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Friday
Nov112011

“An Unpleasant Situation That Continually Repeats”

Remember the movie “Groundhog Day?” Well, Qantas is starring in the current airline version with Air Canada in the supporting cast. The basic plotline has unions pretending to know how to run companies while portraying management teams as the dastardly villains whose only aim is to run carriers into the ground, milk their pay and destroy organized labor.

If you’re thinking you’ve seen this one before, that’s because you have. Outside of Hollywood, there is no better industry at recycling the same old material than U.S. airlines and their workers.  Like any movie fan, I love a good sequel, but the all-knowing unions versus incompetent management is the same story run more times than a 1950s B Western.

Still, the version from Down Under is quite possibly the most intriguing adaptation in recent years. At the crux of the Qantas story is CEO Alan Joyce.  During the past several months, Joyce has faced numerous intermittent strikes by employees; received alleged death threats as he seeks to change the course of Qantas; threw his hands up, shut down the airline and locked out employees for a weekend (the same weekend the Australian government was hosting a major conference); took a lashing for doing so from the Prime Minister and other Australian lawmakers; and, in a move reminiscent of U.S. airline stories, tried to explain the business to a dysfunctional government lacking a complete understanding of air transportation.

Joyce recognizes very clearly that Qantas must change, otherwise the Flying Kangaroo will land in a gravesite alongside Pan Am and TWA and not on a runway in Sydney.  Joyce wants/needs to establish a low-cost presence in Asia.  It already has a low-cost alternative called JetStar in Australia.

Qantas is a geographically disadvantaged airline – its home market is an end point on the global airline map.  Airlines in the Middle East have targeted Qantas’ traffic base using their geographic advantage to route traffic to points in Europe, North America, Africa and the Middle East.  Because of their lower costs, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar can offer much lower fares.  Singapore, Malaysia and Air Asia can do the same thing for the same reasons.  Imagine what will happen if (or when) the Chinese carriers become formidable competitors.

The union response? Rolling, intermittent strikes by the Transport Workers Union, the Australian Licensed Engineers Union and the Australian and International Pilots Union. This destructive industrial action forced Qantas to cancel more than 600 flights affecting 70,000 passengers, creating uncertainty for businesses and damaging the tourism industry.

I know some regular readers will say I’m once again bashing unions and sticking-up for management, but that isn’t the case. I think labor has some legitimate beefs with Qantas, but the reaction by the unions simply isn’t rational. When an airline is struggling, you don’t plunge it further into economic turmoil, especially when the heart of the dispute is job security. All the Australian unions have to do is look at past versions of this story to see how that works out.   It just makes no sense.

What makes this round of bargaining different than past rounds in the U.S. is there are major, structural claims that management cannot accept without putting the enterprise at risk.  It is one of the reasons I write so often about scope.

Joyce very eloquently outlined Qantas’ position: “No responsible company would let a small number of unions dictate how the business is run.  What the unions are actually trying to do is secure a veto on change. They demand the retention of outdated work practices that do not reflect the realities of modern aviation. They want Jetstar pilots to be paid at the same rates as Qantas pilots, a move that would drive up ticket prices for leisure travellers. These are major, structural claims that we cannot accept.”

I applaud Joyce for standing up and saying enough is enough.  Some very smart people have said Joyce’s major error was not informing the government of his intended actions, thus embarrassing the current administration. Truth is, whatever decision Joyce made to combat the union’s actions, he was damned.  If he did nothing, he was left in charge of an airline that had no idea if it could deliver service to customers because the unions could strike at any time.  He was damned if he shut the airline down, inconveniencing those same customers as well as humiliating the government. And if he gave the unions even half of what they wanted, he’d forever be known as the man who doomed Australia’s national airline.  

Like it or not, decisions made in management suites and board rooms are all about preserving the enterprise - - even if it means making unpopular choices.  That’s what makes the airline business different today than in the past.  The irony is both management and the unions really want the same thing; to keep the airline a viable enterprise into the future, thus securing jobs. It’s about building the best job protector that can be built – a healthy company.

That’s why so many U.S. aviation workers really should be tuning in to what’s happening at Qantas and, to a lesser extent, at Air Canada. Pilots and flight attendants at United/Continental, the pilots and all other groups in negotiations at American as well as the pilots and flight attendants at US Airways don’t have to produce their version of “Groundhog Day.” They can recognize reality and start a new script that guarantees good paying jobs for their members and helps keep their respective airlines competitive. Think of it as an adaptation of the UAW play.

To be stuck in the same place, with the same unproductive mindset and doing the same things over and over isn’t going to be any more effective in the Qantas story – or any other version – than we’ve seen in the past.  

Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” has a telling line I don’t want to see as airline unions’ epitaph. After trying to break the repetitive cycle he’s stuck in, Murray’s Phil Connors says, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.”  If management and unions don’t change the script soon, that’s exactly what will happen.

Wednesday
May042011

Air Canada: Hypocrisy and Competition at the Same Time

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal there was a story titled:  Air Canada Tries New Path.  [Note to self: I will be interested]  But it was the subtitle that truly piqued my interest:  Carrier Is Pushing Toronto, Other Hubs as Transfer Points for U.S. Travelers.  Then I broke into laughter.

Not long ago I was writing about how the Canadian government was in a trade dispute of sorts with the United Arab Emirates and the efforts of Emirates, Ethiad and Qatar to expand services into Canada.  The rhetoric grew louder, with large doses of protectionism for Canada’s flag carrier.

"What Emirates wants to do is flood the Canadian market with capacity,” said Air Canada’s CEO Calin Rovinescu. “Its strategy is to scoop up travelers going elsewhere in the world and funnel them through Dubai, further strengthening Dubai as a global flow hub." 

Rovinescu also said Emirates' strategy will “constrain the growth of Canadian airports by turning them from hubs into stubs at the end of a spoke that leads only to Emirates' hub in Dubai." Just in case he didn’t make his point, Rovinescu added, "Sure, you will still be able to get to anywhere from Vancouver. But you will have to get there through Dubai."

In Tuesday’s WSJ, Caroline Van Hasslet writes:  “Air Canada is relying on the proximity of its domestic hubs to the giant American market, what Mr. Rovinescu calls his ‘international powerhouse’ strategy.  He [Rovinescu] identified Toronto as the carrier’s key hub in the push but also uses Montreal and Vancouver to attract American flyers traveling to Europe or Asia.  He hopes to double Air Canada’s transshipment traffic this year . . .”.

According to Van Hasslet, “Air Canada hopes to capitalize on its recent capacity increases, especially to Asia,” noting that the carrier is also betting that its relatively young planes will be a primary attraction for American business travelers.”

That sounds very much like the strategy playing out in the Middle East, where new planes, a young workforce and geography are the primary structural advantages for carriers calling the region home.

