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Entries from April 1, 2008 - April 30, 2008

Monday
Apr282008

Let’s Just Continue the War of Attrition

Considering the Concept of "Rent Sharing"

Maybe the best answer to US airline industry woes is the same path followed in the early 1990’s when iconic names like Pan Am and Eastern liquidated.

I understand Continental’s thinking, I think. They have many attributes that are viewed in previous consolidation periods as positives: youngish fleet; decent, if not good, labor relations; hubs/gateways in markets with strong underlying local demand; hubs/gateways in markets that have interest not only to those in the US but around the globe; and a respected management team that has not only devised a plan but has acted on it. But they still have a fragile balance sheet just like the rest of the US industry.

Kevin Crissey at UBS writes this morning on Continental’s attitude toward consolidation: “We believe CAL mgmt view consolidation as beneficial over the long run but much less so in the short run as labor would take a big cut of the synergies. With fuel and demand draining life from the sector, mgmt appears to be focusing on CAL's survival and likely views a merger as increasing bankruptcy risk”. Continuing to beat that fuel issue to death, my only question is what is the short-term and what is the long-term for the US industry? Is the short-term six months or is it two years?

Mr. Crissey was right to raise the labor situation and the negative impact on any short-term synergies that might be gained from the overall deal. In last week’s congressional hearings on the Delta-Northwest hearings, I believe that Dr. Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institute referred to the topic as “rent sharing”. The negative synergies in "rent sharing" between labor and the deal in the case of Continental and United are somewhere in the $300 – 400 million range, or double those in the Northwest – Delta case.

But rates of pay are only half of the story. Continental’s pilots are more productive than United’s pilots per month based on publically available data in 2006. If that were to be the case, the Airline Data Project estimates that the increase in productivity to Continental levels would mean that 460 fewer United pilots would be needed. While final 2007 numbers will not be available for another six weeks, rate and productivity calculations underscore just one of many difficulties faced in estimating the offset of overall network synergies by the “rent sharing” calculation between management and labor.

On both the compensation and productivity calculations included in the Airline Data Project, please read the footnote that suggests problems with the US Airways and America West calculations for 2006. Further, and based on the calculations there should be no secret as to the difficulties American has in considering whether to play in this round of consolidation or not. The math for them is particularly difficult.

So maybe we just will not be able to get there. Bankruptcy is less an option unless it is a liquidating bankruptcy like we saw most recently with American and TWA where American purchased the assets of TWA. The few combinations left to consider do little to address the immediate need to minimize exposure to the US domestic market unless the opponents to change recognize that the current structure is simply not healthy. US Airways has too many eggs in the US domestic market basket. Hell, everyone has too many eggs in that basket.

Maybe we should start thinking about consolidation as the world thinks about our marketplace and engage in a consolidation of North America and bring Air Canada and Mexico fully into the conversation. This idea would address the US centric mindset that seems to dominate the conversations among the naysayers.

Talk about a bad time to be a CEO in the airline industry. Someone has to get their fingernails dirty. To be sure, private equity would not want to touch the issues left for the industry to work through. Last night, United said in a statement following the Continental Board’s decision: "Ensuring you have the right partner is everything,"

As the late Johnny Cochran might have said: If it doesn’t fit, you must attrit. And in the long run the survivors will benefit.

Thursday
Apr242008

Reflecting on Today’s Congressional Testimony in the DL-NW Deal

I did my best to listen to as much of each hearing as I could today. I certainly found the Senate hearing much more interesting than the House hearing. The only players to testify in each hearing were Delta CEO Richard Anderson and Northwest CEO Doug Steenland. For the most part, similar testimony was offered in each the House and Senate hearings.

I did think both CEOs were much better and much sharper in the Senate give and take. But I sure did feel the pain for Anderson as he tried in many ways to describe how networks work and how networks can create new product as the nodes are leveraged post-deal. Both were particularly good in the afternoon discussing the fuel issue and Steenland finally reminded everyone of the fact that the weak dollar versus virtually any world currency is just another issue weakening the competitive posture of US airlines today.

