Sydney-Los Angeles game of chicken continues

If you're a passenger thinking about flying between Sydney and Los Angeles, things can't get much better. If you're one of the four airlines that fly that route, things can't get much worse. Earlier this month Delta became the fourth airline to fly between the two cities, joining Virgin-backed startup V Australia, which had entered the market this past February. They joined Qantas and United, which have shared a cozy duopoly for the past 15 years on the route (since Continental stopped flying it), and the result is a four-way game of chicken and a fare war that won't end until one airline drops out - all amidst a dismal business travel climate.

The airlines are resorting to tactics that have an air of desperation to them. Qantas is allowing kids to fly for free on the route, and when you buy a business class ticket, you get two for the price of one - deals that the airline has labeled "unprecedented." Said a Qantas spokesperson: "This is the first sale of its kind for many, many years." Qantas, which used to control nearly 75% of traffic on the route, now flies around half. Before things got bad, the airline made around a quarter of its cash on the route, and even though it's losing money there like everyone else, Qantas has interest enough to stick it out and wait for the situation to improve.

Then there's United, which has come out with the uncharacteristically ballsy proclamation that it would match any competitor's fare between Sydney and Los Angeles. "United is determined and committed to matching the initiatives of other carriers and we'll compete aggressively on price if that's what's required for us to protect our business here," said their Pacific vice president, James Mueller, quoted in The Australian. "I look at our services to Australia as sort of our southern cornerstone of our overall Pacific product offering... [we] fully intend to keep operating here indefinitely." According to the article, United's revamped premium cabins have paid off, with the airline's market share on the route holding steady (for now). United has been flying the route for nearly 25 years, ever since it purchased Pan Am's Pacific route network in April 1985.

And then there are the new entrants: V Australia and Delta. Things have become more complicated now that Delta has announced a joint venture with V Australia parent Virgin Blue, to say nothing of the latter's codeshare agreement with United on domestic flights from Sydney. Some analysts are predicting that one of the airlines could leave the market as early as October, but which one? Both Qantas and United are so well-entrenched in the route that I don't see either giving it up; this leaves Delta and V Australia. Some have said that Delta, being the larger of the two, won't be the one to pull out, but I'm not so sure. If Delta does drop LAX-Sydney, they might lose their claim to flying to all six inhabited continents, but right now it can't be much more than another international route for them. V Australia, on the other hand, doesn't have anywhere else to turn to if they drop the route, apart from service to Los Angeles from Brisbane and Melbourne.

So, if you're planning a trip to Australia, book now while prices are low - before the game of chicken comes to an end.

photo by code20photog from Flickr


Ordie said...

Qantas has the edge in frequency, service consistancy and domestic network.

Any airlines that partners with Virgin Blue will be at a disadvantage. Most specifically V-Australia. Virgin may have a high value brand internationally, but Virgin Blue is known for its Ryan Air style frugality.

The weak link for all airlines is Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport. The airport is a perpetual construction zone, with poor seamless connectivity due to the lack of a common terminal.

If this keeps up, I expect Qantas to start its JetStar brand from LAX to Cairns or send its A-380 to SFO to get more marketshare.