Why do airlines offer cheap seats?

‘I don’t care what you cover the seats with as long as you cover them with assholes’

Eddie Rickenbacker – US aviator

It’s coming up to Christmas and in Australia it’s the summer holiday period. Yes, over the Festive Season unlike our friends in the norther hemisphere, we will enjoy sunshine and summer. Whilst the monthly blog is posted on 21st of the month, in December it is released early. After all, 21st December is very close to Christmas Day.

Summer holidays often means travel and with COVID restrictions lifting, air travel is often ‘front of mind’. Hence the December blog is about air travel

Today, flying as a form of travel is widespread and growing – so we, the general public, are affected by airline pricing. Airline ticket prices are not set and can vary significantly, with some airlines offering flights that seem to be ridiculously cheap.

Why do they do this?

Modern airlines have very sophisticated analytical programs that use yield management or dynamic pricing to maximise the seating capacity of each aircraft, while obtaining the highest price for each seat. As Rickenbacker’s quote implies, seats need to be filled. This is a concept relevant to many businesses, which is little understood. It is called marginal pricing and, if used carefully, can significantly increase a business’s profits.

What is marginal pricing?

Marginal pricing occurs when a business sells a product or service at a price that covers the variable cost of producing it. The marginal cost is the variable cost of producing an additional unit or service. The concept of marginal pricing assumes that the fixed costs and overheads are already covered by earlier sales.

How does marginal pricing work in practice?

With airlines, the marginal costs of getting additional revenue are very low. Once an aircraft takes off, the empty seat is gone forever. It is a perishable commodity and cannot be warehoused or sold on another day. The same can be said for scheduled truck deliveries with spare capacity. The marginal cost of additional passengers is virtually zero. This is why airlines can offer what appears to be drastically discounted fares.

The road industry provides a good example of how this works in practice. For example, the cost of operating a semi-trailer is $1,600 per day including variable costs – fuel, finance, tyres and maintenance, loading and unloading – as well as fixed costs and overheads such as insurance, registration, depot costs and the driver’s salary. This is based on traveling 900km per day and a freight carrying capacity of 22 pallets.

The semi-trailer is loaded with 18 pallets (82% capacity) with initial revenue of $2,160 ($120 per pallet).

•             Fixed costs and overheads: $450 per day

•             Variable costs: $1,050 per day

•             Marginal costs: $5.56 per pallet (loading and unloading a pallet).

With a spare capacity of four pallets, there is an opportunity for the vehicle to fill this capacity by using marginal pricing. The assumption is that no extra variable costs such as fuel and tyres are incurred, and the only additional or marginal cost is the loading and unloading of the additional pallets. According to the concept of marginal pricing, providing the marginal costs of $5.56 per pallet is included, and any additional revenue above this will fall to the bottom line as profit.

This is demonstrated in the following table:

Marginal Pricing of Semi-Trailer Delivery

This example clearly shows that the addition of three pallets loaded onto the vehicle, with revenue of $80.00 per pallet instead of $120.00 per pallet, increases the revenue from $2,160 to $2,400, with profits increasing from $559.92 to $783.24 per day, or 40%.

Within manufacturing, the marginal cost is the variable cost of producing an extra unit of output. Let’s use manufacturing 1,000 wheelbarrows as an example:

•             Variable cost of manufacture is $20.00 per unit

•             Fixed costs are $10.00 per unit

•             Overheads are $5.00 per unit

•             Total cost per unit for a single wheelbarrow is $35.00.

The total cost for 1,000 wheelbarrows is $35,000 (1,000 x $35.00).

However, the cost of manufacturing an additional 500 wheelbarrows is $10,000, as $20.00 per wheelbarrow is the variable cost of production. The manufacturer could sell the additional 500 wheelbarrows at $40.00 each and make a profit of $20.00 per wheelbarrow.

Marginal cost pricing is a valuable tool for businesses, providing an opportunity to increase profits significantly if managed – particularly with unused capacity, such as in a manufacturing plant and in services such as transport.

However, there are dangers in marginal pricing. As a business, you must know and understand your costs – and this includes the cost of the sales staff.

Are there opportunities in your business to increase profits by marginal pricing?

What are the dangers if you decide to implement this strategy?

#thenetworkofconsultingprofessionals

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