But the other two panelists in the Senate session?………And for me the most interesting testimony was from Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition.

12 Mitchellisms

I just cannot help myself and will spend a little time picking out some of my highlights from the testimony of each Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition and Dr. Darren Bush of the University of Houston Law Center -- and I am just not sure what he was saying. No, I will spend virtually all of my time with Mr. Mitchell’s testimony as he has been around this industry a long time, and well…….should know better on many points.

In his first full paragraph of his overview, Mitchell rightfully discusses the importance for the Department of Justice to evaluate competition from both a city pair and network perspectives. Then the 5 minutes of scare tactics begin. Mitchell #1: “Moreover, Congress needs to understand the total consumer costs resulting from massive service disruptions and the degradation of the reliability of the system. The direct, indirect and opportunity costs for mid-size communities that lose efficient connectivity to important business centers around the country and globe need to be quantified”.

The reliability of the system? Don’t you think that the government has a significant stake and has failed the consumer, and small and mid-size communities, by failing to upgrade the very air traffic control system within which the carriers operate? It seems to me that even without these high fuel costs that the industry may not be in such “dire straits” if it did not need to add time to the schedule each quarter because of the system’s inefficiency. “money for nothin’”.

If the economics are not there, just because an airport has a runway, a terminal and security does not mean that the airport market is entitled to air service. Maybe another question could be: how have global forces impacted that community and possibly moved much of the economic base away because they were simply not competitive? A fair question to ask before laying it all at the feet of the industry. More simply, if those customers are willing to pay the cost for the service, then they will continue to receive the service.

Mitchell #2: “The managements of Delta and Northwest drove their companies into painful bankruptcies”. Based on what we know about Gerry Grinstein, my guess is bankruptcy was the last arena he preferred to visit. As for Northwest, they along with their labor, worked arduously to avoid a trip to a court-assisted restructuring and stood with labor on the pension issue along that troubled road. Management did not drive anyone in. Market forces did. And each carrier had very different competitive reasons for filing.

Mitchell #3: “With respect to Delta / Northwest, how can one accept that there are billions of dollars in revenue synergy when there are no plans to restructure either network? Unless Delta can convince expert outsiders of something on the order of $5 billion dollars in readily achievable synergies, there is no possibility that this merger could benefit consumers or the public interest”. No plans to restructure either network? Why did they want a complete pilot deal done first? So they could immediately begin to move aircraft around the network to best match aircraft to market sizes I thought. $5 billion in achievable synergies? Well you must have been much more a fan of the US Airways hostile as it did involve capacity cuts that would have been much greater than anything considered here even with the announcements made on each of the carrier’s earnings calls.

Mitchell #4: “The Delta / Northwest proposal emphasizes all of the features of past mergers that have consistently failed and doesn’t exploit any of the synergies of the rare mergers that did produce positive returns, e.g., TWA / Ozark and Northwest / Republic”. You did forget Delta-Western. What I find most interesting about your statement is that each of these mergers, except Delta-Western removed a competing carrier sharing the same hub. Talk about anti-competitive!? My flip comment on the mergers in the mid 80's was if they approve these, then anything goes.

Mitchell #5: “Megamergers create a risk of an operational meltdown that could cripple the nation’s aviation system". Fuel prices and the lack of merger-related synergies would create huge pressures to cut corners on implementation spending, creating pressures that would exacerbate conflicts with (and among) employee groups”. You are right, economic forces, competitive forces, antiquated air traffic control systems and uncontrollable crude and refining costs have no effect at all – so blame it on M&A activity [please read with tongue in cheek].

And further each carrier today, operating as a stand alone, will avoid the fates of Aloha, ATA, Skybus and Frontier? For someone that has made fares a career, do not forget that it is an accepted principle that volatile prices are most unsettling on commodity industries – and the US airline industry has become a commodity industry. Any one of your members should do a net present value calculation on travel expenditures and compare it to other input costs that they have paid.

