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Entries from March 1, 2010 - March 31, 2010

Wednesday
Mar312010

Pondering American and jetBlue: Most Interesting

Coming on the heels of last week's post about Southwest and being jilted by Delta and US Airways in their reworked slot exchange, this morning we get an announcement that American and jetBlue are entering into a new commercial arrangement at key east coast cities.  I will probably write later on the topic but wanted to jot a few things down before I leave for meetings.

  • Each SkyTeam and STAR have enhanced their positions in the New York metro market in recent months.  Given the importance of New York and the key east coast cities of New York and Boston, American enhances its presence as well as that of oneworld with this announcement. 
  • jetBlue has a relationship with Aer Lingus.  Lufthansa invested in jetBlue.  Now jetBlue enters into a commercial relationship with American whereby customers of each airline can enjoy interline capabilities with the other at each Boston Logan and New York JFK on non-overlapping routes.
  • Is jetBlue becoming the Alaska Airlines of the east coast?  Keeping itself most relevant in its home market by code sharing with many airlines? 
  • American intends to transfer eight slot pairs at Ronald Reagan National Airport and one slot pair at White Plains N.Y. to jetBlue.  Three more than jetBlue would receive in the DL-US proposed transaction.  So for jetBlue, will it be 5, 8 or 13 slot pairs at Ronald Reagan National Airport? 
  • jetBlue intends to transfer 12 slot pairs at JFK to American.
  • This slot transfer business is getting very interesting.
  • It has been a bad week for Southwest.  Between their cry of being "left out" of the US - DL slot swap; talk of being jilted by WestJet; and now American teaming with jetBlue .......

I wonder what Southwest must be thinking?

 

Wednesday
Mar242010

Dear Southwest: Grab Your Bag of Fiction; It’s On

On Tuesday morning a headline in The Washington Post read “Southwest Airlines Feeling Squeezed Out at National Airport”.  Terry Maxon wrote on The Dallas Morning News blog “Delta, US Airways Maneuver Around Southwest Airlines.”  The headline in Business Week read “Delta, US Airways Sweeten NYC-Washington Plan by Boosting Small Rivals.

As I prepared to write this piece, I began by reviewing the various comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) by the air carriers during the comment period set forth following its tentative decision on the proposed Delta Air Lines – US Airways slot swap deal.  When I got to Southwest’s, I thought I was in a time warp.  A time warp whereby many of the same arguments used in Southwest’s fight to repeal the Wright Amendment were being dusted off and employed again.  Another opportune time for poor, little Southwest Airlines to get something on the cheap from the carriers that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their respective infrastructures over the past decades.  But here’s the thing:  Southwest is neither poor nor little.

Background

All of these stories of course pertain to a repackaging of the proposed Delta-US Airways slot swap first announced in August 2009.  In the initial deal made between Delta and US Airways, US Airways would receive 42 slot pairs from Delta Air Lines at Washington’s Reagan National Airport and a route authority to Sao Paulo and Tokyo Narita in exchange for 140 slot pairs at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. 

In February 2010, the DOT tentatively approved the deal between Delta and US Airways. The caveat was each carrier had to sell 14 National and 20 LaGuardia slot pairs to U.S. or Canadian carriers that have less than 5% of the total slot holdings at the respective airports. This stipulation materially impacted the value of the deal, so US Airways and Delta went back to the drawing board.

Late Monday, the two airlines announced a restructured proposal.  Only this time, they included provisions providing slots to competing carriers.  Delta concluded deals with WestJet, AirTran and Spirit to transfer up to five slot pairs each at New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA).  US Airways will transfer up to five slot pairs to JetBlue at Washington Reagan (DCA).  The inclusion of WestJet, AirTran, Spirit and jetBlue certainly satisfies the DOT’s requirement that divested slot pairs be provided to a U.S. or Canadian carrier with less than a 5 percent share.

Let’s Get Some Southwest Non-fiction on the Table

In its submission, Southwest complains that at LGA, "instead of an airport balanced among three airlines of roughly equal size, the slot swap would catapult Delta into a dominant position more than twice the size of the nearest competitor."  But Southwest does not ever mention anything pertaining to its size within the U.S. domestic market. In 2008 there were only 6 airport markets with more domestic origin and destination (O&D) traffic than LGA.  Southwest is the largest carrier in three of those six markets.  At the 48 domestic airports where Southwest is the largest carrier of O&D traffic, it is at least twice the size of the next largest carrier in 27.