Simply, as networks increase in scope, carriers can justify more and more service into secondary and tertiary markets as the connecting possibilities increase exponentially.  Rovinescu says he wants to move passengers from one country, through a so-called gateway nation, to a third country.  With the exception of Toronto, other Canadian cities would be secondary to Emirates just as Air Canada calls Boston, Pittsburgh and Cleveland secondary.

But those secondary markets are critical in filling airplanes destined for Europe and Asia. The U.S. cities mentioned by the Air Canada CEO are just as important to American Airlines, Delta Air Lines as well as their STAR alliance partners, United-Continental and US Airways.  What to make of this strategy that will certainly transform Air Canada overnight into a global juggernaut?  Don’t buy the line.

As I touched on in the previous blog, Air Canada was trying to negotiate compensation and work rules with it pilots doing domestic flying versus international flying.  This points to the simple fact that network carrier legacy rules will not work long-term in either the Canadian or the U.S. market.  But, unlike the U.S., Canada faces a true structural conundrum.   Nearly two-thirds of the country’s traffic can be found in just eight metropolitan markets.   So Air Canada sees the need to raid U.S. markets to fill those big, new airplanes destined for Asia, all along potentially turning U.S. hubs into stubs on the global map.

But Wait – Let’s Talk Competition Too

Yes I am calling out Air Canada for the duplicity of its words and intended actions.  The question is what it means to all the naysayers who claim that it is global alliances that are driving up cross-Atlantic airfares.

Rarely do they mention the role of rising fuel prices and airlines passing on the cost to the consumer which makes percent changes from recent history even more dramatic.

Rarely do they mention that the architecture of the Middle East carrier’s networks is being designed to mount the ultimate challenge to the Big 3 global alliances. 

To suggest that there is no inter-alliance competition; one has to look no further than Air Canada’s “international powerhouse” strategy.  What I think is going to be interesting is what to make of the intra-alliance competition for the same traffic and revenue.  Yes joint ventures work to address some of the concern.  But …..

Now is the time to think about cross border ownership.  Maybe it is also time for U.S. carriers to act and make the rest of the world react.  Air Canada is the poster child for cross border ownership because the Canadian market cannot support two carriers.  And borrowing traffic and revenue from the U.S. is yet another Band Aid solution to problems that underlie the carrier’s long-term sustainability. 

Air Canada certainly knows this to be the truth as well.

Sunday
Apr242011

Pithy Ramblings On The Past 24 Days

In the 24 days since I last wrote, I have given multiple lectures, participated on a panel at the EU Forum on Transatlantic Competitiveness, prepared to present at Atlantic Southeast Airlines' Spring Leadership Conference and am working with two MIT students, Kari Hernandez and Joe Jenkins, on what I believe will be an insightful and important study on airline industry efficiencies and community access to the nation’s air transportation grid.

The worst NCAA national championship game in history ended three painful weeks made more so by my abysmal picks for the tournament.  And the Master’s golf tournament began and ended with no American at the top of the world ranking, just as no US airline can be said to be atop of the global airline industry.

With earnings and proxy season in full swing, it’s clear that most airlines are scrapping their way to respectable results even as high fuel costs depress their performance and executives continue to get paid executive salaries even at the sharp objections of unions.

And with so many union contracts still under negotiation, labor disputes continue to dog the industry, here and at airlines around the world.  I looked with hope to the pilot negotiations at Air Canada, where it appeared that the union was willing to consider less onerous restrictions on domestic flying in recognition of economic difficulties in the domestic Canadian market.  But rather than put an agreement out to vote, the union instead recalled its Chairman, doing little to strengthen the airline for the future. In response, the Centre for Pacific Aviation said it best: “That Air Canada needs something dramatic to make it sustainable is as obvious as the maple leaf on the national flag.”

I made the same suggestion in my presentation to the FAA's 35th Annual Aviation Forecast Conference.  But in doing so I often feel much like the Chairman of the Air Canada pilots union with plenty of readers who want to recall me when I look economic reality in the eye and recommend dramatic change.  One reader warns of a looming pilot shortage citing the law of supply and demand.  But that law will apply only by depressing the demand for pilots as the industry in the US will get smaller yet before it gets bigger.

At most of the US network carriers, cost structures are still too high to continue domestic flying at current levels.  And those high cost structures make it hard to justify investment in the hundreds of new narrowbodies necessary to replace fleets performing domestic flying today, particularly if today’s managers are truly serious about achieving a return on capital that actually exceeds the cost of capital.

Speaking at a CERA Conference in March, United-Continental Holdings CEO Jeff Smisek acknowledged that United-Continental, the product of the merger of United and Continental, will shrink in the U.S.  “We'll have the domestic [operations] sized solely to feed the international traffic," Smisek said.

Warring words between pilots and management have been increasing in volume in Australia too. Qantas had it relatively easy domestically once Ansett, the largely domestic carrier, was liquidated in 2002. When Virgin Blue grew to replace Ansett, Qantas responded by forming Jetstar, an airline within an airline.  But then came Tiger Airways Australia which now leads pricing in the Australian domestic market.  So legacy Qantas, with a cost structure once supported by a near monopoly in its domestic market, has now lost its competitive way.  Add to that pressure from the Middle East carriers internationally, a route system that is nothing more than a spoke to the world’s hubs is under challenge from all directions.

We can expect to hear similar noise from union halls in Germany, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.  This is a region with social cost structures that look more like that of the state bureaucracy in Wisconsin than what will be needed to compete for tomorrow's global traffic.  I increasingly believe that what is being built in the Middle East will challenge the competitive integrity of each of the three global alliances.  Given that these alliances are nothing more than Band-Aid solutions to maneuver around archaic rules and regulations governing air transport, the bandages will begin to lose their adhesion one by one.  Global airlines built organically, particularly through cross-border mergers that build a brand, will begin to win the day. 

Not surprisingly, the response to the Middle East carriers from Canada, Germany, France and elsewhere has been protectionist at best. First the world wanted to open the skies.  Now that the skies are largely open for some, the talk has turned to restricting access to markets from new, innovative and vibrant competition.  I agree that the new competition should not be allowed to access cheap capital that is not available to all.  But to limit access because of presumed subsidy, cheap fuel, little or no airport costs and whatever other excuse to limit the growth of Middle East carriers is just plain wrong. Until a forensic accounting of Middle East carrier finances is available, it is all heresay to me.  Even Willie Walsh speaking at the EU Forum said he sees nothing abnormal in the numbers being reported today.  