Mitchell #6: “Merged mega airlines will leverage their route structures to dictate terms and conditions (pay more for less) to corporate buyers, even for those airline pairings without significant route overlap”. Mr. Mitchell, consumers are going to pay more. And if they don’t, labor is part of your constituency and they would not get anymore either. On the more for less issue. Short-term maybe. But this industry knows it has been lacking in making both aircraft and non-aircraft capital expenditures in the business and the most recent earnings announcements suggest they will get further cut back. For virtually every carrier, another trip to bankruptcy is not an option – and Southwest, jetBlue and AirTran are not the option for the constituency you represent.

Mitchell #7: “Coordinated Effects. Going from 6 to 5 airlines would make fare increases easier to stick, especially if Northwest were absorbed into another large carrier because this carrier has often played the role of the “spoiler.” And of course, the problem with fare increases is even more enormous if the industry goes from 6 to 3 super major carriers. United Airlines recently brought back the infamous Saturday Night Stay requirement that will virtually fence-off lower-priced fares for business travelers increasing ticket prices by hundreds of dollars”. Market forces are the catalyst. All sectors of the industry are affected by the current environment. No more free lunch. But again I impress on you to do that net present value analysis I suggested earlier.

Mitchell #8: “Congress should be concerned with the market power of super-mega airlines and their incentive and means to frustrate new airline entry at hub airports”. With the low cost carriers approaching 30% of US domestic market share, your scare tactic that suggests low barriers to entry are simply not true. The US market should not fear individual carrier failures or consolidation. Indeed, this market has demonstrated time and time again that where competition is vulnerable, a new entrant will exploit that vulnerability. Where there are market opportunities, there will be a carrier to leverage that opportunity. Where there is insufficient capacity, capacity will be sure to find the insufficiency.

Mitchell #9: “Congress should also view with great concern the increased joint purchasing power of the global alliances (buying groups) with respect to their ability to exercise monopsony power and drive supplier prices below competitive levels”. To suggest the current laws and regulations even permit this type of action by US airlines is yet another scare tactic. Yes the world will evolve. And alliances are nothing but a band-aid to access the world.

Mitchell #10: “The primarily objective and dirty little secret of these megamergers is the permanent end to meaningful competition between the U.S. and Continental Europe—two airline competitor groupings would control 90-95% of a profitable, growing market of over 30 million people, where there would be zero possibility of new competition”. This is among the more laughable suggestions. Whereas the European-based carriers are healthy today, have you noted the downgrades on British Airways; the story surrounding the continent’s sixth largest carrier, Alitalia; continued moves toward further consolidation that make the Europeans stronger? Further have you noted that Europe’s next competitor originates in the Middle East? To suggest that the game’s conclusion is now decided is another unfortunate scare tactic.

Mitchell #11: “All of the potential external funding for Northwest / Delta and United / Continental would come from the European airlines that would be the leaders of this two-airline duopoly, Air France and Lufthansa”. Interesting comment. Most interesting, as they are not participating in the deal that has been presented. I am not saying that Air France will not, but interesting. And Lufthansa invested $300 million in jetBlue but you did not mention that.

Mitchell #12: No comments on your conclusion.

Thank goodness, Cliff Winston of the Brooking Institution testified today so that market forces could get entered into the record. Not sure what the unions were trying to accomplish as you cannot have a seat at the table until you set the table. My guess is you will have a seat once you have made it clear that that a collective bargaining agent outweighs other options.

Much more to say. Much more to come.

Tuesday
Apr222008

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.

Sunday
Apr202008

Reacquainted With A Great Quote

Peter Goodman, writing for the Daily Times in Pakistan, penned a piece entitled: Time to ask Milton Friedman?. Goodman writes: “So firm was his regard for market forces, so deep his disdain for government, that Mr. Friedman once said: If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand.”

