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© 2007-11, William Swelbar.

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« Converging Catalysts Making a Case for Consolidation? »

Don’t look now…….

…..but there is something that feels different to me. In the vial, mix:

1. a lot of anxiety with commensurate posturing
2. non-traditional capital sources with skeptical labor
3. parochial tendencies against global economic forces
4. a weak dollar relative to foreign currencies
5. a weakening US economy and record high oil prices that appear to be the new standard

What do you get? Consolidation chatter that has the feel that it is real. Not talk; not speculation . . ..the real deal.

The US Home Market

The last meaningful airline consolidation period that involved multiple players began in the mid-1980s. Piedmont bought Empire; American bought AirCal; Northwest bought Republic; TWA bought Ozark; United bought Pan Am’s Pacific Division; Delta bought Western; USAir bought PSA; USAir and PSA bought Piedmont; United bought Pan Am’s London Heathrow authority; and American bought TWA’s London Heathrow authority. And that’s only the larger transactions of the period.

It is these transactions that formed the commercial backbone of the industry today. Nearly 20 years have passed since the industry recognized that economies of scope, scale and density would prove important to survival in a deregulated network industry. And it brought a significant regional concentration of services. Two Minneapolis hub carriers merged; two St. Louis hub carriers merged; and two predominantly East Coast carriers merged. Arguably, only Delta and Western represented an “end to end” merger of carriers.

In the years since, there have been periods of mainline capacity cuts, mainline capacity growth and regional carrier growth – explosive at times and largely facilitated by technological change and a disparity in labor rates. And by the late 1990s, we also had the explosion in new capacity by low-cost carriers, and not just Southwest. The growth by the LCC sector was largely driven by the gap in the cost structures between the upstarts and the legacy carriers.

That Was Then, This Is Now

We have talked on Swelblog.com about how the barriers to exit are greater for this industry than are the barriers to entry. We learned the latest lesson on this topic during the bankruptcy era when more-than-sufficient capital was available to fund each of the respective plans of reorganization.

I would be surprised if one serious analyst did not question the virtues of the reorganization plans. Costs were cut and network changes were made, to be sure. But now, compounding the price of fuel is a weakening economy. Airline share prices plummeted throughout the month of December. Thus far in 2008, virtually every market is off to one of the worst starts of any year on record. The markets know something. The only time I want to see the highs getting lower, and the lows getting lower, is in my golf score.

At some point, the current credit crisis, increasing food prices and the impact of rising fuel on the consumer pocketbook will begin to put real pressure on consumer disposable income. And this will impact airline travel. Consumers will simply be less inclined to travel, even if the ticket price is right. From everything I read, it is clear that planned capacity for 2008 has not factored in any meaningful loss of consumer disposable income, nor should it as the macro economic indicators continue to provide us with mixed signals at every turn.

The Catalysts for Consolidation

1. The price of fuel: Consolidate this time will mean consolidate, or risk getting smaller. Consolidate means eliminating any and all duplication of service and costs associated with providing that service. And no, it does not have to harm the consumer as I believe that the leadership of the US airline industry may actually be more concerned about further erosion of consumer confidence in the industry than the health of the economy and oil threats.

2. The US domestic economy: A weakening economy will only shine a harsher light on service to communities that can’t be operated at a profit. The US airline industry made a good bet on 50 seat capacity during the latter half of the 1990s. That bet helped the industry to remain connected during the dark days of 2001 – 2004. But if that capacity was not economic at $50 oil, then it certainly is not economic at $90 oil. I do not think the industry has any overt intentions to disenfranchise entire communities from access to the US air transportation system. Rather, the industry will rightly ask if the same revenue can be generated with six frequencies instead of nine or three frequencies instead of five.

3. Hyper domestic competition: If anyone on Capitol Hill ignores the simple fact that US airline industry growth has slowed at home because few profitable opportunities remain, then we will just keep having the circular conversation – mostly driven by parochial concerns – that rejects consolidation out of an irrational fear that it will limit competition.

4. Increased international competition: If not a catalyst today, incursions into our market from foreign carriers promise to become a pressure point in the near term. The immediate impact of the US-EU deal is not much more than a change of the three letter airport code from LGW to LHR. But LHR, like JFK, is important airline real estate. Given this fact, what will bmi do? It has significant slot holdings that are sure to be bid on by any number of carriers like BA, Virgin, Lufthansa (with rights to exercise), Singapore, Emirates or any one of the Indian carriers. Any one of these carriers can force a changed transAtlantic environment overnight if LHR slots land in their portfolio. And we will sit and watch just how BA will compete with its Open Skies subsidiary from non-LHR points on the continent. Game on.

5. Foreign Capital: Just as plenty of money was available from many sources to fund bankruptcy exits in the US, foreign capital will prove to be plentiful as the US considers merger partners and deal structures. I am not convinced that all alliance structures are set in concrete. This being said, the alliances are sure to be most interested parties in how the network structures might evolve. In fact, some of the competition among the alliances to secure their place at a preferred table may be the catalyst to satisfy the many currently unsatisfied shareholders in US airlines today.

6. Labor: In a recent post here (no, not the one where the Terrapins beat the Tar Heels), I wrote about the emerging leadership of Lee Moak, ALPA MEC Chairman at Delta. Since that posting, the leadership of the pilots at United and Northwest have also spoken. Why the rising volume in the union leadership ranks? Because I am increasingly convinced that the industry is moving beyond recognition that structural change is about to occur -- and with that recognition comes preparation. Unions representing pilots and the flight attendants signal that preparations are underway to address respective issues in any consolidation scenario. They are seeming to believe, as do I, that with a seat at the table comes opportunity.

7. Management: In their public statements, the leadership at each of the airlines is increasingly more resolute in their comments regarding consolidation. United’s Tilton and US Airways’ Parker have been joined in recent weeks by Delta’s Anderson and Northwest’s Steenland speaking out in support of consolidation. Keep watching – it appears that Continental’s Kellner and Southwest’s Kelly may not be far behind.

With jetBlue partnering with Lufthansa; Frontier under increasing competitive pressure in Denver; and AirTran certain to be challenged by a growing and more vibrant Delta footprint, this discussion is not confined to a single sector of the industry.

A Few Concluding Thoughts

There is just something different this time. If after taking billions of dollars of cost out of the industry’s operations, all we get is a two-year profit cycle, then there will have to be something different this time. Yes, we might get three years of profitability, but that’s not where the smart money is now. Already profit estimates for 2008 are being reduced by 40 percent versus what the industry earned in 2007.

The fact is, the industry already has used most of the rabbits in its hat. In 1985 the industry was in its infancy and the focus was on the domestic market as network size could not be built organically in the face of deregulated pricing. The same is true in 2008, but now we’re talking about network size in the global marketplace. Like in 1985, the networks that are necessary to survive cannot be built organically, not when airlines lack critical pricing power that stems from a fragmented and hypercompetitive home market.

Some very good things came out of that merger period in the 1980s. Some very good things will come out of this merger period as well. Yes, there will be dislocations and the loss of an icon or two. But we should embrace the change. It may be the last shot for many airlines. And it is a risk worth taking because the current model will only produce the same deaths by a thousand paper cuts.

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