Airlines

The Plane Truth

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The plain (plane?) truth is that commercuial airlines face a growing risk of cyber attacks. It is a frightening prospect. Airline safety has never been better from an aeronautics perspective. Yet more pilots are switching to iPads to access airport information including runway approaches. No more need for heavy paper flight maps. Cockpits are digital. Air to ground links open up vulnerabilities which could allow nefarious actors to place an aircraft at the wrong height, even if the display tells otherwise.

Think of how politicians or high value targets could be assassinated this way. Hackers could dump the fuel, while sending normal consumption data to the pilots. The black box would record all the conflicting data. Who needs to take a bomb onboard? It could be made to look like an accident. The cockpit voice recorder could be switched off by remote leaving the investigators precious little to go on. The Israeli National Cyber Directive views this as a growing risk.

After a week of visiting Israel’s best cyber companies, many staffed with former members and leaders of the elite military cyber unit 8200, solutions will be found but the game is growing riskier by the day. The lack of adequate protection is evident. The live hacks (from low level amateurs to state sponsored) we were witness to show just how naked so many businesses and government agencies are. The access points to hack are also exposed by the fact less than 1% of people have security on the hand held devices they make so many decisions from.

Qantas gets a taste of its own medicine

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Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has had a taste of his own medicine. Forever a boss ramming social activism at shareholders’ expense down the throats of passengers and staff, China is demanding that the airline remove “Taiwan” off its maps and the airline is likely to comply. True colours. While happy to pontificate to others, Joyce falls into line when real dictators bark orders. So much for the social justice of Taiwanese clientele. Sold down the river without a fight.

Why didn’t Qantas engage the Dept of Foreign Affairs to officially complain about such a ridiculous request? Even if it is odds on that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop would chicken out of such an opportunity, it is a precursor at how China is happy to bully its neighbors around even on trivial things such as in-flight magazines. Then again why wouldn’t the Chinese do this if they know how quickly and easy they can get compliance?

Tyrannies don’t do diplomacy. And too many democracies don’t defend it.

Mitsubishi Jet facing cancellations

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In 2009 CM argued (in a former life) that the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) was doomed to failure. It was answering a question that no one was asking. It seems that one of its customers, Eastern Airlines, which originally placed 40 orders found itself in receivership and its new owners do not seem to have any intention honouring Eastern’s order book. With a total order book (including options) of 447 MRJ aircraft, this would be a big dent. The plane has been beset with delays, material changes (it was to have carbon composite wings but it was deemed too expensive so switched back to alloys, increasing weight hence hurting economics) and the realities of the industry.

1. Demand – Both Boeing & Airbus publish detailed long range fleet forecasts every year. They are both in agreement that regional jets (50-100 seats) have little future forecasting they’ll represent a total of 3,000 orders in the next two decades. Around 8 years ago that forecast was 5,000.

2. Incumbents – Embraer and Bombardier dominate the regional jet market with some 80% share. Mitsubishi is looking to beat the door down in an industry where risk is not wanted. The Chinese are entering the market with the C-919 and the Russians with the Sukhoi Superjet. Mitsubishi wanted a 20% share. Of 5,000 units that’s 1000 units they banked on. At 3,000 that’s only 600 units their share target would hit. Boeing and Airbus are offering slightly smaller versions of the 737 and A320 series to cater to the market that would normally buy an RJ.

3. Pilots – well most pilots are certified to fly only one type of commercial plane at any given time so Mitsubishi needs to make sure it’s planes can have a supply of pilots to fly them and airlines need to take a bet on expansion. Same goes for ground crew training.

4. Existing fleet – if a regional airline wanted to expand, if they used Embraer ERJ-145s it is better to get more of the same as the economics are well understood. Also the pool of pilots is likely more accessible. Route gaps need to be filed as soon as possible so waiting 12 months to get an MRJ may not work for an airline.

5. Residual values – when airlines get into financial turbulence, sometimes fleets need to be trimmed. Having a ‘liquid’ fleet which is easily placed at another airline helps balance sheet (relatively speaking). The best example was the GE engined 747 (60% of market) which sold at a premium to the Rolls-Royce engined 747 (15% of  market) in the used market because very few airlines used RR. A fleet of MRJs may have few homes to go if airlines need to part with them quickly. Airlines know this so it is likely that Mitsubishi is providing such residual value guarantees to bank in the orders.

However if Mitsubishi keep losing orders then the airlines that intend to use them may switch away on the basis that the risks down the line are too great. Regional airline budgets are thin. Risks are avoided at all costs.

The MRJ will likely fall foul of the Mitsubishi YS-11 of the 1970s. Great concept but poor execution on the basis of not having a big enough grasp of the industry dynamics. JAL and ANA will likely he asked to do national service on top of the initial tour of duty to support the plane.

The ground’s the limit.

Alitalia – what is it with airlines and government support?

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Last Friday Italy extended a bridge loan for Alitalia, which is in special administration as plans for it are determined by the state.  Italy’s cabinet has  passed an emergency decree to add a further 300 million euros on top of the 600 million euros it made to the ailing airline in May. It has extended the deadline for the repayment of the loan from November 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018.

Airlines are perhaps one of the worst industries as an investment one can find. High fixed costs, variable fuel prices, volatile economic cycles and intense competition. Yet with all of this, governments see them as national icons. Losing the flag carrier is viewed by some governments as a sign of economic impotence.

Several years ago, Japan Airlines went through a state-funded rehabilitation where the airline was able to overhaul its fleet while its legitimately profitable and unassisted competitor All Nippon Airways (ANA) got nothing. In the reverse poor old ANA was effectively taxed as its biggest rival got free kick after free kick from the government.

Qantas reported a $235 million loss in the last half of 2013 and cut 5000 employees to save the company $2 billion. The government was pressured to give state aid to prop up the airline but then PM Tony Abbott said, “because we do not want to be in the business of subsidising any single enterprise. It’s not sustainable in the long term”. So Qantas didn’t get help in 2014 and the airline has since rebounded and recently compensated its CEO Alan Joyce over $24mn as the shares have stormed 6x since the lows of 3 years ago. Most of the 5,000 let go have been recovered.

Which begs the question of state subsidies. When looking at Australia once again the state spent billions over decades to defend a bloated, inefficient and uncompetitive car industry. Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors, Toyota, GM Holden and Ford all closed local auto making opps. When businesses are subsidized, the necessity to reform is numbed. There is less need to get fit and look for efficiencies to get off the taxpayers’ teat. So even after 20 years and $12 billion spent to protect 45,000 jobs, all makers packed up and went home. Would have been better to write each worker a $250,000 cheque.

Of course some will argue that protecting jobs is a noble quest. Nobody likes seeing people unemployed. However if the rest of the world can make the same products cheaper and more efficiently why should consumers and taxpayers be forced to prop up those who won’t make the effort to reform.

Alitalia is yet another one of these businesses that is in the citizen’s pockets. If KLM and Air France can pair, Lufthansa and Swissair can join why shouldn’t Etihad back the initial investment it made in Italy’s national carrier. Another Loan is Time-warped, All Logic Is Abandoned.