Cathay Pacific’s new livery signifies fresh direction

  • Forex impacted first-half yield by 3%
  • Aspire Aviation finds 87.5% correlation between CX pax yield & jet fuel prices
  • CX would have achieved 11.34% net profit margin without hedging losses
  • Australia operation desperately needs A350-900 up-gauging after 98% L/F
  • Transpacific freighter weekly schedule upped from 35 to 42
  • China-US flights comprise 70.3% China-originated passengers, up from 65%
  • Cathay to unveil new aircraft livery on 777-300ER 1st Nov
  • 777-9X too late to provide a relief for Cathay

On the face of it, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific’s 2015 first-half net profit of HK$1.97 billion (US$254 million) was disappointing viewed from every lens, despite being 468.3% higher than prior-year period’s figure of HK$347 million. Not only did the headline figure miss the Wall Street consensus of a HK$2.22 billion result, the passenger yield also plummeted by 9.31%, owing to a triple whammy of considerably reduced fuel surcharge, foreign exchange impact and more connecting 6th freedom traffic. Coupled with a 1.4% Chinese yuan devaluation on August 11th, these precipitated the longest losing streak on the airline’s stock in 14 years.

Yet Cathay Pacific’s next chapter is not about gloom and doom. On the contrary, it is about leveraging Hong Kong’s superior geographic location at the doorstep of China to add new long-haul destinations, tapping into the doubling of outbound Chinese travellers to 200 million by 2020. While it is true that Chinese carriers are expanding internationally aggressively, including a 140% increase in the number of weekly seats to the US since 2010, Cathay Pacific is throwing down the gauntlet to competition and adapting to the new normal.

As the oneworld member is widely anticipated to unveil a new aircraft livery on November 1st, Aspire Aviation investigates its fresh direction.

Image Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

Image Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

One-off re-basing of yield & fuel hedging
Fingers were quick to point at the HK$3.74 billion (US$482 million) fuel hedging loss, which drastically negated the 35.47% saving in gross fuel cost to only a 12.21% net fuel cost reduction worth HK$2.31 billion. Had there not been such a loss, some observers say, Cathay would have posted a HK$5.715 billion first-half net profit and a net margin of 11.34%, instead of just 3.9% on a 0.89% lower operating revenue at HK$50.39 billion.

This, alongside others’ hedging losses, raises the question at large of the merits of fuel hedging itself and the moral hazard that comes with it.

Sceptics say this especially puts carriers that hedge at a distinct cost disadvantage against those which do not, yet have to match declining fares as a result of competitive pressure. But the inherent highly cyclical nature of the airline business makes the visibility of future cost base one of hedging’s most important benefits, if not the most. This essentially amounts to an inter-temporal “cost smoothing” that makes capacity decisions less susceptible to the whim of fuel prices. For a growing carrier such as Cathay, this ensures and protects the continuity of its network expansion strategy without the state support enjoyed by its Chinese counterparts.

In fact, in a sample of 7 Asia/Pacific carriers, Cathay Pacific is not fairing poorly amongst those that hedge. Besides the two outliers Air China and China Eastern, which enjoyed a close to US$800 million and US$700 million reduction in their respective net fuel costs and do not hedge, Cathay managed to save almost US$300 million, after Qantas’s US$400 million saving in the January-June period. Its arch-rival Singapore Airlines, which hedged 44.4% of its FY2015/16 second-half jet fuel needs at US$94 per barrel, only managed to save as much as 50% of Cathay’s at US$163 million in the same period. ANA, on the other hand, only saved US$100 million.

The second indicator, measuring the percentage of net fuel expenditure being saved on the prior corresponding period’s bill, adjusts for the size of the airline and any foreign exchange effect. One such standout is Japan Airlines (JAL), which saved 17.44% in the first 6 months of this year yet the size of saving is being partially offset by the depreciating Japanese yen.

