Yesterday, as I was awaiting a report from the Institute of Supply Management on August manufacturing activity, I was working on a piece I titled: “Government Buys Junk; Consumer in Funk; Airline Recovery No Slam Dunk.” But after reading Ann Keaton’s piece in the Wall Street Journal on how jetBlue and Lufthansa are looking for a code share deal, I started thinking about all the pieces in play in the New York market and, as it happens, of the 1977 Rolling Stones tune “Shattered.”
Was it US Airways’ that said “my brain’s been battered, splattered all over Manhattan?” Or AirTran talking about “rats on the west side, bed bugs uptown?” Was that Continental murmuring something about “all this chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter ‘bout shmatta, shmatta, shmatta -- I can’t give it away on 7th Avenue?” [But I can in Newark] I do think I heard Delta saying, “to live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!” And I am sure I will hear from American “don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up” if it is not granted an immunized alliance with its transatlantic partners.
A Long and Overdue Reshaping of the Competitive Environment Gets Underway
It began on August 11, when AirTran Airways announced a deal with Continental to vacate Newark and give its slots and one gate there to Continental in return for slots at New York’s Laguardia and Washington Reagan. A day later, Delta and US Airways announced a monster deal in which US Airways will give up 125 pairs of Express slots at Laguardia in exchange for 42 pairs of slots at Washington Reagan and rights to fly to Tokyo and Sao Paulo. Both swaps involve no cash and have no impact on the Northeast Shuttle operations run by each US Airways and Delta.
The Delta – US Airways swap all but ensures that Delta will surpass American as the largest carrier at Laguardia. By any measure of market concentration, LGA will continue to have ample competition. For Delta and US Airways, the deal gives each carrier the tools to build out markets they believe are market strongholds. Some say that a split operation (Laguardia and JFK) for Delta is a mistake. But I disagree. Winning passenger loyalty from offering expanded domestic services at LGA should translate into making Delta a clearer choice for passengers to choose the carrier when traveling to international destinations from its operation at JFK.
Absent this kind of deal, there is not much that can be done to increase domestic flying at any of New York’s three major airports. Applying US Department of Justice standards to determine market concentration, Laguardia, JFK and Newark would be considered concentrated or moderately concentrated per the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index. And JFK has limited space to for an airline to run a large domestic operation because of the extensive international operations that occupy the critical late afternoon/early evening hours.
Given all of the constraints of the New York aviation infrastructure, the airlines involved in the slot swaps have taken a proactive approach to advance their competitive strategies. By recognizing their individual strengths and weaknesses, the airlines involved will be better positioned when a recovery gets underway. If the government says you cannot merge, then engage in binge and purge.
Today’s environment does not afford any carrier the luxury of presence everywhere and pricing power nowhere.
Congress and the Regulators
Because these transactions require regulatory approval, I fear that critics will claim that the deals would give the carriers excessive pricing power in those markets.
But look at the data. According to the Airline Transport Association, system passenger revenue is down 21 percent, or $12.5 billion when comparing the first seven months of 2009 to 2008. Add in the $3.1 billion the industry has brought in from those damn fees that everyone likes to write about, and that means revenue is down $9.4 billion.
Where is the pricing power? Where is the gouging? And when will the politicians and regulators take airlines at their word when they say they need change?
“People dressed in plastic bags. Directing Traffic.”