At Dallas Love Field, Southwest controls 94.3 percent of O&D traffic and the second largest carrier has 2.2 percent.  At Houston Hobby Airport, Southwest controls 86.2 percent of O&D traffic versus 5.2 for the nearest competitor.  At Chicago Midway, Southwest has 79.1 percent control while the next largest competitor has 8.8 percent.  At Love Field, Houston Hobby and Chicago Midway the average fares rose at those airports 36.2 percent, 21.8 percent and 29.4 percent respectively between 2005 and 2008.  In each of the 48 airport markets where Southwest is the number one competitor, fares on average increased 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2008. 

Southwest would have us all believe that their presence at an airport is the ultimate discipline on fares and they claim it in every regulatory filing and certainly on every advertisement.  Despite what Southwest likes to say, it is not the same Southwest that sprinkled the “Southwest Effect” on markets in 1992. The claims of low fares stimulating new demand just do not hold today - because everyone offers low fares. 

During the period between 2005 and 2008, wasn’t Southwest enjoying the benefits of a fuel hedging program that provided the carrier with a most significant cost advantage relative to an industry that had largely restructured itself?  I assumed that cost advantage benefit garnered from a fortuitous bet on the price of oil was being passed on to the consumer.  Instead Southwest was raising fares.  In their filing they actually go as far as calculate the cost saving their low fares would bring to each the DCA and LGA markets.  The calculation is performed after including a $25 bag fee on top of the fare of the competition. 

Fiction Fatigue

If Southwest wants to gain entry to the few remaining slot controlled airports, then it should make the incumbents an offer – one that provides the slot holder a return on that carrier’s prior investment.  In a 2006 regulatory filing, Delta described how it took 22 years to build its slot portfolio at LGA.  The Buy-Sell Rule is a mechanism in place permitting such purchase.    

The filing states, “In sum, Delta acquired the right to operate most of the 243 LGA slots it currently operates at LGA through market-based transactions.  Delta acquired them through diligent investment in private market transactions, not by regulatory fiat. Delta has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding its service at LGA because Delta valued the right to expand its service at the airport, believing it would be profitable to make such investments.  Delta’s decisions to acquire slots in market-based transactions and develop its landside infrastructure at LaGuardia over three decades have permitted Delta to grow steadily and to offer greatly expanded services there to meet consumer demand.”

Carriers that purchased slots at the controlled airports did so expecting they would earn a commensurate return on their expended capital.  Of course that would mean average fares would more than compensate the cost of operating at those airports.  The average fare at LGA in 1990 was $150; by 2005 the average fare had fallen to $136; and in 2008 that fare was $159.  A similar trend can be found at Washington National, although fares in 2008 were higher.

Southwest Is Not Special

Southwest’s growth has caused/forced the industry to reduce costs in order to match the fare offerings from it and the so-called low-cost carriers it helped spawn.  Today, however, Legacy carriers with iconic names like American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways are also offering low fares to passengers.  Low fares to air travel consumers in smaller communities that the Southwest operating model ignores.  It is these legacy carriers that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars at slot controlled airports. 

If Southwest wants to play, it should have to write the same type of check.  They won’t because the low fare structure at either of these airports will not produce adequate revenue streams to justify the investment.  Instead Southwest somehow believes it is “entitled” to the slots being divested by US Airways and Delta.

Southwest is no longer the only game in town.  It talks about all the money consumers will save as a result of Southwest’s entry into DCA and LGA, subtracting its entry level fares from average fares plus bag fees for the incumbents. Once Southwest is imbedded, there’s a new “Southwest Effect.” As mentioned above, in markets where Southwest is the largest carrier, fares increase the fastest.

Ted Reed at TheStreet.com wrote “Southwest Blasts Revised Slot Deal.”  In his story, Reed quotes Southwest, "Allowing two of the country's largest airlines to collude on trading assets in a way to reduce competition while dramatically increasing their market dominance at two of the United States' most important airports is, on its face, an alarming prospect that should not be permitted."

Who is the largest US domestic airline?  Southwest.

To me the more alarming prospect is allowing Southwest to get something for free – yet again.  Think Wright Amendment and the undoing of a deal because the market had changed and they needed to find a new way to grow.  Simply you have to pay to play, Southwest.  You have the cash.  Make someone an offer they cannot refuse.  The rules to do so are in place.  I have every confidence that neither LGA nor DCA absolutely needs Southwest.  I am confident that JetBlue, AirTran, Spirit and WestJet can do just fine.

