Airlines, Always Happy to Raise Ticket Prices, Upset About Price Hikes on Leased Planes

Most airlines lease their planes. Now, with interest rates rising, the lease rates on passenger planes are going up. And guess who's gonna end up paying for it?

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Air travel is rebounding in the wake of the global pandemic, despite airfares going up. But a looming increase in the cost of renting those planes could put the industry through a bit of turbulence. Banks and lenders around the world are raising interest rates on the companies that buy commercial passenger planes and then lease them to the major airlines, as the Financial Times reports.

Chances are the next Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 Max you board won’t actually be owned by the airline whose name the craft bears: over half of all commercial planes in the world are owned by large leasing groups that rent out their fleets to airlines. Like landlords but in the air — skylords, if you will — propping up many household airline brands via long-term airplane rental agreements.

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These fleet operators take on debt to buy the planes, then turn around and rent them to the major airlines. Now that interest rates for those fleet companies are rising, airplane lease rates are going up, too. The FT says rental prices on the 737 Max shot up by 20 percent, while rates on the A320neo went up by 14 percent. CNBC reports monthly rental costs are hovering at at $316,000 for the 737 Max, $324,000 for the A320neo and an eye-watering $375,000 for its bigger sibling, the A321neo.

These monthly rates have been steadily increasing due to a low supply of aircraft and high demand as air travel rebounds, but leasing companies expect them to get even higher in the short term. The executive chairman of one leasing group, aptly named Air Lease, said that the cost of capital hasn’t been this high since the ’70s. Air Lease’s Steven Udvar-Házy explained that the company is seeing its interest rates roughly double compared to rates at the beginning of this year, and these higher costs are being passed on to airlines.

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As you’d expect, airlines aren’t happy about the rent being too damn high. Of course, nobody thinks they’re the bad guy here. As Udvar-Házy told FT, “airlines are under tremendous cost increase pressure, but they’ve been able to pass it on to the traveller in higher ticket prices... So Air Lease is not a sinner in this respect. We’re simply trying to deal with economic realities.

Even so, analysts say fleet owners are getting the short end of the stick. While new plane rental rates are up by five to 10 percent for airlines, it could require closer to 30 percent to cover the increased interest rates that leasing groups are facing. Due to the discrepancy, and the recent surge in air travel, fleet owners will likely stop giving airlines the same leeway as they did the midst of the pandemic; airlines won’t be able to plead poverty, according to Udvar-Házy.

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But what they can do is make plane tickets even more expensive to cover the rent on their planes. And that feels like a safe prediction, if not a happy one.

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