a man standing in front of a model of a plane

CEO Talk: 3 Key Trends in Aviation and ACMI Leasing in 2024

Gediminas Ziemelis, Chairman of Avia Solutions Group; the world's largest ACMI provider gave his insight for 2024 on aviation and how ACMI can create opportunity.

What is ACMI Leasing?

Also known as wet or damp leasing, ACMI leasing is an agreement between two airlines, where the lessor agrees to provide an aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI) to the lessee – in return for payment on the number of block hours operated.

ACMI provides the lessee with additional or replacement capacity, even at short notice.

Opportunity Knocks

The number one positive on the score sheet at the moment is the successful recovery of demand for air travel. Air traffic is up, with the IATA predicting 4.35 billion people will travel in 2024, which is almost level with the number who flew in 2019 – 4.5 billion.

Fast-moving AI developments in the aviation industry, another positive, can play an important role in helping airlines manage these high traveler numbers. For example, leveraging to better manage changing weather conditions is a smart way to minimize cancellations.

AI is also likely to have a positive impact. It has huge potential to improve efficiency, for example with monitoring parts and enabling more efficient maintenance. Advances in automation and robotization also continue to show promising potential in terms of accelerating production and optimizing maintenance.

So, in both the short-term and long-term there are reasons to be cheerful and opportunities to unlock.

a blue sky with white text

Structural Problems

However, airlines are faced with structural problems that make it difficult to take advantage of these opportunities. And these problems are not straightforward to overcome.

Labor shortages, financial limitations, supply-side issues, and the ongoing challenge of managing seasonality are all potential obstacles in airlines' quest for growth.

He spoke about the key trends related to these challenges, sharing some insights on how ACMI can help airlines to handle them. In the end, the industry players that can successfully manage these challenges will be in a position to enjoy the spoils that higher demand and long-term innovations have to offer.

a man in a suit with his arms crossed
Gediminas Ziemelis, Chairman of Avia Solutions Group

Trend 1 - Wet Leasing Helps Airlines to Meet With Demand

While it appears that central bank interest rates may have peaked and we are entering a more stable period, we can rest assured that the era of low borrowing costs which lasted from 2008 to 2022 is over.

This presents a major challenge for airlines looking to take advantage of the booming demand we currently have. Many are already heavily leveraged, having borrowed during the COVID-19 pandemic to stay afloat. These airlines must now pay even higher rates to borrow more, and the leveling out of central bank interest rates will not change this reality any time soon.

Even for airlines who are in better financial health, borrowing to increase their fleet remains an unattractive choice right now. It is difficult to forecast whether the current surge in demand will be sustained in the long term, so taking on debt at still-high interest rates is a risky option.

On the other hand, failing to act is also not a viable alternative. Airlines hunting for much-needed revenue after the COVID-19 lockdowns will be leaving valuable business on the table if they are unable to scale up to meet demand.

I acknowledge that leasing rates are up at the moment, mostly due to manufacturing delays. What if they take on a loan at today's still high interest rates, only to see demand quickly peak and then subside?

Gediminas Ziemelis, Chairman of Avia Solutions Group

ACMI is an effective way for airlines to use this small amount of financial room for maneuver. That is because ACMI is a financially viable solution for meeting the increasing demand we are seeing right now. It offers the flexibility airlines need to take advantage of today's positive market conditions without saddling them with unmanageable long-term debt.

This is especially important given the uncertainty as to whether the current uptick in demand is a long-term trend or a temporary blip. If it is the former, ACMI can bridge the short-term gap airlines are experiencing so they are well-positioned in the future. And if it is the latter, they can leverage ACMI to maximize their successes while the going is good.

two men in uniform walking on a plane

Trend 2 - ACMI Offers Solution to Attrition and Labor Shortages

2023 has been something of a perfect storm for airlines in terms of human resources.

