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Sep102008

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Last month, in a blog post Begging ……. The Questions, I wondered aloud if the US industry, that had announced capacity cuts in July as crude touched $147 per barrel and jet fuel approached $180 per barrel "in the wing", would rollback their capacity cutting plans as oil prices have dropped nearly $40 per barrel since.

At least in Ft. Worth, announced capacity cuts will be actual capacity cuts. Tom Horton, American’s CFO said the domestic capacity cuts are permanent in an interview with the Associated Press. Horton touches on two important cost benefits that will be realized by the decisions his company is taking: 1) the fleet being retired is not efficient from a fuel consumption perspective; and 2) older aircraft require much greater expenditures to maintain.

American Airlines has been aggressive in its capacity planning and has been joined by United and others. Airports around the air transportation system will certainly point to the fact that oil has dropped significantly in the past two months. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that the price of crude oil is only part of the equation; remember the crack spread or the cost to refine crude oil into jet fuel.

The industry is still paying roughly a $140 per barrel equivalent for jet fuel. On average, the industry spent the equivalent of $90.93 per barrel for jet fuel in 2007. It is the difficult management actions that are being undertaken like capacity reductions, ancillary fees and additional employee dislocations that are giving Wall Street some hope that the industry just might be profitable in 2009. But, that all depends on the actual condition of the economy doesn’t it? And I am not sure we can even get an accurate temperature read today.

A Demand Prism?

Let’s not lose sight of the important guidance the cargo side of the business gives to the passenger business despite the fact that they are very different business models. It was the cargo sector that first warned of a slowing economy earlier in the year and the effects it saw on its business outlook. The cargo business addresses more traffic that is demanded on a just-in-time basis and as a result is less price-sensitive. The cargo business is a more leading indicator of things to come. The passenger business sells a significant level of its product well ahead of the actual delivery and tends to be more price-sensitive for a majority of its demand.

Last night, William Greene of Morgan Stanley wrote a piece on Federal Express. It was entitled: Weak Guidance Highlights Cyclical Pressures. And I quote: "Cyclical headwinds clearly a challenge for earnings. As we noted when we downgraded FDX shares back in late July, we struggle to find a compelling reason to own parcel stocks. Although lower fuel prices have pushed off some of our secular concerns about a permanent modal shift, a global slowdown is undermining one of the few remaining areas of strength – international. Moreover, air fuel surcharges are still high from a historical perspective and domestic volumes remain under pressure."

A couple of things in closing. Oil is down but still 50 percent higher after the fall than the average price paid in 2007. And, passenger airlines now face the reality of economic forces and the actual health of consumer’s pocketbooks as the peak travel season just completed was sold in February and March of this year. Fuel coming down is good for all of us, but its fickle nature should not be ignored. Nor should it suggest that the hard decisions made by the industry earlier in the year to park capacity are no longer necessary.

Interesting too is Greene’s assessment that international markets might be weakening. Does the cargo sector offer a prism for the passenger side of the business? I think so and you do not have to read aviation news from around the world everyday to reach that conclusion.

I must say I am amazed that I have not read any uneducated and uniformed reporting to date that suggests that the capacity cuts are not needed given the fall in crude oil prices – but I am sure that I will. Maybe even one written in 2002?

More to come.

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