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Swelbar Interview With Emirates' Open Sky Journal

It has been 46 days since I last posted a piece on swelblog.com.  That is not to say that I have not been writing.  I have - just not here. To be truthful, I am bored with most things U.S.  I cannot read anymore rehashes of the American Airlines case; or labor forever trying to create leverage where there is none; or who will be AA’s exit partner if there is one; or the United pilots thinking that it is totally incumbent on management to reach a deal amidst union in-fighting and an ignorance about competitive realities. 

But a topic that always has my interest is happenings in the Middle East region when it comes to aviation.  I was asked by the Emirates Airline Public Affairs group for an interview that was included in their February 2012 Open Sky journal release.  It is included below.

Doug Cameron, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, talks of Emirates intentions to enter a 7th U.S. point in the immediate future with more to come.  There is no better time for this inevitable next phase of competition to begin as SkyTeam’s European partners report weakening financial results; STAR carrier Lufthansa reports results are down but being buoyed by non-airline assets all the while partner Air Canada finds itself trying to simply hang on and remain relevant; and oneworld’s US partner American Airlines flounders in bankruptcy making it an opportune time for the Middle East juggernaut to begin the process of adding more of North America to its global route portfolio before the third global alliance is a more meaningful competitor.

I am excited to see new competition for the aligned U.S. and European competitors begin in earnest as it seems that employees and other stakeholders just do not take the threat of this obvious evolution as serious.  It is.  The U.S. carriers reported a paltry .3 point earnings margin in 2011 and that is before the new competition begins and ever increasing fuel prices are used to describe 2012.  The work is far from done.


1. Generally, what do you see as the major themes playing out next year in the airline industry?

The health of the global economy generally, and Europe specifically, will continue to dominate headlines in 2012.

The industry can’t just be viable; it must continue to recreate its business model into one that can be profitable on a sustainable basis.  The industry as a whole must find a way to earn at least its cost of capital in order that it can reinvest in itself.

Today’s dysfunctional governments, particularly across the Eurozone and the U.S., must find a way to function.  When it comes to aviation, policy makers must begin to think clearly about what laws, regulations, taxes and fees are necessary for the business to achieve overarching economic and social goals. Too many current governmental decisions claiming to be in the best interest of the consumer are fraught with unintended consequences.

The growth of the Middle East carriers (Emirates, Ethiad and Qatar) will remain a topic of conversation around the world.  Not surprisingly, the response to the Middle East carriers from some parts of the world has been protectionist. First the world wanted to open the skies. Now that the skies are largely open for some/most, the talk has turned to restricting access to markets from new, innovative and vibrant competition. I agree the new competition should not be allowed access to cheap capital that is not available to all. But to limit market 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.

Of course, the rhetoric over the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and the proper policy to ensure that the industry is environmentally sustainable will be a news item throughout 2012 and beyond. 

The price and volatility in the price of oil remains an important theme, albeit much less so in 2012 than in 2008.  [here I may be wrong]  Commodity industries abhor volatile input prices.     

Consolidation will remain an important part of the global airline industry’s vernacular in 2012.  It’s proving to be a healthy tonic for improved profitability in North America, but there are not many logical combinations left in the U.S. unless we begin the process of considering cross-border financial transactions among airline companies.


2. What effect is the Eurozone crisis having on protectionism vs. liberal aviation policies in Europe?

I think it is less the Eurozone crisis and more the fear of new competition from Middle East domiciled carriers that’s triggered increasing calls for protectionism in many parts of the world.   From my perspective, short-term aviation protectionism stands in the way of a country’s long-term global relevance.  Moreover, it seems like a high price for governments to pay in order to coddle a nation’s flag carrier.

There has been considerable consolidation among Europe’s flag carriers over the past five years.  With the obvious buyers of remaining carriers, or stakes in those carriers, struggling financially, I expect fewer future intra-Europe financial transactions.  As a result, the financial resolve of the remaining carriers in Europe will be significantly challenged, especially without hope of a government bailout.  Those governments will be hard pressed to protect struggling flag carriers over the medium term.

