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© 2007-11, William Swelbar.

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Funny When the Shoe Is On the Other Foot

A major US industry employing hundreds of thousands of workers that was once the envy of the world is in trouble. Some of the biggest names in the industry have filed for bankruptcy, leading to significant job loss and cuts to retiree health and pension benefits.

No, I am not talking about the state of the US auto industry in 2009. I am looking back to 2002 at the start of the US airline industry's painful restructuring.

On Aug. 11, 2002 US Airways filed for protection under Chapter 11 of US Bankruptcy Code. On December 9, 2002 United Airlines followed suit.. On April 18, 2003 American announced agreements with all of its unions on concessionary contracts to cut labor costs outside the bankruptcy court. On September 12, 2004, US Airways having emerged from bankruptcy too weak to survive, filed Chapter 11 for the second time. On October 20, 2004 Continental announces plans to seek concessions from workers. Then on September 15, 2005, Delta files for bankruptcy, joined within the hour by Northwest Airlines.

Though years apart and radically dissimilar in many ways, the automobile industry might learn a few things from the experience of the airlines . . . then - and now.

US airlines were largely successful in using bankruptcy to reduce bloated operating cost structures, but the agreements between the debtors and the various stakeholders were based on the belief that the companies would achieve some sort of sustained recovery. We now know this not to be the case.

Since 1980, the US airline industry has lost nearly $20 billion. Over the same period, the non-US airline industry made nearly $20 billion. How do we account for the $40 billion dollar difference?

Bankruptcy can help whittle down costs and provide a mechanism to cleanse a balance sheet full of stupid capital. But it does not address government actions that dictate how an industry can compete. So, as “stress tests” become a part of banking vernacular, the very same tests should be applied to other industries struggling to adapt to a new economy.

Stress Test #1: Labor

For most US airlines, bankruptcy did little to address the expectations and entitlements common in unionized industries. For example, there is still scope language in most pilot contracts that serves as a sort of a “job bank” provision and there are plenty of contractual penalties to pay should the enterprise need to shrink capacity. So far, the airlines that have emerged from bankruptcy are anything but agile. One might say that networks were adjusted to adapt the market’s revenue reality, but my view is that they were really just outsourced to a carrier’s regional partners.  An economic fix in pilot contracts remains unfixed.

If Chrysler, and possibly GM, is to learn anything from airline bankruptcies regarding labor issues, start from a clean whiteboard and negotiate what you need to implement your new business plan. Airline bankruptcies, while incredibly painful to employees, gave too much leeway to the unions in negotiating the level of concessions. Real change comes in addressing emotional labor issues – many left over from an earlier era of trade unionism – like the work rules and job protections that constrain a company’s ability to be flexible and agile in its operations.

And while the airlines were able to make crude cuts to their cost structures, most retain many of the same labor constraints and “protections” that hindered their success in the first place.


Stress Test #2: Capital

Capital considerations are one area where the government and the auto industry each learned from the airline experience in bankruptcy: legacy costs like pensions and retiree health provisions take a tremendous toll on a company’s economic health and financing flexibility. Cerberus Capital may be the sole exception but, anyway you look at, it is clear that the airlines created a case study for other shrinking industries. A lesson the airline industry would have preferred not to teach.

As costs were cut and capital destroyed during the airline restructurings, it became apparent that, without significant changes to its legacy obligations, United was not going to be able to get to a Plan of Reorganization (POR) that would produce the kind of debt coverage any new capital would require. Other airlines inevitably followed United’s lead -- freezing or fleeing some of these expensive plans -- as the private capital waiting in the wings to fund airline exits offered the money with that as a chief condition.

The auto industry understood this as well demonstrated by the UAW’s significant concessions in the last round of negotiations.

All of this is not to say that other economic factors didn’t play a role. For the airline industry, it was the price of oil in the early stages of its march to unprecedented and unthinkable levels as several carriers began to emerge from bankruptcy. And for the auto industry, the ailing economiy exposed the reality that an industry already diminished in size and economic might cannot pay these bills alone.


Stress Test #3: Government

Isn’t it ironic, then, that some in the US government are trying to legislate and limit international airline alliances at the same time the White House opts to save Chrysler by putting it in the hands of Italian carmaker Fiat SpA. In that deal, Fiat acquired an initial 20 percent stake in Chrysler – a stake that will increase to 35 percent if it invests in US small car technology;and could eventually control 51 percent of iconic US automaker once all government loans are repaid.

