Headed for Mergers? Carriers Form World's Biggest Alliance of Low-Cost Airlines

Asian Low-Fare Airlines Join Forces
  • New Value Alliance features eight low-cost carriers in Asia
  • Union could be first step toward mergers in saturated market

The creation of the world’s biggest alliance of low-cost airlines may signal that some of Asia’s struggling budget carriers are headed for the altar.

The Value Alliance, announced Monday, stretches from Japan to Australia and includes Singapore Airlines Ltd.’s Scoot and Nok Airlines Pcl in Thailand. The aim is to sell tickets, or even baggage allowance and in-flight meals across the group’s eight airlines in a single transaction.

After years of cut-throat competition and financial losses, the coalition may be moving away from the typical budget model, which shuns the cost of international alliances and frequent-flier freebies. The union -- unlike cut-rate competition in Europe and the U.S. -- could be a step toward mergers in Asia, where low-cost carriers have flooded the world’s fastest-growing travel market with plane orders, an analyst said.

“Eventually, at least in Asia Pacific, we’re going to see some of that,” Richard Laig, Manila-based partner for the Asia Pacific region at consultancy Mango Aviation Partners Ltd. “A lot of those markets are getting so saturated.”

About a dozen low-cost airlines started operating in the Asia Pacific region over the past decade, ordering hundreds of aircraft from Airbus Group SE and Boeing Co. Budget carriers have racked up a 54 percent market share in Southeast Asia, compared with 26 percent globally, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Airbus, Boeing Count on China as Southeast Asia Slows Down

AirAsia Missing

The alliance includes Vanilla Air, a unit of Japan’s ANA Holdings Inc., Tiger Airways Australia, controlled by Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd., Cebu Pacific Air in the Philippines and South Korea’s Jeju Air. Scoot’s Chief Executive Officer Campbell Wilson told reporters in Singapore Monday that the alliance is open to any airline that wishes to join.

Missing from the group are the region’s best-known and biggest low-cost carriers, AirAsia Bhd. and Jetstar, which is owned by Qantas Airways Ltd. AirAsia Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes and media offices of Jetstar and Lion Air in Indonesia didn’t immediately respond to e-mails seeking comment. IndiGo, India’s No. 1 carrier, is not part of the group as well. Its operator InterGlobe Aviation Ltd. declined to comment.

Incremental Gain

“It is obviously an attempt by smaller low-cost carriers to respond to larger airlines,” said Brendan Sobie, a Singapore-based analyst at CAPA Centre for Aviation. “Even if the incremental gain is relatively small initially, it’s still a good ploy to just get together and try to improve your distribution and brand awareness, and get some incremental traffic.”

It will be tough for the new union to generate extra revenue for its members because low-cost carriers -- which often shuttle the same plane between two cities several times a day -- find it hard to match arrival and departure times, said Laig at Mango Aviation.

“They don’t really have the ability to coordinate schedules,” he said. “We’re skeptical as to specific things they can offer.”

Rule Hurdles

Still, mergers won’t be easy. Most countries have rules against overseas investors buying shares in domestic airlines. In Japan, it’s 33 percent maximum stake, and in Australia 49 percent. Also, in Asia, several countries have state-owned full-service flag carriers as well.

The possibility of a consolidation in Asia has some parallels in Europe, where capacity of low-fare airlines --led by market leaders and profitable Ryanair Holdings Plc and EasyJet Plc.-- is set to rise 4 times faster than the continent’s gross domestic product. They are competing in a market where full-service European carriers have merged into three large groups led by Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Air France-KLM Group and British Airways, whose owner is IAG SA.

In the U.S., a series of mergers over the past 15 years has left the industry dominated by American Airlines Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc. and discounter Southwest Airlines Co. Growing ultra-low-cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines Inc. have expanded into markets dominated by larger rivals, touching off price wars during the past year that have affected most of the industry.

According to Value Alliance, its members offer flights to more than 160 destinations with a fleet of 176 aircraft. AirAsia and AirAsia X Bhd have a combined fleet of 199 aircraft, while IndiGo has 108 planes.

Limited Scope

In a joint press conference in Singapore Monday, Scoot’s CEO Wilson said the Value Alliance is limited in scope by design. It also means that the alliance won’t need any regulatory permits to proceed.

“We’re doing this for our reasons,” he said. “The fact that there are no other companies here is self-explanatory.”

The accord could be successful if travelers can hop from one member to the next as they fly around Asia, said David Miles, the head of advisory services at Ambidji Group, a Melbourne-based aviation consultancy. But that cooperation could rack up costs, eating into any benefit, he said.

The alliance partly reflects the challenge of making money as a low-cost carrier in one of the world’s most competitive markets, Miles said.

“With so many competitors in the market, some are going to suffer,” he said. “A merger usually comes when one or more parties are struggling and they realize they need help.”

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