It’s On. 

Wednesday
Mar172010

Continental Makes a Most Interesting Proposal to Its Pilots: Delta plus $1

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.  The pattern on this holiday is all things green.  And maybe the luck of the Irish will make this St. Patrick’s Day a lucky one for Continental pilots as the company presented the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) with a new contract proposal. The pattern for collective bargaining in the airline industry is to secure all things deemed as best in class.  As I see it, Continental made an offer to its pilots that actually addresses pattern bargaining.  Not quite sure if I love it, but it is interesting.  Most interesting.  

The two sides have been in discussions for more than two and one-half years.  The amendable date has come and gone, yet the parties have not filed for mediation.  There’s been some movement on the non-economic issues, but little progress has been made on the economic ones. 

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  This week, that’s what much of the talk from American Airlines’ flight attendants centered on as they asked for release from the National Mediation Board.  Several unions at American and United increasingly point to the long periods of time it is taking to reach an agreement. 

In its letter to Capt. Jay Pierce, President of the Continental ALPA Master Executive Council, Continental Airlines addresses how long it might take to negotiate an agreement:  “We have weighed the fact that it has taken ALPA two and a half years to compile and propose an exceptionally complex and comprehensive opening economic proposal that nonetheless still has a number of substantive items open. Despite its complexity, that proposal remains only conceptual, lacking specific contractual language. We have also considered the considerable period of time it would take to negotiate and craft specific contractual language that is fair to the pilots and fair to the Company. Even if we had no significant disagreements over terms of that opening proposal (a highly unlikely circumstance given the excessive increase in costs it contains), negotiating and refining ALPA's current proposal into to a final executable agreement is a task that would clearly take a very long time.”

Given that the Delta pilot agreement had become a template for the Continental pilots in their negotiation of a new agreement, Continental simply said that they would offer their pilots the Delta pilot contract except for a seat on the Board of Directors and by adding $1 to the pay rates included in the Delta Pilot Working Agreement (PWA).  The offering includes the Delta pension and benefits section as well.  This is important – very important – because benefit costs go into the calculation of the cost of an agreement.  We are finally at the point where we talk about the all-in cost – not just hourly rates of pay.

Capt. Pierce responded:  “the proposal is no surprise and much of the bargaining agenda that we have already presented is based on the Delta PWA. Hence, our Negotiating Committee is very familiar with that agreement and has referred to it often. Notwithstanding this fact, any such transition would be a very complex matter and there is much to consider before we commit ourselves to such a process. We will be carefully reviewing the ramifications of this proposal with respect to our bargaining objectives over the coming days. However, while we must proceed with caution and based on a complete understanding of the Delta contract, we are obviously interested in any process by which we can legitimately avoid extended negotiations during which a concession agreement will remain in place.”

Pattern Bargaining

This is the second time this week where I’ve see pattern bargaining embraced by management. First, it was American and how it structured pay increases for flight attendants in the last offer.  Now it is Continental adding $1 to the pay rates included in the Delta pilot agreement.  I hate pattern bargaining.  I think it is counter-productive as no one airline is the same.  Just because Delta negotiates an agreement with rates and working conditions it believes it can afford, that does not mean Continental’s network can afford the same. But this pattern is a little different than pattern bargaining of the past – and deserves a closer look.

Pattern bargaining typically resulted in best-in-class provisions being included in the union’s opening proposal.  It was/is a cherry picking exercise. Whether the unions want to believe it or not, the cherry-picking of agreements also contributes to negotiations taking longer than a party might wish.  Why?  Because each and every collective bargaining agreement has sections that work in tandem with another section.  As one section was made more complex, other sections of the agreement were impacted.  Simply, the interdependencies within a collective bargaining agreement must be analyzed, understanding a change in Section 7 affects Sections 11 and 14 and so on.  It’s a process that has become increasingly complex over the years.  Circular logic can be hard to avoid for you excel users.

What is interesting about Continental’s offer is the idea of a single collective bargaining agreement – one where the interdependencies are understood and identified – avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional pattern bargaining.  What the company points out in its submission letter is the Delta PWA “is a post-merger, post-concessionary pilot agreement at a legacy carrier that is also the world's largest airline, it will likely set the pilot contract standard for years to come.”   

