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© 2007-11, William Swelbar.

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Entries from August 1, 2010 - August 31, 2010

Saturday
Aug282010

Time to Rethink the Virtuous Circle

You know how it goes in the U.S. airline industry: improved economic conditions lead to increased demand for air travel which leads airlines to grow and increase employment.  And so the virtuous circle goes – ‘round and ‘round.  At various times in an economic cycle certain stakeholders tend to do better than others – usually at other stakeholders’ expense.  Front and center in the airline industry rent sharing game are labor and management.

Dan Reed, writing in the USA Today this week, reminded us of the numerous labor and management conflicts out there.  That much is true. But it was the subtitle that gave me pause:  “Unions want pay, benefits restored,” it said.  Not improved – restored.  Nice dream, but it’s just that: The restoration of wages and benefits to 2001 levels is a dream.  Reed quotes long-time industry observer Mike Boyd saying labor has to walk away with something.  Boyd says: “Labor has been on hold for the last seven years.”

Boyd is absolutely right.  Labor has to walk away with something – and they will.  However the airline industry is no position to write the check that would restore wages and benefits to pre-restructuring levels.  Furthermore, the shape and size of the industry today requires that certain work provisions contained in collective bargaining agreements need to be changed in return for improved wages, benefits and working conditions.  This necessary trade gets lost in the mainstream discussion.

Industry Eyes on American

This past week, three of the employee groups represented by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) at American voted on tentative agreements reached months ago.  Two of the three groups rejected the terms and conditions bargained for in those tentative agreements.  Initial rumblings cite provisions contained in the tentative agreements deemed “concessionary.”  Yes in “non-crisis” collective bargaining you trade one thing for another.

I, however, can make a case that the agreements reached were too rich in favor of the TWU.  American resides in a most fragile position in this round of negotiations because its labor costs already are the highest in the industry, even as it goes first among the legacy carriers to negotiate new contracts following restructuring..  The TWU members walked away from structural pay increases, leaving money on the table many in the investment community might have argued against offering in American’s financial position. And I’m among those critics. And while the company would have got increased productivity in certain areas of the contract in return, any savings generated from work rule relaxation is only as good as it’s ability to implement change.

One group that rejected the tentative agreement was the Mechanics and Related employees – a group that has worked closely with the company over the past decade to improve operations and attract third-party work. In part because of those efforts, AA outsources less maintenance work than any legacy carrier. 

Now look ahead.  Can American ignore that most of their competition is paying far less similar services? And without better productivity, can American bring in enough work to justify the current headcount within the Mechanics and Related group?

Just as with the pilots union at American, maybe some in Maintenance really believe that the company can pay labor costs that far exceed the company’s ability to pay.  Everyone points to the industry’s single quarter of terrific profits and suggest – somehow – that a secular trend is underway.  Has anybody been paying attention to the stock market this week?  The market which serves as the barometer guaging expectations for tomorrow?   Or maybe the mechanics are just taking an old trick out of the hat that was popular in the late 1990’s and in 2000 and 2001 when everyone rejected the first agreement assuming that a return to mediation would pressure the company to enrich the agreement, too often without any expectation of giveback.

If that is what happens this time around at American or at any airline for that matter, then the management team making those agreements have no one to fault but themselves.  Overpaying rent has been tried in the past and while it may help mollify labor for the short-term, it does nothing to promote the long-term sustainability of the agreement. Labor, too, is complicit in this short-sightedness, primarily because unions are not structured to manage the responsibility they possess. Unions are highly simple political organizations that too often have only have a short-term view, with leaders looking only to the next contract negotiation and the next leadership election.  

In his 2010 State of the Air Transport Industry speech, IATA Director General Giovanni Bisignani said, “Labor, out of touch with reality, is the next risk. We cannot pay salary increases with our $47 billion in losses. Pilots and crew must come down to earth and strikes at this time are shortsighted nonsense. Labor needs to stop picketing and cooperate.”

Concluding Thoughts

I am not naïve enough to suggest cooperation is a possibility everywhere.  It is not.  For both labor and management it will be tough to manage expectations set by those with short-term mindsets.  And those expectations collide with the need to manage for the long term.

Yesterday’s virtuous circle was largely predicated on plentiful and dumb capital willing to chase failing companies, jet fuel that was roughly one-third the cost it is today, and a general view that the only way a commodity industry could increase revenue was to add capacity.

In the U.S., we should be modeling a better path. Today’s virtuous circle in the U.S. is less about growth and more about making the kind of change and creating a model that will maintain and marginally enhance an airline’s ability to compete globally.

Thursday
Aug052010

Market Realignment: Labor, Mexico and the U.S. Regionals

Variable Compensation and “Upside Protections”

A commenter on my most recent post wrote:  “Variable compensation?? That implies that you think I trust airline executives to treat me fairly. Their behavior over the past decades clearly shows that they can't be trusted, and you want me to buy-off on a scheme where they CONTROL the data?”

Another commenter wrote quoting AMR CEO Gerard Arpey:  "And again, our hypothesis is that we’re going to continue to work in good faith, cut responsible agreements with our unions and that all of the network carriers in the next 24 months are going to go through the same funnel. And that when we all come out of that funnel, ultimately the market is going to be brought to bear on all of these companies and the market will determine wages and benefits in this industry just like it largely does other industries."

Just what is a responsible agreement? For one, a responsible agreement benefits both sides. It is one unlike those negotiated in the past where companies were forced to ask for concessions in a downturn because they cannot afford the terms of what had been agreed to previously. And for labor, it is one that is sustainable – one that won’t require concessionary bargaining in a downturn and provides protection on the upside to prevent companies from earning outsized profits on labor’s back. 