Still, in Congress, Rep. James Oberstar is trying to push through new challenges to the very global alliances that help US airlines expand their networks and promote growth. The congressman already has cast a suspicious glare at granting immunity for a proposed oneworld alliance between American, British Airways and Iberia – even though those airlines seek only an even playing field with SkyTeam and STAR – the other alliances that include Delta, United and Continental. Oberstar is also gunning at those existing alliances, trying to subject them to a governmental review every three years .

He [Oberstar] claims he is acting only to protect consumers. But what Oberstar appears to discount is the fact that alliances have produced significant new revenue streams for US carriers and benefits for American travelers. Adding oneworld introduces yet more competition – hence, benefiting consumers.

Without leveraging these international partnerships, there is little new revenue for carriers to mine or easy cost-cuts to make. [Just ask US airline darling Southwest Airlines] Fiat plans to improve the bottom line by employing new technology and finding new efficiencies by joining forces with Chrysler. Why shouldn’t US airlines have the same opportunities by partnering with Lufthansa or Air France or KLM or British Airways?

Interestingly, one of the reasons cited for Chrysler’s continued financial problems was its near sole reliance on the US domestic market to sell its cars. And that sounds an awful lot like an airline industry that has struggled through nearly three decades of unhealthy domestic competition because lawmakers - parochial in their thinking - failed to recognize that competition for competition’s sake can destroy industries.

The US airline industry as we know it is at a tipping point. I don’t believe that foreign capital alone will make everything right in US airlineland. But these partnerships offer great potential, particularly if they provide domestic carriers with the ability to upgrade their products and services so that US airline offerings on transoceanic routes are on par with alliance partners. That would be a smart use of capital.

Foreign capital is not tainted. Hell, does anyone really think that US airline capital is not held by non-US parties today? US airlines need it to bring in new revenues and make investments that produce a product that people are willing to pay for. And airline alliances need to be permitted to go to the next step and reduce expenses as well.  Instead, we’ll continue to watch foreign carriers invest in that product while the US airlines slug it out for traffic from Lubbock and Boise.


Stress Test #4: Government Promises

The auto industry is lucky to have the full faith and credit of the United States in back of its restructuring. The airline industry had none of that except for the pension obligations offloaded to the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation . . . and for some of the employees affected that amounted to only pennies on the dollar.

But what the airline industry really needs is for the government to fulfill a decades-old promise to invest in the air-traffic control infrastructure that serves as the backbone for the entire industry.. That is a use of “government money” – one likely funded through taxes and user fees -- that actually offers a decent return on investment.


Concluding Thoughts

The airline industry has many lessons to teach Detroit.

One, you can’t simply cut labor costs without also getting the operational flexibility a corporation needs to compete effectively.

Two, any industry should seriously question whether equity in exchange for benefit obligations will produce a stronger company in the long run. The airline industry makes clear that smaller companies cannot pay for the past in a highly competitive revenue environment.

It’s a new era. What a difference a few years make when a Democratic President of the United States emphatically believes that transferring ownership to a foreign entity is in the best interest of a US company. This is an area where the US airline industry may finally have a case to make that what is good for one industry is good for another.

As for government promises, I only hope that the US auto industry fares better than the US airline industry.

At some point the duplicity must stop.

Reader Comments (10)

Why try to sell a bridge when we have almost an entire industry full of eternally marginal players? Some of these train wrecks went through bankruptcy and still can't compete with the niche carriers.

Foreign airline ownership? This industry would be so lucky to find bigger suckers than its current institutional owners.

The flag carriers already have access to foreign capital, unfortunately the market rate for such debt makes the cure worse than the disease.

Unlike the auto manufacturers, FAA regs require the operating certificate, flight attendants, pilots, and at least the maintenance managers to all be certificated in the US, regardless of any change in the 25% rule. The airlines couldn't move "the factory" to Mexico if they wanted to.

Foreign ownership is a red herring. What the EU carriers really want is cabotage.

"And if you believe that, I've got an airline I'd like to sell ya!!"

05.7.2009 | Unregistered CommenterSonny D

This article is written by the cancer destroying the middle class! I pray everyday people that think like you watch your family members die of brain cancer. The mighty elites get millions and billions and the workers are now throw away like any 3rd world worker!