For me, what the company seems to be saying, is if we are going to engage in pattern bargaining, then no more picking what you want from that agreement and from this agreement.  The same agreement produces no need to distinguish between pilot rates of pay; rules governing work; and benefits (to be determined).  Presumably, the work rules when applied across a respective network would yield the same hours of productivity except for structural seniority differences.  Differences in pension plans and retiree health insurance are company specific and therefore may be or may not addressed by this type of a proposal exchange.  Talk about a way to speed the process.

The Delta Nuance

The Delta PWA was negotiated under the watchful eye and focused leadership of Captain Lee Moak.  I have written about Capt. Moak many times. What seems to set Moak apart is an understanding the industry has undergone significant structural change and the Delta agreement needs to embrace that change.  For example, because Delta serves many small and medium-sized markets in the U.S., there are few limits on the use of regional jets 76 seats and smaller.  Continental is the only legacy carrier that does not permit use of regional jets with more than 50 seats.  This line in the sand keeps Continental at a domestic competitive disadvantage relative to the industry.      

Mainline pilot scope has been quite the topic here at www.swelblog.com over the past week.  Some have suggested I drew the line – or heard what they wanted to hear - at 50 seats.  I did not.  To me the line begins with the next generation of small jets that are bigger than the current aircraft platforms doing 76 seat-and-less flying within networks.  The domestic scope issue is but one scope concern at Continental.  The real issue of significance is that Continental cannot implement the joint venture with United, Air Canada and Lufthansa without the relaxation of language contained in the existing Continental pilot agreement.  There is a regulatory deadline to complete aspects of the joint venture and anti-trust immunity agreements.  Scope is not just domestic.

This is where the Continental situation gets a little murky.  Moak understands that the globalization of the airline industry will drive his carrier’s success.  Further, he demonstrated his understanding of such when he negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement for the merged Delta and Northwest pilots.  Moak accomplished something extraordinary in the history of merger negotiations in the U.S. airline industry. 

Ted Reed of TheStreet.com wrote about the Continental situation last month.  Reed wrote and quoted Continental’s pilot leader Jay Pierce, “Among the network carriers, two models exist for pilot relations. Pilots at Continental and Delta have generally enjoyed positive relationships with the carriers. Pierce said he is an admirer of Lee Moak, chairman of the Delta ALPA chapter; the two talk frequently. "We both recognize that our airlines need to be profitable," he said.”

Depending on how you look at it, the Continental pilots are searching for leverage and public pronouncements seem to suggest they have found the leverage in their scope section.  Now the company counters by offering pilots the agreement they have held out as "industry leading".  The difference being the Delta contract negotiated by Moak allows 76 seat-and-less flying and embraces the direction of international joint ventures.  [All sections of an agreement have interdependencies with other parts of the agreement]

In his interview with Ted Reed, Pierce says he recognizes the need for his company to be profitable.  The pilots also say their current proposal would only cost the company $500 million. [Note:  the $500 million is an ALPA cost estimate, and not a company estimate.] When was the last time Continental reported net income in a year of more than $500 million?  But the ask is not just $500 million.  The $500 million would compound in perpetuity.  And that is before contractual improvements are offered to other Continental employees.

Why I Like the Continental Approach 

  • What I like about this offer from Continental is it does some tearing down of the cancerous practice in the airline industry of pattern bargaining. 
  • It challenges both sides to come to terms in a more expedient manner than the current construct produces. 
  • It embraces Delta’s long-time approach to pay commensurately well in return for operational flexibility and productivity. 
  • Most of why I like the approach is that it is different.  As I say too much for some on this blog, the old way just does not work. 

As I wrote in the last piece on pilot scope, my real fear is for management to again overpay for scope.  That makes me nervous this time.

The more I think about it though, I am starting to like it because it addresses the real issue of how long it takes to get a deal done under the Railway Labor Act.  Whereas I have defended the RLA in the past, maybe the time issue does need to be discussed.  But to do that, we would have to limit the number of issues that require mediator expertise?

And another reason I like it -- maybe this will build the stage where the legacy carriers can compete on service and price and not on a labor cost differential?

Wednesday
Mar102010

Mainline Pilot Scope: Will Regional Carriers Be Permitted to Fly 90+ Seat Aircraft?

Today I had the pleasure of participating on a panel at the 35th Annual FAA Aviation Forecast Conference, my second consecutive year taking part in one of the breakout sessions.  I shared a dais with the President of the Regional Airline Association, Roger Cohen, and long-time industry consultant, historian and photographer George Hamlin on a panel titled: New Decade......Dawn or Dusk for Regional Carriers?  I had the hotseat – responsible for discussing the reliably controversial subject of mainline pilot scope clauses.

