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Entries in Airline Data Project (3)

Tuesday
Jul152008

Speculation, Consternation and Regurgitation

First, the regurgitation. In writing this blog, I am often amazed at which posts receive the most attention and the posts that do not. The one post that continues to amaze me in its interest by readers around the world is the piece I wrote in March of this year entitled: Invoking the Force Majeure Clause: Oil Taking Its Toll.

In that post, my primary intent was to challenge the contracts between the mainline carriers and their respective regional partners. Some took it that I was taking a swipe at labor contracts and implied that was the sole reason I wrote the piece. It is the contracts between the mainline and regional partners that are beginning to receive a lot of attention. I will say that I am happy to see significant cuts being undertaken by those carriers that makeup the regional sector of the US industry as they largely received a free ride as the industry restructured post-9/11.

Consternation

Just what to do at Midwest? This is a most difficult decision for labor as well as the private equity in the deal. What is true for Midwest is that it fits the mold of those carriers that have liquidated thus far. Labor is being asked to give amounts similar to what their legacy brethren gave during the bankruptcy period relative to their current payroll. This really does seem to be a tired attempt by restructuring firm, Seabury, to employ the same tactics that it tried at America West, US Airways, Northwest and Air Canada with moderate success. But those carriers possessed some scale before the cuts ultimately won and Midwest does not.

If Midwest does file for Chapter 11 protection, can the company prove that its labor rates are non-competitive and therefore require immediate relief to implement a successful plan of reorganization. I am just not sure that they can as the labor bill at Midwest is just simply not big enough to offset the increase in the price of fuel. Can Midwest cut back to a skeleton of its current self and find a profitable core that can survive oil’s assault on the meek? From what I can tell, it is going to take a hell of lot more than trying to trot out the same old playbook that was used when oil was $30-40 per barrel.

Seabury’s tactics lack for creativity in an environment that is entirely different. Unlike the prior restructuring period, labor is not the only issue at Midwest. In fact labor may be only a very small issue, if an issue at all. I will let you draw your own conclusions based on the analysis of US carriers just completed by MIT’s Airline Data Project by assessing stage length adjusted labor unit costs and stage length adjusted non-labor unit costs.

Can Spirit be far behind?

I am of the view that this period’s force majeure will be liquidation.

Speculation

It has been interesting to see how various organizations, writers, bloggers and keen observers have come down on ATA’s campaign to rid the markets of possible rampant speculation when it comes to oil prices. For one who firmly believes in markets over the long term, there is some trepidation regarding which side is right as both sides make very compelling arguments regarding their views.

But I do not believe that ATA and the industry is suggesting that speculation is the sole cause of the rise in the price of oil. I do not believe that ATA and the industry discount the enabling issues surrounding demand; I do not believe that ATA and industry discount supply issues or infrastructure issues; nor do I believe that ATA and the industry discount that certain world economies and organizations that produce oil have every incentive to do very little as it is simply not in their best interest.

A friend, Frank Gretz of Shields and Company in New York writes a weekly letter to his clients entitled: Equities Perspective. I am fortunate to get to read Frank each week and I found his comments this week on commodity stocks and oil most interesting.

“When it comes to the Commodity stocks, and Oil especially, even the likes of Warren Buffett tell us that prices are being driven by demand, not speculation. Certainly, the demand is there, but so too it would seem the speculation. From a demand standpoint, China has accounted for roughly 80% of the world’s incremental oil consumption over the past couple of years, a time during which the commodity climbed from $50 a barrel. Clearly there is something to the idea of “China-driven commodity demand.” But similarly, back in 2000 there was a real demand for Cisco’s routers and, more recently, a real demand for housing – the poor immigrants and all. But we all know that there was plenty of speculation in Cisco at $84 and no money down housing, and the same seems true now of commodities. An environment of negative real interest rates is particularly conducive to the speculation we have seen in different sectors of the economy and asset markets – NASDAQ in 2000, housing in 2006 and commodities now. Of course no one complained when speculation was driving up the NASDAQ stocks or the price of their house, but when the price of food and gas goes up, we’ll have none of that speculation.”

Just like consolidation activity was never going to be the only answer to the airline industry’s ills, defusing speculation is not the only answer to the steep, upward trajectory of the price of oil. But it just may be a part of the problem that leads to focused action on other aspects of the energy issue as well, like: alternative sources of energy; increasing supply by considering actions previously thought as taboo; better understanding the demand for oil; make a priority of addressing infrastructure needs in order that supply might better match demand.

I do not even pretend to know of the necessary solutions here. But I am confident that there are many forces at work and if highlighting one might lead to progress on other fronts, then it is an approach worth taking. But I sure wish we did not have to ask Congress for their help as I fear that the ask might bring into play a less than desired outcome. On that note ………

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.

