Strong Airline Profitability? Is it Really About Fees?

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Source: Dallas News
For decades, the airline industry has been characterized by abysmal profits. The list of airline bankruptcies is seemingly endless. However, the Wall Street Journal reports this week that U.S. airline industry profitability is very strong at the moment – “healthier than ever” according to the headline.  The newspaper credits the litany of fees charged by airlines for the strong income numbers:  

Profit per passenger at the seven largest U.S. airlines averaged $19.65 over the past four years—record-setting profitable years for airlines. In 2017, it stood at $17.75, based on airline earnings reports. In truth, airlines now cover their costs with tickets and get their profits from baggage fees, seat fees, reservation-change fees and just about all the other nickel-and-diming that aggravates customers. You might also call those extra 12 to 15 passengers now crammed onto each flight “Andrew Jackson” for the profit they bring… U.S. airlines were on pace to take in more than $4 billion in baggage fees and $3 billion in reservation-change and cancellation penalties in 2017, according to Transportation Department data. (The full year hasn’t been tallied yet.) Most of that drops straight to the bottom line. The two categories add up to about more than half of the net profits airlines posted last year.

A couple of sentences toward the end of the article identify the airline with the highest profit margins in the industry.   Accoridng to the Wall Street Journal, Southwest tops the industry with a 16.5% net profit margin, nearly double the average margin in  the industry (9%).   Actually, the newspaper does not account for a one-time tax benefit of roughly 6%.  After adjusting for that figure, Southwest’s advantage over the rest of the industry is much narrower.   Still, Southwest generated strong profits, as it has in the past.  The article does not delve into the reasons for that profitability.  Southwest Airlines does not charge baggage fees, unlike nearly all of its rivals.   Southwest also does not administer ticket change fees, unlike nearly all of its rivals.   How then does it generate strong  margins in the industry?  That’s the question that the newspaper should explore.   

In weaker economic times, the other airlines may find it much more difficult to continue to generate strong consumer demand while charging so many fees.  A more sustainable competitive advantage comes from a distinctive strategy and organization, as Southwest has developed over many years.   Many scholars have studied this question over the years.  Perhaps it’s old news to the Wall Street Journal, but that old news offers much more enduring lessons for managers than the story of how piling on fees has juiced profits recently for some players. 
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