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Wednesday
Mar102010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tipping Point

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

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

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

Does Scope Produce the Intended Outcome?

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

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

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

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

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

It Is All About the Economics

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

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

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

Where Do I Come Out?

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

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

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

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

Thursday
Feb182010

Patience and Perseverance: Tilton Walks It Like He Talks It

There is no way to describe United Airline leader Glenn Tilton other than resilient.  He is disliked internally by organized labor and questioned externally by nearly everyone who has an eye on this industry.  He has taken his role as the industry spokesperson seriously, perhaps more seriously than anyone before him.  We listen intently to Giovanni Bisignani, the CEO of IATA.  But we do not listen enough to Tilton. Why? Because Tilton’s is a message of change not cluttered by this industry’s history, and some people don’t like the message.

Tilton was quoted shortly after United ended a three year stay in bankruptcy: “If I were able to draw a visual image of the beginning (of bankruptcy) to today, it would be one continuous experience of knocking down internal and external barriers.”  In his role as chief spokesperson for the US airline industry as Chairman of the Board of the Air Transport Association, Tilton waxes philosophical about the barriers that impede the industry’s natural evolution.

I have a long history at United and knew the “old company” well.  United epitomized all that was wrong with the US airline industry prior to its bankruptcy in December of 2002.  One of Tilton’s predecessors as CEO, Stephen Wolf, did some very good things along the way that provided United with its global roots.  But even Wolf did little to address the company’s bloated cost structure and a management bureaucracy that often resulted in paralysis.  For every cubicle in Elk Grove Village, one could find at least one silo. 

Tilton cares less about the history of United than its future.  His history lesson was a short one – whatever structure in place when he arrived in 2002 did not work and therefore needed to be changed.  If Tilton was wed to preserving United’s legacy, then he likely would not have taken the same course in fundamentally reshaping the company. He would not have taken on the pilot union, ALPA, over its actions to disrupt United’s operations – winning an airtight legal victory for management that ranks among the most significant victories in decades.  Rather he would have permitted bad behavior – or paid the pilots to stop behaving badly - just as prior administrations had done. 

Today United is a lot smaller, with a mainline operation 30 percent smaller than it was 10 years ago.  For this, Tilton takes a lot of heat.  As the pilots union watches its ranks diminish, ALPA constantly reminds Tilton that an airline cannot shrink its way to profitability.  This may have been true in United’s past, but on Tilton’s watch growth will only occur if it is profitable growth.  It is hard to envision a day when United will again have 12,000 pilot equivalents on the payroll.

Tilton and others recognize that the industry is still too big.  In the most read Swelblog article to date, Montie Brewer makes a clear case that the industry’s capacity-lead business model is the number one reason why the airline industry will never be profitable over a sustainable period.  Also weighing in on the subject is Professor Rigas Doganis who writes about over capacity in Airline Business.  According to Doganis, the airline industry is inherently unstable and airlines have only themselves to blame for the constant state of oversupply and the downward pressure on fares that result.

Doganis goes on to discuss how airlines are “spasmodically” profitable, quoting Tilton on the fact that the industry has "systematically failed to earn its cost of capital."  This is a fact that has long bothered the former oilman.  In a recent speech to the Wings Club in New York, Tilton raised the industry’s continuing and daunting challenge: “How to navigate to sustainable profitability in light of our financial instability.”

In London he made the point again and differently:  “Volatility and losses have been the norm for this industry, as has our systemic failure to earn our cost of capital and achieve any level of consistent financial resilience. The industry has lost nearly $50 billion worldwide since 2000 and a staggering $11 billion last year alone.”

Tilton at United – From Hands On to Chief Strategist

One can be sure that when Tilton arrived at United in September 2002, he had little idea just how bad things were.  But he would soon find out.  Three months after his arrival in Elk Grove Village, United landed in a downtown Chicago courtroom for more than three years as the company restructured itself.  There were mistakes along the way.  There was some bad luck along the way particularly as it pertained to rising values in the aircraft market.  There was the decision to terminate employee defined benefit plans, which among other things permanently damaged Tilton’s reputation in the labor ranks, but enabled the airline to get the exit capital it needed to start anew.