Either way, I see Europe as a more protected zone in the coming years rather than embracing liberal policies promoting competition.  The contemporary Europe will likely be anti-airline, except where the industry is viewed as a tax revenue generator and deficit reducing business sector.  The consumer will lose, economies will lose and countries may even likely lose their coveted flag airlines.  Ultimately, the market will win, but not before artificial protectionist barriers are erected.  The good news for Middle East-based carriers is other opportunities for carrier growth are present in emerging markets in Africa, Southeast Asia, China and even mature markets like North America.

In many ways, the European market is going through a similar transition that the U.S industry has been painfully undergoing since the mid-1980s. That shakeout triggered massive change and until the Darwinian process fully plays out in Europe, liberal aviation policy thinking will probably not resume either.


3. Do you foresee any fallout, aero-politically, from the AMR bankruptcy filing?

I do not see any aero-political fallout from the AMR bankruptcy filing.  Rather, I see it as necessary for the Fort Worth, Texas airline to obviate its competitive weaknesses relative to other U.S. network carriers that used U.S. law to restructure their mature operations.

Internationally, American Airlines is oneworld’s one and only link in accessing the world’s largest aviation marketplace – the United States.  A loss of American weakens competition among the three global alliances in a significant way both across the Atlantic and the Pacific.  In my mind, a loss of American would be another reason for politicians to restore the protectionist chorus that would point to the dominant positions held by the remaining two global alliances – STAR and SkyTeam - all the while ignoring the new competition emerging in the Middle East.

Rather than fallout from AMR’s restructuring, I believe oneworld carriers British Airways and Iberia – through their immunized joint ventures with American - will be an important aspect of any plan of reorganization. That plan could very well renew the call for changing foreign ownership rules.  In fact, the continued growth and the competitive threat posed by the Middle East carriers for traffic flows that were once the sole domain of the global alliances is also a triggering event for change in the ownership laws.


4.  What effect do you see from the EU ETS on EU-US relations or otherwise? What will be the knock-on effect?

While this story is in its infancy, there is no question that the global industry must address environmental issues and be a leader in creating a sustainable business.  How to go about establishing the proper policy will be debated for years to come.  It seems odd that the EU would institute potentially billions of dollars of new fees on airlines when finances of the global airline industry and economies around the globe are in such a fragile state.  Less profitable airlines have less capital to invest in technology that will prove to be the best prescription for reducing the carbon footprint over the longer term.

I expect we will see business as usual “under protest” in the immediate term.  Will ICAO act?  Initially, US-EU relations will certainly be strained, but airlines attached at the hip through joint ventures will have to maintain the current course of business.  What is ironic is the European airlines are high-cost producers and just became higher cost producers.  If I was a lower-cost producer, I would be trying to figure out how to use this to my advantage and appeal to the customer through lower fares.  This knock-on effect may finally open the eyes of the EU and other governments that you cannot tax and fee the industry into oblivion.


5.  What is happening in the world of alliances and anti-trust immunities?

I am beginning to fundamentally question whether STAR and SkyTeam are growing/have grown too big in terms of number of carriers under the respective alliance umbrella.  After all, it is the top 5 carriers within each alliance that realize a significantly disproportionate share of the synergy benefits generated.  It is no coincidence these carriers enjoy an immunized relationship.  Moreover, if the primary synergies of an immunized alliance are revenue only, we must be nearing an end to the alliance lifeline where marginal revenues generated by a new member exceed the marginal cost of inclusion of that new member. 

Aviation networks have evolved from linear systems to hubs and spokes with a focus on building regional dominance; to connecting regional hubs creating national/continental networks; and then establishing connections between alliance partner gateways. The evolution of competition has been from city-pair to hub to gateway to network.  Each of these evolutionary steps has led to increased traffic through the stimulation of new local and connecting traffic.

