In a constantly changing airline industry, there are always some carriers that act as catalysts for wider upheaval. Aviation Week's commercial editorial team has assembled this list of 25 carriers that are the main contenders to fulfill this role in 2013. Many on the list are poised to make major advances that will present new challenges for their competitors, some will influence the industry as they disintegrate, and others are reaching an inflexion point where either outcome is possible. Wherever they fall on that spectrum, these are the airlines that are likely to provide the industry's biggest talking points over the next year.
Delta Air Lines will be in the spotlight in 2013 due to its acquisition of a Pennsylvania oil refinery as a hedge against the widening spread between crude oil prices and jet fuel costs. Airlines will be watching to see if the move really does produce at least $300 million in savings, as the carrier estimates. Delta is also at the forefront of the shake-up in the U.S. regional airline industry, with plans to remove at least 200 of the 325 50-seat aircraft in its network by 2015. Its plans for achieving these cuts should become clear by early next year. Delta drew even more attention last week when it agreed to purchase a 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic, boosting its access to London's Heathrow Airport.
Southwest Airlines acquired AirTran Airways in May 2011, but it will be in 2013 that the real impact of that acquisition will start to become clear. Customers will be able to book single-ticket itineraries by March, connecting Southwest and AirTran networks for the first time, and Southwest is expecting this to significantly boost revenue and give it a competitive advantage. Southwest also faces some new challenges, with CEO Gary Kelly warning that the carrier must respond to the cost-cutting that American Airlines and other competitors have achieved in bankruptcy protection. That raises the prospect of a problem Southwest usually does not encounter: divisive disputes with its labor unions.
American Airlines is likely to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2013, but in what form? US Airways is pushing for a merger, but American's management has long stated its preference to emerge as a standalone carrier, focused on high-value business routes from its hubs in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth and New York. A merger with US Airways would create an airline with a strong presence on the U.S. East Coast and Midwest, Europe and Latin America. American's three unions have thrown their support behind the deal, saying the carrier will not be able to compete with rivals Delta Air Lines and United Airlines without merging with US Airways.
Pinnacle Airlines will be the focus of the U.S. regional airline industry in 2013. Operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since April 2012, Pinnacle's reorganization will have a major bearing on the future of rivals SkyWest Inc. and Republic Airways, which are both anticipating a sharp reduction in Pinnacle's operations. It is likely that Pinnacle will bear the brunt of partner Delta Air Lines' planned cuts in regional jet requirements, and the carrier has already shed its contracts with other major airlines. There may still be a future for Pinnacle if its pilots agree to an extensive concessions package, although the likelihood is that the carrier will become another victim of consolidation.
The coming year will be another period of international growth for Hawaiian Airlines, as it continues to look to Pacific Rim nations for new opportunities. It will launch flights from Honolulu to Taiwan and New Zealand in 2013, and nobody would be surprised to see other new destinations also added. This follows the recent expansion of services to Australia, and new routes to Japanese cities and South Korea. All of this is part of Hawaiian's plan to reduce its reliance on the highly competitive routes from the Western U.S. to Hawaii. The airline will also be looking to increase its coverage of its local market, as it plans to launch a new regional turboprop subsidiary.
WestJet is looking to give Air Canada a run for its money next year. The launch of a new regional feeder operation called WestJet Encore is sure to heighten domestic competition. Encore intends to reach smaller communities, and the carrier says fares could dip 50% below those charged by rivals on comparable routes. Could a price war result? The answer to that will become apparent when Encore launches in the second half of the year. One thing that does seem certain is WestJet's commitment to the venture, with 20 Bombardier Q400s on firm order and options for 25 more. The Canadian low-cost carrier has been vocal about the advantages of Encore over competitors, but it will soon be up to consumers to decide.