Wednesday
Oct032007

All Eyes on Texas

As the airline industry turns away from the round of labor restructuring that began in 2002, it is now at a crossroads. Pilot negotiations now underway, or about to begin, at each of the Texas carriers underscore how difficult this next round will be. And depending on which side of the table you sit, these negotiations are blessed and cursed in many ways.

In each case, fragility rules the day, whether by the condition of airline balance sheets, relationships, expectations, competition, over promising, under delivering. What is clear at the outset is that U.S. airlines need to seriously reexamine their communications to employees and shareholders if they are going to successfully negotiate this treacherous path.

I rank upcoming negotiations at the Texas-based airlines from easiest (nothing will be easy) to most difficult (requiring a new prescription in the rose colored glasses) in this order:

1) Continental, in that the company and its pilots negotiated a protocol agreement that will help preserve effective communications and a productive process.

2) American, in that, by virtually any metric, its pilots are already at the top of industry in terms of total compensation but have the ability to create currency through improved productivity that might be used to subsidize other parts of a new agreement; and

3) Southwest, in that the company and its pilots already lead the industry in productivity click here and as a result do not have much “give” on that front;; have the highest average wages click here; and face slower growth. Man, I would not want to be in Gary Kelly’s shoes on this one.

A case can be made that this upcoming round of negotiations with airline unions may be the watershed event since deregulation. It could go far in determining tomorrow’s airline winners, losers – and mere survivors. Remember Eastern and Pan Am. Every 15 years or so something happens that changes the game.

So why are all eyes on Texas?

Continental and the Air Line Pilots Association’s negotiating protocol paves the way for them to begin bargaining early in an attempt to complete negotiations by the scheduled amendable date of December 31, 2008. American’s contract with the Allied Pilots Association is amendable in April of 2008. And Southwest and its pilots are currently working under an extended agreement that is currently amendable

In my view, Continental has one of the best – if not the best -- management teams of all the network legacy carriers. They were first in signaling the end of the small regional jet euphoria – or, as the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, would call it “exuberance.” Continental has leveraged its Newark hub to grow transatlantic flying (a model others are trying to emulate but with population bases one-sixth the size of the New York CMSA – but I digress); and they have continued an open communication with all of their employee groups that evolved after the airline emerged from bankruptcy hell in the mid 90s and has clearly led to a good internal operating environment.

In Continental’s case, neither the management side nor the labor side negotiate agreements that prohibit the goose from laying “golden” eggs for all stakeholders. They, too, negotiated concessionary agreements outside of filing for court assistance but they did not have to go near as deep given the competitive pay rates and productive work rules in the collective bargaining agreement.

Between the two Texas network legacy carriers (NLCs as we refer to them at MIT), American faces the toughest negotiations. Its cockpit crew members currently have the highest total compensation per pilot in the sector. More importantly, when total compensation is calculated (wages, pension and benefits and personnel expenses as dictated in the contract) AA has the highest pilot cost per block hour of any carrier in the industry click here.

Given this unenviable cost disadvantage, is it any wonder why American did not immediately agree to the whopping 30.5% pay increase and other sundry contract enhancements demanded by the APA’s prior administration – and now we wait on a new proposal that is speculated to be even more? In fact, that number is uncomfortably close to the number sought by then-Chairman of the United Pilot MEC, Rick Dubinsky during the dreaded summer of 2000, which all but killed the UAL “golden goose” and forced the carrier into bankruptcy. It was said to me at the time that the tentative agreement made nearly two-thirds of United's international flying unprofitable. Now, as a result of the extended trip through bankruptcy, UAL's pilots are among the lowest paid versus the highest paid in the industry.

American’s pilots today enjoy a cost per block hour advantage against no major competitor in the industry click here whereas Continental enjoys a cost per block hour advantage against four of its six NLC competitors.

But it is American’s cross-town competitor, that faces the toughest labor situation of all, at least to this observer. Yes, I mean Southwest -- the envy of the industry in terms of pilot/employee productivity. And therein lies the rub. The magic in collective bargaining – and historically for Southwest - is to find a way to trade productivity for higher wages. When you have a pilot group that flies an average of 65 hard hours per month against a mandated industry maximum of 1000 hours per year, there is not much room to move. This, on top of the fact that Southwest pilots are already the highest compensated in terms of average salary per pilot along with an arguably rich benefit package – begs the question: where do they go from here? As growth slows, it will be increasingly difficult to move the “productivity needle” through operational changes click here. And don’t look now, but Southwest pilots fly the least number of available seat miles per dollar of total compensation than even the network legacy carriers – output per labor dollar has declined more than 25% since 1995 click here.

So as we watch the airline labor negotiating world begin the contract kabuki dance, all eyes should be on Texas. Like it or not, the concept of pattern bargaining still is alive and well in the industry and it is just as much of who’s on first (industry leading) as it is who is going to go first – and set the pattern?