Javier Gándara is Managing Director of easyJet Spain and Portugal and President of Airlines Association (ALA) in Spain.
“European air transport liberalisation has made it possible for millions of people to enjoy a level of air connectivity and affordability that was previously unimaginable.”
The airmail route between Toulouse and Casablanca, with stopovers in Barcelona, Alicante and Malaga, marked the start of air transport in Spain on 2nd September 1919. Today more than 263 million passengers pass through Spanish airports every year. What have we done well, and what have we done not so well, in the last 100 years?
Over the last 100 years we have witnessed the evolution of commercial aviation from its very origins, when flying was a luxury that was only within the reach of a privileged minority. Liberalisation and, with it, free competition between operators had to come about in order to democratise this mode of transport, which nowadays is accessible to the vast majority of citizens. The biggest change in Spain, like in the rest of Europe, was the transition from a “production-based” approach, where the focus of airline managers was fundamentally on aircraft and technology, to a “customer-based” approach, where the focus is on searching for the best way to satisfy consumer needs. Operational efficiency, while a necessary condition for success, is not sufficient if it is not also accompanied by similar, or even greater, commercial efficiency.
One of the sector’s current challenges is how to solve the problem of air traffic congestion, the main cause of delays and increased flight times, while the number of passengers continues to grow. Is there a solution?
I think so, but it requires the political will to finally implement the Single European Sky, which we have been talking about for almost twenty years. Although a great deal of progress has been made on the technological side, the major restrictions are still social and political. Fortunately, the new European Commission now has a roadmap, developed in the report recently published by the Committee of Wise Persons set up at the time, which sets out ten recommendations that, if followed, would resolve the current situation we find ourselves in once and for all. All that remains is for both the Commission and the Member States to have the political courage to implement all these recommendations as quickly as possible.
With regard to airlines, many people have warned about the weaknesses of the low-cost model. easyJet has been a pioneering company in evolving towards a “hybrid” model, by flying to major airports in several European cities over the last two decades. Is this the trend?
The trend, at least in the short and medium term, is certainly towards a hybrid model, which both low-cost and network airlines are converging on: the former are adding more complexity to their original business model, which was based on simplicity, to adapt to changing customer needs; the latter are adopting many of the characteristics of the low-cost model, at least for their economy class passengers. easyJet was one of the pioneers in this convergence: in 1996, when it was still less than a year old, the first three airports it began to fly to outside the United Kingdom were Amsterdam Schiphol, Barcelona El Prat, and Nice. These were three major airports, which broke one of the model’s key principles of always flying to secondary airports, as they are cheaper and less congested. Since then, the model has evolved in this direction, to the point that today it is very difficult to distinguish, at least for short and medium haul flights, what is a low-cost company and what is a traditional company, as the differences between them are getting increasingly smaller.
The liberalisation of air transport more than 25 years ago was a revolution in Europe. Will it be enough to circumvent Brexit?
European liberalisation has made it possible for millions of British people to enjoy a level of air connectivity and affordability that was previously unimaginable, and has allowed millions of Europeans to fly to the United Kingdom frequently and at very low prices. In both cases this has led to an improvement in people’s quality of life and an unprecedented broadening of the horizons of our citizenship. It is therefore hard to imagine that politicians on either side will dare to take measures that restrict the level of freedom that has been achieved. However, in the short term, there could be some impact on an operational level, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which would mean that the United Kingdom would be considered a third country, with all the consequences that entails. However, the impact of this circumstance on citizens would be such that, in my opinion, both parties would have no choice but to reach some kind of agreement, at least for commercial aviation. Let’s hope that such a situation does not come about, and that an orderly exit can be arranged.
The structure of the airline industry is different in the US compared to Europe. Where are these markets evolving towards? What are the main strength and weakness of each?
In both cases there is a tendency towards consolidation, although the US has the advantage, not only because the market there was liberalised almost twenty years earlier than in Europe, but also because of the different market structure, a consequence of the fact that the US is a single nation, whereas here we are dealing with a group of nations. As a result, in the US, the five main groups of airlines have a market share of over 70%, while in Europe this figure is below 50%. There is therefore still some way to go in that regard. But let’s not forget that the regulatory framework does not help, since a large part of commercial aviation on a global level is still governed by bilateral agreements, where ownership and control clauses are basic, which is shaping consolidation in Europe in a different way, through groups of airlines.
What do you imagine air transport will be like in Spain in another 100 years?
Hmm, it is hard enough to imagine it in 5 or 10 years, let alone speculate about such long-term changes. In any case, I believe that it will necessarily be a completely sustainable and environmentally friendly mode of transport, and it will continue to make the lives of millions of citizens much better, thanks to its ability to continue to bring people closer together, something that, unless we have discovered how to teleport, will continue to be irreplaceable.