Having bucked market trends by posting record earnings for the first half of the year, All Nippon Airways (ANA) now aims to sustain its solid profit growth despite the clouded operating outlook in its home market in Japan.
To maintain the momentum despite the challenging conditions caused by a stagnating domestic economy, the firm has expanded to the low-cost carrier market and is mulling taking advantage of the growing Asian market through acquisitions.
In its results for the first half to September, ANA reported that domestic passenger revenue rose only 4.6 per cent year on year to 343 billion yen (HK$29.81 billion), but the international segment jumped 12.6 per cent to 179.7 billion yen.
After raising 170 billion yen from issuing new shares in Japan in July, it has joined the small band of airlines around the world that are seeking to expand through acquisitions, such as the cash-rich Gulf carriers, Turkish Airlines and China's HNA Group.
ANA would now pursue investments in airlines in the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to cash in on the robust traffic growth in Asia, said president and chief executive Shinichiro Ito.
Coming at a time when its home market was stagnant, the bold expansion plan seemed to be something of an "Armageddon Day" strategy, said Will Horton, an analyst with market intelligence group Centre for Aviation. But Asian airlines were generally stronger and more financially secure than their European counterparts, he said.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Ito said ANA was bidding to make its first overseas investment in more than 20 years.
China has a large outbound market that could mesh well with ANA's network, but the country would likely be super-sensitive to an acquisition by a Japanese carrier now that tensions had once again arisen between the two over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. As a result, the firm would rule out making a bid for a stake in a Chinese carrier, Ito said.
Aside from such complications, analysts added, the failed attempt by Singapore Airlines to acquire a stake in China Eastern Airlines was another disincentive to making a bid for a Chinese airline - a caution accepted by Ito. "We will learn from the past experience of other airlines," he said recently. When asked what the lessons might be, he replied: "That's a secret."
Meanwhile, the open-skies agreement among the Asean airlines serves as a lure to ANA to seek investments within the block. The deal aims to extend open skies to the 10 countries in the region by 2015. But Horton said there was no clear target for ANA at present. "No airline in its current form and direction jumps to mind as being a good fit," he said.
But at home, two low-cost carrier arms, Peach Aviation and AirAsia Japan, contributed positively to ANA's bottom line. Revenue from these carriers increased 12.4 per cent to 88.3 billion yen in the first half.
Looking ahead, however, the contribution from them was not without challenges, said Horton. Peach's cost base was being inflated as it inherited ANA's practices, and it faced stiff competition from Japan Airlines' (JAL) low-cost carrier, Jetstar Japan.
In response, Ito said ANA adopted a "hands-off" approach to its low-cost carriers. "They are independent and have full liberty to decide on new routes without considering the parent." To further distance the decision-making process, a separate holding company for the low-cost carrier division will be set up.
ANA became Japan's largest airline in 2011 after it consolidated its international and domestic networks on the brink of bankruptcy in the previous year. But after enjoying the benefit of a government bailout, JAL became more profitable, attracting Ito's ire.
As the launch customer and co-developer of the Boeing 787, ANA is supportive of the Dreamliner, although it has turned into a nightmare in other parts of the world. Qatar Airways was forced to ground one of its three B787s during its delivery flight recently due to a faulty generator.
Nevertheless, the Japanese carrier continues to stand by the aircraft by expanding its orders for the B787-9 to 30 from 19. "We found the dispatch reliability of the B787 is as good as that of the B777 and B767," Ito said. "After flying 9,000 flights and carrying 1.8 million passengers, I found its performance very robust."
Banking on the 21 per cent fuel savings promised by the B787 over the B767, ANA had saved 1.4 billion yen in fuel bills over the past year, Ito said. "When all of the 66 B787-8s and -9s are delivered, it will translate to 10 billion yen in savings a year."