World’s longest flight heralds the decline of carrier hubs in aviation

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 on Friday. On Monday, Cathay agreed to buy 32 Airbus A321neo aircraft in an order worth $4.1-billion (U.S.) at list prices.

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 per cent 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 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, Australia to 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, Spain, 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.

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 travellers, 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.

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 per cent 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.

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