The aviation industry is known for its tech dependence. But with the presence of sacred cows, legacy brands, and resistance, innovation often lags. In this episode of “Flying into the Future: How Tech is Shaping the Airlines Business,” Omri Hurwitz welcomes esteemed guest Nathaniel Felsher, a renowned advisor to CEOs and industry experts.
Nathaniel Felsher, the founder and CEO of CAVU Management Partners, LLC, brings a wealth of experience. As the former President and Chief Strategy Officer of Aimia Inc. and Global Co-Head of Aviation – Corporate & Investment Banking at Deutsche Bank, he has advised clients in the aviation, travel technology, and transportation infrastructure sectors across the globe.
Today, Omri and Nathaniel talk about the changing dynamics of the aviation industry, the impact of new competition, the evolution of business models, and the transformative power of innovative technologies within the airline sector.
Omri: Hi Nathaniel, thank you for being on the show. Can you share a little bit about your background and how you got into this position that you’re currently at?
Nathaniel: Of course. So, I spent 18 years as an investment banker. The last 11 were at Deutsche Bank where I was the global co-head of aviation, corporate, and investment banking focused on M&A and equity transactions with airlines, aircraft, and lessors, but then built out a coverage area of all adjacencies, from loyalty companies, and catering companies, to online travel agencies – everything other than the airline as well. At various times, I was based in London, in New York, but mostly based on planes where going to three continents in one week would be typical. And in most years, I would spend more nights on red-eye than in hotels.
Omri: A lot of people in the aviation industry would say you’re the strategy expert or you’re the business model expert. Can you discuss several specific business models that you’ve seen working for the companies that consult you with in the past, in recent years?
Nathaniel: I speak specifically of airlines. There are clearly cost-focused legacy carriers and they’re able to extract a revenue premium and then low-cost carriers that are totally cost-focused and stimulate demand by having lower prices. From an airline perspective, they’re both models that are looking for profitability but go about it in different ways. One looking for a revenue premium and one looking to stimulate by having the lowest costs in a market to get more travelers as opposed to getting more from each traveler.
Omri: In your experience, what are some of the common mistakes that those airlines are making in terms of business models and pricing costs?
Nathaniel: It’s interesting. In the past, airlines have had to focus disproportionately on costs and trying to get efficiencies out of those costs, from those cost items, because they haven’t had good tools to extract revenue. Its revenue management and pricing within the airline space have been a bit of a dark art, and only now are tools catching up with the needs of the sector. And I think that’s a function of, frankly, COVID acting as a reset. So what was historically kind of sacred cows and things that you couldn’t change now are very much being open to be revisited and technology is helping to facilitate that.
Omri: Like in other industries, like the finance industry, we saw how algo trading has been able to take place and really amplify and optimize the way this industry operates. You talked about a reset. Do you think now’s the time to insert algo trading into the aviation industry and finally go all in on it?
Nathaniel: Much like pre-algo trading, there were greater inefficiencies between trading. There were greater spreads between prices and that enabled middlemen. Now, that’s going to change. There’s a move away from that within airlines and travel more broadly. And that’s a function, frankly, of the fact that airlines are the hero brands within the travel space. If you think about an OTA, it’s an online travel agency, and has to build a brand to generate traffic or it has to be the lowest price. The move is that passengers are now booking 50+ percent directly with the airline. But as that moves from 50 towards 100, the airline gets pricing power, the consumer gets a lower price, and unfortunately, OTA business models may be disrupted.
Omri: What are the most promising investment opportunities in the aviation industry?
Nathaniel: There’s a lot, but I think one has to recognize that startups within the space typically underestimate how difficult it is to break into airlines, given some of their legacies and rightly resistance to change. So, this is a space that is clearly very tech-dependent, but innovation lags and startups can often be very innovative but haven’t fully built out their tech stack. It’s not an airline’s bulletproof standard that it needs to be. And I think that’s where often the challenges for startups really start and then kind of compound over time.