It is my view that there can’t be an honest discussion on the shape or structure of the US domestic airline industry without talking about scope – the contractual clauses pilot unions negotiate to protect certain flying for their members.  I believe that this round of contract negotiations at major carriers will be the most important since deregulation, and scope will play a pivotal role as the airlines take a hard look at economics. And mainline pilot scope agreements are all about economics. 

Today’s industry architecture in which regional carriers fly large numbers of aircraft with 76 seats and less was drawn on the equivalent of vellum paper using compasses, triangles, French curves, triangular scales and protractors.  The working structure did not come about easily. First, earlier era scope clauses were relaxed during the late 1990s and early 2000s to permit carriers to deploy 50-seat regional jets between hubs and markets that could no longer support the economics of a mainline jet.  Delta and Continental had a significant head start on the rest of the industry in using these smaller aircraft because they had few limitations imposed through their pilot agreements.

Other mainline carriers: American, Northwest, United and US Airways, were late to the game.  Scope-relaxed competitors were using the 50-seater to claim traffic that was traditionally the domain of the scope-constrained carriers still limited to feed markets within the turboprop drawn 400 mile radius around a hub.  Now these little jets could overfly hubs, aggressively changing the competitive structure in the US domestic market.

So those carriers that needed the permission of pilots to compete on a level playing field recognized the need to relax restrictive scope clauses that limited what type of aircraft regional pilots could fly.  And that made the scope clause important trading currency for pilot unions that agreed to relax scope protections only in return for improvements in other parts of the agreement.  For example, when United pilots negotiated a new agreement in the Fall of 2000, the union leveraged scope relief to demand a weighted average 23 percent wage increase and two subsequent 4.7 percent increases, as well as a number of other contract enhancements that ultimately contributed to landing the carrier in bankruptcy.

I am convinced that, if not for bankruptcy, we would not be seeing mainline carrier’s regional partners flying aircraft 70 seats and greater in the numbers we are seeing today.  So if today’s architecture was drawn with outdated tools, then tomorrow’s architecture will likely require Computer Aided Design (CAD) software.  That, as old-school architects might say, is equivalent to replacing the pencil with a keyboard -- limiting in that the digital world requires exact inputs rather than the less precise nature of sketching. And that has real implications for pilots and the carriers that employ them. 

Tipping Point

From my perspective this next round of pilot negotiations could be the tipping point for scope:  the critical juncture in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development.  What if mainline pilots again treat the relaxation of scope as trading currency to make improvements in the collective bargaining agreement? Wouldn’t they ultimately be ceding mainline narrowbody flying in the US domestic market?  I think so. 

This approach would be a mistake for management, too, because scope relief has historically been assigned too much value in bargaining.  There is value in the shift of flying from the mainline to regional partners to be sure.  But the differences in labor rates between the mainline and the regional are nowhere near what they were before the last round of industry restructuring.  Domestic revenues continue to suffer, particularly compared to the revenue environment when values were last ascribed to scope relief.  And with little growth expected in US domestic flying, airlines must question where they’ll find the arbitrage.

I make this projection for domestic flying based in part on a comparison to historic growth rates. Today, the travel spend as a percent of GDP produces $35+ billion dollars less in revenue than did the high water-market in 2001.  Labor rate differentials between mainline and regional carriers are significantly smaller than they were in 2001.  Regulatory oversight of the regional industry will add expense that is not yet known or understood.  Negative media coverage could undermine passenger acceptance and willingness to fly regional carriers.  Most mainline airlines are ordering narrowbody equipment to replace aircraft in their fleets, not expand their fleets. And there are still thousands of mainline pilots on furlough.

Does Scope Produce the Intended Outcome?

In the most simplistic terms, scope is the definition of work for the class and craft of employees governed by the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement.  Its purpose is to provide job security for those employees.  But it is safe to say that most scope clauses produced unintended consequences.  Between 2000 – 2008, legacy carriers reduced the number of narrowbody aircraft they fly by 800, and more than 14,000 pilot jobs have disappeared.

So, one could argue that scope is just another example of protectionism that failed. As economist Henry George, a sharp critic of protectionist policies, once said: “Protectionism teaches us is to do to ourselves in times of peace what enemies seek to do to us in times of war.” 