In my mind, the US network carriers already have faced this type of competitive challenge to their domestic operations from upstart airlines with a labor cost advantage, new, more efficient aircraft and a cost structure that reflects the realities of today’s market in part by doing things like outsourcing ground services.  Why was it OK for the low cost carriers in the US to take 20 points of domestic market share away from incumbents and it is not OK for more efficient operations in other parts of the world to challenge incumbents in Europe and Canada?  Let’s not forget that one of the benefits of LCCs in the US was stimulating new demand that filled airplanes painted with new and old liveries. 

Finally, a few words on the battle between American Airlines and the global distribution systems/online travel agencies. We cannot talk about the airline ticket distribution system without mentioning the Business Travel Coalition – the advocacy group that tells the world it is all about protecting consumers when it is doing nothing more than to ensure the sustainability of its business with cash flows from the distribution duopoly.  In the past month alone, the BTC News Wire put out communications that, among other things, suggested that airlines are lying to Congress, railing against airline fees and urging consumers to write Congress in protest.

As I wrote 24 days ago,  despite the rhetoric from BTC and the constituents it represents, the coalition is doing more to protect an outdated mode of operation and stifle innovation than support a strong airline industry.  The GDS duopoly cannot move fast enough for an industry that sells “time saved” no matter how painful it is for the BTC and the online travel agencies to have the revenue tap turned off.  It’s time for the GDS to recognize they can’t support interests other than their ultimate customer – the airlines that actually do serve the air travel customer.

Much more to come.

Wednesday
Nov252009

Montie Brewer: Five Reasons Why the Airline Industry Will Never be Profitable

Stuffing Romy’s Thanksgiving Turkey with Items for Secretary LaHood to Consider

On Friday, November 20, Montie Brewer, most recently Air Canada’s President and CEO, made a presentation at MIT titled:  “Five Reasons Why the Airline Industry Will Never be Profitable.”  Prior to making his way to Air Canada in 2004, Mr. Brewer (Montie) held senior positions at United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Republic Airlines, Braniff and Trans World Airlines. He has planned and developed over 20 hub operations worldwide and played an integral role in the founding of the STAR alliance. 

I sat down with Montie following his presentation with the intention to write about it, but also to use his talk as context as Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood considers establishing a Blue Ribbon panel to study the woes of the U.S .airline industry.  It seems like the perfect stuffing for 2009’s Thanksgiving turkey.

Brewer’s Five Reasons Why the Airline Industry Will Never be Profitable

The boom and bust cycles of airline industry earnings are well documented, as is the fact that subsequent down cycles to industry up-cycles destroy those earnings and more.  The fact remains that any annual airline industry profits rarely exceed the average pre-tax earnings for U.S. corporations. As a preface to his talk, Brewer made clear it would be wrong to surmise individual airlines will not be profitable. Instead he contends the industry will always suffer due to structural reasons.  

  1.  It’s A Capacity Lead Business Model (Causes Constant Overcapacity)

Since deregulation the airline product has been commoditized.  In the commodity framework, the only way the industry, or an airline, can grow revenue is to grow capacity.  Then, the Computer Reservations Systems and the Global Distribution Systems institutionalized the notion that in order for an airline to grow revenue, it needed to offer more and more capacity even before demand warranted.

The addition of capacity led to low and lower operating costs.  On the margin, revenue exceeded cost.  Uneconomic capacity was being deployed each and every day.  Ultimately an industry too big to be sustainable was created.   

The GDS’s were a major contributor to the commoditization of the airline product.  Based on this fact, airlines that distribute directly to the consumer have the best likelihood of differentiating, and more importantly, not commoditizing, their product.  This fact contributes to the notion that certain airlines can do well while the industry suffers. 

  2.   Airplanes Don’t Go Away (They Just Become More Efficient)

A bad airline industry assumption is consolidation of the industry, whether through a merger or carrier liquidation, leads to industry capacity reduction.  The airline industry time and again has demonstrated that once a carrier’s capacity is pushed to the edge, that carrier’s capacity (efficient and inefficient) does not go away.

With the working premise that the only way to grow revenue is to grow capacity, then new aircraft need to ordered.  The problem is aircraft do not go away, and: aircraft do not make their way from an inefficient operator to a more efficient operator; aircraft CAN fly forever; even when an airline tries to retire aircraft, they come back like a bad spaghetti sauce (remember ValuJet using Delta’s DC-9s to compete directly with them in Atlanta); and, when carriers grow they realize great efficiencies. 

An example of those efficiencies is a 3 percent growth in capacity results in only a 1 percent increase in total operating costs.  However, this works in reverse when carriers pull capacity down as the cost savings cannot be achieved commensurate with the reduction.  This fact is what plagues the industry today as a floor is created on just how much capacity can be reduced by any one airline.  

[Note:  If Brewer had his way, Airbus and Boeing would each be allowed to produce 10 new aircraft per year but he would allow the manufacturers to charge whatever amount they could earn on each of those 10 aircraft.]

  3.   Labor Leverage (Political Organizations Cannot Manage Commercial Reality)

Labor organizations are not structured to manage the responsibility they possess.  In Brewer’s view labor has tremendous leverage over the industry.  However, they are highly simple political organizations and, as such, only have a short-term view.  For the politicians, the short-term view is to remain in their elected position.  To overcome this flaw, labor organizations need to completely overhaul their governance structure. 

Like the ordering of airplanes, management historically reaches agreements with labor at the very end or the peak of economic up cycles and then faces the prospect of paying the bill during subsequent downturns.  Given the high fixed costs of the industry, airlines can rarely afford a strike or intermittent work stoppages.  During negotiations, both the airline and labor pretend management is in control.  According to Brewer, the working assumption is management will not allow labor to take too much, but in reality, labor can take all it wants - - then both live with the outcome.  Brewer believes, when costs like labor, fuel, maintenance, airport fees are factored in on a daily basis, the typical airline has 10 - 20 profitable days a year.

With 10-20 days of revenue to spend, some in labor have asked, “Why would management agree to a contract it can’t afford”?  Well, because somewhere during the year, fuel exceeded budget, or the government issued a new airworthiness directive involving aircraft in an airline's fleet, or airport fees increased, or…….the false belief that management will contain labor’s desires from doing stupid things.

  4. Input Costs are Too Volatile (Revenue Cycle and Cost Cycle Out of Sync)

Even in the best of years, the airline industry is a low margin business where it is not uncommon for any number of input costs to increase at least 20 percent.  A low margin business with volatile input costs is a toxic mix.  A good example occurred in 2008 when the price of oil increased from $80 per barrel to $147.  As is typical in the airline business, tickets are often purchased months in advance.  During the first half of 2008, it was not uncommon for passengers to be flying in June on a ticket purchased when oil was $50 per barrel cheaper.

Is the relationship of volatile costs relative to revenue impossible to manage?  No, but it would require companies to maintain outsized cash balances. Cash balances that look good to labor during contract negotiations and to financial raiders seeking to buy a company to harvest that cash.

