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European Airlines Big Five Joint Voices

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On Wednesday, the heads of the five most influential European airlines joined forces to lobby on European airline policy in a move not dissimilar to Juliet inviting Romeo’s family to pop over to her parents’ place for dinner.

European heavyweights Air France-KLM, easyJet, International Airlines Group (IAG), Lufthansa Group and Ryanair came together in Brussels to voice their shared views on the European Commission’s new EU Aviation Strategy, but *how* it was said was far more important than *what* was said.

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As one of my contacts observed: “Incredible to see them set up an event like this, without any involvement from the various airline associations.” This is the real story. Quoting another source, the content of the press conference was neither “revolutionary nor visionary”, but those airlines coming together was quite something, on two levels.

Firstly, their power. These guys represent half of all passenger journeys in Europe. That’s 420 million passengers a year. To put that figure in context, the 15 airline members of the oneworld alliance represent 515 million passengers.

So, we have Air France-KLM Group CEO Alexandre de Juniac, easyJet CEO Carolyn McCall, IAG CEO Willie Walsh, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr and Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary all in one place, at one time, asking for the same thing. This is big. Very big.

But the conference was held right in the middle of Paris Air Show week, when all the aviation journalists were in Le Bourget. If you check out the webcast, most of the seats in that room were empty, although some did join the conference remotely. Surely this would have been better-attended and made a bigger splash if it had been held at the air show – Europe’s flagship aerospace event.

Secondly – and most significantly – this coming together has massive implications for Europe’s established airline lobbying set up. If the European airline industry is fragmented and in need of consolidation, the European airline association landscape is, frankly, just bad as its members.

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There are currently four associations representing European airlines. The Association of European Airlines (AEA) acts for the continent’s network airlines, the European Low Fares Airline Association (ELFAA) is the low-cost carrier body, the International Air Carrier Association (IACA) is the voice of the leisure carriers, and the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) represents the regionals.

According to one Member of European Parliament, these four main associations visit his office in sequence, one after the other, followed by representatives from each of the big airlines, all of them wanting to know what the last one said and calling for different things. Seriously, this is not the way to show a united front as a mature and economically significant industry.

“The five airlines agreed that airline representation in Brussels today is not as effective as it could be—with six airline representative organizations—and agreed to explore possible forms of future representation,” the Five Families said at the Brussels briefing. I’m not sure who the other two airline bodies are to make a total of six. One could be IATA. As for the other, I’m drawing a blank. Answers on a postcard please.

Europe is fragmented. European airlines are fragmented. The lobby groups are fragmented. Everything is a compromise and that leads to inefficiency. Inefficiency comes at a cost. Airlines die. Europe loses. And that’s before the Gulf carriers even enter the picture.

To be fair, AEA did try to consolidate with the other airline associations. I should know. For the sake of full disclosure, I was there at the time, as AEA’s General Manager Communications.

These consolidation talks are now a matter of public record, as the network carrier body said following the Big Five’s press conference: “AEA indicated some years ago already that airline representation in Brussels is not as effective as it could be. Unfortunately, our merger attempts at that time were not welcomed by other industry associations. An initiative that strengthens the voice of the European airline industry and a reflection on future representation is therefore welcomed,” said AEA, which is in discussions to join forces with leisure carrier body IACA.

In the wake of Wednesday’s press conference, AEA declined to speculate about its future. If AEA disappears, what happens to its smaller members like Air Malta? Will we reach a status quo where the five Goliaths lobby jointly, while ERA – which already represents 52 European regional airlines – accumulates a critical mass of Davids? ERA has already said it is looking forward to working with the European heavyweights to “ensure that all sectors of the aviation industry are represented”.

AEA has already felt the pain, suffering high-profile exits from airberlin, British Airways and Iberia, with Alitalia likely to follow suit. It has been suggested that the IAG carriers alone made up around 30% of AEA’s revenue, although I must stress that I don’t have a confirmed source for that figure. It’s worth noting that airberlin quietly left IACA too, but this didn’t get as much coverage because the leisure carrier association is less well known and the story didn’t have a Gulf carrier news hook.

It is no coincidence that the airlines which exited AEA are part-owned by Gulf carriers – Gulf carriers which reacted badly to comments made by former AEA secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, who called for competition of a global industry to be regulated at global level, by ICAO.

Responding to allegations that these departures were a kick-back against the association’s anti-Gulf policy, AEA said it is pro-liberalization and had no consensus among its members to oppose the Gulf carriers. The rift, AEA said, was between its member airlines.

It is true that the European front against the Gulf carriers is far from united. But here we have Air France-KLM, IAG and Lufthansa all in one room, putting aside their differences and presenting a common front. But here’s the rub. Just one day later, a press release hits my inbox from The Partnership for Fair and Open Skies.

“Air France KLM Filing Urges Immediate Action by U.S. Government in Response to Gulf Carrier Subsidization,” the headline screamed. “European carrier warns of “dramatic consequences,” including closed routes and service terminations,” it claimed. “Air France-KLM joins Lufthansa in expressing concern over the rapid growth of the Gulf carriers in Europe and the U.S.”

This directly opposes the views of IAG CEO Willie Walsh, who just hours earlier had shared the podium with Air France-KLM Group CEO Alexandre de Juniac and Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr.

It seems to me that these airlines have filed for divorce over irreconcilable differences, but then divorced the priest instead of their problem spouse.

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