Scope negotiations have been divisive not only between labor and managements but just as much between the unions representing mainline pilots and those representing regional pilots. Ultimately airlines must determine whether the 90-125 seat flying of tomorrow should go to the mainline or be flown by their regional partners. To arrive at the right economic solution, it is time for organized pilot labor and management to stop putting a Band-aid on problems.

The Boyd Group International recently released an interesting fleet forecast that looks in part at new aircraft orders. So far, the only area of real growth is in the 75-125 seat category.  Orders in other seat ranges are forecast simply as replacements from now until 2015.

Ironically, 2015 is when many regional contracts expire, primarily those for 50-seat flying.  These expirations could eliminate nearly 500 existing airplanes currently under contract between now and 2016; with the lion’s share coming off contract in 2015.  This is a conundrum for the regional industry for sure.  There will be a thirst for new flying.

It Is All About the Economics

Perhaps a better way than scope for pilot unions to think about job protection is to find the economics that will employ the most pilots at the mainline.  That challenge must acknowledge the fact that today’s industry is not the industry of yesteryear.  If the regional industry has been used as currency to cross-subsidize pilots at the mainline; and assuming that the trading currency is not what is was as we engage in this round of bargaining, then something has to give. 

There are two solutions as I see it:  1) relax scope in order to win bigger increases in wages, benefits and working conditions for pilots that remain at the mainline; or 2) embrace the absolute fact that contractual rates, work rules and benefits need to be lower for US domestic mainline flying.  That type of carve out can be negotiated.  Domestic market flying differentials can be the new trading currency used to adapt any pilot contract to the market realities of today.  There is no way to “perfume the pig” here; the mainline did something similar in 1984 in order to average down labor costs to facilitate growth.  When it was decided that the concept was not internally healthy, mainline pilot labor made the regional industry the new vehicle for cross-subsidization of mainline pilot terms of employment.

One trend is clear:  the industry’s pricing structure cannot now support labor rates that keep pace with inflation.  An unpopular message -- yes.  But there needs to be a structure in place that recognizes the different conditions in the US domestic market versus international markets.  This structure must recognize that not all flying is created equal, just as the airlines are coming to appreciate that a one size fits all operation is not financially sustainable.  There is a tremendous opportunity to put in place something better – if only the players at the table can let go of the past and come to terms with a new era in the airline industry.

Where Do I Come Out?

I recently saw a piece by Lori Ranson on the Airline Business blog titled:  “A New Line In the Sand” that cites comments by long-time Raymond James analyst Jim Parker on the future of scope: “As employee groups seek to regain some concessions made early last decade as a host of carriers spent time in Chapter 11, there could be some leeway in the size of jets flown by mainline regional partners,” according to the analysis.  James sees the potential to renegotiate current scope clauses, moving the dial from 70-seats to 90-seats.

I am not one to be on the other side of Parker often, but on this one I am.  I do not believe that the mainline pilot unions can afford to make another mistake.  Their arrogance toward regional jet flying led to their current predicament.  The economics of US domestic flying is simply much more difficult now for the legacy carriers.  If labor can’t let go of their memories of what the industry was 20 years ago to focus instead on where it’s going over the next 20 years, then they will have no one to blame but themselves if they fail to help position airlines – and the pilots they represent  – for success.  John Kennedy once said:  “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

It won’t be easy for pilot union leaders to find a solution for a problem that they helped to create.  Just as the US Airways East scope clause defines small, medium and large regional aircraft, it is time to define small, medium and large narrowbody equipment necessary to profitably serve the domestic market. 

Once again, a call for pilot union leadership.  My view is that management is indifferent as to which pilot group does the flying.  I am thinking we are at that critical juncture in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development – mainline legacy carrier pilots performing narrowbody flying in the US domestic market 20 years from now – or NOT.

Wednesday
Mar032010

How 'Bout Those Maryland Terrapins

When is Gary Williams going to be voted into the Hall of Fame?

Monday
Mar012010

Airline Stuff: A Little of Last Week; A Little of This Week; A lot of Cynicism

Consolidation; the National Mediation Board; APFA; Republic Holdings and Captain Prater

Last week, Reuters held its Travel and Leisure Summit in New York.  A number of airline CFOs participated, including Kathryn Mikells of United, Tom Horton of American, Derek Kerr of US Airways and Laura Wright of Southwest.  It was, overall, a really good group of voices who spoke pretty much in concert about the challenges facing the airline industry. Then came the sour note, from another invitee, Captain John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, whose. comments nearly caused me to choke on Cheerios. But more on that later.

