(Bloomberg Opinion) — Europe’s airlines aren’t all made equal. German flag carrier Deutsche Lufthansa AG will receive a 9 billion-euro ($10 billion) bailout and it was obliged to offer only limited concessions to Brussels in return. Meanwhile, low-cost Hungarian rival Wizz Air Holdings Plc has benefited from only limited state support. Goliath gets the goodies, and David the gruel.
But anyone paying attention to these two companies’ earnings presentations this week will have concluded that Wizz is much better placed to profit as Covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted. It sounded pretty upbeat about demand and wants to expand its network, as the lumbering debt-laden Lufthansa prepares to shrink. Wizz is one of the few airlines whose shares have risen over the past year.
Lufthansa’s core network airlines derive about half of their revenues from business travel, which won’t recover quickly — lots of companies have banned employees from flying. At Wizz, only 7% of customers fly for business and two-thirds are traveling to visit friends and family or work overseas. Those trips didn’t happen while countries were in lockdown, and people are itching to see their loved ones again.
Wizz is fortunate that its core central and eastern European markets suffered less severe coronavirus outbreaks than places like the U.K., Spain and Italy. It also has a relatively young customer base: The average Wizz passenger is a sprightly 36 years old. Three-quarters of Lufthansa’s passengers are over 40. While airlines say mask wearing and other hygiene measures will make flying safe for everyone, the young might be willing to risk boarding a plane sooner — they’re less likely to get the worst Covid-19 infections and die. (Millennials aren’t just keen to fly, they’re investing their cash in airlines too.)
Happily for Airbus SE, the aircraft manufacturer, Wizz still plans to take delivery of the planes it has ordered and it claims airports are begging it to add routes. It aims to operate about 60% of its planned flights over the busy summer quarter and as much as 80% during the autumn and winter.
As with Ireland’s Ryanair Holdings Plc, Wizz’s low costs should help it offer cheap fares to stimulate demand, and it hopes to attract customers with new bases in Milan and Abu Dhabi. Having been quick to cut about a fifth of its staff, Wizz is now consuming less than 100 million euros of cash a month.
By contrast, Lufthansa expects to have restored only about 40% of capacity by the autumn. Demand should recover by 2023, but even then it expects 100 of its 760-strong fleet will be surplus. The heavy restructuring required to restore profitability mostly lies ahead still. In the meantime, the German group is burning through about 800 million euros a month of cash, excluding a 2.5 billion-euro ticket refund liability. Without a bailout, Lufthansa would be sunk and it must now devote all of its energies to paying down debt.
Naturally, this bifurcation of Europe’s airlines hasn’t gone unnoticed by investors. Wizz’s stock has rallied more than 80% from a March low and it’s higher than it was a year ago. Lufthansa’s shares are deeply negative over the same period. While a big bailout is nice, a handout doesn’t guarantee you a competitive business model.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.
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