First of all, we started to feel the impact of the cancellation of pilot cadet programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. With an annual pilot retirement rate of around 3%, the industry faces a constant need to replenish its talent, even in the best of times.

It is estimated that there will be 484,000 active pilots in the industry by 2029 and that this will require the training of an additional 264,000 pilots. Factor in the rapid surge in demand we have witnessed this year and the delay in new pilots coming into the workforce has been a major headache for airlines.

A second factor, also related to COVID-19, is high attrition rates within the industry. In 2022, companies had to take on new staff (or rehire old employees) at very high levels. However, retaining these staff has proved very difficult.

For example, Swissport has seen a 70% attrition rate from the 37,000 staff it recruited in 2022 as the industry reopened. In the US and Europe, this challenge is mainly attributed to a lack of desire to work in our sector as remote work with greater flexibility has become common in many sectors.

However, as Swissport has found, recruitment and retention issues are specific to certain regions and countries. This means wet leasing can be an effective solution. Large-scale ACMI providers have widespread international networks, and this gives them an advantage in terms of the international talent pool they can draw from. Tapping into ACMI essentially means widening the pool of potential recruits you can hire, and gives you access to staff from regions where retention is a much lower problem.

Addressing labor shortages is a must because this issue is causing two significant problems for airlines. It is adding to an ever-increasing cost burden.

Gediminas Ziemelis, Chairman of Avia Solutions Group

Recruitment is an expensive process (estimated at $4,000 per employee), and limited supply pushes up costs as well. And it is also making it difficult or impossible to adequately staff a growing number of routes. With social media ensuring customers are increasingly savvy when it comes to compensation for cancellations, this can be an extremely costly issue for airlines.

a white airplane on a green background

Trend 3 - ACMI Solves Seasonality and Supply-Side Challenges

Managing seasonality has traditionally been ACMI's main value proposition, and it is a particularly attractive one at the moment.

For example, Avion Express, one of Avia Solution Group's ACMI providers, delivered 2,054 flights for Germany's Eurowings this June, helping it successfully manage a large uptick in demand at the start of summer.

There is also an interesting potential trend for countries, regions, cities and even individual hotels to turn to ACMI as a way to capitalize on "revenge tourism" - customers being extra keen to take holidays after the lockdowns of the previous 2 years.

This trend is easy to explain. Many regions and countries are dependent on tourism and are therefore desperate to attract airline routes that could help to get tourist numbers back to 2019 levels. However, it takes years to negotiate with airlines to begin the operation of new routes, and most regions are looking for an immediate impact. Furthermore, with the cost challenges and labor shortages airlines are facing in 2023, this is a particularly difficult time to attract airlines to set up new routes. So, there have been some cases of governments turning to ACMI providers to help with meeting seasonal demand.

a white airplane flying in the sky
Avion Express (Photo: Wikipedia by BriYYZ)

Of course, along with managing seasonality, ACMI is also a natural fit for airlines that need to absorb supply-side shocks. And, unfortunately, these are all too common at the moment.

It was ACMI providers who helped to pick up the slack this summer when RTX's Pratt and Whitney experienced a problem with contaminated metal parts in their engines. It is still expected to take up to 4 years for the industry to recover to pre-COVID production levels, so this is not an issue that will be resolved soon.

Gediminas Ziemelis, Chairman of Avia Solutions Group
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Key Takeaways

The key message of all the things mentioned is that ACMI is ready, in both the short-term and long-term, to enable airlines not only to survive but also to thrive in complicated circumstances. The industry is ready to provide the crew and aircraft that are in short supply at present, and to provide airlines with a financially sustainable way to make the most of the upsurge in demand.

My opinion has always been that a balanced mix where 6-15% of a fleet's aircraft is leased from an ACMI provider is optimal. This provides the flexibility airlines need without tying them down to unmanageable long-term financial commitments, which, as I mentioned above, are especially problematic at present.

Gediminas Ziemelis, Chairman of Avia Solutions Group