Nearly 15 years before the airline industry was deregulated, Friedman was calling for government to take its hands off of the industry. What if there was no government interference with the airline industry when the jet engine was introduced. Would today’s construct be better or worse than it is? So as we begin the process of congressional hearings on the Delta-Northwest transaction this week, I am troubled, concerned and worried for the industry.

On Tuesday night of last week, FOX Business had Robert Crandall, former Chairman and CEO of American Airlines on as a guest to discuss the Delta-Northwest deal specifically and industry issues generally. While it looked like the Bob Crandall we all looked up to as we learned the airline business and how to think about it, the words were more Lou Dobbs. A most disappointing interview with a person I once admired, but a precursor of things we will begin to hear I am afraid.

Just not much to say.

Added on April 21, 2008

When I posted last night and ended with the mention of Robert Crandall’s appearance on FOX Business, I did not know that an op ed piece would appear in today’s New York Times. Crandall pens a piece entitled Charge More, Merge Less, Fly Better - New York Times. For a guy who was admired for being a most aggressive competitor and willing to employ any tactical and strategic action to give his American Airlines an advantage – I just find his words to be, well – you be the judge. For some they will be refreshing, for others they will be anything but. At least he mentions that fares have to go up.

I will take Friedman because many of the issues that Crandall cites have needed fixing since the industry was deregulated.

Tuesday
Apr152008

April 15, 2008: A Day to Remember or a Day to Forget?

End the speculation. We can now begin to debate the facts surrounding the Delta-Northwest combination. I must say that I expected to see significant changes from the deal that wasn't. What appears unresolved today is not much different than what was unresolved yesterday. As this day closes, I am an industry observer that is pleased to see a consolidation round begin in earnest.

Over the coming days, weeks and months we will be hearing about how the sky is falling. I remain steadfast that consolidation is in the best interest of all US airline industry stakeholders in the long run at this juncture. For some, consolidation through merger and acquisition activity means that the sky is falling. For me this type of consolidation is much better than consolidation through liquidation. In that case, airlines are falling from the sky and dislocations are forever.

Over the coming days much will be written. I will write. In any number of conversations I had today, the issue of labor risk; technology risk; and any other risk that could be raised as standing in the way of a successful combination of Delta and Northwest required addressing. And oil, the number one catalyst (read risk) behind the discussion of consolidation traded at levels approaching $114 per barrel of crude. Assuming that the crack spread is similar to last week’s level, then the "in the wing" price for the industry approached $145 per barrel today.

All of us really do need to stop talking about oil in a per barrel of crude denomination. We have to remember to add the crack spread to the cost of a barrel of crude. Me included. John Heimlich, the Chief Economist at the Air Transport Association has made some additions to his presentation on oil and its impact on the industry. Read it as it provides great perspective and why we find the US industry in its current position.

There Was Other News

We cannot have a day with news of promise in the US without a story on the “Flying Pig”: Alitalia. Reuters reported on the ongoing saga and how, and why, newly elected Prime Minister Berlusconi vows to keep Alitalia flying. The article reports, “Alitalia's ready cash is shrinking by about 3 million euros a day and now has funds left only for the immediate future -- a question of weeks or at most a couple of months, observers say”. The article goes on to say, “IATA, the airline industry association, has told Alitalia it must provide guarantees to be able to stay in IATA's system to settle ticket purchases if it were to go into administration”. Time is a tickin’ in Milan.

And finally, as the day really does come to a close, I sit and watch Neil Cavuto interview Captain Sam Mayer representing the Allied Pilots Association regarding their march today on American Airlines’ largest customers and institutional investors. As I have written all too often, this situation of labor suggesting that they join with customers to force American (or the industry) to address internal issues is reckless and has a higher probability of backfiring than benefiting any one stakeholder at American Airlines (or any other carrier). This is about getting a contract. I just wonder if APA told these valued customers and investors about the magnitude of the ask in their proposal and that they claim that only minimal fare increases are necessary to fund their ask. Best I know, fare increases are what customers like to hear. I doubt it.

