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Fewer Customers? Cut Capacity

For a year now the economy has weighed down passenger airline traffic. The industry expects a 4% reduction in passenger volume for 2009’s Thanksgiving season compared to the previous year. And, as demand has fallen, so have prices. Ticket prices this year are down 13% compared to 2008, so the industry is getting hit twice: by a fall-off in passenger seat miles flown, and by falling prices per seat mile. (See the Symptom & Implication “Demand in the industry is falling” on StrategyStreet.com.)

The airline industry thought it had an answer to this developing problem: cutting capacity. The industry has reduced capacity by 6.9% this year in the expectation that the industry could improve its efficiency and raise prices. (See “Audio Tip #116: The Withdrawal of Capacity to Raise Prices” on StrategyStreet.com.)

So, why haven’t prices risen? There are two possible answers. The first is that the industry has panicked and is offering lower prices to keep demand from falling any further than it already has. This answer is certainly in keeping with the industry’s previous practices. But there is a more subtle and more problematic answer as well, and that is that the smaller industry carriers are adding capacity faster than the industry leaders are reducing it.

Over the years we have witnessed many cases where industry leaders would reduce their capacity in order to constrain supply and force industry prices to rise. Time and again industry followers have stymied these initiatives. These followers insist on adding capacity, even as the industry leaders withdraw it. The result is the same, or more capacity, and continued low or falling prices.

To some extent, this addition of capacity by follower competitors is predictable (see “Audio Tip #106: How do we Predict Competitor Responses to our Price Moves?” on StrategyStreet.com). These smaller competitors already added capacity in the face of low industry pricing. They have even more incentive to add capacity as industry prices rise.

Posted 11/30/09

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