Consolidation was the big storyline in the coverage.  Southwest continues to not rule out the possibility of a merger, although Wright made it clear that organic growth is its preferred route.  Mikells talked more broadly about consolidation and did not limit herself to discussing consolidation within sovereign borders.  Kerr, too, spoke favorably about consolidation but suggested that merger activity would have a more positive effect on the industry’s fundamentals if it involved a carrier with a US domestic presence.

"It's five major carriers, it's too fragmented," Kerr said of the U.S. airline industry. "You have too many hubs, all chasing the same passengers trying to connect through the country. We believe that it needs to be consolidated."

One issue that puzzles me though is that the consolidation discussion focuses only on the five legacy carriers. I think the most interesting sector for consolidation is the regional sector (on which, as it turns out, Prater appears to agree with me.)  But why are names like Alaska, jetBlue and AirTran not part of the discussion? What about Air Canada?  Is consolidation limited to just two carriers?  What if United, or American, or US Airways, wanted to sell part of their domestic operation to one carrier and another part to a third carrier? That concept is not so different than the slot swap deal that Delta and US Airways negotiated only to have the government make such dramatic changes to the terms of the deal that it now makes no sense.

Now back to Prater. In his remarks, Prater said that ALPA is for what he called the “right: consolidation – one that “actually protects and enhances jobs and creates a profitable carrier."  Just to be sure, I read it twice.  Yep, those were the words of the same pilot leader who has done little to nothing for his membership for the past three years.  Then I remembered that it is an election year at ALPA. Maybe that is why Prater’s words and tone have changed to better mirror what Captain Moak said and carried out at Delta during its largely successful merger with Northwest. 

Where was Prater when the US Airways and America West guys needed leadership?  If my memory serves, I believe he was flexing his muscles after winning election on a “we will take it back” campaign.  Of course, there is still little evidence to suggest that United is any better positioned than any other legacy carrier to return to the days of the bloated and inefficient labor contracts that helped tipped the carrier into bankruptcy. So Prater might be testing out a new campaign platform to convince UAL pilots that he deserves a second term.

From the management perspective, the CFOs wholeheartedly agreed that capacity discipline is the key for the industry to become and possibly remain profitable.  They also agreed that alliances are here to stay as the industry’s answer to mergers across borders that are forbidden by rules and regulations. 

"What you will see United and other industry participants doing, is basically within the regulatory framework that we have today, trying to get some merger-like benefits without merging," United's Mikells said.  The discussion that followed focused on the big three alliances and their efforts to find cost synergies as well as the revenue synergies already in place.

And that’s where airline labor comes in.  In the past, many unions have been cool to any merger that might threaten the union’s stranglehold on flying for its own members, even when that flying comes at a high price. Prater’s ALPA, for example, is a loud opponent of global mergers, even when the alliances in place today support so many pilot jobs in the US.  Surely he does not think that each of the five legacy carriers would be as big as they are even today if they were not carrying alliance partner traffic?  So the “consolidation that actually protects and enhances jobs” he talks about actually occurs every day when that United flight leaves Washington Dulles for Frankfurt with 60 percent of its passengers bound for points beyond Frankfurt on STAR partner Lufthansa.  Just like the American Airlines flight leaving Washington Dulles for Los Angeles that is carrying a cabin full of passengers connecting with Qantas to Sydney and beyond?

Republic Is Confusing, Confounding

What the Hell Is Republic Doing?  I get notes from really smart people in the industry asking me this question.  After all, I was really jazzed over the prospects for Republic’s purchase of Frontier and wrote a lot about the possibilities here on swelblog.  Now I am confused.  First, I have not understood the level of management energy spent on the presumption that Midwest can be reborn.  TPG had already destroyed the carrier literally and figuratively.  I can see the possibilities of keeping in place some of Midwest’s best flying.  But messing with Frontier’s brand to right-size Milwaukee makes absolutely no sense.

Ann Schrader of the Denver Post wrote about Republic’s “bumpy integration” in her February 21 story Merger muddles Republic Airways' branding. I appreciate that piecing together an airline is much easier said than done.  But every day Republic seems to further confuse the confusion.  And if serious industry watchers are confused, then just imagine how former loyalists to Midwest and Frontier must feel. It is those loyalists that are the brand – or maybe were the brand?  I am a Daniel Shurz fan and I have every confidence that he can get the right aircraft in the right place at the right time.  But there is much more to this delicate exercise than moving airplanes and picking markets.

