On August 31, SkyEurope went belly-up. After months and months of confidence-stripping events—bridge loans, terminated airplane leases, postponed financial statements, the granting of protection from creditors by a Slovak court, the refusal of several airports to service SkyEurope planes in light of unpaid fees—the airline finally called it quits.
For those of us following the ups and downs of European aviation, the airline's demise was no surprise. Most observers of Europe's low-cost airline scene have been predicting
a wave of bankruptcies and mergers for a while now. SkyEurope's weaknesses were well documented, and were only exacerbated in
the face of terrible market conditions. What was most remarkable was that the airline stuck around for as long as it did.
The bankruptcy comes at a generally really bad time for European low-cost carriers, and there are plenty of commentaries that interpret SkyEurope's fall as the first paragraph of the next chapter of European LCC history—a chapter that will end with three or four big budget airlines battling for the euros, kronor, lei, and hryvni of budget-minded travelers across Europe, with a handful of much smaller specialist budget carriers accommodating underserved regions. (A side-question here, though one not unrelated to the issue at hand: which are the three or four big LCCs that will be left standing? Norwegian, Ryanair, easyJet, Germanwings, Vueling, Wizz Air, and Air Berlin all have either sheer size, customer loyalty, or underserved destinations going for them. But a changed terrain consisting of three to four big players would mean that several of these airlines would be absorbed.)
If only the biggest will survive, then the question of what will happen to SkyEurope's abandoned routes becomes the most crucial one. Who will benefit most from SkyEurope's demise? The buzz so far seems to be that financial gain is Ryanair's for the taking, but Wizz Air has strong links in Central Europe as well.
The most distinctive dimension of SkyEurope's route map was its inclusion of Bratislava, Kosice, and Poprad-Tatry on its route map. Several of the routes the airline flew before folding remain unduplicated.
The biggest gap has opened up at Bratislava, where over two dozen destinations were previously served by SkyEurope. Ryanair has three new routes scheduled for autumn inauguration: Bratislava-Bologna, Bratislava-Rome Ciampino, and Bratislava-Liverpool, while WizzAir has just one, scheduled to take off later this month, a Bratislava-Rome Fiumicino link. Ryanair already flies many routes in and out of Bratislava, and is doubtlessly best placed to expand.
Kosice, a much lower-volume airport, has truly been left in the lurch by the departure of SkyEurope. The airline flew between Kosice and Istanbul, Rome, Manchester, Paris Orly and London Luton. SkyEurope also flew a London Luton-Poprad-Tatry route.
Thus far, an airline called Danube Wings has announced a number of new routes into both Kosice and Poprad-Tatry, though the ground opened up by the disappearance of SkyEurope is still wide open. The biggest and most likely budget airlines have thus far failed to bite. The next few weeks should be interesting.
Ryanair's May was no great shakes, either way. In May 2009, the airline's passenger totals jumped 9 percent, from 5.06 million to 5.51 million, while their load factor increased slightly, from 80 to 81 percent. These figures stand against May 2008 numbers.
Air Berlin's comparable statistics are on the surface a bit more worrying. The airline flew 2.51 million passengers in May, against May 2008's 2.72 million. That's a drop of 7.7 percent. In Air Berlin's press release, the airline points out that capacity was also reduced in May 2009 by 3.1 percent, which accounts for some but not all of this drop. Load factor fell 3.8 percent, from 80.8 percent in May 2008 to 77.0 percent in May 2009.
What's most noteworthy here is the fact that Air Berlin is filling more than three of every four seats, while Ryanair is filling more than four of every five, in the midst of bad economic times.
In other LCC news, Paris Beauvais airport—a big hub for Ryanair—is closed May 3 through May 9.
The Irish low-cost carrier released a tome of a statement on their Web site today. There's bravado within, to be sure, but it's a pretty cautious document on balance. Among the more interesting details: more passengers, a modest increase in revenue, vastly lower profits, and a dramatic increase in ancillary revenue.
I'll flesh these out a bit. Passenger numbers in the year to March 31, 2009: 58.5 million, up 15 percent over 2007-08's 50.9 million. Revenue is up 8 percent to €2,942 billion over 2007-08's €2,714 billion. The former continues to impress. Obviously, ongoing sales and generally low pricing are continuing to pull passengers in.
Ryanair has continued to turn a profit, though vastly less of one in 2008-09 than in 2007-08: €105 million against €480.9 million, a drop of 78 percent.
Most interesting are the airline's ancillary revenue figures, which are up 23 percent in 2008-09 over 2007-08, to a stunning €598 million. Stack that number against Ryanair's relatively small revenue growth (of €228 million). Ancillary revenue is entirely responsible for keeping Ryanair in the black. Most observers of the airline already may have already known or suspected this, but these figures certainly hit this reality home.
Both airlines continue to weather the storm, with differing results.
In February, Ryanair's load factor jumped three percent, to 78 percent from last February's 75 percent, while their passenger tally jumped 7 percent to 4.13 million. As in previous months, the airline's extreme sale mode is working, at least in statistical terms—whether they're making money is another question.
February saw Air Berlin struggling on the negative side of the ledger. The German airline's load factor fell from 72.5 percent last February to 70.8 percent, a slide of 1.7 percent. The number of passengers flown fell a more remarkable 8.5 percent, to 1.71 million, though the airline points out that capacity in February was down 6.3 percent against last February.
The upshot for passengers? There's more room to relax and spread out on Ryanair and Air Berlin flights than there used to be. I'm just trying to find the silver lining, that's all.
Flycheapo reports today that Ryanair will fly between Frankfurt Hahn and Osijek, in the Eastern Croatian region of Slavonia, from May on. Thus far, low-cost carriers have focused within Croatia almost exclusively on coastal cities and Zagreb. The choice of Osijek is interesting for at least two reasons. First off, Osijek is not currently a huge tourism draw, though it has enjoyed a steady stream of tourists in the past. Another score for that old Ryanair strategy of flying to little-known corners of Europe. The move is also interesting given the fact that route expansions involving airports previously outside of the airline's network have been rare for Ryanair over the last year or so. Is this the start of a counterintuitive recession era expansion strategy into heretofore unserved airports throughout Central and Eastern Europe? Probably not, but we can dream.
It's also occurred to me that there may be a new labor migration stream of Croatians in and around Osijek into Germany. Croatians can count on visa-free access to EU countries, after all. Anyone?
Ryanair's load factor remained stable at 69 percent in January 2009 against January 2008 stats, while the airline's tally of passengers flown jumped 11 percent in January in comparison with the previous January—to 4.08 million. Press release here.
All those near-giveaways have clearly paid off; these figures certainly aren't terrible.
Ryanair maintained an identical load factor in December against December 2007 stats, an impressive achievement considering the downturn. The airline filled 79 percent of its seats in December. The number of passengers flown increased 11 percent against December 2007.
Last year at this time, Ryanair was reporting December 2007's 18 percent increase in passengers and a two percent drop in load factor against December 2006 stats.
They may only tell part of the story, but these stats suggest that Ryanair is weathering the storm.
Don't you love it when Ryanair gets indignant? Every failing in the world of European commercial aviation can be attributed to environmental regulation, other—pernicious—LCCs or, as in today's exercise, the BAA monopoly.
Also of European LCC interest: Jet2 announced last week that they will be flying between Leeds Bradford and Albert, a miniscule airport in the Somme, beginning in April.