Why Do Airlines Always Lose Money? Hint: It’s Not Due to Taxes or Fuel Costs

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It’s been more than 30 years since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978. Since then it’s lost nearly $60 billion on U.S. operations, though most of the losses have come since 9/11. The airlines were already in trouble before the attacks happened. The plunge in demand and resulting liquidity crisis led to billions in government cash and loan guarantees– the first true bailout of the 21st century, and certainly a sign of things to come in the next decade.

In a paper published last month, (Abstract here; full version here) Berkeley economist and overall airline guru Severin Borenstein examines some of the most common explanations for the airline industry’s dismal performance, and why experts and deregulation advocates failed so badly to predict what would happen after deregulation 30 years ago. A few key stats:

  • Domestic passenger airline operations lost $10 billion from 1979 to 1989, made profits of $5 billion in the 1990s and lost $54 billion from 2000 to 2009. To put these numbers in context, at the end of 2009, the entire book value of U.S. passenger carriers’ assets was about $163 billion and the book value of shareholder equity was $10 billion. Even at the end of 2000, after six consecutive profitable years, their assets were $159 billion and shareholder equity was $40 billion.
  • From 1979 to 2001, the U.S. airline passenger fleet grew in every year, by an average of 4.9% per year measured by aircraft and 3.6% per year measured by aircraft-seats. From the end of 2001 to the end of 2008 (latest available date), aircraft and aircraft-seats declined by 1.7% and 1.4% per year respectively.
  • The domestic airline industry has reported negative net income in 23 of 31 years since deregulation and a strongly negative aggregate net present value of earnings.

The knee jerk explanation among many airline analysts has been to blame the industry’s poor performance on overly burdensome taxes and high fuel costs. But Borenstein argues they’ve had little to do with it:

Descriptive statistics suggest that high taxes have been at most a minor factor and fuel costs shocks played a role only in the last few years. Major drivers seem to be the severe demand downturn after 9/11 — demand remained much weaker in 2009 than it was in 2000 — and the large cost differential between legacy airlines and the low-cost carriers, which has persisted even as their price differentials have greatly declined.

Here’s his case against fuel costs as the main culprit:

Fuel costs increases have certainly been a significant component of losses in some years, most obviously in 2008. Over the deregulation era, however, oil costs were highest in the first 7 years and the most recent 5 years, over $40 per barrel in 2009 dollars, and much lower during the 19 intervening years. [F]rom 1986 to 2004 the average jet fuel price was below $1.40 per gallon — relatively stable and much lower than in the early period of deregulation. Yet, the industry still lost money in 13 of those 19 years and on net lost $31 billion in 2009 dollars.

While there have been several taxes added to the cost of flying (passenger facility charges in the early 1990s, the segment tax in 1997, and the September 11 security fee in early 2002), Borenstein argues that the problem seems not to be that taxes have risen, but that base fares have fallen and stayed so low. He attributes this to the rise of low-cost carriers (LCCs), and the inability of  the legacy players to adjust:

Adjusted for the average flight distance, legacy carrier costs have remained 30%-60% higher than the LCCs for nearly all of the deregulation era, averaging about 40% higher in the last decade.
While the cost differential between LCCs and non-LCCs has remained large, the average price differential has been shrinking. LCC fares have declined much less than those of legacy carriers in the 2000s, reflecting in part their lower burden of excess aircraft capacity. This is no doubt a large part of the reason that LCCs have suffered much milder losses in the 2000s.

Airline bottom lines improved in 2010 as the industry consolidated routes and took profits, but Borenstein sees no reason why the future will be any less dismal.

[T]here is little reason to think those disruptions will be less frequent in the future. Furthermore, after more than 30 years, it seems unlikely that airline losses are due entirely to a series of unfortunate exogenous events relative to what management and investors should have expected.

[T]he experience of the last decade suggests that until legacy carriers can either close the cost gap with LCCs or increase the price premium they maintain, they will likely have difficulty earning consistent profits through the typical cycles in the airline business environment.

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  1. Phen says:

    I recall aForbes article from nineties that explained the irrationality of the airline market. Basically, the capital cost of entering the market is so high and the marginal cost of adding a passenger to an existing flight is so low that ticket pricing will never be rational (you’ll always take what you can get rather than leave a seat empty). It will never get better…

    Extend this to overall market performance…

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  2. Jefff says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how so many economics pundits forget the basic law of the free market, which is that profits are not a right or an inevitability. In fact, if the market is really working correctly, everyone is right on the edge of losing money. All profits are by definition excessive, and the supplier who’s willing to lower prices and reduce its profit will get the business. The low cost suppliers set the going price, and airlines with higher expenses will either go out of business or merge until there are so few carriers that monopoly conditions set in and prices go sky-high.

    This is why you regularly hear stories about “airline X tried to raise prices, but the other airlines wouldn’t go along and X had to reduce them again.” These stories show that competition is working and we don’t yet have implicit price-fixing arrangements.

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  3. larry english says:

    it takes too long

    [[guy before left out more stuff – time to pack, time wasted not bringing important stuff, stuff that is too big, stuff that won;t go through security, having to think about what you can take and not take, inconvenience of not being able to bring some things]]

    it;s miserable

    companies seem to think they are too big or important to fail, no customer service


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    • larry english says:

      also time wasted trying to out-wit the asinine cost structure of airline tickets

      time wasted by inflexible leave/return requirements [[or money wasted by changing]]


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  4. Query says:

    So, “legacy” and “costs” . . . sounds like GM. Geez, you’re not suggesting that unions could be a primary culprit, are you?

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  5. Kaleberg says:

    The simple fact is that passenger service has never made money, at least not over any extended period. The US had subsidized steam boats, railroads and airlines over the years as the price of maintaining a transportation system. You can read old 19th century arguments about the pros and cons of subsidizing river boats on the Mississippi. You can read articles from the 1920s about the problems railroads had making money on passenger service. And now you can read about the airlines.

    My guess is that so much of passenger travel is discretionary. People ship freight with intent to make money on getting their goods from point A to point B. A few people make money by traveling from point A to point B, but demand is elastic. If the price is right, all sorts of people with travel for leisure, family, education and even business. If the price gets too high, they cut back. The producers have no slack. They have to absorb costs or lose business. In general, the government has to step in with either regulation or subsidies in consideration of travel as a public good.

    There was a reason Henry V (of England) regulated to post chaise prices.

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  6. Joe Jones says:

    “Legacy carrier costs” is a nice way of saying what Gordon Gekko phrased as “lousy unions.”

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  7. Jack says:

    One consequence of the low-cost/legacy split is that the no frills service of low-cost is most attractive to the able-bodied low hassle flyer. Low-cost airlines generally get the customers with no kids, who can check-in online and need no assistance. Legacy are left with families and the elderly who need the extra help, this raises the costs for legacy airlines and gives them a demographic who are not necessarily any more wealthy than those flying low-cost.

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  8. Nosybear says:

    How about the idea that, due to market saturation, air travel has become a commodity with the attendant theoretical return on investment, zero. There are a few profitable carriers but most are losing money. The graph I’ve seen of airline profitability – I work in aviation – shows a net negative ROI for several years. I’ve seen similar forces at work here in the Colorado casino industry, which, despite knowing exactly what rate of return they’ll get from every customer that walks in (statistically speaking), they’re asking for tax help from the state to remain profitable. There are now so many slot machines available to gamblers the requirement to market them to get gamblers sitting in front of them has reduced the profit to nearly zero. In other words, just like with the airlines, there are too many seats available at the casinos, resulting in a net yield per seat of nothing.

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