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British Airways has its debt rating cut to ‘junk’ status by Fitch

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British Airways has become the first major European airline to have its debt rating cut to ‘junk’.

Fitch, the ratings agency, cut BA’s rating from BBB- to BB+ today.

(For clarity, this downgrade is specifically for British Airways and not for its parent, International Consolidated Airlines Group.  This is because the debt which has been downgraded is ringfenced against the BA operation.)

You can see a summary of Fitch’s reasoning here.

Fitch believes that British Airways will not be operating a schedule as large as it did in 2019 until 2023, and that even by 2023 aircraft will be emptier than they were in 2019.  

To be precise, it is expecting BA to operate 22% fewer seats in 2021 than it did in 2019, and 5% fewer in 2022.  Even though it will be operating a comparable schedule in 2023, Fitch is still assuming that it sells fewer seats per flight (80% vs 84%) than it did in 2019.  It is also expecting a single-digit decline in average ticket prices.

The airline is still expected to deliver positive operating cash flow in 2021 but this will not cover its debt and capital expenditure requirements.  90% of IAG fuel requirements are hedged for 2020 so there is minimal benefit from the current low oil price.

As well as cutting the rating to ‘junk’, British Airways debt has been put on ‘negative outlook’.  This means that Fitch believes that it is more likely to be downgraded further rather than given back its investment grade rating.

Part of the reason for the negative outlook, apart from uncertainty over the speed of demand recovery, is the current, expensive, aircraft order book for British Airways.

Last year, it placed a firm order with Boeing for 18 x Boeing 777-9 aircraft (pictured below).  These have a list price – admittedly before a substantial discount which BA will have negotiated – of $442 million each.

British Airways parent has its debt rating cut to 'Junk' status

As of February 2019, British Airways was also committed to 12 x Boeing 787s, four 777-300ERs and 18 x Airbus A350, albeit some of these are already delivered.

It is worth noting that S&P and Moody’s still retain an investment grade credit rating on British Airways, albeit with a negative outlook.  This is important as many funds will be forced to sell their BA debt when two of the three rating agencies move it to ‘junk’ status.

One upside is that Fitch does believe that British Airways has enough liquidity to fund itself during Quarter 2, with recovery beginning from July.  It believes that the culture of cost-cutting and its strong position on valuable North American routes will provide strong support.

You can read more on the Fitch website here.

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Comments (64)

  • Steve says:

    It’s all good. The Fed has announced they will buy recently downgraded debt, so more central banks will follow suit. So these poorly managed, low margin, poor customer service, fat cat sponsored, share buy back companies will survive. Hooray. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Hyperinflation and social instability to follow. Ho hum. Thank god for my 10 square meter garden to grow my food in

  • southlondonphil says:

    Fitch’s commentary on BA’s Rating is here:

    https://www.fitchratings.com/research/corporate-finance/fitch-downgrades-british-airways-to-bb-maintains-negative-outlook-09-04-2020

    It’s slightly more detailed than the Bloomberg report and provides some insight into their thinking re: expected capacity and load factors going forward. The point about 2023 is that Fitch forecasts that it will take until then for BA to be operating the same level of flight capacity (measured in seat-kilometres) as it did at the end of 2019

  • Rich says:

    When health returns, the natural instinct is to tread carefully, having experienced the result of such a pandemic. People are NOT going to rush back to “normality” they will tread carefully – and financially, very very carefully. Disposable income will be a novelty anyway due to loss of income and jobs. Many will save for the next rainy day.
    Will airlines try to suck in leisure travellers by slashing fares? I doubt it very much. It still costs $x per mile to keep a plane functional. Yes there will be some comparatively good deals I’m certain of that but there wont be giveaway fares by any means. It doesn’t make financial survival sense.
    Finally watch out for loyalty schemes; they may well be suspended or vastly devalued to save money. That makes financial sense.
    Personally, we will resume our travelling as soon as we can.

  • AndyF says:

    Who earns the bulk of IAG profits out of the four or so airlines?

    • Rob says:

      BA. By a long way.

      • ChrisBCN says:

        According to their 2019 report, BA earnt 68% of IAG profits, and 57% of their revenue. This share dropped on the previous year and was expected to drop again this year, as most of the growth comes from the other brands.

        • Spaghetti Town says:

          That’s not shocking though is it. BA is by far the most mature of the IAG brands and is severely restricted on growing its home hub.

          It’s mainly a cash-cow ticking over.

  • Zumodenaranja says:

    Ironic that the much criticised cost-cutting regime at BA may be the very thing that saves the company!

  • insider says:

    i see that Delta also received a junk rating from Fitch today – obviously an industry wide viewpoint