  5.  Nobody Really Wants It to Be Fixed

Brewer makes a powerful case that things are fine the way they are… and, for the most part, the airline industry value chain, consumers and the government know it.

When it comes to low fares, the consumer can shop the internet and find some market on sale. They may even find the price of a ticket today equal to, or less, in nominal dollars than a fare charged two decades ago.  When adjusted for inflation, it is hard to find any consumer item that is a better bargain than air travel.

Taxes and fees are nearly $60 - or 20 percent - of the price of a ticket today.  This compares to $22, or 7 percent, in 1972.  The government is getting a bigger share of a shrinking pie. 

Perhaps, most compelling is the industry's value chain like airline catering, aircraft lessors, ground handling, manufacturers, airports, distribution systems, fueling; travel agents, maintenance repair organizations and freight operations.  Each of these industry sectors in the airline industry value chain earn a higher return on invested capital than the airline companies that keep them in business. 

Some Questions for Secretary LaHood to Ponder

  • Can a commodity business (airline business) that does not have to be a commodity business (too much supply) be permitted to change sufficiently by its stakeholders to achieve sustained profitability? 
  • Can an industry where inefficient capacity never leaves achieve sustained profitability? 
  • Can an industry where organized labor has outsized leverage but cannot manage the inherent responsibilities that come with that leverage change sufficiently in order for the industry to achieve sustained profitability? 
  • Can an industry with widely volatile input costs raise sufficient capital to manage its business without being raided by either a financial investor or a stakeholder seeking outsized payments?
  • Can an industry where every stakeholder seems to be happy with the way it is, including governments and their constituents, consider making the necessary changes in order for the industry to achieve sustained profitability?

Any Discussion Must Begin With a Plan for Roads, Rail and Runways

To date, the only public suggestions that I have seen for the Secretary to consider in forming the panel come from Kevin Mitchell at the Business Travel Coalition.  Mitchell, who participated in the Secretary’s discussion with various stakeholders on November 12, wrote LaHood outlining five issues that need studying by the proposed commission:

  • No National Air Transportation Policy
  • Airline Over-Scheduling
  • Broken Industry Work Force Model
  • Obsolete Air Traffic Control Technology
  • Airline Industry Financial Failure

Mitchell also outlined causes of each, including unbridled faith in market forces; lack of government and industry foresight and leadership; lack of a productive labor-management model; unworkable industry financial model; ineffective FAA management; fragmented industry positions and lack of Congressional leadership. While Mitchell is thoughtful about the problems and their causes, parts of his list of those affected sounds more like advocacy for his clients.

Swelbar’s View

Among the best of Mitchell’s observations is the need for a coherent transportation policy.  That policy, though, should not focus on an alleged broken regional airline business model; tarmac delays; that the industry is no longer a desired profession; pressure on safety margins; loss of skilled jobs; lost service; or a loss of international leadership. 

The transportation policy should be about roads, rails and runways -- period. After all, there must be some very good reason why Warren Buffett is spending $34 billion to buy Burlington Northern? For aviation specifically, it should address the need to define, resize and equip the desired infrastructure for the 21st Century. For airports that might be disenfranchised from the air transportation grid, do highways need to be built that easily facilitate a different access point for those air travel consumers?  It should not be about championing a unique labor force that already has considerable power and very good paying jobs relative to the overall work force or the calls of various consumer advocates.

Organized labor was a force behind LaHood's consideration to form a commission to study the airline industry.  But nowhere based on what I have read does labor accept any responsibility for the current condition of the industry.  Times have changed, and unions need to understand that. For organized labor – and by extrapolation, airline labor – to be successful, the unions can no longer be in the business of keeping themselves in business. It has to be about meaningful change. Change that entails understanding the new economic realities, or as the Harvard Business Review recently opined “that there will be no going home again…that the landscape of business has been forever altered.” [actually this question can be asked of every airline industry stakeholder] Can unions change or adapt to the idea that instead of being in business to secure decent jobs for the greatest number of people it might be better off securing great jobs for fewer workers?

Mitchell identifies the right stakeholders, but doesn’t ask ALL of the right questions.  Brewer poses the right questions and does not suggest the market can answer them all.  The answers lie in what this blog is about -- change:  can industry stakeholders change and surrender unrealistic expectations of the past?  Despite all of the cuts, we still have too much capacity, leading to too many inefficient operations, which lead to a government that really does not want to get out of the way --- because it has a stake in that inefficiency.

I hope that the administration is really going to evaluate the industry and recognize that all stakeholders need to change.  And much of the change that needs to take place begins and ends with government accepting that an industry 50 years old ... well, needs to change.

More to come.

 

Thursday
Jul092009

Are Some US Airlines Too Big to Fail? Hell No!

Holman W. Jenkins Jr., writing in the July 8 Wall Street Journal gets it right: "The new administration seemingly won't let companies fail, and won't let them succeed either," Jenkins wrote of Justice Department opposition to antitrust immunity for Continental Airlines and the Star Alliance. Such alliances, he argues, are the industry's "self-help solution" for companies looking "to share losses and preserve capacity in a downturn." By denying that option to struggling carriers, Obama may soon be forced to "add the airlines to the collection of failed industries being run out of the White House."

 

Sadly, What is Good for One is Not Good for the Other Two

Congress, of course, has a long-held penchant for meddling in the affairs of industries and organizations. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights spent taxpayer money to hold hearings on college football’s selection process for placing teams in its Bowl Championship Series. So we should not be surprised to see a growing government role in an industry that has managed to lose more than $30 billion over the past nine years.

If government oversight of the airline industry is going to stand in the way of corporate success, then there is no airline too big to fail. So why not let them fail? Airlines are criticized for not being innovative. True - and for the most part their innovations over the past 10 years amount to little more than finding ways to maximize revenue within a system of constraints.

Delta/Northwest is the largest carrier in the world, and even it commands less than a 5 percent share of the global airline market. No other U.S. airline claims more than a 3 percent share. Yet the government continues to treat the U.S. airline industry as if it is a threat to competition and slap the hands of airlines that attempt to improve/augment their business models through partnerships and alliances with foreign carriers.

Antitrust laws are designed to protect consumers from corporate power. Does a well-established trend line of fares falling at rates greater than inflation for three decades demonstrate corporate or industry pricing power? A passenger traveling from Greenville/Spartanburg to Los Angeles has a choice between more than 20 flight combinations to get from California and back.  Does that demonstrate corporate or industry power? Does an industry that makes the price of its product fully transparent to the buyer sound like an abuse of the consumer?

The fact is that most U.S. air travelers still have plenty of choices when it comes to flying – albeit in an industry that still carries more capacity than it needs.

