Cantillon: Airlines fly in face of investor returns history

Airlines set to give return on investors’ capital in 2016 for second consecutive year

Warren Buffet once said that he dialled a helpline every time he felt like putting money in an airline. More often than not they lost investors’ money.

The International Air Transport Association's (IATA) economic summary shows that, historically, the Sage of Omaha was right.

The association’s summary, released at its annual general meeting in Dublin this week, states bluntly that “Equity investors have typically seen their capital shrink”.

However, its figures give cause for believing that this could be changing.

They show that 2016 will be the second consecutive year that airlines give a return on their investors’ capital, which is at this stage expected to be 9.8 per cent.

While a second consecutive year of returns is probably nothing to write home about, the association believes that the trend will continue, driven by factors such as lower fuel prices and increasing ancillary revenues.

There are other things at play also, according to the association, “consolidation and more returns-focused behaviour” are all playing their part in helping to sell seats and generate returns.

Yet it notes that while the $39.4 billion profits that the industry will generate in 2016 will be exceptional for airlines, it is really only enough to give investors a “normal” return on their cash.

There is also an upward creep in oil prices, which is unlikely to have an immediate impact, but is a signal that cheap fuel will not be around forever.

All the same, Aer Lingus chief executive Stephen Kavanagh and his opposite numbers in the global industry let it be known this week that they are confident they can keep making money as fuel prices rise. Perhaps it's time for Buffet to ditch that helpline.