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Entries in cost of jet fuel (3)

Thursday
Mar032011

Oil and Water; Jet Fuel and Labor

On June 25, 2008 I blogged asking the question:  Is Oil A Cancer Or A Cure?  At that time, the price of a barrel of oil had not yet reached its apex of $147 per barrel, but was well on its way.  Based on findings by the Air Transport Association’s superb economic analysis team led by chief economist John Heimlich, the U.S. airline industry paid the equivalent of $174.64 per barrel [price of a barrel of oil plus the equivalent cost to refine crude into jet fuel (the crack spread)] on July 11, 2008.  By December 23, 2008 the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate had fallen to $30.28 per barrel.  So far in 2011, we’ve seen a similar surge in oil prices, but based on current geopolitical events, I am not expecting another $117 drop in the price of a barrel of oil like we witnessed in 2008.

I’m actually wondering what happens if the wave of Mideast political upheaval washes over Algeria? Or Saudi Arabia? Some economic experts say the price of oil could rocket past the $200 threshold.

In 2011, the industry has paid an average of $89.15 per barrel of crude and another $25.80 in the crack spread for a total cost of “in the wing” jet fuel of nearly $115 per barrel.  Since February 22, 2011 the industry has paid more than the equivalent of $120 per barrel for jet fuel.  On March 1, 2011 the industry paid the equivalent of $132.17 per barrel for jet fuel including the crack spread of $32.54.  For all of 2008, the industry paid the equivalent of $25 per barrel to refine crude into jet fuel.  In the last five days of trading the crack spread paid by the industry is nearly $30 per barrel. 

That’s a lot of numbers, so let me put this in a way that might shock even the most ardent follower of the airline industry: Today’s cost of just refining oil into jet fuel is roughly equal to the total jet fuel price per barrel paid by the industry every year between 1978 and 2001.

1978 – 2001

The mindset of many airline stakeholders - and particularly labor - is based on the period between 1978 and 2001.  Deregulation began in 1978 and 2001 marks the beginning of wholesale industry restructuring. .. which actually should have started 24 years earlier.  To put this period into an oil perspective, over the first 25 years of a deregulated industry, the equivalent per barrel price of jet fuel was $28.93.  Oil was cheap (more than four times cheaper than in 2011) and it was the basis for the industry to grow too big, too fast.   After all, the biggest “uncontrollable cost” was a blip.  There was little change in either the price of a barrel of crude or the crack spread.

Based on analysis at MIT's Airline Data Project, between 1978 and 2001, the industry grew nearly 2.5 times in terms of available seat miles.  Traffic grew faster than capacity.  The great enabler in the growth in addition to the cost of jet fuel was the fact industry yields, or the amount the customer pays per mile, declined by 39% when adjusted for inflation.  Domestic yields fell by an inflation-adjusted 41 percent over the same period.  In other words, cheap seats. The price of an airline ticket was one of the great consumer bargains.  This fact ultimately led the network carriers to refocus their operations on international flying because their high cost structures struggled to conform to the realities of the domestic market economics.

As the industry added capacity, employment grew by nearly 220,000 full-time equivalents.  During the same period, the total cost of an employee to the industry declined by eight percent in real terms.  I can hear it now, ”no way – my salary is significantly less.”  Yes, it is true salary costs when adjusted for inflation have decreased. On the other hand, the cost of pension and benefits paid to airline workers has grown at a rate faster than inflation.  The cost of an employee to a company is not based on salary alone.

Over the 24 year period being discussed here, it is true that employee productivity in terms of available seat miles per employee and enplanements per employee increased 44 percent and 30 percent respectively.  Much of that is again driven by cutthroat competition driving prices downward in order to stimulate demand.  Here is the kicker.  The number of available seat miles produced per dollar spent on labor fell by 42 percent.  Or, labor is producing more output but the cost of that output is increasingly expensive.  This fact alone was unsustainable and the restructuring process was used to address the underlying economics.

Many areas of the income statement were addressed by managements over the period with the most noteworthy being the decision to stop paying legacy commission rates to travel agents.  This action alone saves the industry nearly $6 billion dollars per year although we can also say that the savings are largely competed away in the form of lower fares.  Food and advertising expenses were also reduced.  Each of these cost areas, like labor, is considered controllable costs.  Oil is not.  What the industry did realize over the period was a 30 percent efficiency improvement in the consumption of fuel.