 

Southwest: The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Let the record show that I have not joined the chorus of analysts and observers who predict rising fares by Fall. The recession holds. Many consumers are tapped out. Enter: Southwest Airlines.

Southwest has a long history of leveraging difficult financial times -- profiting at the expense of competing airlines because it could. It profited because of the chasm in its CASM versus it competitors; it profited because of the chasm in the RASM charged by competitors; it profited because it smartly used its balance sheet to make a wildly successful bet on the future of fuel prices . . . Southwest profited because it could. So this week’s fare sale in which the airline is selling tickets at $30, $60 and $90 says one of two things: either Southwest is struggling mightily with the forward booking curve, or the airline smells blood. I think the answer is both, but more the latter.

Southwest is now the big dog in the US domestic market and a player that must be reckoned with in any discussion of domestic market competition. If the nation’s lawmakers and policymakers continue to equate low fares with sufficient competition and consumer benefit, then deregulation has clearly come full circle.

Southwest is not now the big dog to those in Greenville/Spartanburg, Knoxville or Duluth. But most travelers can get in a car and drive less than a few hours to fly Southwest from these markets or more than 280 others not now served by LUV.

If this is what the regulators and policymakers really want, then that’s what they’ll get. Therefore, there is no reason to think that any airline flying today is too big to fail.

With Southwest adding the dots of the largest population centers where it did not previously fly to its route map, the industry could be at a tipping point. These markets also represent large sources of feed revenue to many legacy carrier hubs, and with Southwest offering fares too low for some legacies to match, this fall and winter may be a long, cold one for the traditional carriers.

Will the government continue to stand in the way of airlines that are desperately seeking new revenues? If so, no bailout will save an airline – not until U.S. airlines are allowed to act like other multinational industries serving a global economy. There already is enough taxpayer money bailing out other industries with similarly troubled attributes – adding airline rescues to the mix would only throw more good money after bad.

 

Union Rhetoric

What’s behind Congressional opposition to these common-sense alliances? The loudest voice in the room is labor. Even at this financially treacherous time, the industry is split from within, the result in part of union leaders that refuse to recognize economic trends and realities when they don’t serve the union’s objectives. When are the unions going to recognize that the transfer of domestic market wealth from the incumbent carriers at the time of deregulation to the new wave of carriers that followed is largely complete? And that tomorrow’s opportunities do not reside inside the 48 contiguous states?

Now, in the years since airlines sought and won aggressive cuts in labor costs during restructuring, it is increasingly clear to me that continual change/modification to outdated collective bargaining agreements cannot overcome the structural seniority chasms that exist between the legacy carriers and their lower-cost, younger competitors – at least in the domestic market. For decades, as the network carriers have been forced to compete for ways to average down labor costs through protracted bargaining, the low-cost carriers simply use seniority arbitrage to facilitate their growth. And I think we are about to see another run of growth by the LCC sector.

When it comes to the airlines seeking immunity to maximize revenue and, in the case of United/Continental/Air Canada, address certain cost efficiencies as well, the strategy is to maintain as much of the current operation as is financially feasible. Unlike the US steel industry that lost nearly 400,000 jobs because producers in other countries could do it significantly cheaper, blame for the next round of airline job cuts most go in part to the airline unions that have been busy trying to convince the dinosaurs at the Department of Justice and on Capitol Hill that alliances will result in job loss and a further deterioration of wages and working conditions.

Between the time Eastern Airlines and Pan Am died and 2000, the industry’s high-water mark for employment, U.S. airlines added nearly 100,000 jobs. Since 2000, the industry has lost nearly 140,000 jobs - and it should have been more -  mostly because nearly all the airlines and virtually all the existing hubs have been protected in one way or another by patrons on Washington. Indeed, many of the jobs lost from a failure of one or two of today’s carriers likely will be replaced as market positions in the largest cities are filled by new and more efficient carriers.

 

Let Some Airlines Die – And Then Let DOJ and Congress Rethink

At this point no one US airline is too big to die. Competition remains plentiful whether that competition comes from another ticket counter at the same airport or cheap fares at a nearby airport. Either way, the industry is still too big – with too many network carriers, too many regional carriers and too many hubs.

And, except for a few “up cycles” along the way, revenue has not supported the industry’s growth or size. The time is right for lawmakers to hear the new reality in the industry – one focused not on a false threat of monopolies and price gouging, but the very real threat in an industry so bloated, burdened and inefficient that it fails to provide the very thing a business must: a reliable return for investors and real job security for employees.

Thursday
Jun252009

Is Republic Changing the Face of the US Domestic Market?  

On June 22, Reuters reported that Republic Airways Holdings Inc. (RAH) will sponsor Frontier Airlines’ exit from bankruptcy, noting that the “US regional carrier” would pay $108 million for 100 percent of the equity in the reorganized entity. The next day, Republic announced that it will buy the remains of Midwest Airlines for a mere $31 million (only $6 million in cash), from TPG, the private equity group that has had some success in the US airline industry. While the story got some play in the mainstream press, the possibilities are much bigger than many may realize.

Think About It

Prior to these announcements (and keeping in mind that the Frontier deal is subject to Bankruptcy Court approval), Republic Airways Holdings was soley in business as a provider of “regional airline” capacity. The holding company offers potential purchasers three brands: Chautauqua Airlines, Shuttle America, and Republic Airlines. Under this model, Republic Airways Holdings operates under the flags of its contractual partners, including United Express; US Airways Express; Delta Connection; AmericanConnection; and Continental Express. Therefore it has its fingers into each of the five legacy carrier networks

RAH’s CEO, Bryan Bedford has been in this industry a long time. And he is smart, really smart. Bedford makes this move in an environment in which it is increasingly clear that the legacy carriers do not – and cannot – now operate under a cost structure that will support the number of airlines trying to survive in the hypercompetitive domestic US airline business.

Through May of 2009, airlines have cut capacity another 11 percent. At the same time, passenger revenue is down 21 percent versus the first five months of 2008. When compared to the heyday of 2000, mainline capacity is down 28 percent in the domestic market and passenger revenue is down 33 percent. Despite all of the work done by the legacy carriers to reduce costs – whether through the hammer of the bankruptcy court or not – these revenue trends illustrate an industry all but unsustainable in its current form. And while much has been made of the shift of capacity from domestic to international markets, those revenue trends are even worse in recent months.

Back to Republic

So what‘s behind Republic Airway’s maneuver? Consider this. Chautauqua is a carrier with relatively senior workforce and a fleet that offers little in terms of improvement in technology or scale. Shuttle America is much the same. And parts of Republic Airline’s fortunes are tied to United and US Airways where it operates the latest and greatest 70-seat technology. Happily for Republic, no other carrier is better positioned to capture this flying, in part because it owns its fleet rather than leases it from its mainline partner.