As United exited bankruptcy protection in February 2006, oil prices were on the rise.  The company restructured itself around $55 per barrel oil – a price that was fast becoming a memory and a bad assumption in the company’s plan of reorganization.  Company performance – operational, financial or otherwise – was nowhere near expectations set based on an entity that had spent three years fixing itself.  For either right or wrong reasons, Tilton kept many of United’s legacy management team around to complete the bankruptcy process.  What he belatedly came to appreciate is that leadership at the company had to change – and change it did.

United mainline is much smaller today than it was the day it emerged from bankruptcy.  Tilton oversaw its downsizing in bankruptcy and continued the work as oil prices climbed.  But he also recognized that he was not the guy to handle the day to day operations. Like any good restructuring guy, Tilton knew to hand over the operation of the company to others on the executive team, particularly  John Tague, Kathryn Mikells and Pete McDonald.

And the plan seems to be finally working.  United is starting to produce some good results.  There might be a lesson here for others in the industry, including the consideration of whether CEOs should delegate the day-to-day functions and concentrate on their role as the company’s chief strategist.  Just as pivotal, in United’s case at least, was Tilton’s decision to focus on tearing down the barriers to change – something all industry CEOs should consider in improving the financial prospects for a once proud industry relegated to underperformance, in part by the stakeholders who benefit from its inefficiency.

Tilton and Government

In one way or another, Tilton delivers the message that “no matter how well United or any U.S. carrier transforms its business, none of us will be as strong as we should be - much less in a position to compete in the emerging global aviation industry - if there's no change to the regulatory environment in which we operate.” Without a coherent U.S. aviation policy that “reverses the bias against airline size and removes the barriers that prevent us from constructive consolidation, U.S. carriers will be unable to compete on a global scale and we risk being marginalized,” Tilton said.

Among the questions for the industry, as Tilton outlined in a talk to the UK Aviation club, is what motivates the protectionists’ view of the industry.  “What is it that they are “protecting? A chronically underperforming industry?” he asked.

Concluding Thoughts

For what it’s worth, I focus on Tilton not because of his work at United but because of the message he delivers and its relevance to the rest of the industry.

As I predicted in my last post, February 2010 has been a significant month for airline news – some of it good and some of it bad like government’s call for slot divestitures in the USAirways – Delta slot swap.  It appears likely that oneworld will get permission to compete on an equal footing with the STAR and SkyTeam alliances.  This is the necessary next step to ensure inter-alliance competition as we think and talk about the industry’s structure going forward.   Tilton is a huge proponent of alliances who quickly recognized that one airline cannot be everything to everybody and that network scope and scale can be economically garnered through partnerships that leverage each member airline’s strengths.

Tilton also remains a proponent of consolidation.  His voice is growing increasingly louder on the subject of cross-border mergers and the flow of capital based his belief that the US and the European Union should move forward on Phase II of a transatlantic agreement and pave the way to permitting cross border commercial activity in the airline industry.  As Tilton noted in his UK speech, “capital is global and doesn't have sovereign inhibitions."

Like him or not, Tilton rarely shies away from stating his views, even at the risk of ruffling some stakeholder’s feathers.  For Tilton, too many people focus on the past rather than the future and what needs removed in order that the industry can continue to evolve. That evolution may continue to prove painful for some in the industry as Open Skies and re-shaped alliances bring new competition all the while presenting new opportunities for agile and nimble operators.

Tilton’s role, like that of the Anderson, Arpey, Smisek , Parker and other airline CEOs, is to serve as agents of that change and find a way to balance the demands and interests of labor, shareholders and other stakeholders that depend on a robust, profitable industry.

 

Note:  I hold stock and options in Hawaiian Holdings, Inc. as a result of my Board position.  I also hold stock in United Airlines accumulated at various points in time since the company emerged from bankruptcy.

Friday
Mar212008

Ironical Catalysts; Seniority No More?; and One Last Comment on Force Majeure

Ironical Catalysts

Isn’t it ironic that the number one catalyst cited as driving a consolidation phase for the US industry is now being discussed as the number one reason that consolidation is being put on the back burner – or even being pulled off of the stove? Ted Reed of the Street.com writes a column offering the Northwest pilot’s take on the industry at $110 per barrel oil as well as their views on how oil might stand in the way of executing what the pilot leaders termed as “an aggressive business plan” by the other carrier [read Delta even if not mentioned by name].