And Frontier Receives Notice of Delisting. This story for me truly underscores the fragility of the industry today and why liquidity is king. An interesting day indeed.

One step forward for some and steps back for others. But we will get there someway, somehow.

More to come.

Monday
Apr142008

Delta - Northwest Deal Is Real

This link will lead you to information available at this time: http://www.newglobalairline.com

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.

Thursday
Apr102008

Is American Airlines Playing the Final Round of the Masters on Thursday?

Some Thoughts for Gerard Arpey

With my mind firmly on Magnolia Lane and the Masters, my mind finds itself drifting from excitement and anticipation to Amon Carter Boulevard. As I do from time to time when I am online, I look to the Dallas Morning News' blog to take the temperature of airline happenings in the Metroplex. And what is going on with AA is no trip down Magnolia Lane. The Masters for me is the culmination of what I call the “Finest 30 Days in Sports Television”. The back nine of the Masters on Sunday provides the fitting bookend to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Show.

For those of us who relish the tradition of each year’s first major golf tournament, we are familiar with the suggestion that the back nine at Augusta on Sunday is considered the most exciting two and one half hours of golf we will witness. Given the recent happenings at American surrounding the flight cancellations – not from a safety of flight perspective - I am beginning to feel like the company may be playing the final nine holes of the Masters on Thursday. If that were true, then all American could act on under the rules of golf would be to withdraw from this year’s first major. If that’s what the employees want, then the internal noise is equal to the external noise.

American Airlines is not going to withdraw. Or I hope not. But even I have to say it is time for American management to rethink its course strategy after shooting a 40 on the front nine. Tiger did demonstrate that the Masters can be won even after shooting 4 over on the outward nine. Mr. Arpey, I am not trying to put you in the unenviable place of being compared to Tiger, but you are the CEO of the world’s largest airline in terms of traffic and capacity and in some circles that makes you the world’s number one. And just like Tiger has to deal with cameras going off in his backswing, you are going to have to block it out, deal with fuel and an over-zealous FAA and find that will to win.

Mitchell Schnurman of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram wrote a column this week about the situation at American where he took management and labor to the wood shed in the ongoing saga at American. While Mr. Schnurman and I have not always laughed at each other’s jokes, he does make some good points. My views about the TWU’s action toward Mr. Conley were written two posts ago. But the very idea that transformational change is needed at American, and in the industry can no longer be ignored as the industry’s problems continue to mount. And, if, somehow the foundation issue for your company is how management is compensated then it is time for your Board to consider making changes.

Mr. Arpey, as you make your way to the tenth tee, the bookmakers are starting to bet against you. For the second time in nearly as many days, 24/7 Wall Street mentions AMR as a bankruptcy candidate. Remember it is not about how much money you have made for Wall Street in the past or how many of your decisions and actions have preserved their capital, it is how much money you can make for capital now. With your labor groups, it is not that you have managed your company at a tremendous cost and balance sheet disadvantage because you did not file for bankruptcy; it is because you are deemed to be over-compensated as a result of your Board of Director’s design of AMR’s management compensation system.

I sit on a Board of Directors of a publicly traded company in the airline industry and it gives me a lens into your issues. I know how difficult it is to design a compensation structure that is not only fair and incents the best to stay yet meets today’s rigorous plan design rules. In fact, these rules were put in place to prevent business activities that earned headlines early in this decade. Every plan requires a funding mechanism and yours is stock price from what I can interpret. Other funding mechanisms can be used. But despite what your work groups may think, designing compensation plans today is much more difficult than it might appear.

In theory, stock price is an obvious funding source for a management compensation pool because stock price should be that self correcting mechanism. And that is sound thinking in theory and not always in reality. And that has proven true at AMR. The fault is that stock price reflects expected future earnings and not company performance that has just transpired. Mr. Arpey, your problem is that while you kept your company out of bankruptcy and industry fundamentals started to turn more positive in 2005/2006, your stock price far outperformed the industry. Shame on you for positioning your company that way [and please read this with tongue firmly in cheek].