RAH’s structure allows it the necessary flexibility to provide a range of services for a range of clients. It has the flexibility to move from one segment of the business to another. The holding company is designed to work around pilot scope agreements. Nobody does it better. As a result, Republic and Bedford have built a business that provides them with a capital base that allows them to “pay to play.”

Indiana Hold 'em

Bedford “played the river” and now, in this observer’s view, has won enough chips to move to the final table. Providing debtor-in-possession financing is among the safest bets in restructuring. It results in little to no loss of capital in return for increased business. The result is a widely diversified portfolio of flying at increasing revenues as aircraft have gotten larger. Based on the cash flows, Republic has a fleet of aircraft well suited for tomorrow’s US domestic market. For Republic, the next move is building fleets in the 90-120 seat range and that will only augment its cost advantage.

The Frontier Card

Now Frontier provides Republic with something it previously lacked: a technology infrastructure that gives it long-term viability in the market. A technology infrastructure not tied to a legacy system. Today’s “regional carriers” are merely a wet lease of capacity to fly to small markets where mainline aircraft and crews cannot operate economically. They don’t sell tickets. Their purchased capacity merely moves people onto a mainline aircraft at a hub. With Frontier, Republic could change the game.

When it comes to changing the way consumers buy airline tickets, few see Air Canada as the bellwether - they were. But Frontier’s CEO, Sean Menke, came from Air Canada and brought with him the concept and a blueprint of giving consumers a choice of the services and amenities they want at a price they were willing to pay. There, he was recently joined by Air Canada’s Daniel Shurz, a marketing/strategy visionary wunderkind who has further strengthened the Frontier management team.

Frontier may well be the next new thing in the market. It’s not the Independence Air model or just another regional carrier. It is tomorrow’s solution for outdated domestic capacity. Bedford could now buy an Airbus fleet for a song. Bedford could now buy Milwaukee at a bargain. Who cares about Milwaukee? Only Southwest and AirTran and each and every legacy carrier that depends on Milwaukee traffic to feed operations at their hubs.

Imagine This Scenario. . .

  1. Republic continues to collect revenue per departure for the feed it provides to each of its five current clients.
  2. Republic maintains a financial interest in cities with three carriers trying to maintain or obtain market dominance. There is little evidence to suggest that many cities can support three aggressive carriers vying for market share. It’s been tried at DEN and it sure as hell cannot work at MKE.
  3. Come Fall, as mainline carriers realize that previously announced capacity cuts are not sufficient, they turn to Republic and attempt to renegotiate their contracts. Republic says “Hell No” and instead makes a move to turn to develop its holding company portfolio into an airline that will compete for the very same traffic.
  4. Maybe it then becomes apparent to one of those competing airlines that flying to DEN– largely reliant on feed traffic –no longer makes sense and it negotiates with Republic to replace its capacity there? Certainly, labor issues abound, but economic realities could prove persuasive.

All of this comes at a time of seachange for the big players in the US market. Ultimately, there is little left for the legacy carriers to restructure. There is no way to restructure zero demand. There is no way to restructure free-falling fares. There is no way to restructure rising fuel costs. And under current labor contracts, there is no way to restructure labor costs other than to get rid of minimum employment requirements.

That given, and with liquidations possible if conditions don't begin to quickly improve, Republic is well positioned to take advantage of vacuums in the domestic market. And we all know that nature abhors vacuums.

We’re entering a new era in the US airline industry. Change likely won’t depend on the kind of calamity or crisis that triggers the “force majeure” clause that allows airlines to suspend or break contracts. Instead, new market economics may force a restructuring of the industry in which the victors are those, like Republic, which simply have a better business model - a flexible and agile model. The top domestic airlines of tomorrow might be Southwest, jetBlue, Republic and maybe two of the five current legacy carriers.

Hubs will remain in the largest metro areas because that is where the population is gravitating. Thus, the focus of air service providers is no different today than it was in the early 1990’s when we lost Eastern and Pan Am. And once again, the industry will discover that presence in all the big markets doesn’t give them pricing power anywhere. Republic’s move demonstrates that the major carrier’s reliance on feed markets to cross subsidize this fact could be over. Air travelers want low fares and, time and again are showing they’ll drive to whatever airport – and airline -- offers them.

In the very near future, it might be a very different set of carriers that dominates the US domestic landscape.

Thursday
May282009

Aboard UA #2: Reading Captain Wallach’s Latest Half Truths

I have a long institutional history at United, primarily working on behalf of the Association of Flight Attendants. In this role, I worked with the flight attendants through every concessionary period, the ESOP attempts, and Phase One of bankruptcy -- a long association that ended when I spoke my mind in a media interview on the vulnerability of defined benefit pension plans and, in doing so, angered some in the union leadership with my candor. .

All by way of saying that there is very little in United’s recent history, at least between 1985 and 2003, that I did not witness up front and personal.

 

The Recent Spat

The latest static at UAL involves a war of words surrounding United, Continental, Air Canada and Lufthansa in their application for anti-trust immunity to operate an international alliance. This debate is creating much more noise in Chicago than it is in either Washington or Brussels and that’s for one reason: the noise comes from a desperate union leader who waited ten months to voice concern about any potential impact on United workers.

This is the very same union leader who sits on United’s Board of Directors. His administration was subject to a federal court injunction to end what Judge Joan H. Lefkow ruled was a job action in clear violation of federal law. This, in fact, is a union leader who fancies himself as the second coming of ALPA boss Rick Dubinsky – the legendary golden goose hunter that worked more than 15 years to create many of the problems that still plague United. But, Mr. Wallach, you are no Rick Dubinisky.

Sometime after Wallach’s anti-trust immunity concerns were made known via the press, United COO John Tague, sent a letter to employees explaining United’s successful alliances with ten airlines over the course of the past ten years – none of which had led to problems or complaints with the carrier’s unions. A day later, Wallach responded with an open letter to Tague and copied all United employees – a tirade he then shared with the media as demonstrated by this submission to Forbes.com.

 

Wallach’s Letter

Wallach opens citing what he calls blatant mischaracterizations and outright falsehoods contained in Tague’s letter. But after reading Wallach’s letter, I am of the mind that it is he who is guilty of blatant mischaracterizations and outright falsehoods.

In building his case, Wallach attempts to blame United’s role in the STAR Alliance for the airline’s trouble today . . . a dubious case he makes by comparing the size of United in 1997 when it first joined STAR to the carrier’s size today. That argument conveniently fails to note that 1997 marked the middle of the greatest up cycle in US airline history, and then neglects to account for all the industry trouble that has transpired since. But that’s what the industry has come to expect from unions that spend more time and capital attacking companies through half truths and blatant misinterpretations rather than working to address the economic and competitive realities at the root of the industry’s struggles.

