Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cheap fuel may curtail new aircraft orders

PARIS – Sharply falling oil prices are a welcome boon to airlines, saving billions of dollars in monthly fuel bills for a highly competitive industry that last year eked out an average profit of just $6 per passenger.

But what is good news for the airlines raises questions for the world’s largest jet makers, Boeing and Airbus, which have been riding a wave of demand for the latest fuel-efficient jets, driven in large part by the stubbornly high price of oil.

The companies’ total backlog of unfilled orders stands at more than 12,000 aircraft, valued at close to $2 trillion and enough to keep their assembly lines humming for more than eight years.

That is, unless the current drop in oil prices represents something more significant than a short-term imbalance of global supply and demand, some analysts warn. A main concern is that carriers could delay orders in hopes of saving money by keeping their older, fuel-guzzling jets flying for a few more years.

“What has propelled the market to record growth are two factors: cheap cash and expensive fuel,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group in Washington. “Now something has changed.”

“We can’t yet predict if it will last or how the air carriers will react,” he continued, “but I think now would be an excellent time for caution.”

Combined with low interest rates and recent efforts by some governments to clamp down on carbon emissions from aviation, the increase in jet orders, which began before the 2008 financial crisis, has lasted nearly a decade, longer than any previous boom cycle in the jet age.

Both big plane makers continued to pad their already hefty order books in 2014. Airbus said on Tuesday that it secured purchase contracts for a net 1,456 jets last year, down slightly from 1,503 planes in 2013, and that it delivered 629 in 2014. Last week, Boeing reported 1,432 net orders in 2014, up from 1,355 a year earlier, and 723 plane deliveries for the year – an industry record.

Boeing and Airbus each control roughly half the market for airliners with more than 100 seats.

Gains in fuel efficiency have topped the manufacturers’ lists of selling points for their newest generation of commercial jets. They include recently upgraded versions of short-range workhorses like the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320, as well as lightweight, wide-bodied models made from carbon fiber like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the Airbus A350, which will formally enter service with its first customer, Qatar Airways, this week.

But forecasts suggest that oil prices, which have fallen by more than half over the past six months, to less than $50 a barrel, will be significantly lower this year than in recent years.

In a short-term energy outlook published in December, the Energy Information Administration in Washington slashed its 2015 outlook for the average price of Brent, the international benchmark for crude, to $68 per barrel, compared with an average of $94 in 2014 and $98 in 2013.

The main factors behind the drop in oil prices, economists say, are a sharp increase in production by non-OPEC producers like the United States and other new sources, and slowing economic growth in some parts of the world – in particular Asia, the fastest-growing region for air traffic.

Weaker growth, in addition to the influx of new planes and a flood of new low-cost players in the air travel market, has already translated into a glut of available airline seats across parts of Asia, driving down ticket prices there.

“You are beginning to see the effects of overcapacity on airline profitability,” said Nick Cunningham, an aerospace analyst at Agency Partners, a London brokerage firm. While the wave of airline mergers in the United States has made this trend less apparent there, he said, the tendency is growing more pronounced in the rest of the world.

“You can’t keep on adding capacity without bankrupting the industry,” Cunningham said.

Falling oil prices may exacerbate the overcapacity problem by tempting airlines to lower fares in a bid to grow market share, said Adam M. Pilarski, an economist and senior vice president at Avitas, an aviation consulting firm in Chantilly, Virginia. That not only reduces the cash that airlines have available to pay for new planes they have ordered, he said, but also increases the odds that financially shaky carriers will delay or cancel orders — or not survive long enough to take delivery of their jets.

“Manufacturers know that when they sell a plane today for delivery in nine years, by then the environment might change,” Pilarski said. “The airline may change its mind, or it might not even be in business anymore.”

Last month, Airbus filed a lawsuit against Skymark, a struggling Japanese budget carrier that canceled a $2 billion order for six A380 superjumbo passenger jets in July. Airbus’ claim, filed in a British court, seeks unspecified damages. The plane maker has not said whether it has found another buyer for the planes.

Such cancellations have so far been rare. But some analysts worry that a sustained drop in oil prices could prompt some airlines to defer delivery of new planes, as it reduces the incentive to replace older fuel-guzzlers, at least in the near term.

“Let’s say you are an airline and you had a plan to replace a certain number of planes this year because they are really expensive to operate,” Pilarski said. “Suddenly, these costs go down substantially, and you say, ‘Now I can wait another year or two.’”

He continued: “In the short term, I would expect to see a decline in retirements.”

Any prolonged slowdown in the overall replacement rate could put the brakes on Boeing and Airbus delivery rates, analysts said. A study published last year by Ascend, an aviation consultancy based in London, found that about 50 percent of all new jet deliveries over the past five years had been for replacement purposes rather than growth, up from a long-term average of 43 percent since 1990.

Despite the prospect of a sustained period of lower fuel prices, plane makers are showing few signs of concern.

“They may decide to hold on to older planes a little longer,” Darren Hulst, Boeing’s director for market analysis, said of airlines. “But they will still need new aircraft to continue to grow and take advantage of the tailwinds in the operating cost environment.”

Referring to the lower projected fuel usage of coming jets like the Boeing 737 MAX or the A320neo, he added: “20 percent savings is 20 percent, no matter where the oil price settles.”
Fabrice Brégier, the chief executive of Airbus, said on Tuesday that with future oil prices impossible to predict, airlines would be wise to keep buying aircraft with lower fuel consumption. But he also emphasized that Airbus could weather any decline in orders.

“We have almost 6,400 aircraft in the backlog,” Brégier said at the company’s headquarters in Toulouse, France. “So we could, in principle, even sustain no orders for three to four years.”

That is a view shared by some airline executives, who say their fleet investments will not be swayed by a short-term drop in oil prices. Over the past year, for example, Ryanair, one of Boeing’s largest and fastest-growing customers, placed orders for 275 of Boeing’s new 737s for delivery through 2024, with an option to buy 100 more.

“I don’t worry too much about the short-term fluctuations in fuel,” Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, told analysts in November.

Although he conceded that lower fuel bills on its existing fleet of 300 planes had lessened the operating cost advantage of new planes “around the edges,” O’Leary emphasized that investing in a more fuel-efficient fleet now “is a huge unit cost advantage for us in five years’ time that nobody else will have.”

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