利润,而剩余的30%则来自于威兹、瑞安和易捷,以及土耳其航空和俄罗斯航空这样的中型航空公司。

国际航空运输协会在今年1月发布的经济报告称,“大量的中小型欧洲航空公司都在亏损或盈利甚微。”

首席经济师皮尔斯说:“如果你将欧洲航空行业看作是一个整体,那么它当前的利润实际上还是相当可观的。问题在于,利润的很大一部分都来自于那些大航空公司。”(财富中文网)

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

“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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