A more honest analysis would take into account the full breadth of events that have had a profound impact on the airline industry since 1997, including but not limited to SARS

  1. SARS
  2. The growth of the US low cost carriers
  3. The rapid deflation of the IPO bubble
  4. The puncture of the stock market bubble
  5. The advent of internet distribution and pricing (transparency that contributes to lower ticket prices
  6. The Summer of 2000 (where actions by UA pilots to “work to rule” impacted service)
  7. Ratification of a new pilot contract with rates far higher than the rest of the industry
  8. September 11, 2001
  9. US Airways bankruptcy filing that led to significant reductions in labor rates
  10. United bankruptcy filing
  11. Oil prices begin increase to historic levels; crack spreads depart from historic norms
  12. Delta and Northwest bankruptcy filings
  13. Oil reaches $147 per barrel, driving run up of other commodity prices
  14. New rash of airline industry oil hedges in anticipation of further price spikes,
  15. Followed by plummeting prices that put many hedge contracts underwater
  16. Credit crisis takes hold
  17. Consumer confidence falls
  18. Economy enters recession in late 2007
  19. Recession deepens to become worst on record since 1930’s with global reach into Asia and Europe
  20. Pandemic flu outbreak with hardest initial impact in Mexico.
  21. United pilots in negotiations over new contract for first time since bankruptcy agreement.

The real lesson is in the extent to which the entire industry has changed over the past 12 years with a permanent impact on the legacy carriers. Wallach weakens his own case by suggesting that alliances have hurt US airline employment without identifying the many factors in the equation.

In fact, I would argue that without the alliance partners United works with today, the airline would be even smaller.

Has the management at United made some mistakes along the way? Of course. The current UAL leadership has no compunction about forgetting the past other than to recognize that the carrier’s past was largely a dysfunctional disaster. But that recognition led to many of the changes to United’s structure and operations in place today. As CEO Glenn Tilton often makes the case, the industry has to earn its cost of capital – something the global industry has rarely achieved over its long history.

 

Corporate Campaigns and Organized Pilot Labor

The airline unions – particularly those now in contract negotiations, have not shied away from full-barrel attacks on the carriers as one method of soliciting support during labor talks. Ginning up opposition to airline alliances seems to have become the latest tactic in this long-running campaign. But it should not be lost on any industry watcher that the loudest rhetoric comes from the union halls of the pilots at United and American. Ironically, the least noise is coming from the most successful US legacy carriers – Continental and Delta. I’ll leave it to the readers to weigh in as to whether there’s a connection.

But outside the rhetoric there’s a pretty clear case for the benefits of these alliances, particularly for an industry that needs desperately to hold on to its customer base. Maintaining and expanding the current alliance structure is one sure way to do so.

 

Concluding Thoughts

It is important to filter the daily missives fired from the labor bunker with the understanding that many in the industry are understandably frustrated by the changes and challenges in the airline industry. At some level, the best labor leaders recognize that the industry will not return to the unsustainable bargaining patterns and demands of yesteryear. Captain Wallach should take a very careful look at his union’s history at United and role in contributing to the precarious position the airline now finds itself in.  In other words, make yourself relevant in shaping United's tomorrow.

That history lesson should begin with the pilot-led majority purchase of the company in 1994, a process that began following a strike in 1985. With that purchase, the unions had unprecedented power in the governance structure and influence so strong it included hiring and firing power. But as the ESOP sunset, there was no transformation – no new culture or structure that prepared the airline to weather the trials to come. Instead, the transformation has come as the result of seismic economic factors that are redrawing the global airline industry map. And that map includes alliances – a necessary partnership in an industry in which US airlines aren’t permitted to act like other global businesses and merge.

There is not one legacy carrier in the US today that could stand alone and compete on a global scale. To stand in the way of market evolution is to stand on a dangerous path.

Tuesday
Apr212009

1st Quarter Earnings Calls: Unbungling; Unbundling But Not Unshackled

Three legacy carrier earnings calls down, two to go. Southwest and Allegiant have reported. So has SkyWest. But the clear takeaways are difficult to discern. Everyone wants to know if the industry has reached a bottom. But there are no clear answers while we are still in the middle of an economic tsunami. For all those who have said the domestic market is stabilizing (me among them) the only hard evidence on our side right now is that the environment is not getting worse.

Every carrier is supremely focused on unbungling their operations. Yes, unbungling. Because we all know that operations at many carriers have been a mess, with many factors to blame. And, as painful as the process has been, many carriers are making progress getting their operations and costs in order. US Airways led an amazing turnaround focused on its once-troubled Philadelphia hub. Many very good reforms are underway at United. And all things operational are improving at American, albeit at a slower pace than at some of their legacy peers.

Moreover, virtually every carrier – except for Southwest – remains committed to continuing the unbundling process and to maximizing secondary revenue sources. Today, Delta went so far as to announce a fee for the second checked bag on international flights -- becoming the first in the industry to do so. The industry is unequivocal that the fees will stay and that where opportunities are present to do more, they will. Further, a heartening storyline has emerged regarding distribution, where carriers increasingly see opportunities to move away from paying intermediaries to sell their tickets and to turn that model on its head so that airlines get a fee from the middle man for the right to sell their product.

The United Call

I do not have the transcript of this call in front of me, but this was a most interesting listen. My favorite part was when Morgan Stanley’s Bill Greene posed a very fundamental question that went something like this: With planned capital expenditures less than depreciation, how are we supposed to think about United, or the industry, on a going forward basis from an investment point of view?

Or, as Helane Becker of Jessup and Lamont put it: Should UAL have public equity at all, or instead raise only debt capital from the public markets? Then there was Ted Reed of TheStreet.com, who was blunt in asking whether, just maybe, United had “shrunk too much.”

Good questions. Unfortunately, they are ones that the current environment makes very difficult to answer with conviction.

In my last post, I questioned the airline industry’s access to capital given fragile economic fundamentals in an industry that, over its long history, has failed to produce so much as a dime in retained earnings. In my view, the industry is at a tipping point in which smart investors should question the structural integrity of some carriers and networks during what amounts to a market stress test . . . one that just might reveal which airlines have few moves left to shed uneconomic capacity.

This is the “new and irreversible development” I referred to, a trajectory that might change only through serious effort to remove the many regulatory shackles around this industry. Some necessary changes might not be politically popular -- increased foreign ownership of US airlines comes to mind – but the industry’s options are narrowing when you consider that revenue trends do not hold out much immediate promise.

Looking ahead, with credit tight, where will capital – affordable capital – be found unless it is from another participant in the same industry? If companies are struggling to realize any return on invested capital today, then what happens as interest rates continue to increase in lockstep with capital scarcity? As standalone companies, there is just not enough room for individual carriers to maneuver around an income statement that holds little promise of further significant reductions in the short-term. Based on Greene’s point, even United seems reluctant to reinvest much of its own, and limited, capital into a business that does not hold promise of a reasonable return.