On the surface, Mr. Reed’s story might be read as the Northwest pilots pointing to anything and everything rational that could provide cover for not reaching agreement over an emotional issue. On the other hand their counterparts at Delta, whether ALPA or management, are not suggesting much compromise, let alone capitulation, either. So we have a stand off. The Northwest pilots have a bird in the hand, assuming that no adjustments are made to the terms of the single collective bargaining agreement, versus Section 6 negotiations in 2011. And as I have written here, only the MEC can decide that issue.

What is encouraging about the industry today is its willingness to address some difficult issues with swift and decisive actions – like making the hard choice to further reduce capacity. But these decisions are not limited to Delta. We now have CEOs in the industry that are willing to address these tough issues that prior management teams would have decided to “fly through”. And in the last week, jetBlue, AirTran and Frontier have all sold aircraft or delivery positions largely to augment their respective liquidity positions.

When I first read Mr. Reed’s column this morning, fresh off of a 24 turn between Los Angeles and Washington, I interpreted it to suggest that consolidation is dead. That is not what he is saying at all. But US Airways sure views the lull in the action as a potential entry point to get back in the game as Mr. Reed reports.

Seniority No More?

Let’s segue from seniority integration into seniority. Today, the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein writes in his column about industry woes, commercial airline pilot careers and questioning seniority generally.

He concludes with the following two paragraphs: “The reason it's so hard for airlines to find a fair and rational way to combine pilot seniority lists is there is nothing fair and rational in the way seniority is used. It causes a disconnect between performance and reward, discourages movement of employees between and within companies, creates a corrosive caste system that breeds resentment among junior employees and an overblown sense of entitlement among those who are most senior”.

“Airline customers, employees and shareholders would all be better off if the industry spent less time and energy figuring out how to combine seniority lists and more time on how to eliminate them”.

Back in December, two days before Christmas in fact, swelblog.com questioned whether seniority worked for each airline management and labor. Now two days before Easter, a similar question is being raised by Mr. Pearlstein. While some of what Mr. Pearlstein suggests is impossible given equipment qualifications, he raises a fair issue. It is fair particularly when an industry is in serious need of a total overhaul.

While I am confident that any suggestion of seniority will raise the ire of organized labor, this is the time to explore such issues. It is time because many of the legacy constructs within this industry are prohibiting it from moving forward – and seniority is but one. And based on the many issues burdening the industry that are not of its own doing, everything should be on the table and everything explored.

A Little More on Force Majeure

Clearly my prior post generated some comments and most were not in agreement with what I had written. I knew that when I wrote the piece it would not be embraced by all. I certainly expected the note from the American pilot. I did not expect the “call out” by Blackbook, who is one this blog’s most astute commenters. Blackbook's fair questions and comments, and my answer to Blackbook, are available for all to read in the comment section.

While Force Majeure has many, many legal issues surrounding its use and I, admittedly, am not qualified to answer those questions, my intent was to raise a number of issues out there that bother me and to look at pools of expense that could be explored for cost savings. On Thursday of this week, Suzanne Marta of the Dallas Morning News blogged on research notes written by Kevin Crissey at UBS and Jamie Baker at JP Morgan.

Mr. Baker writes: "We would note that with the exception of the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the only time the industry even approached a single-year capacity correction of this magnitude was during the Gulf War I recession - and it required the failure of Eastern, Midway, Pan Am, several discount airlines, and bankruptcies at America West, and Continental to get there."

Immediately following 9/11, certain force majeure clauses were invoked. While force majeure may not be the effect - or even the right action - stemming from today’s environment, the macro environment has many attributes of a cause.

Monday
Mar172008

Invoking the Force Majeure Clause: Oil Taking Its Toll

...and Thinking About Northwest - Delta

As I prepared to write this week, I had outlined a piece around the NCAA basketball tournament generally and Selection Sunday specifically. I was going to talk about how the Delta-Northwest deal, destined for a #1 seed a month ago had become a “bubble” deal over the past month because of a less than stellar end to the conference schedule and “one and done” in the conference tournament. And then I was prepared to place them in the last 4 teams out group.