I will buy the decision to dismantle Lynx (Frontier’s regional operation) given that it would have taken many more aircraft in the Q400 fleet to realize scale economics.  Now Republic has placed an order for Bombardier’s C-Series airplane.  On paper the aircraft is interesting – but why have orders been so hard to come by – unless someone needed to trade out of an aircraft type?  Then Republic puts an unproven engine on a not yet embraced airframe.  Confused. 

A big part of the Frontier and Midwest brands was the people.  This is about as bad a job of managing work forces as I have witnessed.  Given the new representation rules likely coming this week from the National Mediation Board, Bedford’s Republic promises to be a ripe target for union organizers.  Surely this is not Bedford making these calls?  I have gone so far to say that Republic will play in tomorrow’s US domestic market in a meaningful way.  Now I am not so sure.   And I am simply confounded by any decision to upset the work force at Frontier.

The way this seems to be playing out is that under Republic, both the Frontier and Midwest names will disappear.  So why then buy Frontier, an acquisition clever because Republic was buying a great brand. The deal in fact gave Republic an actual airline – something Republic is not.  The purchase also bought Republic a management team that knew how to run an airline and an IT infrastructure that made the deal really interesting.  But now it seems that Republic’s management team thinks you can feed a cookie (Midwest) to Grizwald or Montana (Frontier) and out comes Herman the Duck (Republic).  Remember that brand?

The National Mediation Board

This is a week to pay attention to the National Mediation Board. Jennifer Michaels at Aviation Week reports that the Board’s “cram down” representation rule change will be published in the Federal Register on Friday.  I believe that there will have to be some comment time or at least that is the way things used to work in Washington prior to this administration.  Unfortunately this issue is playing out the way the health care debate is playing out – along party lines.

The other story playing at the NMB this week involves American Airlines’ which is again in “lock down” negotiations with its flight attendant union, APFA.  The APFA already has threatened to request a release from the NMB if the two sides fail to reach a deal by the end of this round of talks. Whether the NMB will do so is questionable given what I see as the administration’s reluctance to risk a strike in the midst of a fragile recovery.  Moreover, we typically do not see releases during the busy travel season – particularly when economic recovery is at stake.  And rarely do we see releases when, by all reports, the parties are still pretty far apart based on what the union is demanding and the company believes it can afford.

The APFA, in all that I have read, does not seem willing to embrace any productivity in return for increased income for its members.  American has been transparent in communicating its proposals, including on a public website. So what might the NMB do with the parties if a deal is not reached?  Grant the APFA a release?  No.  Grant the APFA its release with the full intention of creating a Presidential Emergency Board?  Maybe. Put the negotiations on ice?  Maybe.  Set new dates for the parties to resume negotiations?  I think not.

Will the Board be proactive in trying to close a deal?  That is the question.  It is what watchers of this incredibly difficult round are trying to discern.  How will this NMB deal?  So far, with only a few airline labor negotiations cases closed, the NMB has not yet been pushed to the brink. But there are still 82 open cases.  The AA – flight attendant deal might be the first big test.

Europe and Strikes

Speaking of the APFA and its loose-lipped talk of strikes, last week was most interesting in Europe.  The Lufthansa pilots.  The BA flight attendants.  The French air traffic controllers.  And of course, all things Greece

Europe is undergoing today what the US airline industry has been experiencing for the past 20+ years: the need to continually transform business models with relatively high cost structures in the face of declining revenues.  Unbridled competition in the US domestic market was its catalyst to reduce costs, particularly labor costs.  The decline in premium class revenue and the blurring of borders that used to protect individual flag carriers will serve as the catalyst for the European carriers to also reduce their labor costs.

The labor instability in the European airline industry demonstrates an expected collision of socialist policies promoting entitlement with an industry forced to adapt to market forces.  I expect that there will be more weeks like this one as the European unions come to grips with market realities that could make any number of flag carriers irrelevant in tomorrow’s global airline industry. Unless, that is, those unions instead choose to adapt to the industry’s evolution . . . a story that has played out in the US in the names of Pan Am, TWA and Eastern Airlines to name a few.

It’s not just Europe.  Look at what is happening in Japan where JAL, another legacy carrier with outsized costs relative to revenue, is in bankruptcy.  Following 9/11, more than half of the US airline industry was in bankruptcy at one time.  European airlines – and their respective unions - are not immune to the same market forces.  And there are certainly lessons that can be learned from the US experience.