This is not just about United. This is an industry issue. And not just a US industry issue . . . it is fast becoming a global industry issue.

In North America, Air Canada has long been the poster child of an airline that needs an influx of foreign capital necessary to keep the company relevant in the global market place. Air Canada faces some unique challenges: namely that nearly two-thirds of Canada’s air travel demand is found in just eight markets.

Meanwhile, the Delta/Northwest merger is fast proving that the combined entity is far less vulnerable than either of the two carriers would have been had they not merged. Just think about the vulnerability of each Delta’s and Northwest’s respective hubs to the economies in the interior of the US footprint.

With US Airways the exception among the legacy carriers as to international market exposure, we as a nation should at very least acknowledge the reality that globally-oriented airlines need to be just that. I’m not talking about domestic airlines with global extensions -- we tried that, in a way, with TWA, Eastern and Pan Am . But absent any real alliances that left each of them dependent only on US-origin traffic, those carriers suffered a common fate -- shut down in sagging economies as capital became tight.

Concluding Thoughts

Following an industry life cycle of value destruction, US legacy carriers now face a dilemma: whether to invest in their core businesses or not?

As the US airline industry is now six full years into a major restructuring, the tendency to legislative and regulatory gridlock did not get restructured. An inflexible labor construct did not get restructured. Policies promoting the fragmentation of the US domestic market did not get restructured – until the airlines themselves took on this task through capacity reductions in redundant markets out of necessity. The infrastructure, whether it be ATC or the airport system, did not get restructured. And the historic mindset that capital will be forever recycled among manufacturers, vendors, labor and government imposed actions did not get restructured.

In truth, 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.

At a minimum, government should take a very serious look at where this industry sits. The US airline industry is not asking for government handouts. Rather it is my view that this industry seeks nothing more than the same rights to operate as virtually every other successful US industry selling to the global marketplace is permitted.

Few shackles unless consumer harm can be proven. Going backward will result in significantly more dislocation for virtually every stakeholder remaining in the industry today as it begins with an industry even smaller than today’s.  It would be a shame to waste six years of some very good work.

Thursday
Sep182008

Dynamic, Dynamic, Dynamic; Bless Air Canada; and the Education of Stakeholders

Like Holly Hegeman at Planebuzz.com, I am having my own computer week from hell and as a result I am cranky. In my crankiness, I am actually thinking about the shot-gun wedding of airline labor and airline consumers, destined to fail, first initiated by the Business Travel Coalition.

This post is kinda about international alliances. Moreover, it is kinda about international alliances not being on the same page. I understand that without Anti-Trust Immunity (ATI), carriers are limited in their discussions with one another. But I find that Air Canada’s decision to rescind second bag charges at a time when United announced it would double its fee for a second bag to be a black eye for the STAR Alliance. North America is one thing. Tomorrow is not about North America.

What good is my STAR Alliance Gold Card if I do not have a clue? And I pay attention. Let’s be honest and frank here, Air Canada, under the leadership of Montie Brewer, has done great things with the internet. They have taught us about simplicity and transparency while teaching the air travel consumer about the concept of “value-added” services when making decisions to purchase an Air Canada product. These include preferred departure times, seats, meals etc.

Further, let’s not let it be lost that Air Canada’s approach, begun long before US carrier’s decisions about ancillary fees, gives them a leg up on the consumer education aspect. So, rather than charge for a second bag, Air Canada will roll its previously stated fuel surcharge associated with buying a seat on a particular sector into the base fare.

Ben Smith, Air Canada’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer said: "These initiatives are made possible by the recent relief from all-time high oil prices and even though fares will remain dynamic”. Dynamic is the key word in this phrase. It simply means volatility. We can expect volatility going forward. The fact that a barrel of oil has dropped $55 per barrel in a little over 60 days after rising nearly $60 per barrel in a little over 200 days we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that the global industry is out of the woods. For statistical types: what is the standard deviation?

Air Canada does have it right. If dynamic cost increases are plaguing the industry, then let fares be dynamic. Addressing, and implementing, these processes goes a step further to educate the consumer and labor on the argument that the industry simply cannot sustain a fixed cost, fixed fare, environment that does not produce a profit for those providing the metal. Moreover, dynamic pricing is about addressing the boom and bust cycle that has plagued this industry for nearly three decades. It is about the education of stakeholders.

US carriers are using volatility to create rigidity through ancillary charges. And that is what defines legacy in many ways. Dynamic should be the word of the day. Dynamic is the action that needs to describe the immediate future of this industry as well as the outcome of the next labor negotiations – any airline’s largest controllable expense. Sadly, no US carrier is articulating this point.

Whereas labor continues to assimilate consumer issues into its leverage-grab for higher wages, dynamic base fares versus second bag charges best exemplify the issue describing why we need a flexible labor construct. This boom and bust cycle simply must end. We really need to think about this.

And if we are going to make an alliance argument, let's make one as differentiation is lost.

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
Dec132007

It Is True: Lufthansa to Buy 19% Stake in jetBlue

jetBlue announced that Lufthansa will purchase up to a 19% stake in the carrier click here. William Greene, the equity analyst at Morgan Stanley, said the deal will bolster liquidity for jetBlue at a time when near term debt obligations exceed expected cash flow from operations and cash on hand.

For Lufthansa, this would seem to be a smart investment in a quality US carrier with a product focus that recognizes that a one size fits all network does not appeal to all customers. Further, this transaction for Lufthansa would appear to be a very shrewd option play for a US carrier when equity values are low and the relationship of the euro to the dollar is high.

In this writer’s opinion, as well as Greene’s, jetBlue’s slot portfolio at JFK has strategic value. Down the road, connectivity to the many Star Alliance partners serving New York could be of value. But the first stage is a pure financial play and no commercial relationship is anticipated. The announcement comes just a day after a talk by Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the chief executive of German airline Lufthansa AG in China where he suggested that global consolidation is a necessary and logical development of the global market click here.

In that Reuter’s article, mention is made of Lufthansa moving away from the possibility of investing in Alitalia. In a previous blog post, we wrote about British Airways’ possibility of reconsidering the use of its capital to consolidate “at home” versus using that capital to invest in other countries, namely the US click here. Well it just happened – or at least the first step was taken. And BA has walked away from its interest in Iberia.

Yes, on the surface this deal may raise questions as to why would Lufthansa make such a deal. Is United, US Airways and/or Air Canada hurt by this transaction? Will this precipitate other similar types of transactions leveraging the current currency relationship to low equity values? WestJet and Air France are considering a closer relationship.

Change is coming. What would Yogi say?