Alliances were originally built to accomplish what no one airline could do itself – create ubiquitous networks ferrying passengers from one point in one world region to another point in another world region.  But are alliances truly ubiquitous?

Emirates is able to combine the use of new technology (the A380), with low labor costs, government policies designed to promote aviation and a unique geography allowing it to compete with global alliances. Should we really concern ourselves with flag carriers to the same extent today that we did 20 years ago or even 10 years ago? Alliances have already caused borders to blur and the colors in some flags to cloud. Emirates, Ethiad and Qatar are simply doing what the oneworld, Star and SkyTeam alliances have already done.

Just like low-cost airlines, the Gulf carriers will place enormous pressure on network incumbents to match prices. That will be a problem for some of those incumbents, whose high cost structures – particularly in Europe - make it difficult to reduce fares even when faced with new competition. Even if some of the carriers within the global alliances or the independents were to fail, the market has demonstrated time and 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. And where there is insufficient capacity, capacity will find the insufficiency. Networks evolve because of competition.

I believe the next phase of evolution will do some of the same. The challenge from the three Gulf carriers to the three global alliances will accelerate the discussion about global mergers because the networks being built by Emirates, Ethiad and Qatar are truly ubiquitous. The Gulf airlines are each one carrier, while the alliances are a patchwork architecture designed to circumvent archaic bilateral rules.  Organic growth will again prove to be the right tonic for airline systems to be financially sustainable – because the benefits of cost synergies are not being realized today and must be realized if the full financial potential of carrier combinations is to be appreciated and the resulting benefits are enjoyed by the consumer.


Dear Chairman Oberstar: What Do You Mean This Is Not What You Voted For?

Responding to the news that the U.S. Department of Justice had approved the merger of Continental and United, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman, James Oberstar said, “This consolidation of the mainline companies into three or four mega-carriers is not what I voted for in 1978. Nor did anyone foresee three international alliances dominating the global airline market.” 

For a guy that has been in and around the U.S. airline industry for longer than it has been deregulated, Oberstar should know better. Since 1978, the predictions have all pointed toward three network carriers.  The formation of the global alliances also addresses exactly what Oberstar and other members of Congress intended three decades ago… more choices for consumers.  

Don’t take my word for what the goals and objectives of U.S. airline deregulation was intended.  The November 6, 1985 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) spells them out.  The GAO report was requested by U.S. Representatives Norman Mineta (D, California) and James Howard (D, New Jersey) to assess the effects of deregulation as compared to the intentions and expectations.  The GAO report stated the purpose of the deregulation act was to allow competitive market forces, rather than the federal government, to decide the quality, variety, and price of domestic air service.  It was aimed at encouraging the formation of new airlines, expanding service by existing airlines, and bringing lower fares and better service to passengers. Recognizing free competition might result in some communities losing air service, Congress created an Essential Air Service Subsidy Program protecting service to eligible communities.

The GAO compared economic expectations of deregulation with actual changes in the industry's structure (the number of airlines, each airline's share of traffic, and the ease with which they can begin new service to a city-pair), conduct (behavior in setting prices and levels of service), and performance (profitability, efficiency, and responsiveness to consumer preferences). The report does not address airline safety. 

Now, let’s look at today’s aviation industry keeping the goals of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (ADA) in mind.

The GAO report states five years after enactment, there were more airlines competing.  It also highlights a trend prevalent today.  “With increased competition, the largest airlines have been losing passengers to smaller and new airlines (which often offer lower fares). Nationwide, the percentage of passenger miles flown by the largest airlines (formerly called trunks) fell while smaller carriers combined with new airlines almost doubled their percentage of passenger miles flown.”

I think the number of airlines is less important than understanding the levels of domestic capacity held by the top three, five and 10 largest airlines operating in the domestic marketplace.  I looked at available seat miles by all competitors from 1974 to 2009.  In 1979, the three largest U.S. airlines held 48.6% of domestic capacity; the five largest, 72.3%; and the 10 largest, 93.1%.  In 2009, the three largest U.S. carriers held 43.8% of domestic capacity; the five largest, 61.7%; and the 10 largest, 81.8%.  These numbers exclude code sharing and regional capacity.  If included, the levels of concentration would still be less than the levels of concentration in 1979.

