Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Royal Jordanian, Uncertain Future

Royal Jordanian (RJA) is facing liquidation since its losses have exceeded 75% of its capital. For this reason, the airline has not issued its 2013 financial results or had its share holders general meeting yet. In reality, the government who is the major share holder will not allow its liquidation. It is a matter of national pride and to a certain extent national security. There are talks of restructuring and a government bail out, but this is a hot topic because of the economy and the deficit. It appears like a lot of political jockeying is going on.

The airline was listed in the Amman Stock Exchange in December 2007 and since then it had very mixed results. It sustained losses in 2008 (34.7 M USD), 2011 (81.6 M USD) and 2013 but had moderate profits in 2009 (40.3 M USD), 2010 (13.6 M USD) and 2012 (1.6 M USD).  

In all fairness to Royal Jordanian the geopolitical situation in MENA has not been very favorable and still is not; between fluctuating fuel prices, the Arab Spring, Libya and now ISIL, the airline had to indefinitely suspend lucrative routes like Damascus, Aleppo, Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata and now Mosul; Cairo, Baghdad and Erbil were suspended on and off for security considerations. RJA also suspended flights over Syria which added almost an hour to an hour forty five minutes to the Beirut flight without an appreciable increase to fares. However, RJA has just announced a code share agreement with Middle East Airlines to start in mid October 2014, allowing RJA to cancel two of its four daily flights. But the most interesting reason cited is the aggressive competition from the Gulf three (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways).

In an attempt to reduce its costs RJA inked code share agreements with Gulf Air, Oman Air and SriLankan to operate Amman to Bahrain, Muscat and Colombo  and has suspended or plan to suspend flights to what it terms as losing routes, like Delhi, Mumbai, Alexandria, Accra, Lagos, Brussels and Milan.

Not withstanding geopolitics, the airline did not react quickly enough. While canceling unprofitable routes is a good thing, overcapacity is not. It leaves part of the fleet idling while still incurring lease and loan payments. Rationalizing staff levels is not be the greatest option in a politically charged country with a very high unemployment rate. 

RJA has already returned 2 A321s and with the B787 deliveries it is planning to rationalize the fleet composition by the end of 2014 to include the following:
B787, 5 operating aircraft;
A340, completely phased out (4 aircraft) ;
A330, 2 operating aircraft down from 3;
A321, 2 operating aircraft down from 4;
A320, 6 operating aircraft down from 7;
A319, 4 operating aircraft, no change;
E195, 4 operating aircraft down from 5;
E175, 3 operating aircraft, and
A310F, 2 operating aircraft, no change.
A net change of 5 passenger aircraft all of them single aisle aircraft, but with a more fuel efficient and modern fleet.

In a nutshell, the airline board and management acted, just like in the old days, like a government entity. This has caused the share price to go down from a high of 4.09 JOD {5.76 US$} on 16 March 2008 to 0.38 JOD {0.53 US$} on 15 September 2014. RJA would have certainly benefited of the equivalent of a Chapter 11.

RJA needs to act in a more agile and proactive manner, after all that was the reason the airline was privatized. The plans for the fleet and route reductions were too late and too little. There is a need to come up with innovative solutions that increase revenue and not only reduce cost. After all, cost reduction is subject to the law of diminishing returns but with revenues, the sky is the limit. 

While RJA may have not lacked leadership, it requires a different kind of leadership. One that not only looks at fleet and routes but one that looks at the management structure and how management approaches risk assessment and especially mitigation. A management that looks at new opportunities for expansion amid the chaos. If this means replacing senior managers, then so be it.

Royal Jordanian has survived for 50 years among the geopolitical chaos; the dilemma today is how to survive and thrive in the same chaos as a publicly listed company. This is a totally different set of rules that RJ may not be yet equipped to handle.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Beyond Emirates' A350 Order Cancellation

This blog first appeared in Bangalore Aviation under the title of Analysis: Emirates Banks on 777X with A350 XWB Order Cancellation jointly authored by Devesh Agarwal and Oussama Salah

On June 11, 2014 Emirates and Airbus announced the cancellation of the A350 order 50 A350-900 and 20 A350-1000 as a result of a fleet requirements review. The order cancellation was downplayed by Airbus as "not good news commercially" but not "bad news financially". It must have been a disappointment to lose 9% of the A350XWB order book by one of the most prominent Airbus customers. Emirates deliveries would have started in 2019 giving Airbus ample time to recover. However, it sends the message that B777X can easily perform the missions of the A350XWB.

I am certain the fleet requirements review went beyond the A350 cancellation, Emirates has emphasized that the passenger growth forecast has not been changed which makes one wonder what the fleet composition will eventually be?