All told, a 2.51% drop in operating expenses from HK$49.26 billion in 2014 first-half to HK$48.03 billion in 2015 first-half, combined with a largely steady revenue stream, led to a 49.87% surge in operating profit from HK$1.58 billion to HK$2.36 billion. Such sensitivity underlines the need for fuel cost smoothing, of which Cathay slightly bolstered its 2018 hedging position from 37% to 42% at US$81 per barrel at Brent prices and extended it to 15% at US$75 per barrel in 2019.

Another unintended consequence of the plunge in fuel prices is the passenger yield, inclusive of fuel surcharges, has suffered from a one-off re-basing. While it has often been noted that jet fuel prices and passenger yield move in tandem, since fuel surcharge constitutes an important component, little research has been done on the extent to which this is so. Using company filings and the traffic share to discern Cathay’s fiscal second-half passenger yield since 2009, Aspire Aviation has found a 0.875 correlation coefficient between its passenger yield and US Gulf Coast jet kerosene forward prices. While Cathay relies on Brent contracts to hedge due to its liquidity, this finding is nevertheless significant and explains that such a sudden decline has little to do with its management’s strategy, irrespective on the position taken on fuel hedging.

When the dust settles, it is the unit margin that counts and so far, Cathay’s all-in unit cost, in cost per available tonnage kilometre (ATK), has matched the drop in passenger yield, from HK$3.57 per ATK in 2014 first-half to HK$3.24 per ATK in 2015 first-half. This implies that Cathay’s unit profitability inclusive of fuel is more or less stable. A more meaningful measure is the unit cost excluding fuel, which showed a solid progress of a 3.6% reduction from HK$2.20 per ATK to HK$2.12 per ATK in the same period, indicating an improved ex-fuel unit profitability.

2015 H1 net fuel saving

CX pax yield

Chinese outbound travel story still intact
Intriguingly, one of the purported threats facing Cathay Pacific – a Chinese economic slowdown, appears to have little supporting anecdotal evidence. As The Economist rightly points out, even a 5% growth this year in China would grow the size of the world economic pie more than a 14% growth in 2007 would have; and the stock market capitalisation as a percentage of the economy, a key indicator of financial depth, stands at just 33.3%, implying any volatility would be contained. Ironically, a rebalance away from manufacturing to consumption, would boost the propensity to travel, not dampen it.

That said, another threat – the aggressive expansion of Chinese airlines, is more realistic. In the China-US market, on which Cathay supplied 26.9% of its total system capacity to North America, the Chinese airlines have grown its number of weekly seats by 140% between April 2010 and April 2015, whereas US carriers only added 80% of weekly seats. OAG now predicts Chinese carriers will outgrow their US counterparts as soon as 2022. A case in point is China Eastern’s proposed doubling on its Shanghai Pudong-New York John F. Kennedy route from a daily service to a double-daily one beginning December 12th. United Airlines, on the other hand, is launching a thrice-weekly seasonal Boeing 787 service between San Francisco and Xi’an. In Europe, where Cathay allocates 16.7% of system-wide capacity, Air China is launching the Chengdu-Paris route this December.

The 140% and 80% growth over a span of five years amounts to a CAGR of 19.14% and 12.47%, respectively; compared to an annual increase of 17.5% in the number of Chinese visitors to 2020 predicted by the US Department of Commerce as well as an annual transpacific passenger traffic growth of 4.4% in Boeing’s latest Current Market Outlook over the next 20 years. A combination of these indicators mean capacity growth is ahead of demand growth, thus putting downward pressure on yields.

Overall, analysts are quite bearish on Cathay’s outlook, with Credit Suisse reckoning Chinese carriers now operate 40% more flights to Europe and 14% more to the US. Bloomberg‘s compilation of analysts’ revenue estimates shows the Hong Kong-based carrier’s 12% growth to 2017 lagging Air China’s 81%; China Southern’s and China Eastern’s 31% and 32% respective growth.

Yet this tale misses a few points.

