Industrials

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

To see where an airline is heading, look at its order book.

The routes a carrier can fly and the markets it can serve are defined by the planes in its fleet. As a result, announcements this week from Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and Qantas Airways Ltd. are telling indicators of how the global aviation market is changing.

Qantas will push Airbus SE and Boeing Co. to develop long-range variants of their A350 and 777X aircraft capable of flying non-stop from Sydney to London and New York by 2022, the company said in announcing annual results Friday. On Monday, Cathay agreed to buy 32 Airbus A321neo aircraft in an order worth $4.1 billion at list prices.

Gaining Altitude
Qantas has dramatically outperformed Cathay Pacific over the past four years
Source: Bloomberg
Note: Normalized to date when Qantas-Emirates alliance started. April 4, 2013=100.

What connects a Qantas plane capable of spanning the earth to a Cathay one that can't even make it from Hong Kong to Sydney

The answer lies in the decline of the world's global aviation hubs, as Gadfly explained in a video earlier this year:

The shape of global aviation is largely driven by the capabilities of its longest-range aircraft. Since the introduction of the 747-400 in the late 1980s, that's meant that cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and London have played crucial roles connecting passengers beyond the range of a single flight. At Cathay's Chek Lap Kok base, about 30 percent of people board other flights.

That created a golden age for the likes of Cathay, which was able to use its strategic position to operate as a node on a global trunk network. For the likes of Australia's Qantas, which had to connect through other countries' hubs, life has been harder. For all that Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce touts the benefits of the carrier's 2013 alliance with Emirates, the deal was struck from a position of weakness rather than strength.

These new planes are changing the equation. Qantas is already taking bookings for a direct Perth-London route on Boeing's 787 that will skip over Emirates' hub in Dubai from next March. It can hardly wait to extend the concept to the larger cities on Australia's east coast.

The shift won't cause the alliance to fall apart. Passengers wanting to travel between, say, Adelaide and Barcelona will still find the easiest way is to catch a connecting flight via Dubai. Still, it will give Qantas a stronger hand than it had when rival carriers were the gatekeepers between Europe and Australia.

It Won't Cost the Earth
Regional and budget operations are taking up a growing share of available seat kilometers at Singapore Airlines
Source: Bloomberg, company reports, Gadfly calculations
Note: Tiger Airways and Scoot ASKs weren't consolidated with the group until 2015.

Where does that leave Cathay Pacific? As Gadfly has argued before, this new era could be deeply discomfiting for Asia's pre-eminent airlines of the hub era. Business-class travelers, who generate most of the profits, will increasingly migrate to the quickest routes between the world's financial capitals, leaving Cathay and Singapore Airlines Ltd.'s slick cabins in the service of low-margin economy class passengers. Cathay's current financial distress risks being a harbinger of future conditions.

One way out of this is to stop fighting the mainland Chinese and Gulf carriers on unprofitable long-haul routes and focus on regional flights instead where there's more of a captive market. That's the strategy being employed by Singapore Air, which has moved more capacity to its budget carriers and shorter-haul SilkAir unit.

More Leg Room
Cathay's capacity on short-haul routes will increase sharply with its new A321 fleet
Source: Company reports and websites, Seatguru.com, Gadfly calculations
Note: Shows notional capacity if all the fleet is in use. Actual capacity depends upon seating configurations -- we've assumed that A320s are in a 150-seat set-up and A321s have 185 seats.

This week's fleet announcement suggests that, despite CEO Rupert Hogg's open skepticism about setting up a discount airline, Cathay is finally giving up on the romance of long-haul travel. In place of its current fleet of 15 A320s and eight A321s on its Dragon Air short-haul unit, the new order will give it 32 of the new variant A321s -- enough to increase capacity on such routes by close to 60 percent at a stroke.

Both carriers, in their different ways, have done well out of the current era -- but both need to adapt if they're to survive in the one that's dawning. That may mean flying further, or shorter. The middle route, though, is fast becoming a dead end.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net