2002 – Today

As 2001 came to a close, unit costs at the network carriers in the face of free falling unit revenue became the story.  US Airways was the first carrier to file for bankruptcy.  United was second.  And American followed with an out of court restructuring.  Each carrier had extremely high overall unit costs relative to the industry as shown by the MIT Airline Data Project.  The ADP also shows the three carriers were out-of-market with respect to unit labor costs relative to the industry.  The network carriers mentioned simply had costs so high, there was no choice but to seek some sort of a consensual restructuring either through bankruptcy or out of court if they were to live and fight another day.  The scary part is, oil was still reasonable during this time. The industry jet fuel price per barrel equivalent as restructuring commenced was $30.07.

While jet fuel prices are uncontrollable, so too is airline pricing, particularly in the U.S. domestic market.  Since 2001, the industry has only increased capacity by 2.5 percent as capacity discipline became the mantra.  Again traffic grew faster than capacity as inflation adjusted yields fell another 12.5 percent.  The nominal level of capacity growth can be attributed to the growth in regional carrier and low cost carrier flying.  Since 2001, mainline carriers have shed nearly 24 percent of their previous domestic capacity with nearly one-third of that capacity removed since the 2008 fuel spike.

Capacity cutting was all that was left in the face of high oil prices.  When carriers delete capacity, they also eliminate jobs.  Since 2001 the industry has shed nearly 155,000 jobs – a period when the jet fuel equivalent price per barrel averaged $73.08.  Labor productivity has improved significantly as the network carriers restructured.  But as I’ve talked about before, the problem with a seniority-based system is that average costs increase as the less expensive employees are the first to be let go.  In 2002, when the restructuring began, the average cost of a full time equivalent airline employee was $74,910.  Today, the average cost of a full-time equivalent employee is $83,869.  More troubling is the benefit and pension package for full- time employees in 2001 cost $11,560.  Today, the cost of that package is $18,195 reflecting seniority as well the country’s inability to reign in medical costs. 

So Here We Sit

The history of pattern bargaining - and resultant expectations - between labor and management was created on a basis of $30 per barrel for jet fuel.  Today, the cost of jet fuel is the equivalent of $132+ per barrel.  Yet labor doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that times – and oil prices – have changed.  There are 52 airline cases under the auspices of the National Mediation Board and I will wager few, if any, of the labor negotiating teams consider oil a major factor in a future contract. It’s “management’s problem.”

Well, it’s also labor’s. While the industry has been creative in finding new revenue to address the reality of fuel costs, consumer pass-throughs generally lag behind the rise in the price of fuel. The bigger issue, the one labor has trouble admitting, is the size of the revenue pie is finite.

Oil is uncontrollable and therefore difficult to predict how much of the revenue pie it will consume.  Cost reductions in many areas of the operation have already been largely realized.  And that’s where oil prices become labor’s problem.  Employees – rightfully - want their share of the pie, and they’d like to make-up the concessions of the past.  The problem is the pre-restructuring high water mark, when oil was around $30, is what labor wants to return to. That’s not possible and it’s certainly not sustainable.   

I have heard it said many times, "labor is not going to subsidize the price of oil again".  Well, truthfully, labor didn’t the first time. When restructuring began and adjustments to labor costs were realized the price of jet fuel was not the issue.  It was declining revenue.  After much pain inflicted on virtually every stakeholder group over the past decade, $100 per barrel jet fuel is the new reality.  Expectations of returning to the past should be forgotten.  I like to use history, but history is useless in evaluating this industry because the fundamentals that now govern the industry’s structure like oil and the economies of China and Germany and Brazil are new and rapidly evolving.

I had someone say to me the other day that shouldn’t we throw away the past and just start again making this apex the new reality?  The simple answer is yes.

Monday
Sep222008

These Really Are Dynamic Times

In my most recent blog post, I postulated that we are not we are not out of the woods by any measure as oil had been closer to $90 per barrel than $100 in the past week. I am sure that there were some that scratched their heads over that post. Part of my reasoning for drafting the piece was that the markets had turned their attention to the banking crisis and away from the commodity world. The market's lack of attention typically makes me nervous.

I am not going to say I said I told you so, but today, oil spikes $25 amid anxiety over bailout news. The October contract ultimately settled near $121 per barrel, up more than $16 per barrel, far surpassing the one day record increase of $10.75 in early June 2008. The November 2008 contract is trading at more than $109 per barrel as I write.

