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Qantas in dogfight no one will win

Qantas chief Alan Joyce can't say that the relentless airline price and capacity war in which it has engaged with Virgin will push the airline into a loss in the 2014 year, but nor can he say that it won't.

Qantas chief Alan Joyce can't say that the relentless airline price and capacity war in which it has engaged with Virgin will push the airline into a loss in the 2014 year, but nor can he say that it won't.

The experts are divided. Some analysts say Qantas will lose up to $190 million this year, while others predict a profit of the same magnitude.

Joyce's plea this week to the government (more particularly the Foreign Investment Review Board) to unpick a decision made back in 2011 (but not by FIRB) to allow Virgin to effectively re-engineer its corporate structure and open the gates to unlimited foreign shareholding is an act of desperation by Qantas.

Maybe the 2014 year for Qantas will yield a loss after all.

Joyce is right about Qantas operating in an unlevel playing field, but only Pollyanna would realistically predict this will change.

My guess is that Joyce is preparing the ground for an unsavoury result in the first half and probably the full year as well. He is pulling every cost-cutting move available. But it is probably not enough.

The flying kangaroo is being financially king-hit by its smaller competitor, Virgin, that now has the backing of three large, ostensibly sovereign-owned airlines with unlimited financial muscle.

It's the equivalent of the schoolyard weakling finding three big brothers and trouncing the bully.

The trouble for investors is that both the bully and the weakling are getting very bloody noses in this fight and it's far from over.

Joyce wants a level playing field - which for Qantas means being able to retain its 65 per cent market share. Qantas says the three state governments are bankrolling Virgin. That is a sideshow. The real glad-handing is coming from Virgin's major shareholders, Etihad, Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand.

Virgin wants a bit more than it gets currently in domestic market share but it doesn't just want any old customers - it lusts after the premium high-yielding end of the market - the domestic business travellers. The holy grail.

But a market share war comes at a cost, and thanks to Virgin's three large shareholders, it just pitched in $350 million of capital muscle.

History shows that the deepest pockets win a protracted market-share war. Until now, Qantas had the financial arsenal. The situation changed last week.

For the past 18 months Virgin's sovereign-owned partners, Etihad, Air New Zealand and Singapore, have been buying Virgin shares.

But last week these shareholders pumped money into Virgin's coffers, giving it the arsenal to finance a price war with Qantas. And this is why Joyce played the national carrier card.

This information should send both Qantas and Virgin share prices down. The money feeds a protracted fight. One might win in the medium to long-term but in the short-term both will be losers.

Qantas argues that the capacity war and discounting have the hallmarks of predatory behaviour from Virgin. But Qantas has not mounted a case before the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

For its part, Virgin says that over the past year Qantas has put on twice as much capacity and is therefore in no position to throw stones from a glasshouse.

The issue for Qantas is that it has been wounded and if it holds to the 65 per cent market share target it will bleed.

But then so will Virgin. But its airline shareholders have a vested interest in ensuring the passengers they feed into Australia fly through the Virgin domestic operations.

These airlines also want to fleece Qantas for international travellers.

It's all about colonisation.

Virgin's international partners have agendas - which may be costly but will benefit them in the longer term.

Qantas is playing the nationalistic card to implore this government and appeal to the likes of Nationals Warren Truss to look after the national airline. But Qantas is not in trouble because its source of international investors is limited by the Qantas Sale Act. This has been a legitimate beef for a number of years but partner airlines such as Emirates could have taken a shareholding but chose not to.

The aspiring Virgin model has better enticed partners wanting to tap into the Australian market.

Qantas has tried to fight off Virgin, like so many other competitors that didn't have the resources to put up a fight.

The dogfight is a great story but not one in which investors should take a real interest. Airlines are an industry that would normally be considered cyclical. Simple as that.

But when engaged in a turf battle it's a spat best avoided.

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