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Airlines Operating Profit Margins At 5-Year High

Wednesday, December 31, 2014
By A Business Reporter

Net profit, however, remains a distant destination for Air India, Jet and Spice Jet, and can be reached only after massive recapitalisation of Rs 350 billion, says Crisil Research

The last few months have seen tailwinds converging for India’s airlines – such as improvement in demand and therefore passenger load factors (PLFs), a largely stable rupee-dollar exchange rate, and most importantly, a steep fall in crude oil prices.

That would mean airlines are set to post their best operational performance in the last five years. At an  aggregate level, domestic carriers are expected to post an operating profit of Rs 81 billion in fiscal 2016 -- a complete U-turn from the Rs 15 billion loss posted in fiscal 2014. That translates into a spectacular 14 percentage point improvement in operating profit margin to around 11% in fiscal 2016.

Says Prasad Koparkar, Senior Director, Industry and Customised Research at Crisil: “We believe Indian airline companies will have one of the best business environments to operate in for a long time. Falling crude oil prices are a big positive. We expect about 25 per cent lower air turbine fuel prices for fiscal 2016 compared with fiscal 2014. More importantly, the fall is accompanied by an improving demand scenario, unlike fiscal 2010 when the players were unable to benefit significantly due to weak demand. We expect average passenger traffic growth to be about 10-12 per cent over the next couple of years.”

Given their current financial position and the improvement in PLF, airlines are likely to retain a large proportion of the benefit of lower crude prices. We could also see a 2-4 per cent increase in average realisations of airlines due to lower discounts being offered.

There’s more tailwind. Despite the entry of new players in the domestic market, competition is expected to be moderate. Existing airlines will go slow with domestic capacity additions due to the existing financial stress – in fact, Spice Jet has reduced its fleet size from 58 to 37 aircraft in the current year – while capacity addition by new entrants such as AirAsia and Vistara is expected to be gradual. Crisil believes PLFs will improve 300-400 basis points over the next couple of years.

But the flight path to net profit for the industry will be another story, especially for three carriers – Jet Airways, Air India and Spice Jet – which account for about 75% of the commercial aircraft fleet in India but over 93% of the sector’s debt of Rs 705 billion as of March 2014.

Says Rahul Prithiani, Director, Industry Research, Crisil Research: “We believe reducing losses will be a function of sorting out their capital structures. Today about 15% of their revenues are used to pay interest on debt. Till there is recapitalisation, the sector is unlikely to fly to a net profit at an aggregate level any time soon, though airlines with lower debt burden will turn profitable. To do so, interest expenses will have to halve. This, in turn, will mean a recapitalisation of around Rs 350 billion – primarily for the three carriers.”

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