32-Pricing in airline industry – Part 2
How and where you raise prices is an important question. The legacy airlines are doing it badly.
The legacy airlines are nickel and diming customers by charging fees for checked bags, and so forth. The reaction of passengers is to view these changes as petty nuisances. Many will try to avoid them by simply bringing even more chattel on board.
This additional demand for overhead space makes travel even more uncomfortable for the Heart of the Market business traveler. (See the Perspective “Cutting the Right Cost” in StrategyStreet.com/Tools/Perspectives) These valuable customers will have to put up with more crowded overhead bins and delays as people drag even more luggage on to the airplane. The major effect of these new service charges is to disappoint the industry’s customers.
Normally, a company “unbundles” its product and adds additional service charges on previously “bundled” services in order to make small improvements in margins. These changes would usually improve margins by less than 10%. The airline industry needs more than that…a whole lot more. Passengers know a big price jump is inevitable. Recent customer surveys bear this out. The legacy carriers should take advantage of this customer expectation and raise prices to levels that will allow solvency, at a minimum. If that doesn’t work and it knocks out too many leisure travelers, how big is the loss?
The removal of capacity did little to help the large airlines. Industry prices continued to fall throughout 2008 and 2009. Industry returns were dismal.
In 2021, airline pricing continued its inexorable downward trend. In constant 2021 prices the average airline fare, starting in 1995 at $515 has fallen to $286 in 2021. A decline of 44%. Until Covid struck, the industry had enjoyed several years of profits. Profit margins average about 13.3% across US domestic routes. Profit margins range between 2.7% and 42.9% across routes. Profit margins increase with the market share of the largest airline serving the route.
Because virtually all airlines copied them, ancillary fees have been successful in the airline industry. These ancillary fees cover services like checking a bag, providing extra legroom or changing a reservation. In the early 2010s, these fees kept the entire industry in the black. More than half of the flying public dislike these fees, but the industry gives them little in the way of alternatives. In addition, a large portion of airline ancillary fees comes from the sale of frequent flyer miles to their marketing partners. In 2019, the 5 largest US airlines gained about $29 billion in ancillary revenue.
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.
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