Firstly, Cathay Pacific’s North American operation is robust and a franchise capturing feed traffic from a myriad of regions at an origin and destinations (O&D) standpoint. For 2015 January-September, Cathay flew 25.4 billion revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) on 28.6 billion available seat kilometres (ASKs), at an 88.9% load factor. This is achieved despite increasing the frequency on its San Francisco route from 14 weekly to 17 weekly. Its Newark route performance improved considerably in the same timeframe. In the week ending October 10, the US routes group enjoyed a 9% revenue efficiency or unit revenue improvement.

Despite the hyperbole surrounding ultra long-haul flights spurred by Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) decision to relaunch Newark and Los Angeles services with 7 Airbus A350-900ULRs capable of a 8,700nm (nautical miles) range, including those reports calling such developments as the beginning of the death for hubs whilst clearly ignoring the fact that only 0.4% of the world’s flights are longer than 8,000nm (“Making sense of ultra long-haul flights“, 8th Oct, 15); Cathay Pacific is likely to remain unmatched in frequency and the number of ports served in providing one-stop Southeast Asia-US service than either SIA or Thai Airways.

Image Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

Image Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

For one, Cathay flies 4 times daily to New York John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport, Los Angeles and 17 weekly to San Francisco. Chicago, Boston and Newark are also served on an once-daily basis before ad-hoc cancellations. Singapore Airlines’ A350-900 ULR operation with 7 aircraft, on the other hand, means a daily service to only 3 destinations are possible with 1 as spare. Assuming a 15,000km stage length on 3 ultra long-haul routes and a 170-seat configuration, this would add roughly 459 million ASKs per month to SIA’s North American network. In comparison, Cathay supplies around 3.18 billion ASKs every month to North America. At press time, SIA is reportedly considering deploying a pair of A350-900 ULR to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

With such a high load factor, it can afford to choose to carry comparatively higher yield traffic in search of an optimal composition of O&D demand, at least to some degree. Optimising O&D composition via traffic substitution is pivotal especially given the price-elastic, seasonal nature of the China-US air transport market, giving rise to issues such as directional imbalance.

This is shown in the China-US air traffic composition data in the Aspire Aviation database. By breaking down itineraries by origin of the point of sale (POS) in the China-US air travel market, useful insights could be discerned. One is the variance of the passenger numbers originating from China is very close to twice that of those originating from the United States. While Chinese passengers are taking up an increasing percentage of the total booking, from 65% in 2014 to 70.3% in the January-August period this year, it could be argued that the Chinese traffic is predominantly leisure with significant seasonal variation. This is particularly acute for the 2 months immediately after Chinese New Year. In February 2014 and March 2014, the number of Chinese passengers was just 60,649 and 97,420, respectively, against an average monthly figure of 136,121 for the whole year. For March 2015 and April 2015, it totalled only 140,374 and 147,887, respectively, against the year-to-date monthly average of 186,417.

In fact, Cathay noted in an internal message to employees that the outbound load factor (L/F) of 86% from China immediately after the Golden Week in the first week of October, was much higher than the mid-50s L/F from Hong Kong to China. Traffic substitution using 6th freedom traffic is essential to optimise load and yield during these periods of time.

Furthermore, Cathay is not throwing in the towels without putting up a fight. This means accepting more 6th freedom traffic backed by a series of destination launches: 4 times weekly to Düsseldorf since 1st September; the same to Madrid, Spain beginning 2 June 2016 onboard a 3-class Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. Other reports have suggested Copenhagen, Denmark; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Seattle are to follow. Consequently, Cathay is ending its codeshare with Qatar Airways beginning 15th February 2016 whilst simultaneously suspending its underperforming Doha route.

But with Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) hitting full capacity in 2016 and running out of peak-time slots, Cathay’s network expansion strategy will be stifled unless the government’s Schedule Co-ordination Office makes available more take-off/landing slots. A quick look into the government’s slot availability charts in S15 and W15 schedules reveals almost a full utilisation of existing slots, yet the number of plane movements between 00:00 and 08:00 totals fewer than 20 an hour on average.

A theoretical 2am departure time from Hong Kong would be ideal for the Copenhagen and Tel Aviv services, arriving into the Danish capital at around 7:30am-8am and the Israeli capital at 9am, taking into account the flight time and time zone difference.

