The strange business model of airlines

The airline business is a strange business and in desperate need for business model innovation. On the one hand, more people fly than ever to prices lower than ever. IATA, the industry body, states that the real cost of travel has fallen in the last 40 years by about 60% and the number of travelers increased tenfold. Air freight has grown in this period by a factor of fourteen. (See IATA Vision 2050) That sounds like a very successful industry. Is it? However, on the other hand, airlines are notorious to not even earning their cost of capital and producing unhappy customers.

 

During the 2000s the average airline generated an EBIT margin of just 0.7%. Taken a longer perspective, the figures are as drastic. From 1970 to 2010 the airline industry generated over USD 12,000 billions of revenues in today’s prices, but only a total of USD 19 billion of net post-tax profits; a margin of only 0.1%.

Another dull figures: Around USD 500 billion of investors’ capital is tied up in the airline industry. Normally, investors would expect a return on capital of around 7-8%. Taken the 500 billion that would mean a return of 40 billion annually to cover the cost of capital. But what did the airlines earn? 20 billion or 20 billion less that the capital would have earned elsewhere. The airline industry is a big capital destroyer. Interestingly, other firms along the travel value chain like airports or computer reservation systems earned excess returns. So there is profit in the travel industry but not with the capital-intensive airlines. Airlines are a dismal industry.

So are customers at least happy? Just type in Google the search “airline experience” and enjoy all the customer stories about flights. And watch the film “United breaks Guitars” like 12 million others did on Youtube.

What went wrong and is there a solution to it? And think about it why we all hunt of low prices on traveling while we spent USD 5 for a latte at Starbucks. Why are we so price conscious on travelling and not on coffee?

Here are some thoughts I presented at the 17th international airline conference last fall in Seattle. Thanks to Nawal Taneja, Dietmar Kirchner and Rob Solomon for the kind invitation.

Thesis 1: Airlines are masters of transportation economics, not customer experiences

It seems that all airline managers are great students of economics but not of entrepreneurship and marketing. Since they have a perishable good (empty seats on an upcoming flight are like perishable goods), they believe strongly in variable pricing by exploiting the maximal price customers are willing to pay.

That sounds very reasonable at first, since who wants to argue with economists and their theoretical models, but what airlines have forgotten over time is, that if you treat customers like rational customers then you will get rational customers and extremely price sensible customers in the end.  However, there is a good reason why economics is called a dismal science. So if you follow economists, Continue reading The strange business model of airlines