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Dec 14, 2010 4:37 AM

World's 5 biggest airlines now from Asia, LatAm

GENEVA (AP) The world's five biggest airlines now hail from Asia and Latin America, highlighting the industry's shift away from the U.S. and Europe to higher-growth countries, the International Air Transport Association said Tuesday.

Air China is twice the size of either Delta in the U.S. or Germany's Lufthansa. But despite emerging markets' strength and a broad earnings rebound this year, weak economic conditions in Europe and low margins are acting as a drag on profits, the group warned.

"The world is changing in aviation, and it's changing very, very quickly," IATA Chief Executive Giovanni Bisignani told a news conference in Geneva. "Rapidly developing markets are shifting the industry's center of gravity to the East."

Air China has a market capitalization of $20 billion, followed by Singapore airlines with $14 billion and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific with $12 billion.

China Southern has a market cap of $11 billion, as does LATAM, the Latin American airline recently created from the merger of Chile's LAN and TAM of Brazil. U.S. carrier Delta and Germany's Lufthansa follow with market capitalizations of $10 billion each.

IATA said strong growth in developing countries and a rebound in North America are largely responsible for the industry's recovery this year.

Airlines will see net profits of $15.1 billion in 2010, IATA said. This marks a massive turnaround from the $10 billion industry loss in 2009 and $16 billion loss in 2008.

Asian carriers will contribute $7.7 billion to the global total, while North American airlines will earn $5.1 billion. Europe, with estimated net profits of $400 million, lags behind the Middle East ($700 million) and Latin America ($1.2 billion). African carriers will earn $100 million this year, IATA said.

The full-year estimate is a significant jump from IATA's prediction in September for an $8.9 billion industry profit in 2010.

"2011 is going to be a much more challenging period," said IATA chief economist Brian Pearce, noting that heavy debts and new taxes will weigh on consumer travel spending in Europe and North America.

IATA forecasts net profits of $9.1 billion for the industry next year.

Bisignani warned that profit margins remain "pathetically low" and pose a threat to the industry in case of another economic shock.

Recently introduced air travel taxes in Britain, Germany and Austria, and efforts to introduce a regional carbon emissions trading market harm Europe's competitiveness, he said, noting that these further squeeze profit margins for the continent's carriers.

Fuel price rises are also expected to hurt profits in 2011, further driving the industry to reduce aircraft fuel consumption and find viable renewable alternatives.

Still, the Geneva-based group representing some 230 carriers and 93 percent of scheduled air traffic said the outlook is bright for Asia.

A rapidly expanding middle class in Asia and growing demand for air links between the continent's 15 mega-cities, with over 10 million inhabitants each, promise strong industry profits in the region, Bisignani said.

If "archaic ownership rules" in the United States were changed the industry might soon see the first takeover of a U.S. carrier by an Asian airline, he added.

The Italian, who has been at the helm of IATA for nine years, will be succeeded by Cathay Pacific CEO Tony Tyler next year.

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