The 1985 report cited trends shortly after passage that still hold true today like. Average fares fell, service improved for most passengers, efficiency improved, consumer choice increased but not everyone benefited and, thirty years later, airlines are still adapting to deregulation.

 While 2010 fares are rising as compared to an abysmal 2009, the long term trend is still decreasing real fares. Domestic networks provide passengers in markets large and small with significant choice and access to virtually any market. Airline efficiency including labor, operations and fuel consumption has improved. It’s true not all markets have enjoyed similar levels of benefits, but that is less about consolidation and more about individual community economies and the price of oil. The industry is not static (some would even say stable) and is still adapting to a series of crises including September 11,  SARS, $147 per barrel oil, the Great Recession, Avian Flu, H1N1, volcanic ash and numerous and onerous regulations and taxes imposed by government as well as new competition in domestic markets and emerging world networks.

The Deregulation Debate Leading Up to Passage of the ADA

Congressman Oberstar, I assume you listened to the learned economists that participated in the debate as to whether passage of the Airline Deregulation Act would prove to be good policy.  I will highlight some of the economic theories espoused during that debate.  If you read carefully, I believe you will find many of the trends prevalent immediately after passage are still intact.

  • Analysts expected deregulation to result in a more competitive market structure by removing barriers to entry into individual markets and allowing new firms to enter the industry.
  • According to economic theory, a single firm operating in a market invites entry by a competitor if it is inefficient, charges too high a price, or fails to provide the price/service options consumers want. While entry of a competitor forces the existing firm to become efficient and more responsive to consumer preferences in order to survive, economic theory holds potential competition-- the realistic possibility of entry by a competitor-- may be sufficient to produce performance similar to competing firms.
  • The report of the Civil Aeronautics Board special staff on regulatory reform concluded the most detrimental effect of regulatory protection on airline industry performance was probably limiting potential competition.
  • Deregulation spurred airline competition by increasing their ability to alter route structures, service offerings and fares to attain the maximum competitive advantage. (true today through domestic code-sharing and alliance formation)
  • Economic theory suggested the ability of lower cost firms to enter markets and compete on the basis of price would create downward pressure on fares.

The GAO concluded, “Trends in fares and service quality are generally consistent with predictions of deregulation's effects. It appears that increased competition generally restrained fare increases so that fares are now more closely related to costs and are probably lower on average than they would have been if the regulatory policies in effect from 1974 to 1977 had continued. Service generally improved, a result that not all analysts anticipated, with increased departures and seats and more markets receiving through-plane service by scheduled airlines. It is possible that analysts generally underestimated how much air travel would increase in response to lower fare/lower service options. As expected, smaller airlines using smaller aircraft replaced major airlines in some of the smaller, short-distance markets. Convenience improved as more passengers were able to complete a trip without changing airlines. Load factors, expected to increase, have varied, generally staying above pre- deregulation levels but varying too much from year to year to identify a long-term trend.”

The GAO reported in 1985 in the six years following deregulation, the airline industry recorded the worst financial performance in its 45-year history.  High operating losses raised questions about the industry's future performance under deregulation, but analysts had expected some airlines to have financial problems during the transition from regulation. “Airlines that cannot fully adjust to deregulation will continue to have financial problems; more may go bankrupt. Yet, in the long run, airlines that can reduce costs to match fares of lower cost competitors and find new profit opportunities in meeting unfulfilled passenger preferences will survive. In this way, the industry will become more efficient as those less able to meet the challenges of a deregulated environment go out of business.”

