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© 2007-11, William Swelbar.

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« The Elastic Induced Ride to Inelasticity »

I do not know what you have been doing this morning, but I have been listening to the earnings calls at AirTran Airways and United Airlines. Last week I listened to both American Airlines and Continental Airlines talk to the analysts. It is an accepted principle that volatile prices are most unsettling on commodity industries – and the US airline industry has become a commodity industry.

Beginning in late 2000, volatile prices came in the form of decreasing fares. Today, volatile prices come in the form of rising oil prices.

The initial ride down in fares resulted in the growth of the low cost carrier segment of the industry. That sector's rise occured commensurately with the shrinkage of the network legacy carrier capacity in the US domestic market. The new world of lower ticket prices forced necessary cost changes on the network carrier segment, altered the demand calculus and led many observers to conclude that high load factors demonstrated that there was no overcapacity in the market.

Ah, that elasticity of demand thing. The notion that an airline could fill every seat – but at some price that does not cover the cost -- underscores this shallow approach to the analysis of overcapacity.

Well, the rubber band is about to snap.

In a post last week,: This Week’s Conversation Will Be In Words that Start With “C”, I discussed capacity issues and a whole lot of other “C” words we’re going to be hearing more of as US airlines unveil their financial performance for the first quarter of this year. Covenants; credit card holdbacks; cash; capacity cuts; capx spending plans . . . all are being discussed as liquidity concerns are again top of mind for the industry just like they were in late 2001 and 2002. And I’m not even including consolidation. Based on the market’s embrace (or lack thereof) of the proposed Delta and Northwest merger, there are bigger and more fundamental questions to answer.

And every company has been asked how they might raise cash down the line if needed.

The unhealthy revenue environment that began to form in late 2000 is simply not capable of offsetting the daily spikes in fuel costs that began in 2004. Therefore the industry is left with difficult decisions regarding capacity reductions – a recurring theme as carriers announce additional cuts and slowdowns. Today United, keeping with its aggressive posture, announced the most aggressive capacity cuts of any carrier reporting to date. But say what you will about aggressive management actions, United’s first quarter numbers are hard to swallow.

Capacity reductions will ultimately lead to finding that demand which is inelastic. An elastic demand is one in which the change in quantity demanded due to a change in price is large. An inelastic demand is one in which the change in quantity demanded due to a change in price is small. Volatile changes in price need to be addressed/minimized for this industry to be healthy again – or at least produce that level of supply where costs can be passed on to the consumer. That is where we are headed and it is the right direction. Furthermore, I heard United make it clear on their call that unitary elasticity is not in their interest until it applies to a much smaller segment of their ridership.

Concluding Thoughts

Believe as we might, this industry is not impervious to outside influences that impact every industry. Those influences come in different ways. There will be some consumers displaced by some of these necessary pricing actions. There will be some consumers put out by the sense that they are being nickled and dimed for a change policy, a preferred seat, a second bag that consumes fuel by its weight, or even a meal. There is no free lunch as life teaches us everyday. And for the US airline industry, finally we are saying that no one is entitled to a free ride or at least a ride where the consumer does not pay for the cost of that carriage.

And I wrote this without mentioning force majeur or the need to craft a Failing Industry Doctrine.

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