But rather than just isolate Delta-Northwest, I think it is time for the industry to think about consolidation in yet another way. Typically we think about consolidation as two entities combining through merger activity. But there is financial consolidation as well. It is similar to what we experienced during the 2002-2006 period where an industry contracts on its own volition. It is probably time to begin another round of contraction as the price of oil makes it very difficult for the industry to maintain its current service offerings.

Introduction to Force Majeur for Those on Capitol Hill
and a Refresher for US Airline Labor

From where I sit, the NCAA tournament will make great theater as always but will pale in news as to what I see coming for the US airline industry. In my last blog post, I purposefully left the piece hanging on an issue for labor and the politicians to seriously consider: “Politicians and labor should think real hard about the fallout that could stem from the current economic environment [read to include high oil prices] versus what the perceived fallout could be in a consolidation scenario”.

As the market opened this morning, oil traded near $112 per barrel. Whereas the price has pulled back from those highs, it is becoming clearer that oil is going higher as the highs get higher and the lows get higher. Heeding warnings from the industry that capacity will be closely examined at these prices, I began to write this piece.

Then as I was writing, I did my usual check of the headlines as the day wore on. In one check of the day’s news, I read, as everyone should when you are not reading here to steal a Maxon line, a blog post by David Field of Airline Business on his blog named appropriately Left Field. Mr. Field cites quotes directly from Delta’s Anderson, Northwest’s Steenland and Continental’s Kellner each questioning the size of their respective networks in the face of $105 per barrel oil.

Defining Force Majeure

Typically we do not like to talk about force majeure issues in the industry, but I am thinking it is time. Wikpedia defines force majeure as:

Force majeure (French for "greater force") is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as war, strike, riot, crime, act of nature (e.g., flooding, earthquake, volcano), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. However, force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance of a party, as where non-performance is caused by the usual and natural consequences of external forces (e.g., predicted rain stops an outdoor event), or where the intervening circumstances are specifically contemplated.

Time-critical and other sensitive contracts may be drafted to limit the shield of this clause where a party does not take reasonable steps (or specific precautions) to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference, either when they become likely or when they actually occur. A force majeure may work to excuse all or part of the obligations of one or both parties. For example, a strike might prevent timely delivery of goods, but not timely payment for the portion delivered. Similarly, a widespread power outage would not be a force majeure excuse if the contract requires the provision of backup power or other contingency plans for continuity.

A force majeure may also be the overpowering force itself, which prevents the fulfillment of a contract. In that instance, it is actually the Impossibility defense.

The understanding of force majeure in French law is similar to that of international law and vis major as defined above. For a defendant to invoke force majeure in French law, the event proposed as force majeure must pass three tests:

Externality

The defendant must have nothing to do with the event's happening.

Unpredictability

If the event could be foreseen, the defendant is obligated to have prepared for it. Being unprepared for a foreseeable event leaves the defendant culpable. This standard is very strictly applied.

Irresistibility

The consequences of the event must have been unpreventable.

A Non-Lawyer Discussion of Force Majeure

Force majeure (French for "greater force") is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as war, strike, riot, crime, act of nature (e.g., flooding, earthquake, volcano), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

Name any airline that spent time in bankruptcy and was required to file a plan of reorganization that correctly estimated the price of oil in that plan. United assumed $55 per barrel and that was $50+ per barrel ago. Northwest just recently emerged and it assumed oil $40+ per barrel ago.

Based on the assumed price per barrel of oil, contracts were entered into with the regional affiliates of the major carriers. The price of oil has long been described an uncontrollable expense for the airline industry. Is this an act of nature, I do not know. What I do know, is that this rise in the price of oil is beyond the control of the industry. Moreover, this recent price push makes oil more expensive than it was on an inflation adjusted basis in the early 1980’s and we know that the period will always be defined as an oil crisis.

However, force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance of a party, as where non-performance is caused by the usual and natural consequences of external forces (e.g., predicted rain stops an outdoor event), or where the intervening circumstances are specifically contemplated.