The GAO reported financial performance varied widely, suggesting airlines can be profitable in a competitive market.  “Analysts warn that the transition is not yet complete. During this period of adjustment, airlines that cannot adjust to the more competitive environment may be forced to reorganize or go out of business. Once the industry has fully adjusted to deregulation, it should be profitable over time, although some airlines may occasionally suffer losses and even leave the industry.”

Economists and other analysts expected deregulation would increase efficiency in several ways: (1) new, lower cost airlines would enter markets, reducing average industry cost levels (2) airlines would alter their route structures and aircraft mix, seeking to lower per-passenger costs (3) the ease of entry and increase in fare competition would keep pressure on all airlines to keep costs down. In an unregulated and unprotected environment, bankruptcies would occur when less efficient airlines were unable to adapt to the more competitive environment. By giving airlines freedom to profit or fail, competition would help assure only the most efficient airlines survived.

The GAO concluded “changes in fares, service, and profit are consistent with economists' and other analysts' expectations of the effects of increased competition on a formerly regulated industry.”


In your statement, Congressman Oberstar, you say “This action [DOJ approving the United – Continental merger] points strongly to the need to give broader authority over such mergers to the Department of Transportation, allowing DOT to consider such factors as the impact a merger will have on service to communities and customers, as well as the effect the merger could have on the industry as a whole. There must be consideration of whether a merger will inevitably trigger others, ultimately reducing the industry to a few large carriers, each of which is unwilling to compete seriously in markets dominated by one of the others.”

Like you, I agree the Department of Transportation should have broader authority over such mergers because they understand the industry. The Department of Transportation had the wisdom to approve the immunized alliances all the while recognizing the benefits conferred on customers and communities of all sizes.  Whether mergers spur others will always be speculation.  Just like the economic theory surrounding deregulation, which I assume you relied upon to ultimately vote in favor of deregulating the industry, a single carrier operating in a market invites competition. The same is true today. 

To say large carriers are unwilling to compete with one another is simply not true.  Look at some of the recent markets the U.S.’s largest domestic carrier, Southwest Airlines, has entered:  Washington Dulles - a United hub; Denver - a United hub; San Francisco - a United hub; Minneapolis/St Paul - a Delta hub; Milwaukee - a Midwest/Republic hub; New York Laguardia and Newark – a Continental hub. These large markets are homes to all major carriers.

You said “when Congress deregulated the airlines in 1978, we were promised better service, added competition, and more choices for consumers. With the United-Continental merger, our domestic carrier fleet will have shrunk to four network carriers. Moreover, each merger appears to trigger another, as carriers feel the need to get bigger in order to compete with the newly merged airlines. American merged with TWA, then America West merged with US Airways [I ask, would either carrier be here today if they had not merged?], followed by Delta absorbing Northwest, and now United merging with Continental. Can a US Airways-American Airlines merger be far behind?”

Congressman, just look at some of the choices enjoyed by consumers.  They are plentiful and choice continues to be built into the consumer’s decision to buy or not to buy.  One can even argue the consumer is more empowered today than at any time over the past 32 years.  There is a choice to fly on a full-service airline or a low cost, no frills airline; there are choices when ticketing like paying more for a better seat; there is a choice to fly on an airline that charges for bags or one that does not. Under the bilateral regime, airline choices were limited by the number of destinations and frequencies allocated to respective carriers. Today that is not true, and today, alliances give consumers the option of garnering frequent flyer miles and benefits for their entire trip, not just portions of a trip. I could go on but the promise of more choices for consumers in the ADA is alive and thriving.

There are many issues that are considered when thinking about a merger partner in addition to the structure of the market.  But I take you back to the analysis performed that points to the fact that the industry is less concentrated today among the largest airlines than it was in 1979.  Throughout the deregulated period, there have been mergers, there have been failures, there has been opportunistic growth by various sectors of the industry, and there have been significant cuts in capacity in response to the price of oil and the strength of the economy.  In every instance the industry has adapted to change in one way or another, but no fix concentrated the industry more heavily.

