Analysis: Can business travel avoid a slowdown?
Europe is suffering as the prolonged eurozone crisis limps on and shows no sign of reaching a conclusion. Stanley Slaughter asks if there is any room for optimism?
This is not a good time for business travel or airlines in Europe. As some other regions or countries tentatively pull out of the global financial crisis, Europe still seems stuck in the mire. The eurozone crisis, which has devastated the economies of Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain, as well as damaging those of Germany, France and the UK, seems no nearer solution as the continent’s masters impose what seem like short-term measures. Summit follows summit, sticking plaster is duly applied and they then agree to meet for the next round of meetings a few weeks later.
While this has gone on, business, trade and confidence have all slumped. When these fall, so does travel with the result that European airlines, according to new figures released this month by IATA, are suffering more than most. IATA's Air Transport Market Analysis for May 2012, released earlier this month, revealed that air traffic growth fell globally during the month compared with April 2012.
While all regions enjoyed some level of growth compared with April, Europe’s was the second lowest increase at 4.1 per cent. (Only North America was lower at 1.5 per cent). But set this against the growth of other regions – Middle East 15.8 per cent, Africa 9.7 per cent, and Latin America 7.4 per cent - and it is apparent that Europe is struggling.
IATA makes no bones about the cause: “This indicates another solid month of performance, but when looking at the monthly trend, the signals are more in line with the persisting economic weakness throughout much of the continent. Since the start of 2012, the growth trend has flattened. In May, the month-on-month growth rate was positive, but only slightly, by 0.2 per cent.” In other words growth is almost as a standstill.
A similar story is told in another set of IATA figures, this time in its Airlines Financial Monitor, also released earlier this month. Airline profits for Q1 2012 were significantly down on profits for the same quarter in 2011 and figures for Europe were not only the worst but considerably so when compared to other regions. In fact the word “profit” cannot be applied to European carriers.
In the first quarter of 2011, airlines globally enjoyed an operating profit of $2.6 billion with only Europe's carriers returning negative figures of a $1.7 billion loss. For Q1 2012, airlines in North America had an operating profit of $2.15 billion, Asia Pacific $718 million, Latin America $266 million and the Middle East $270 million. European carriers returned a loss of $2.15 billion. This is shocking with Europe dangerously out of step with the rest of the world aviation industry.
What is worse is that the airline industry, having increased capacity since the beginning of the year, is beginning to find itself in the familiar position of having more seats than demand. As IATA commented: “Weakness in passenger load factors was evident in May compared to the previous month, as capacity growth exceeded softer demand.” The association added that airline fares have already fallen 2 per cent this year. With supply outstripping demand, this drop is likely to continue – more bad news for the Europeans.
As if to highlight the dilemma in which European carriers find themselves, figures released this week by the GTMC suggest use of airlines is slipping particularly for business travel agencies in the UK. While all BSP agents in the UK reported a fall of 11.63 per cent in the value of their air transactions in June compared with the same month last year, the fall for GTMC members was 12.9 per cent. Individual transactions – unique transaction points (UTPs) – fell by 9.4 per cent for all UK agents but by 12.2 per cent for GTMC members. Although it should be noted that June's numbers were affected by the two bank holidays for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
Two sparks of hope were that in the year to date, air sales were up 0.82 per cent for GTMC members compared to a decrease of 0.81 per cent when leisure travel agents’ sales were included. While the value of GTMC members’ transactions rose by 2.52 per cent compared to a drop of 0.4 per cent for all UK agents using BSP. These are however very small crumbs of comfort.
The trough that Europe seems to find itself in is also having repercussions further afield. A new report out this week by the GBTA, Outlook – United States, claims that the fiscal crisis in Europe will “will dramatically slow the growth of business travel in the United States” this year.
Michael McCormick, GBTA executive director and chief operating officer, said: “Earlier this year, we created a number of shock scenarios modelling the potential impact of the European debt crisis on business travel here in the United States.
“In our moderate shock scenario we predicted that a prolonged recession in Europe would result in a flattening of business travel spending in the US. Unfortunately, it now seems that this shock scenario is becoming a reality.”
Faced with this and other problems facing business and travel in the US, among them “low job growth, falling consumer confidence and retail sales, and slowing corporate profits” McCormick said there was growing evidence that US companies were “entering into a holding pattern as they wait for the economic environment to solidify.”
Hanging on while the storm blows over may not amount to much of a policy. But it may also be the best that Europe can hope for for the coming months, if not years.