There is no negligence here by the industry or malfeasance by anyone. This is the market at work. The causes for the oil price increases are many but cannot be isolated to any one catalyst. And none of this is as predictable as rain on a hot summer night.

Time-critical and other sensitive contracts may be drafted to limit the shield of this clause where a party does not take reasonable steps (or specific precautions) to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference, either when they become likely or when they actually occur.

To say that the industry has not taken reasonable steps to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference would ignore the painful attempts to address cost structures that were simply not sustainable. As Jamie Baker pointed out last week in his research note, since 2002, the price of oil will have increased some $25 billion for the US industry while savings from labor over the same period amounts to $7 billion.

Through the restructuring period and practices that continue today, the industry cut costs to combat a declining revenue environment and to address the rising cost of oil. The industry has used hedges; pared domestic capacity as a way to reduce exposure to an unhealthy domestic market; increased international capacity as a way to increase revenue; cut back on amenities; cut distribution costs to a minimal level; reduced ownership costs; cut employee wages; improved employee productivity; improved asset utilization; terminated pensions; outsourced flying; outsourced maintenance; outsourced administrative activities; and experimented with hub structures to name a few of the hundred of cost cutting activities that have been employed.

Most, if not all, reasonable steps have been taken to prevent or limit the continued losses for the US industry – except for that outside interference called oil.

Included in the definition: A force majeure may also be the overpowering force itself, which prevents the fulfillment of a contract. In that instance, it is actually the Impossibility defense. As for the externality, the industry has nothing to do with the event’s happening. As for unpredictability, this industry has done everything it can do to counteract its influences. As for irresistibility, the consequences of the oil price rise were not preventable.

Delta and Northwest

About one month ago, I remember Bob Fornaro, CEO of AirTran Airways, referring to proposals made to his pilots in an oil-denominated way. Like Fornaro, Messrs. Anderson and Steenland I only hope that you tell your pilots and all other employees that the terms of the agreement you made in order to have a single collective bargaining agreement in place are now off of the table. You made an agreement where some of your pilots would receive 30% pay increases at $85-90 oil, surely those agreements should not be made at $105 oil. Invoke force majeur.

$20 per barrel ago, you said that your networks would be largely kept intact. Now today you seem to be hinting that the size of your networks may need to be reconsidered. Let’s just face the fact that there are too many regional carriers and too many hubs and as a result too much money being spent on serving communities that cannot economically support the frequency of access to the air transportation system today. Cutbacks like those Doug Parker of US Airways suggested were probably unavoidable at some point and at $105 oil, well……invoke force majeur.

In each case, these suggested actions seem prudent and can easily be explained by an unpredictable externality whose consequences could not have been predicted by you. Invoke force majeur.

Consolidation is still right. But as everyone has said it has to be the right deal for all stakeholders and given the externalities facing the industry, much harder choices will now have to be made.

More to come.

Wednesday
Mar052008

Yet Another Prism from Swelbar to Think About US Carrier Competitiveness in the Global Airline Industry

The one thing I have definitely discovered since introducing swelblog.com is that once you write, there is no where to run and hide. Following my November talk to an ACI-NA audience in Washington DC, I penned an article that appears in the March 2008 edition of Airline Business where I discuss the competitiveness of the US airline industry in the face of increasing global competition.

The many themes that run throughout piece have been discussed over the past five months here. So on a day where there are reports that the Delta – Northwest talks have been restarted, I continue to believe that a resolution can, and will, be found. Assuming that is true, then it will be off to Washington to discuss, and defend, the combined carrier. This article was written with the mind that the regulators must also consider any consolidation attempts in the context of US carrier competitiveness in the global airline industry.

Anything short of this consideration ignores the economic realities of globalization and the direction this industry is taking. And I sure hope that we do not spend inordinate amounts of time discussing how air service in the middle part of the US is made less competitive. Rather, I hope it is recognized that the regulators need to focus commensurate time considering how the middle part of the country will benefit from increased access to markets around the globe. Just as deregulation of the US domestic market has taught us, more than sufficient competition will remain.

One can hope.