Concluding Thoughts and An Ask of You

Congressman Oberstar said, “airline consolidation brings consumers and communities fewer choices and less competition, usually leading to increased fares and reduced levels of service. And that runs directly counter to the promise of deregulation” is confounding.  Confounding in that the opposite is happening today.  Confounding because the Airline Deregulation Act you supported is playing out in the manner in which it was envisioned based on the economic analysis performed by the GAO.  To re-regulate will only make the industry even smaller following the cutbacks since 2002 employing still fewer people all the while disenfranchising small communities from the airline map.  Consolidation activity was prevalent before deregulation as six of the 16 trunk airlines were gone by the time the ADA was passed.  Consolidation at home should not be feared nor should alliance formation.  Each action is about adapting to a new environment and that is precisely what the industry is doing.

When the ADA was passed, trunk airlines were predominantly domestic airlines.  During the past seven years each of the network carriers except one has nearly 50% of their capacity exposed to international markets.  The domestic systems the network carriers operate are most important extensions of their international operations.  These extensions have a domestic benefit to customers as well.  Airlines are consolidating at home in order to prepare to compete globally unlike the consolidation period in the mid-1980s which was domestically focused.  Today’s industry is less about getting to Duluth from Dubuque and more about getting to Duluth from Dubai. That’s the world today, one deregulation helped open up to all of us.

Congressman Oberstar, in your statements surrounding the approval of the most recent two mergers you have not provided a single shred of evidence contradicting the GAO study that dutifully outlined the foundational facts and analysis upon which you cast your vote in 1978.  It would seem that you are basing your comments largely on perception and even making some statements – like US Air merging with AA - that are specious at best.

Congressman Oberstar I have one ask of you.  Reconsider your position on mergers and consolidation.  The United States was once the absolute leader in aviation. That cannot be said today.  We need carriers that have the financial wherewithal to raise the (our) flag in every world region.  The solution you seek in your message will only further marginalize U.S. commercial aviation in a global context. 


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. 


Swelblog’s 12 Airline Industry News Items of 2009

It is that time of the year again when it is time to put the packages under the tree. The packages represent my 12 days of Christmas, or the 12 airline industry issues that took place in 2009 that I find important. I have placed my packages under the tree in descending order of importance.

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Meanderings on US Open Golf and the US Airline Industry

I started writing this on Thursday as the 109th US Open golf championship got underway on the vaunted Black Course at Bethpage State Park on New York’s Long Island. At 10:17am on Day 1, play was suspended due to heavy rains that added to the overnight rain resulting in standing water on numerous parts of the course.

As the tournament played out, the weather - and what side of the draw you were on - was as much the story as the winner. For golf fans, the US Open annually represents a most stern test designed by the United States Golf Association to identify the world’s best player.

The US Open is as much a test of mental strength as it is physical skill. There is not one player that would enjoy being subjected to US Open conditions week in and week out. Well, maybe one, and I am not sure he enjoyed this year’s version either.

It seems as if the US airline industry has been playing under this year’s US Open conditions every week since October 2000. But the airline industry does not get play suspended when conditions are less than ideal. Rather, the industry has been forced to adapt to one economic and geopolitical event after another. And there is no end in sight.

There have been a number of good stories over the past few weeks that have looked at individual carrier’s fates. During that time, I have been on a speaking tour where it is clear that, whatever the audience, the question of airlines’ survival is top of mind.

And congratulations to Lucas Glover on winning his first golf major.

Meanwhile, I have just completed updating the 2008 analysis in the MIT Airline Data Project that puts a klieg light into the cost side of the US airline world. At the same time, I got a glimpse of the new revenue report from the Air Transport Association and together, the picture for the industry is pretty ugly.

The ATA report reminds me of the impossible lie David Duval encountered Monday morning on his first shot after Sunday’s suspension due to darkness that led to an undeserved triple bogey.