I want to see this industry change. And change only occurs at the very foundation of how we do business. But, after watching your situation very closely through both good and bad, there is obviously something very wrong at the foundation of American Airlines. I am even more troubled by the public outcry about how this recent inspection has caused dislocations for many. And I am on record and believe fervently that this industry will never knowingly compromise safety. By absorbing tens of millions of dollars of losses for your company to adhere to the Airwothiness Directivenes, I know that you know that. And I will not comment on the unprofessional actions of the APA as I have been down that road way too many times.

What seems to be at the heart of all the bad news that emanates these days stems from AA’s senior management’s inability or unwillingness to communicate with employees and customers. I see you communicating through your actions to Wall Street and what you have done to your balance sheet is nothing short of remarkable with the lack of legal tools available to others. But now it seems that even capital is growing impatient not only with you but with the industry.

I am, and remain, a staunch proponent of variable compensation for both labor and management. This period of transition in our business will determine winners and losers. Whereas no Masters champion has ever shot over 75 on Thursday and been awarded the green jacket on Sunday, there is one champion who did shoot 4 over on the front nine of the first round. I know that there is nothing that can be done to change the management compensation plan design this time around or maybe even the next time. But it is time for you to urge your Board to consider making changes. And make that a priority because you have a lot of people rooting/depending on you.

Just as it hard to imagine a Sunday at the Masters without a Tiger on the prowl; it is just as hard to imagine a US airline industry without American Airlines.

There is still a lot of golf to play. But your course strategy needs to be rethought or you might be watching Saturday and Sunday on TV with the rest of us. And I am sure you do not want that.

Monday
Apr072008

The First Four Out Are Not the Final Four

Memphis v. Kansas

We awaken this morning anticipating the final game of the 2007-2008 college basketball season. And lest you think I’m drifting off topic here, the geographic locations of each school have some relevance to happenings in the US airline industry. Lawrence, Kansas does not have direct air service; residents are dependent on the highway system to access air transportation. With the airlines’ costs for fuel now nearing an "in the wing" $130 per barrel, Lawrence is simply one among many rural/small communities that have little hope of supporting direct air service.

With fuel prices forcing a re-examination of the entire route structure, there are some analysts who believe Memphis – and some cities like it – can’t justify the air service it receives given the city’s modest scope, scale and contribution to the US air transportation system as a passenger air transportation hub. This is particularly true in light of the renewed merger talks between Northwest and Delta as reported by Justin Baer and Francesco Guerrera of the Financial Times. If negotiations are indeed underway, there will be heavy scrutiny on the deal structure, network structure, labor construct and cost containment strategies. Will the hard questions be addressed or deferred?

The only thing we’ll know for certain by the end of today is the national champion of college basketball. For the US airline industry, we are just beginning the journey down the road to the Final ????????

The First Four Out

The first four US airlines out: Aloha; ATA; Skybus and Champion, which announces out on 5/31. Let’s not forget about Maxjet, which exited the market in December 2007. Even before the Skybus exit, some pundits and analysts were writing that the U.S. would not lose any more airlines. That’s not the bet I’d put money on. But the real question is whether any of these exits from the market will have meaningful impact on the structure of the ailing US domestic market. The answer is no.

What is interesting is that each of these carriers was a niche player with presence only in a relatively contained market space. Aloha in Hawaii. ATA, which was arguably the most confused carrier in determining what it wanted to be when it grew up, was best known for its late-in-the-game code share relationship with Southwest to serve Hawaii. With Champion, the airline’s claim to fame doesn’t go much beyond its business as the non-scheduled carrier of professional sports teams. Skybus, a carrier trying to bring the Ryanair model to the US five years too late, focused its operation in Columbus, OH (yawn). And Maxjet built its model on the transatlantic business class passenger.

