33-Capacity Reduction to Raise Prices

Some analysts have estimated that the domestic airline industry needs to reduce its capacity by 20% in order to become profitable. This estimate sounds very high to me, as I’m sure it would to most of the flying public. If you miss a flight today, or if one should happen to be canceled on you, you are not necessarily going to get to your destination today. Airlines are flying with a high percentage of their seats filled.

But the airline industry seems to be taking this advice to heart. All of the legacy airlines have announced substantial capacity reductions to their current fleets. In addition, the legacy airlines have been shifting domestic capacity to their international routes, thereby reducing domestic capacity, over the last few years.

There is a broad belief that this reduction in capacity will enable the industry to raise prices. This is unlikely to be the case in this industry, as it has not been the case in other industries.

Over the last twenty years, we have analyzed many industries in overcapacity, like the current domestic airline industry. (See “The Real Reason Market Share Matters” in StrategyStreet.com/Tools/Perspectives) In several of those industries, the industry leaders reduced their capacity in order to support prices or get them to rise to more acceptable levels. In each case, this initiative failed.

Capacity reduction usually fails because lower cost competitors in the industry simply add capacity as the higher cost capacity withdraws. The industry leaders end up with lower market shares and the expanding followers end up with both higher market shares and better cost structures. These low-cost competitors become even more formidable opponents.

The same thing seems to be happening in the airline industry today. As the legacy carriers have reduced their domestic capacity over the last few years, the low-cost airlines have expanded to take their places. Already, Southwest Airlines has announced plans to continue growing its domestic route structure through 2009. Virgin America, a discount airline, also plans to take delivery of new aircraft over the next year. Sounds like the same old story playing out again.

Posted 7/3/08


The removal of capacity did little to help the large airlines. Industry prices continued to fall throughout 2008 and 2009. Industry returns were dismal and stayed that way for several years.  A leader in an industry cannot successfully remove capacity and raise prices unless it can control any potential new entrant. The airline industry could not control these new entrants and low prices continued pressuring the industry.

By 2019, the top four domestic air carriers (American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Delta and United Airlines controlled 65% of the total domestic market. Their market power was greater than this percentage because these carriers held even higher shares of their key hubs and spokes. In recent years, these four major airlines removed unprofitable flights, filled a higher percentage of seats on planes, and slowed capacity growth to command higher airfares. Airline capacity has grown at a slower pace than ticket prices. In addition, since 2008, the airlines have charged ancillary fees for services that were formerly free.  These four major carriers finally achieved significant pricing power in their markets.

The airline industry consolidated to four major players over nearly a 40 year period of pain-and-suffering. To see how industry Hostility ends go HERE.


THE SOURCES FOR STRATEGYSTREET.COM: For over 30 years we observed the evolution of more than 100 industries, many hostile.  We put their facts into frameworks applicable to all industries and found patterns.  Strategystreet.com describes the inductive results of these thousands of observations and their patterns.