2018 Airline Performance Drivers
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) identifies the following drivers for 2018 airline financial performance:
Passengers: Passenger numbers are expected to increase to 4.3 billion in 2018. Passenger traffic (revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs) is expected to rise 6.0% (slightly down on the 7.5% growth of 2017 but still ahead of the average of the past 10-20 years of 5.5%), which will exceed a capacity expansion (available seat kilometers or ASKs) of 5.7%.This will push up the average load factor to a record 81.4%, helping to drive a 3.0% improvement in yields. Revenues from the passenger business are expected to grow to $581 billion (+9.2% on $532 billion in 2017). Strong performance of the passenger business is supported by expected robust GDP growth of 3.1% (the strongest since 2010).
Cargo: The cargo business continues to benefit from a strong cyclical upturn in volumes, with some recovery in yields. Volumes are expected to grow by 4.5% in 2018 (down from the 9.3% growth of 2017). The boost to cargo volumes in 2017 was a result of companies needing to restock inventories quickly to meet unexpectedly strong demand. This led cargo volumes to grow at twice the pace of the expansion in world trade (4.3%). Cargo yields are expected to improve by 4.0% in 2018 (slower than the 5.0% in 2017). While restocking cycles are usually short-lived, the growth of e-commerce is expected to support continued momentum in the cargo business beyond the rate of expansion of world trade in 2018. Cargo revenues will continue to do well in 2018, reaching $59.2 billion (up 8.6% from 2017 revenues of $54.5 billion).
Costs: The biggest challenge to profitability in 2018 is rising costs.
- Oil prices are expected to average $60/barrel for Brent Crude in 2018 (up 10.7% from $54.2/barrel in 2017). Jet fuel prices are expected to rise even more quickly to $73.8 per barrel (up 12.5% on $65.6 in 2017). Airlines with low levels of hedging (in the US and China for example) are likely to feel the impact of this increase more immediately than those with higher average hedging ratios (Europe). The fuel bill is expected to be 20.5% of total costs in 2018 (up from 18.8% in 2017).
- Labor costs have been accelerating strongly and are now a larger expense item than fuel (30.9% in 2018).
- Overall unit costs are expected to grow by 4.3% in 2018 (a significant acceleration on the 1.7% increase in 2017). This will outpace an expected 3.5% increase in unit revenues.
Debt: The industry has used the period of positive cash flows to pay dividends and to reduce debt. The debt to EBITDAR (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortization and rentals) ratio has fallen from 3.7x in 2016 to 3.5x in 2017. It is expected to fall further to 3.4x in 2018. Lower debt means reduced interest payments. Despite the squeeze in operating margins (from 8.3% in 2017 to 8.1% in 2018), the net margin is expected to grow to 4.7% (from 4.6% in 2017) because of lower interest payments. This will see net profits rise to a record $38.4 billion in 2018 (up from $34.5 billion in 2017).