The cancellation has many advantages for Emirates:

  • Rationalizing the fleet back to two (2) types; A380s and B777s currently the fleet consists of  (A380/A340/A330 and B777);
  • Removing the financial and human resources burden of entry into service of a new fleet (maintenance facilities, simulators, parts, training and hiring etc..);
  • An improved cash flow due to reduced pre delivery payments; and
  • Less financing requirements in the tune of Sixteen (16) Billion USD.
The only disadvantage at this time, there is no aircraft to cover the 230 to 300 passengers requirement which is now covered by the A330/A340 and some of the B777-200, in other words their thinner routes. One can argue that with the newer standards of first and business seats, cubicles and apartments the passenger loads of the aircraft will automatically be reduced. 

Emirates wants an A380neo which Airbus is starting to look at, however the A330neo is still their priority. Emirates is an influential customer and very persistent, remember the B777X so eventually Airbus will develop the A380neo. In the meantime Emirates and Boeing are discussing the B747-8i which has slightly lower passenger load than the current A380 configuration but the same range capability and as the latest reports intimate a slightly better fuel consumption on a seat/mile basis. Whether Emirates will accept the B747-8i fuel efficiency argument and actually buy the B747-8i or it is only meant to pressure Airbus towards the A380neo, remains to be seen.

In any case, the Farnborough Air Show is just round the corner.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

ADAT, Moving Forward or ...

In early May 2014, Etihad Airways acquired or took over Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies (ADAT), formerly Gulf Aircraft Maintenance Company (GAMCO), from Mubadala except for the Engine Shop.

GAMCO was founded in 1987 as a partnership between the Government of Abu Dhabi and Gulf Air who owned a 40% stake, primarily to undertake the existing wide body and new technology aircraft (L1011, B767, A320, A330 and A340) fleets of Gulf Air. As Gulf Air's financial situation deteriorated in 1997, GAMCO expanded its third party business and aircraft maintenance capabilities beyond the Gulf Air requirements. As a result GAMCO expanded to become one of the top 15 MROs globally and number 1 in MENA (between Europe and Singapore) with more than seventy (70) customers ranging from North America through Europe and MENA all the way to the Far East. In early 2006, Gulf Air pulled its maintenance from GAMCO following the 2005 withdrawal of the Abu Dhabi Government from Gulf Air. The relationship between Gulf Air and GAMCO was at best very uneasy.

As a result the Abu Dhabi Government acquired Gulf Air's 40% share in GAMCO and turned it over to Mubadala, a government investment arm in the aerospace and technology sector. In 2007 Mubadala rebranded GAMCO as ADAT.

When Etihad was formed in 2003, GAMCO was entrusted with the total maintenance and support of Etihad's expanding fleet. Fast forward to the present; a decade later Etihad has withdrawn and brought inhouse a substantial amount of services leaving ADAT to perform airframe heavy maintenance and components/engines repair and overhaul activities.

Beyond the press releases and the great sentiments of moving forward there is an underlying desire for Etihad to take total control of its total maintenance activities for several reasons (punctuality, quality etc..) and to improve the synergies with its airline equity partners. The next step will be to bring in maintenance from Airberlin, Jet Airways, Air Serbia, Air Seychelles and who knows Alitalia in the future in order to reduce cost and safeguard its investment. As Etihad tightens the reins and demands more and more attention to its fleet and its partners fleets, other customers will shy away. The region has never been known for balanced relationship.

Whether this is really moving forward or a case of Deja Vu, only time will tell

Thursday, April 24, 2014

EX-IM Bank Again...

EX-IM Bank is again in the news; Delta, A4A and ALPA are adamant about defunding it because it stifles competition by providing export facilities to competing airlines especially the Gulf carriers. The fact that Korean, a SkyTeam partner of Delta or GOL obtained an EX-IM guaranteed bond financing to support its engine work at Delta TechOps is of no consequence. Delta's assertion is; EX-IM Bank allows carriers like Emirate, Qatar and Etihad cheaper financing therefore allowing them to offer cheaper fares which creates unfair competition. Hence the defunding campaign, regardless of the requirements of any other economic sector such as Aerospace,Nuclear energy, etc. It would have been better for Delta to lobby for tighter rules on guarantees for aircraft purchases.

EX-IM Bank and Boeing have maintained that defunding is akin to unilateral disarmament. Airlines will just buy from Airbus and utilize whatever the European credit agencies have to offer. Defunding will not change the level of competition, just the type of aircraft used.

Delta has been risk averse when it comes to buying new technology aircraft. Delta's CEO is on record for the "preference of proven technology". They feel that buying at the end of the development and production cycle allows them to purchase aircraft at lower prices. Others, including the Gulf carriers prefer to be launch customers with all the technology risks and possible delays this entails. Being a launch customer allows an airline a greater say in the aircraft design, aircraft mission requirements and most importantly a much lower price ever.

Delta's acquisition and/or lease of older aircraft like the MD80s and B717 provides them with lower asset costs, their use on short and low utilization sectors offsets the fuel price and when maintenance is due the aircraft is parted out or retired. The preference to refurbish older aircraft with the latest interior and cabin IFE and Wi-Fi in Delta's thinking provides an equal level of comfort to newer technology aircraft and most importantly better profitability. This maybe true in the short term but cabin noise levels, ability of the aircraft systems to support modern IFE and  new ATM requirements and overall reliability will eventually catch up.

