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Friday, 22/01/2019, 12:07:02 PM
The air-leasing sector may soon face harder times
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EIGHTEEN months of relatively low oil prices have helped many parts of the aviation industry. Cheaper jet fuel has contributed to record profits at airlines in America the world’s biggest planemakers, Airbus and Boeing, have compiled fat order books thanks to growing demand for air travel. But one part of the industry may be hurt by cheaper oil: leasing firms, which invest in planes and hire them out to airlines and other operators.

When oil prices were high, airlines were desperate to replace gas-guzzling planes with new, fuel-efficient ones. Given the daunting commercial outlook, many preferred to lease their new jets, leaving the leasing firms to stump up the capital required to buy planes. Leasing firms are now responsible for about 40% of the big planemakers’ sales.

As a result, leasing has become voguish. Cheerleaders claim that average annual returns have topped 10% in recent years—an astronomical figure in a world of low yields. Investors have been keen to pile in, allowing the leasing firms to raise money for new jets directly by issuing bonds, rather than via bank loans. Boeing forecasts that 53% of the aircraft it sells to lessors this year will be financed this way, up from about 33% four years ago. Big leasing firms have been raising other forms of capital, too: BOC Aviation, one of Asia’s largest, floated in Hong Kong on June 1st.

But the oil price began falling in 2014. Despite a recent rally, it is still less than half what it was then. Cheap fuel makes older, less efficient planes profitable to run again. That has stoked fears that the world will soon have more planes than it knows what to do with. The number of new orders seems to be slowing. Richard Anderson, until last month the boss of Delta, America’s second-biggest airline, has muttered about an aircraft “bubble”. The airline bought a used Boeing 777 for $7.7m in December—a 97% discount to the listed price for a new one.

The leasing firms themselves insist they are not short of customers. Although demand for cargo planes has stalled, that for passenger aircraft is still rising. International passenger volumes grew by 4.6% year on year in April, with aircraft-utilisation rates reaching near-record levels, according to IATA, an industry group. But the share price of America’s biggest listed lessors fell at the start of the year, because of fears that profits will come under pressure.

Airlines, meanwhile, are beginning to ask whether it makes sense to keep leasing planes. Most of them are now profitable enough to borrow cheaply and interest rates are extremely low. Ryanair, a European low-cost airline, has been issuing bonds to buy new aircraft since 2014. Norwegian Air Shuttle, another low-cost carrier, now treats its fleet of more than 100 planes like a lessor, hiring some of them out to other operators. With more planes around, and fewer customers, the leasing business is bound to get harder.


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