Friday, July 22, 2011

Does the Withdrawal of Capacity Help?

As industry prices fall, and companies’ fortunes decline with the resultant squeeze on their margins, some companies, especially the leaders, seek to withdraw capacity from the market.  The leading companies expect the capacity withdrawal to do two things: redress the imbalance between capacity and demand; and raise prices to more attractive levels because of this better balance.  In practice, the withdrawal of capacity often fails to achieve either of these objectives.

Whenever a leader in an industry reduces its capacity to force price increases, it must consider how competitors will respond.  In many, if not most, cases low-cost competitors expand their capacity to make up for the withdrawal of capacity by the industry leaders.  The end result often is even more capacity available in a marketplace and the same or lower prices available for the industry leaders.

After several quarters of improving profits, the airline industry is again slipping into hostile market conditions as rising fuel prices reduce margins and force higher prices.  Higher prices limit demand growth.  In response to the margin squeeze these tougher times bring to the industry, the industry leaders are restricting the growth in their capacity and, in some cases, reducing the capacity they offer in the domestic U.S. market.  The problem is that several of the industry followers are not going along.

United Continental Holdings and AMR Corporation’s American Airlines have both posted losses for the most recent quarter.  Both of these industry leaders plan to reduce their domestic capacity as a result.  They will be reducing seats available flying into and out of selected domestic markets. 

The pattern of leaders reducing capacity and followers adding it seems to be holding in the current airline industry.  Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Alaska Air Group derive most of their revenues in the domestic U.S. market.  Each of these companies reported profits in the most recent quarter.  This profitability of the three follower airline competitors indicates that their costs are lower than are the costs of the two legacy airlines that have reported losses, United Continental and American Airlines.  Southwest plans to increase its capacity by 5% to 6% in 2011.  JetBlue plans to add 6% to 8% this year, while Alaska Air plans to grow its capacity by 9%. 

The industry followers are able to add capacity in the face of capacity withdrawal by their larger industry-leading competitors because they have these lower costs.  The lower costs enable the follower companies to make a profit while their larger competitors suffer losses.  In the long run, the only way that the industry-leading competitors will be able to stop the expansion of these follower competitors will be to match or beat their lower cost structures

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