To put the unfair competition of Gulf carriers in perspective, out of the 180 million international passengers that travel to and from the USA approximately 6 million (3.33%) hail from the Middle East of which 2.4 million (41%) are carried by US carriers and 3.6 million (59%) are carried by International carriers. There are seven carriers that operate non stop services to the USA; Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Saudia, Egypt Air, Royal Jordanian and Royal Air Maroc. Out of these, four are members of an alliance, but all of them code share with a US carrier for travel within the USA.
- American code shares with Etihad, Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian (the latter two are members of
- Saudia code shares with Delta (a SkyTeam alliance member);
- Egypt Air code shares with United (a Star alliance memeber); and
- Emirates, Etihad and Royal Air Maroc code share with Jet Blue.
They bring revenue to the cities they serve in terms of employment, tourist traffic, use of the airport facilities (dedicated lounges) and most importantly better connections to the rest of the world.

All these MENA carriers come from relatively small countries with little or no domestic travel and have always relied on transit traffic that caters to holiday traffic, visiting friends and relatives and yes to the immigrant communities in the USA. For some reason US carriers do not pay much attention to the rising numbers of immigrants from MENA, India, Pakistan and Asia. these groups constitute the bulk of the traffic carried by these carriers, especially the Gulf Carriers. They compete on service, advanced entertainment systems and passenger amenities, high technology aircraft with high fuel efficiency and ultra long flights (12 to 16 hours/sector) that lower the asset cost per flight hour and most importantly very few or no ancillary fees.

US carriers have gained profitability in the last few years by:
- exercising capacity control (a 2% growth at best) while the Middle East was expanding at double digit
   rates (10% to 15%);
- lowering their labor costs, sometimes at the expense of customer service on ground and in flight;
- utilizing older aircraft (it was not until the last three to five years that US carriers embarked on fleet
  renewals, Delta not as much, and cabin upgrades); and of course
- escalating ancillary fees.

Hardly the stuff of fierce competition.

The Gulf carriers will expand into the USA by virtue of the open skies regimes they have with the USA and their global presence. They will compete with Delta and others; whether they use Airbus or Boeing aircraft is not an issue for them.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Malaysian MH370

Malaysian MH370 disappeard on March 7, 2014 and the search continues and no one is the wiser. This will not be the first aircraft crash whose wreckage may not be found. In the meantime the relatives of the passengers suffer the uncertainty and lack of closure. Our prayers and thoughts are with them.

The Media and CNN in particular has made this into a 24 hours a day drama, with experts upon experts speculating on what may have been; not that other networks were any less guilty.

The aircraft made a turn and headed back and then it was lost from the radar and satellites. The whole incident/accident questions what a lot of us in aviation took for granted:
  • if an aircraft does not report to the next ATM center or disappears from the radar someone will raise an alarm; or
  • if an unidentified aircraft shows up on a radar screen, someone would try to raise the flight or scramble an aircraft to have a look see. But for someone to assume and do nothing on the premise that if an airliner turns back it must have an ATC clearance is ridiculous.
However, some of the theories brought forward to explain the disappearance of MH370 are literally out of this world. The sad part was, they were seriously discussed on TV and social media, and these include:
  • a black hole type disturbance in the atmosphere sucked the aircraft into space or another dimension;
  • the flight was hijacked by US and Israeli agents because it carried some ultra secret technology on its way to the Taliban or North Korea; 
  • there was mention of a cyber attack on the aircraft systems;
  • the plane was destroyed by a Texas company because it had four Chinese engineers holding semi conductor patents worth billions of dollars. The patents will revert to the company in case of their death; and/or
  • the pilot has gone suicidal because he had a failed love affair or was an Islamic zealot.
One good thing came out of this accident; countries were ready to cooperate to locate the aircraft, contributing resources from maritime surveillance aircraft, ships, satellites and underwater equipment capable of locating the pulses of the CVR and DFDR locators in a search effort that moved from one area to the other as investigators refined the flight path of the missing aircraft.   

When AF447 was lost in June 1, 2009 over the South Atlantic, it took two years to recover the DFDR and CVR and sadly we are facing the same problem. The calls to extend the battery lives of the DFDR/CVR came to nothing. There were even suggestions of floatable black boxes.

However, the solution must be a better aircraft tracking regime utilizing the available technology in               e-Enabling and connectivity in addition to the extended locators batteries operational life. A solution to switching off the ATC Transponders and ACARS in flight must be found.

As of today April 5, the Chinese news agency reported that one of its ships have detected a pulse at 37.5KHz which is the DFDR/CVR locator frequency and their pilots have photographed a debris field. 

We remain hopeful that this may be the successful end of the search.


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