China-US origin of air traffic

Staying premium a core pillar of strategy
Unfortunately, an alternative means to circumvent the slots constraint: adding more seats to each aircraft, an approach already adopted by Hong Kong Express on its upcoming 188-seat A320neo and 230-seat A321ceo, would at the very least dilute the renowned Cathay Pacific experience.

A potential relief with the 777-9X is arriving too late in 2021 to make any difference. Unlike a 10-abreast 777-300ER which would feature an agonising 17-inch wide economy class seats, the 777-9X’s 234-inch cabin width, with thirteen 2-inch wide armrests and two 17-inch wide aisles, would make it possible to have 17.4 inches wide economy seats in a 3-4-3 configuration. Boeing has been contending that new seat designs make 18-inch wide economy feasible, however. But even at 9-abreast, the 777-9X would bring much-needed incremental growth capacity for Cathay.

Growing while staying premium is crucial since it acts as a tool for stabilising yield in light of intensifying competition, alongside traffic substitution as proposed above.

In this regard, Cathay has been aggressively upgrading the lounge experience designed by London-based Studioilse, with cherry wood walls, limestone floor and warm lights creating a sense of well-being, as an integral part of the “Life Well Travelled” campaign. This is led by its flagship lounge, The Pier, open to First Class passengers, Diamond Marco Polo Club members and emerald oneworld members, where complimentary foot massage is offered. The “Retreat” area also features 8 Day Suites equipped with a daybed, reading light, a mirror, as well as 14 shower suites. A bold, yet very refreshing new feature at The Pier is the bespoke fragrance of a lavender, bamboo, green tea, jasmine blend. Other new lounges are now open at Bangkok, Manila and Tokyo Haneda.

Moreover, the new Marco Polo Club earning structure, moving from a distance-based to points-based accrual, will make its highest-valued fliers able to reach their tier status faster and easier while providing additional benefits such as membership holiday over lifestyle change for Silver members or above; 4 bookable upgrades on regional sectors for Gold and Diamond members upon reaching 1,000 and 1,600 points, respectively; and one Gold companion card for Diamond members when they reach 1,800 points. Mid-tier benefits are also added such as 1 lounge pass at 200 points for Green, 2 passes for travel companions at 450 points for Silver, 2 passes for travel companions and redemption group members for Gold at 800 points, in addition to 2 First Class lounge passes at 1,400 points for Diamond members.

This is evidenced by the lower number of Business Class trips needed to reach each tier: from 2 New York trips required to 1.5 for Silver; 4 to 3 for Gold; and 6 to 5 for Diamond. In stark contrast, the number of economy trips to London needed to reach Diamond almost doubled to 18 from 10, clearly underlining the recognition of the values contributed by the biggest spenders.

This bodes well for Cathay whose clientele predominantly consists of business travellers and premium leisure travellers. As business travel in China grew from just US$32 billion in 2000 to US$262 billion in 2014, GBTA figures showed, and is slated to double to US$500 billion by 2025, according to Amadeus; Cathay will have a profitable share of the growing pie in this segment in spite of mounting competition.

Image Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

Image Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

A key development coming up fast is the arrival of its first 280-seat A350-900 next February, featuring 38 New Business Class FB2+, 28 New Premium Economy and 214 New Long-haul Economy seats in addition to sporting a new corporate livery. The New Business Class seat design will incorporate a dimmable reading light and customisation by Porsche. The Panasonic eX3 inflight entertainment system (IFE) will have full-swipe capability similar to that seen on Qatar Airways’ and Finnair’s A350s.

In order to support Cathay’s strategy of rebalancing towards more 6th freedom traffic, whether more A350-900s are needed than the existing 22 examples on order is a meaningful question, primarily owing to its tremendously successful Australian operation.

