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Mar082008

« The Era of Transition, and Hopefully Transformation, Is Top of Mind for British Airways as Well »

Industry cycles often adopt a theme – and often too late. The late 1990’s through, at least, the first three quarters of 2000 was arguably a bubble period where revenue generation was too good to be true – even in hindsight. Yet the US industry added billions dollars of costs believing that the revenue trajectory was sustainable. For US carriers, the period from late 2001-2007 was a restructuring period. A period necessary to begin making wholesale changes based on the unrealistic cost structures that developed during the inflating of the bubble.

Now today, we find an industry that has indeed taken billions of dollars of cost out of any number of carrier’s respective operations. But it was clearly not enough to produce an industry structure that can profitably support all of the current players. All you have to do is read 2008’s best-selling daily horror novel named the Wall Street Journal to realize that we are on very shaky ground. And about the only thing we know for sure is that the revenue health of the US and global airline industries is inextricably tied to the health of the US and global macro economies.

Views from Willie Walsh

Back in October, I wrote the shortest swelblog.com post to date. And the themes from that post are the one’s I use most when speaking. In Transforming the Transatlantic Market Into a Transcon Market, I reference a Reuters article that interviewed British Airways’ Chairman Willie Walsh. In that post I characterize the story in the following sentences: “Clearly British Airways is (re)evaluating the best use of its capital as the current architecture of the transatlantic market is being (re)examined. This story comes on the heels of reports that BA is considering a major expansion of new services into the US market”.

In the Reuters article, Walsh uses the term transformational. Transforming the global airline industry is precisely what is being done in Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Sydney. It is precisely what Glenn Tilton of United, Doug Parker of US Airways, and now Richard Anderson of Delta and Doug Steenland of Northwest have been/are saying as well.

There are Many Parallels Between BA’s Views and US Industry Views…..

……and I will touch on a few.

Individual airline growth around the world is taking place in multiple ways. Among the elite Asian carriers, the robust growth is largely organic. The same is true in Latin America. Except for LAN who is expanding through both organic growth as well as providing a brand on which flags of countries with struggling airlines can rely on for access to the global air transportation system. In the Middle East region, it is all about organic growth. This region is blessed with geography, capital and a vision that I appreciate more today than I did just a month ago.

In Europe though, growth for the legacy carriers has largely come through acquisition strategies. Sure Ryanair and Easyjet are growing organically but they are not the answer to Europe’s global access anymore than Southwest, jetBlue and AirTran are in the United States. It is just naïve to believe that the low cost sector is that answer.

On March 7, 2008 the Financial Times wrote a very good story entitled: BA looks to play the consolidation game. It is from this story that I will attempt to draw out some of the many parallels that exist between BA and the thoughts on industry structure espoused by the leaders of the US legacy carriers.

For British Airways, global travel is everything. For the US legacy carriers, global travel is quickly becoming everything as the US domestic market’s fragmented structure promises little to nothing in terms of profitable new business. But when BA looks at the size its principal regional competition (Air France/KLM and Lufthansa/Swiss) has grown to through acquisition, it, like its US counterparts, need to be concerned. They are big in virtually any metric imaginable.

While much is being written about what the new open skies agreement means for the industry in 2008, arguably the most important event for BA begins in December of 2008 when Lufthansa has a call option to begin buying BMI British Midland. With BMI comes a large London Heathrow slot portfolio that is sure to bring lots of interest from carriers around the globe. As BA moves to the brand new T5, and with the move the ability to move many more passengers, the slot issue is not lost on Walsh.

Like the US carriers, BA has shown very little growth since 2001. It has been engaged in its very own restructuring process. BA generates strong cash flow like the US legacy carriers but also relatively low returns on capital which also resembles the US legacy carriers. The FT article states that BA is readying for a growth period that is likely to be some combination of organic and acquisition related. In a theme that is quite reminiscent of what US legacy CEOs have been saying, Walsh is quoted in the article as saying "Some of the shackles have been removed," he told investors and equity analysts on Thursday, "we have not quite fixed the core business, but we are well on the way".

Ah, that core business thing again. To invest? Or not to invest? - and let the enterprise attrit into oblivion. That IS the question.

The FT piece expands on BA’s interest in BMI and goes on to say that an interest remains in Iberia. But outside of these two carriers, there is little interest in anything else European. Walsh states, "We are mindful of the opportunities consolidation can offer," he said. And his gaze is not only fixed on Europe”.

But Before We Go There – Yet Another Parallel

In a paragraph which caused me to pause and read multiple times, Walsh commented on the acquisitions made by each Air France and Lufthansa: "we look with admiration" at how both deals had generated substantial revenue synergies, a possibility BA had largely discounted, as it concentrated much more on the potential for cutting costs”.

This sounds a lot like what Delta and Northwest have been discussing. Network and revenue synergies first. I, along with many observers, have also struggled with the strategy outlined in a number of press reports which suggest that Northwest and Delta will maintain their current network structures. But after a period of domestic cuts and a restructuring of networks with a sharp focus on an international strategy, we will just have to wait and see whether the same synergies can be realized here in the US as are being realized in Paris and Frankfurt.

On US Consolidation and Views on the Regulatory Landscape

The article and Mr. Walsh offer views on US consolidation that are also in concert with statements made by US legacy carrier CEOs. "US consolidation would be a good step forward," said Mr Walsh, "it would benefit the US and the global industries".

There has to be a strong US industry for there to be progress in the next stage of transatlantic liberalisation and a dismantling of US restrictions on the foreign ownership and control of US airlines.

BA had a "good relationship" with its US partner American Airlines, but the development of any deeper deal was "inhibited" by the two groups' lack of antitrust immunity from the US and European competition authorities.

"There is evidence that the regulatory landscape is changing," said Mr Walsh, but it was not yet clear that it had changed sufficiently to make a fresh application for a deal with American, he said. "We will continue to look and examine."

Bringing Back a Few of My Favorite Glenn Tilton Statements

For those of you that have read this blog since the beginning, you will have seen these quotes used before. For the purposes of this blog post, the parallels between a US airline CEO and Mr. Walsh are certainly evident.

Glenn Tilton, UAL’s Chairman and CEO said in a speech to the Nikkei Global Management Forum in Tokyo: “If there is one imperative for every business in the global economy today, it is simply this: evolve, adapt, reinvent . . . or risk irrelevance in the global marketplace”. He went on to say: “As everyone here today knows well: the reality of our world is that globalization is relentless. Think of any industry represented in this room; choose any business listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange; and one can be sure: it looks nothing like it did ten years ago; and looks nothing like it will ten years from now”.

In his Tokyo speech, Tilton asks the following question: “As globalization gives rise to new economic powers within the developing world, the real question for all of us operating in mature economies today is this: will the legacy systems that contributed to the success in developed nations in the 20th Century be an asset or an impediment to growth in the 21st Century”?

He goes on: “The airline industry is a perfect platform from which to focus this discussion, because it is subject to virtually every imaginable challenge -- every human challenge, industrial challenge, financial, regulatory, and security challenge -- throughout the global economy. And then, of course, we also contend with the weather”.

So BA, like the US legacy carriers have evolved largely by being pushed by economic and competitive forces to engage in a necessary restructuring. The restructuring was necessary to adapt to both a changed and hypercompetitive domestic market and to better prepare for a world that has been largely liberalized. But, the reinvention of former legacy airlines into entities that can thrive in tomorrow’s economic world is not complete. And that is clear for each BA and United and Northwest and Delta and others to be sure.

More to come.

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