This is the area where unions have missed the boat in the past.  Too often, labor leaders spend too much time negotiating protections on the downside and ignore similar protections on the upside.  Think back to the period when this was most relevant - between 1995 and 2000 when the U.S. airline industry earned record profits.  Unions had just completed ratified concessionary agreements negotiated during the economic downturn begun in 1991.  As the industry’s fortunes turned, employees did not share in the most profitable period in U.S. airline history.  Rather employees sat and watched because their unions did not negotiate protections on the upside that would have ensured their sharing in the profits – some of which were made possible from lower labor costs.

The industry has been anything but profitable in the years since, so upside protections would have returned little if anything following the negotiations during restructuring.  Instead many employees got performance bonuses when their companies met stated operational goals.  But let’s suppose the U.S. industry now sits on the brink of a profit cycle.  If upside protections had been negotiated then, employees would share in the profits while new collective bargaining agreements are under negotiation. That would send a far stronger signal about the connection between productivity, competitive costs and profitability than has the long and painful cycle of give-some, take-some negotiations.

Can we expect realignment in labor during this round of airline negotiations?   And what will that mean for labor rates by the time every airline makes it through the funnel of negotiations? 

One thing is clear: carriers with relatively expensive labor rates today will need to adjust expectations at a time that industry economics, particularly domestic market economics, do not support outsized increases in flying rates, mechanic rates or most assuredly “below the wing” rates.

Mexicana

Two days ago, Mexico’s largest carrier filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. and insolvency proceedings at home.  Precipitating the filing, according to the carrier, was its inability to achieve significant wage and productivity concessions from its flight crews.  When negotiations did not produce the company's desired outcome, the employees were offered the keys to the company for one peso.  The employees said no thank you.  Like bankruptcy filings here in the U.S., the burden of proof will be on the company to make a case that deep concessions are necessary.

Like the U.S., the Mexican market is deregulated.  Like the U.S., low cost carriers (LCCs) fly in major markets throughout Mexico, driving down prices all the while the Mexican economy has suffered more than most around the world.  In fact, Mexicana holds two low cost carriers in its fold (neither of which will be affected by the bankruptcy filing of the larger legacy carrier).  Mexico is a microcosm of what occurred in the U.S. where LCCs grew at the expense of the network legacy carriers, driving prices down because they enjoyed cost advantages.  And like in the U.S., the Mexico domestic market does not produce sufficient revenue premiums for the legacy incumbents to offset their high and out-of-market cost structures.

Might Mexicana’s bankruptcy filing result in liquidation?  It could.  Already planes have been repossessed in anticipation of the filing.  Sounds like the U.S. industry immediately after deregulation but before Section 1110 protections became part of the bankruptcy code.  Today, unions in the U.S. are calling for changes to the bankruptcy code (Sections 1113 and 1114 specifically).  Ever wonder just how many U.S. airline jobs might have been lost if there were no Section 1110 protections?  I digress.

The Mexicana story causes me to reflect on the U.S. domestic market.  The realignment of the U.S. domestic industry is not done.  Mainline carrier presence in the domestic market will continue to shrink unless the labor economics change.  Network carrier presence in the domestic market is now more a function of moving a passenger from Lansing to Lagos than it is Lansing to Los Angeles. 

Since 2000, network carrier revenues are down 36 percent.  Since 2000, when mainline network carrier domestic Available Seat Miles (ASMs) reached their historic apex, capacity flown by the same carriers has been reduced by 30 percent.  Over the same period, domestic ASMs added by the U.S. LCCs increased by 134 percent.  ASMs flown by the regional sector have increased by 178 percent.

These trends are a function of the economics of flying today.  Labor contracts in the past were based on $30 “in the wing” jet fuel.  Today’s reality is $90.  With domestic revenue generated by the network carriers down more than capacity since 2000, it is uncertain what kind of contracts will come out of that funnel, and whether the U.S. airline industry as we know it today we be able to sustain higher costs.

SkyWest Subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines to Purchase ExpressJet

Another story occurring within the industry that has labor ramifications is the consolidation taking place within the regional industry. One of the catalysts for consolidation within the regional sector is the unknown outcomes of scope negotiations between the mainline carriers and their managements as to what kind of flying will be done by the regional providers tomorrow.  Another catalyst is the known, but yet undetermined, push for new regulations governing how much regional pilots can fly.   

Readers at Swelblog.com know that we have been talking about consolidation and realignment of the regional industry since the beginning.  Does a consolidating network carrier sector need nine providers of regional capacity?  No.  

Given that new, expensive changes to regulations governing regional carriers and their relationships with mainline are expected this year, the network carriers would be wise to look carefully at their regional feed composition. With the merger of Continental and United and new regulation pending, it simply makes sense to realign regional relationships.  United is one of SkyWest’s two major partners and it does business with each Atlantic Southeast and ExpressJet (who is Continental’s primary regional partner).

The SkyWest/Atlantic Southeast announcement comes on the heels of Pinnacle buying Mesaba and expanding its presence under the Delta umbrella.  These types of realignments are now a trend and not one-off and ill conceived acquisitions.  Just like network carriers need scale economics, so do the regional partners in order to minimize labor and maintenance costs regardless of what type of flying they are permitted to perform tomorrow. 

This is healthy consolidation and the idea of scale economics may be what just makes American Eagle attractive.

More to come.