A game-changing development? Not in my opinion. A start, perhaps, in addressing certain regionally concentrated capacity – but in no way contributing to a meaningful improvement in US airline results. The saga surrounding Alitalia is much more interesting than anything happening in the US right now. There, the sixth largest carrier in Europe is on the ropes, largely due to labor and politics standing in the way of what everyone knows needs to be done. The media this week actually suggested that the airline needs an exorcist as much as it needs a business plan. In my view, the Alitalia story is a precursor to what could be coming in the US. And when this begins to happen, then it will get truly interesting.

Get ready to put yourself in the same mindset the industry adopted after 9/11. The discussion will be all about liquidity (Clark Kellogg of CBS Sports might call it spurtability), assuming that fuel prices remain at this level. Already, 24/7 Wall Street and The Street.com have written that it is not entirely out of the question that American Airlines will follow the path of the other legacy carriers in filing for bankruptcy, even with $4.5 billion of unrestricted cash in the bank. I’d say it’s a little too soon to make the call, but it sure does underscore a rough and tumble environment out there. As a friend in the industry wrote to me last week: “We do live in interesting times.” In China, that’s considered a curse.

No #16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed, and at this point all we have lost in the airline tournament is four very low seeds. Hell, we have not even gotten to a meaningful matchup between a power conference team and a mid major. Every year March Madness produces that game and every year a mid major knocks off a power conference team, and when we get there, the tournament gets more interesting.

What makes the NCAA tournament so much more fun to watch than the US airline industry is the fact that there are no barriers to exit and a lot more barriers to entry - you earn your place.

The real airline tournament begins with the next four out of the US market. Enjoy the game.

Thursday
Apr032008

Fuel Up, Forecasts Down and Labor at American Airlines Drills a Dry Hole

Crude Oil/Jet Fuel 101

There will be a time down the road when we will all stop talking about the high price of oil and thus the high cost of jet fuel and the resultant impact on the US and global airline industry’s ability to sustain profitability. But that time is not now.

I will put the impact of fuel costs in some historical perspective. During the second quarter of 2000, the industry paid 1.25 cents per available seat mile (ASM) for fuel and 3.50 cents per ASM for labor. By the fourth quarter of 2007, the industry was spending 3.50 cents per ASM for fuel and 3.00 cents per ASM for labor. At 1 billion plus available seat miles flown in 2007, you can do the math.

John Heimlich, the Chief Economist of the Air Transport Association, keeps us up to date on ATA’s website, http://www.airlines.org/, on energy/fuel issues facing the US airline industry. For serious industry watchers, if you don’t have a link to John’s work on your list of favorites then I suggest that you add it now.

It Is More than the Price of Crude

On the site, Mr. Heimlich regularly updates the presentation entitled: “Coping With Sky-High Jet Fuel Prices” in which he points out very clearly that the price of crude oil is only part of the cost for the airline industry. Heimlich reminds that the industry pays a premium, known as the “crack spread,” which is the difference between the cost of a barrel of crude oil and what the industry pays for crude oil refined into jet fuel. Until, hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the industry historically paid a crack spread price of $5 per barrel. In his initial forecast for 2008, Mr. Heimlich forecasts a crack spread price of $25 per barrel.

That $25 of crack spread forecast for 2008 is roughly equivalent to the cost of a barrel of crude in each 2001 and 2002. Simply stated, at a cost of $110 per barrel crude oil, the industry would pay an all in, or “in the wing,” cost per barrel of as much as $135. According to Heimlich, just last week the New York Harbor price of jet fuel topped $145 per barrel, including a crack spread nearing $35 per barrel.

So the pain the average driver feels at the pump is even worse for the airline industry. Heimlich points out the difference in his analysis comparing gasoline to jet fuel. Whereas the difference between the two was $2 per barrel in July 2007, today jet fuel is $29 per barrel more expensive than gasoline. Even with the many industry efforts to improve fuel efficiency, Heimlich forecasts that airlines will pay in excess of $55 billion for fuel in 2008 -- more than $14 billion more than the industry paid in 2007, without consuming so much as a single gallon more.