Remember, these numbers do not reflect the crack spread price equivalent per barrel that needs to be included when considering the airline industry's cost of jet fuel. At last look it was $24 per barrel since falling from $44 per barrel as the hurricanes made their way toward our shores. Fundamental to the message in my previous post was the concept that this industry, and virtually all industries, will be facing volatile times that require the ability to remain nimble in order to navigate the ebbs and flows that we are sure to face. Remember, we have not started to discuss just how cold, or warm, it might be this winter.

Many of our parents speak about the gold standard. Today the price of an ounce of gold increased more than $44 per ounce for those that doubt the market’s view of our world. In the article linked to above, analysts interviewed cited a weakening dollar and short positions. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

In my previous post, I suggested that this industry is just not in the position to accept a fixed cost, fixed fare or fixed anything environment given the dynamic nature of input costs that face this industry. I suggested that the boom and bust cycle that has plagued this industry must be addressed as the cycle is not good for any one stakeholder group.

We really do need to think about this.

More to come.

Wednesday
Sep102008

Horton Says American Means It

Last month, in a blog post Begging ……. The Questions, I wondered aloud if the US industry, that had announced capacity cuts in July as crude touched $147 per barrel and jet fuel approached $180 per barrel "in the wing", would rollback their capacity cutting plans as oil prices have dropped nearly $40 per barrel since.

At least in Ft. Worth, announced capacity cuts will be actual capacity cuts. Tom Horton, American’s CFO said the domestic capacity cuts are permanent in an interview with the Associated Press. Horton touches on two important cost benefits that will be realized by the decisions his company is taking: 1) the fleet being retired is not efficient from a fuel consumption perspective; and 2) older aircraft require much greater expenditures to maintain.

American Airlines has been aggressive in its capacity planning and has been joined by United and others. Airports around the air transportation system will certainly point to the fact that oil has dropped significantly in the past two months. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that the price of crude oil is only part of the equation; remember the crack spread or the cost to refine crude oil into jet fuel.

The industry is still paying roughly a $140 per barrel equivalent for jet fuel. On average, the industry spent the equivalent of $90.93 per barrel for jet fuel in 2007. It is the difficult management actions that are being undertaken like capacity reductions, ancillary fees and additional employee dislocations that are giving Wall Street some hope that the industry just might be profitable in 2009. But, that all depends on the actual condition of the economy doesn’t it? And I am not sure we can even get an accurate temperature read today.

A Demand Prism?

Let’s not lose sight of the important guidance the cargo side of the business gives to the passenger business despite the fact that they are very different business models. It was the cargo sector that first warned of a slowing economy earlier in the year and the effects it saw on its business outlook. The cargo business addresses more traffic that is demanded on a just-in-time basis and as a result is less price-sensitive. The cargo business is a more leading indicator of things to come. The passenger business sells a significant level of its product well ahead of the actual delivery and tends to be more price-sensitive for a majority of its demand.

Last night, William Greene of Morgan Stanley wrote a piece on Federal Express. It was entitled: Weak Guidance Highlights Cyclical Pressures. And I quote: "Cyclical headwinds clearly a challenge for earnings. As we noted when we downgraded FDX shares back in late July, we struggle to find a compelling reason to own parcel stocks. Although lower fuel prices have pushed off some of our secular concerns about a permanent modal shift, a global slowdown is undermining one of the few remaining areas of strength – international. Moreover, air fuel surcharges are still high from a historical perspective and domestic volumes remain under pressure."

A couple of things in closing. Oil is down but still 50 percent higher after the fall than the average price paid in 2007. And, passenger airlines now face the reality of economic forces and the actual health of consumer’s pocketbooks as the peak travel season just completed was sold in February and March of this year. Fuel coming down is good for all of us, but its fickle nature should not be ignored. Nor should it suggest that the hard decisions made by the industry earlier in the year to park capacity are no longer necessary.

Interesting too is Greene’s assessment that international markets might be weakening. Does the cargo sector offer a prism for the passenger side of the business? I think so and you do not have to read aviation news from around the world everyday to reach that conclusion.

I must say I am amazed that I have not read any uneducated and uniformed reporting to date that suggests that the capacity cuts are not needed given the fall in crude oil prices – but I am sure that I will. Maybe even one written in 2002?

More to come.