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Sunday
Apr132008

« This Week’s Conversation Will Be In Words that Start With “C” »

It is Sunday afternoon and before I sit down to watch the Masters and what appears to be a five player chase for the green jacket, will the week ahead produce any eagles and birdies for the US airline industry? Or will bogeys or worse continue to dominate the headlines? Earnings season kicks off this week. And with earnings season, there will be a theme or two that will emerge as airlines talk about the business going forward.

As I ponder the week ahead, I am thinking the conversation about the business will be dominated by a lot of words that start with C. Yes CONSOLIDATION will remain top of mind. But that C word will be joined by others like: CREDIT CARD holdbacks and who might be next; COVENANT COMPLIANCE that might trigger a CREDIT CARD event; CREDIT CONDITIONS generally; CASH and more importantly, unrestricted cash; CAPITAL expenditure plans, whether aircraft or non-aircraft, and what adjustments to those plans are likely; COMPLIANCE with airworthiness directives and maintenance requirements; COMPENSATION and yes that will be executive compensation; CHAPTER and you pick the number; CAPACITY reductions and how much more can be expected or gaining more insight into plans; and CASH BURN rates are likely to be the new concern and hot topic.

Talk in oil denominated terms will likely continue. Something like: that was $20 a barrel or so ago. Assuming that Delta and Northwest finally announce something this week as is widely expected, then I am sure that changes to the deal structure will be discussed in those terms. But come to think about it, we never ever really knew what the structure of the deal that wasn’t really was. But while all the original CATALYSTS for CONSOLIDATION remain, at what point do we begin to hear that CAPITAL is emerging as the real CATALYST driving CONSOLIDATION as the industry searches for a more stable operating platform – or as capital makes it clear that a bigger platform is necessary in the new world of high oil prices for the US industry.

But if the conversation does turn to CASH BURN, then talking in oil denominated terms is right. Based on what we know about expected capacity reductions largely taking place after the peak summer season, it is important to remember that while bookings for the summer are strong, those tickets were purchased some $20 per barrel ago. So while fare increases have been put in place, only some of those increases will be realized over the coming months. Simply, the industry will be carrying those passengers throughout the summer that purchased tickets earlier in the year at fuel prices that are much higher today. This is a primary reason for citing CASH BURN and liquidity as the hot topic.

So while there are lots of interesting topics that start with C that we could write about, I am going to end with the situation at Frontier. I read a news story that had a title something like: Frontier Pointing Its Finger at First Data. Yes the credit card company may have been the catalyst that caused the filing with very little notice, but is Frontier’s filing really a surprise? It just seems to me that this underscores the fragility of the industry today at nearly every corner.

If I am a credit card company and am concerned about customers defaulting on obligations, and I have a lot of exposure to a very risky industry I am probably going to make some very hard decisions. Do I think that this chapter filing will go the way of the others we have seen thus far. No. But then again, if we have not yet seen the bottom then maybe there will finally be a capital aversion for this industry or at least for business plans that just do not make sense or offer promise of solid returns for investors. A couple of posts ago we talked about how the historical barriers to exit just might not be the safety nets that they once were.

Well I think the Frontier story is the first test of those traditional barriers to exit. And not the last.

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