Many believe that raising fares will fix all. Yes, fares have increased some. But Heimlich shows that, all told, fares for the first two months of 2008 are 2.4 percent less than the average fares for the same two months in 2000. Over the same period, fuel costs have risen 198 percent.

Revised Forecast

As Heimlich was updating his fuel analysis, Brian Pearce, Chief Economist for the International Air Transport Association, was revising his 2008 global forecast – for the second or third time. Mr. Pearce’s initial outlook, issued early last year, predicted that the global airline industry would see a profit of nearly $10 billion in 2008. In September 2007, Pearce revised his profit forecast downward from $9.6 billion to $7.8 billion, citing both fuel costs and the beginnings of the credit crisis.

Only a few months later, in December of 2007, IATA revised its global forecast down yet again. But that revision caught many by surprise based on its sheer magnitude: in less than a year’s time, the IATA forecast a global airline profit of $5.0 billion – a 36 percent reduction from the previous forecast. Now, only yesterday, Pearce again revised his outlook downward by another 10 percent to $4.5 billion in his report “Stagflation Threatens The Outlook.” It is worth a complete read, but his first three points are powerful:

Our previous forecast in December projected a downturn in traffic and profitability for the airline industry this year. Since then the situation in the US economy has deteriorated and jet fuel prices have risen sharply. Stagflation has returned, a damaging combination of forces to which the airline industry is highly exposed over the year ahead.

The uncertainties facing us are far greater than usual. If central banks fail to reverse the credit crunch the outlook, particularly for the US industry, could be far worse. Our next forecast in June will be able to take a clearer view on the extent of the economic difficulties. In this forecast we have taken a conservative approach to cutting our profits forecast. We now project net profits of just $4.5 billion this year.

US consumer confidence slumped in March to levels consistent with a serious recession. The bursting of the housing market bubble leading to falling house prices and sub-prime mortgage defaults has led to a deepening crisis in the financial sector. The resulting credit crunch is now damaging the wider economy.

Now Let’s Turn to American Airlines’ Labor Issues . . . Yet Again

At this point, AA is in negotiations with all three of its unions, so it’s no longer only the Allied Pilots Association attracting news coverage. This week, it was Transport Workers Union, which represents maintenance, ramp and other workers. Yesterday, Trebor Banstetter of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reports on his blog that the union placed John Conley, Air Transport Division Director, on administrative leave. This questionable decision apparently stems from a comment Mr. Conley made at an aviation conference in which he suggested that the meteoric rise in the cost of fuel might impact the negotiating outcome in contract talks between the TWU and American.

I have met Mr. Conley and have listened to him in other public forums. I have always been struck by his thoughtful approach, his knowledge of the industry, and the care he shows for the people he represents. In this case, he simply stated the obvious. The reaction by TWU International President Jim Little is unfortunate, but it is likely one we will see more of.

Tracking the news and managing the expectations of the workers they represent is what union leaders do, or should do. But that has not been the case of late in the airline industry, where zealots and ideologues have set completely unrealistic expectations in their rhetoric surrounding contract talks. The TWU’s overheated reaction to Conley’s comments may have more to do with an ongoing campaign by a rival union, AMFA, to organize AA’s M&E shop. But if that’s the case, workers will face the unappealing choice between one union that attempts to silence one of its key officers for speaking the facts, or another that did a less-than-respectable job in representing its members at Northwest and United.

It has been said in the comment section on this blog a couple of times that I have a disdain for airline employees. As a former airline employee (and union steward) myself, nothing could be further from the truth. But I don’t have much patience for union leadership that overpromises and thus sets unrealistic expectations for members when the industry is under enormous financial and competitive pressure. Actions like this are precisely why I believe that this will be the toughest period in labor history since deregulation.

Since posting this piece this morning, I note that Holly Hegeman of Planebuzz.com wrote on the subject of John Conley’s demotion last evening. It is well worth a read.

Watch Alitalia as it is a precursor. In the US, we are witnessing happenings at Aloha and ATA. And we are still on the A’s.