Its Australian operation has consistently stayed at the top of Aspire Aviation‘s Australian international tracker at around 89% and during the Golden Week, it posted a 98% load factor. It is now adding a 5th weekly flight to Adelaide beginning 2nd December, providing a 25% boost in capacity on the route. While a 2nd 777-300ER flight to Sydney undoubtedly helps alleviate the demand spill, the A350 is uniquely suitable for replacing the 13 251-seat reconfigured A330-300s, dubbed “33K”, with a 12.04% bigger Economy cabin.

This means that route groups are already clamouring for the 22 A350-900s, with the inaugural long-haul A350 service to Auckland in May taking up 2 aircraft, following regional familiarisation to Manila, Taipei, Singapore, Osaka Kansai, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City (“Exclusive: Cathay Pacific plans May 2016 long-haul debut of A350“, 26th Jun, 15). Assuming 6 of the 13 long-haul A330-300s are replaced, this will already have taken up 8 A350-900s inclusive of the daily Auckland service, leaving 14 aircraft destined for the rationalisation of European network which currently takes precedence, or 7 destinations in both directions.

Further factoring in launches of new destinations such as Copenhagen and Seattle, as well as extra frequency opportunities such as making Düsseldorf or Manchester more than 4 times weekly with the smaller A350, it is very easy to see why the A350-900 is in high demand within Cathay. A potential workaround is to deploy the displaced 3-class 777-300ERs from Europe onto the Sydney and Melbourne routes, albeit the oneworld carrier is already studying the deployment of A350-900s to Australia in late-2016.

At the same time, Cathay Pacific’s cargo operation is facing an even more daunting task than its passenger business, in adapting to the swings coinciding the timing of technology product launches. This saw Cathay boosting frequencies on transpacific dedicated freighter flights from 35 to 42 per week and to India from 8 to 11, as well as bringing back a grounded 747-400 BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter), B-HKX, to active service till its lease return in 2018. Together with its 13th 747-8F delivery in 2016, these aircraft will partially soften the impact of 4 -400F sales to Boeing have on capacity.

In conclusion, no one has ever professed that adapting to changes in business is easy, especially in the fast-paced airline industry. But those that fly high and succeed always recognise their fresh direction early on, while navigating through transient altitudes with a laser focus on strengthening its core competency. As its new livery signifies, Cathay Pacific is chartering a new course.

Image Courtesy of Reuters

Image Courtesy of Reuters

For more information on Aspire Aviation‘s data research cited in this analysis, Enquire now

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  1. For cathay pacific the best plane for growth is the 747-8 because it combines 371 pax (9F,58J,40Y+,264Y). This can prove very useful in the australian us and european market where the can add capacity while offering the same frequenciesl Also can accomodate a 10 abreast 18 inch wide because of the wider cross section. Also it can accomodate similar cargo capacity with the 777-300ER (40vs44 LD3) and has the range to go from Hong kong to new york with full passenger and cargo.

    1. i will be so happy to fly with cx if they will passengers with the 747-8. but seems they never have the plan to purchase any 747-8i. most other major asian airlines such as korean air, malaysin are all flying with a380. korean is flying both 747-8i and 380. but cx, being the best airlines in asia is kind of backward. they know 777 will do the same job at a lower fuel cost than 747-8i. real disappointed that cx used to fly with the jumbo. but now no more.

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  3. You seem to suggest a very low level of utilization for the A350s. For example, could not 3 aircraft provide a daily service to both Auckland and Manchester?

    The slot limitations in Hong Kong and Australia must be exercising the minds of CX management, especially following their incredibly successful performance in Australia. Surely it would be better to deploy the A350s to Europe and switch the replaced 777-300ERs to Australia. And why continue to link Cairns with Brisbane. Seats for sold Cairns are currently lost from those available for the Capital Cities. There must be a better way of serving Cairns: turnaround, or couple with one or more of Gold Coast, Darwin, Christchurch, Noumea (my favourite) or Port Moresby? If Cairns Brisbane was broken, Brisbane could be switched to an A350 or 777 and the spare 4 flights directed where they could generate most profit: extra weekly flights to Sydney and/or Melbourne, or double daily to Perth.


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