This writing shows the elitest attitude toward decent paying jobs in this country and is bringing in socialism at a alarming pace! hey when the companies no longer want to give medical or pensions it time for the govt to provide it.

Corperate america was too damn greedy to share so its time to tax them to death!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!I pity anyone who does not see all the good jobs going as bad, unless you like having your kids move back in with yea? Learn the ignorance of a economy from this author and proudly sell your kids a wal-mart career.

Airline unions had too much power in BK? You are wrong!!!!!! They lost holidays,vacations,wages and pensions??? I guess you think working for free is the new business model?

I guess aircraft maintenance being done out of the country is a good thing by unlicenced and non inspeacted facilities?

I guess state and city workers should give up the pensions they have too. This article is to insulting to be real. You are a spoiled tory and not in step with the middle class.

For most US airlines, bankruptcy did little to address the expectations and entitlements common in unionized industries. For example, there is still scope language in most pilot contracts that serves as a sort of a “job bank” provision and there are plenty of contractual penalties to pay should the enterprise need to shrink capacity.

WRONG, WRONG, AND WRONG. Scope and job banks are two different things. I give you kudos for using the term "job bank" becasue that term is now forever linked with GM and their workers. Scope is entirely different, but I think you know that.

The other term you use is furlough. Again, this is not associated with Scope or a "job bank", but again I think you already know that, but want to use these terms to scare the people not in the know.

05.10.2009 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Bloom


I am right, right and right. There should be no collective bargaining provision that stipulates to a number of pilots, flights, block hours or any other parameter. If the business needs to right size, it should not be forced to think otherwise because of a CBA. Scope stipulates to a number of jobs and often companies pay people for work when a headcount reduction would have been the prudent call. Therefore, scope is a job bank provision - the paying of people when not required.


05.10.2009 | Unregistered Commenterswelbar

Scope is used so as to not let a company shift flying to another group of workers that are less paid. If the company cannot pay their workers what is in the CBA then under Chapter 13 Bankrupcy laws they may void certain parts of the CBA as determined by a neutral 3rd party....the judge.

Under normal collective bargaining, us, the pilots, and the company can bargain for anything we want. We wanted scope protection so we have every right to bargain for it. And let me tell you, we paid a steep price for it too.

05.10.2009 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Bloom

Yes both sides paid too much and that is but one reason why this industry is in the position it is in. No matter how you want to paint it, scope is a job bank and perpetuates the the Rooseveltian sense that some are entitled to employment. This is not the 1940's. The period we are currently engaged in is difficult because change is abound at every turn. On a going forward basis no company is entitled to remain a going concern. No employee is entitled to employment.

The words are harsh, but true.

05.10.2009 | Unregistered Commenterswelbar

As for the idiot writing here that he/she prays that people that think like me get to watch family members die of brain cancer - don't bother to write a comment here. I had comments written here in the early days of the blog that were way out of bounds, but yours wins the prize -- so congrats.

05.10.2009 | Unregistered Commenterswelbar

"If the business needs to right size, it should not be forced to think otherwise because of a CBA. Scope stipulates to a number of jobs and often companies pay people for work when a headcount reduction would have been the prudent call."

OK, genius, name for me a single pilot CBA that states a hard number for a minimum of jobs.

You're a lot more impressive when you stick to what you know.

05.15.2009 | Unregistered CommenterSonnyD

Having gone through two airline bankruptcies, the first that eventually put the airline out of business, I speak from experience. The vast majority of airline employees come to work every day and do their jobs to the best of their abilities. I always lived up to my side of the contract bargain. The company did not. All negotiations to modify the contract that I can recall came from the company side and they were always to modify negatively. The union almost always agreed to something close to the company request. The few labor related changes to contracts were minor and of little cost to the company or they were not agreed to and implemented.

I think it is high time that some consideration be given to the employees who are so easily dismissed. I made all of my future plans based on contracts signed and in effect that were eventually modified or cancelled in a bankruptcy. My pension is less than half of what I expected a mere five years before forced retirement. It is difficult to replace 50% of one's expected retirement in such a short time. In fact, I don't think anyone can.

The comments about the loss of the middle class in this country should be a wake up call to our leadership. We can hardly consume--our manufactured products or those from another country, services produced here or abroad, or much of anything--if our income is constantly being eroded. When it becomes the haves and have nots, heaven help us. And I think we are much closer to that point than our leaders realize.

05.15.2009 | Unregistered CommenterBeen there

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