While the US airline industry has endured much bad luck over the past eight years, it, like Duval, has continued to persevere and take advantage of what the course offers. But in an Open, it is next to impossible to win after making such a score on an individual hole. Fight as he did, Duval ultimately finished two shots out of what would have been a most unlikely – and welcome - win. The same just may be true for some carriers out there that may be near the point where one more misstep – or one more bad bounce - will eliminate any chance of competing as well.

For long-time readers, you know I love the game of golf because of what it exemplifies and what it represents. You can find me glued to a television during any of the season’s four majors. The sadistic side of me appreciates the course set up of US Open’s as it challenges the world’s best players in ways that weekly tour stops rarely inflict.

But you always know that it is only a few days each year that golfers face this brutal test. The US airline industry has endured the unthinkable since late 2000. With rare exception, there is not one year that can be described as a whole, but rather a tale of two halves. Even the year 2000 was that way when the first half had all stars aligned and the second half was the beginning of a revenue decline that still continues.

As fuel marched from $90 per barrel in early 2008 to $147 on July 11, unit revenues were on the rise. Ancillary fees became a part the industry vernacular. Then in late summer of that year, as fuel prices dropped nearly as fast as they rose, unit revenues began to freefall. And they continue.

The Airline Data Project demonstrates that passenger revenue for the airlines covered increased $3.8 billion in 2008 while fuel expenses increased some $11 billion. Year-to-date passenger revenue in 2009 is down some 20 percent thus far, while capacity has dropped 8 percent.

Generally, I care a hell of a lot less about the relationship of traffic to capacity as I do about the relationship of revenue to capacity. The trends defy the usual rule of thumb that a drop in capacity leads to pricing traction. That simply is not happening. And that tells me that this industry should be even smaller than it now is.

The Airline Data Project also shows that legacy carrier capacity is now roughly equivalent to what it was in 1997. But the combined capacity of legacy carriers and “low cost” carriers is 15 percent larger than it was in 1997, and that excludes the affiliated regional carriers like Republic, SkyWest, Pinnacle et al and includes Alaska, Hawaiian and Midwest Airlines. So the industry is not smaller – it is bigger. The legacy carriers simply have a smaller slice of the pie.

The MIT data will show that the legacy carriers spent more than $20 billion in 2008 on their contracts with regional partners – an expense largely contained in transport-related expenses. American spends the least on regional flying, while Delta/Northwest spends double plus 20 percent more than number two on the list -- United. What does this tell me? We have to cut back. We have to cut back!

At least the US Open sets strict boundaries on how many players qualify for a national championship. The same is not true for the US airline industry. As I say often, if you have a dollar, have an aircraft, and find an airport with security, you too can have an airline. There’s a lesson in that data. It’s time for limits on entry unless and until there is real change to the industry’s business model and structure. I am no protectionist, but anyone who challenges – or even suggests– that a lack of completion exists in the US airline industry fails to acknowledge the bottom line.

Unlike the US Open, the open market in the US airline industry does not identify the best. Rather it just keeps expanding the field until someone less than the best is crowned the best because they are younger - if only on a quarterly basis based on our fixation with results. Labor leaders should look at seniority as the only real weapon the upstarts have to whipsaw you. Management must make the best business case it can to stop the madness of continually having to average down labor costs as the only controllable means to manage overall costs.

The US airline industry, like the US Open, should be an examination of competition between the best. Instead it is about luck – and timing. It is about playing the “river.” I don’t know which airlines will survive. But I do care about the integrity of the field – something that is fundamental to the rules of golf. Like in the US Open, the field should be the best. Many are fit but few can deliver the full range of consumer service that established airlines offer.

Lucas Glover, David Duval, Ross Fisher and Soren Hansen earned finishes that may get them named to a Ryder Cup team. In that event, they’ll be required to play team events like 4-ball and Foursomes.

Too bad that, in the US, too many politicians view team events like consolidation and alliances as a threat to competition and the sure path to domination. Who has won the majority of the last two decades Ryder Cup matches? Not the US. And the same will be true of survivors in the global airline industry if we do not change our thinking about global competition.