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Wednesday
May162012

Musings From the Last Five Weeks

US Airways - American

$130 here - million I mean.  $100 million there.  Couple hundred here and there.  A chunk of the company for you.  A less than desirable chunk for me.  Hey PBGC, what do you need so we can carry a pension liability on our balance sheet going forward? That’s not a problem since the “old” US Airways terminated its plans!  While we are at it, let’s keep 15,000 more employees than a similar-sized United (each carrier would generate approximately $37 billion in revenue) because, after all, the synergy generation will surely cover it.  It’s the new math - circa 2012.

In its quest to acquire American Airlines, US Airways sounds like a teenager with its first credit card, spending money it doesn’t have.  Paper wealth.  What cracks me up about this “plan” is the new math I mentioned. Critics pan AA’s goal of creating $1 billion in new revenue as bogus because, among other issues, it assumes no competitive response.  Does anyone really think United and Delta are going roll over and let US Airways improve its revenue generation at their expense? Not a chance.

UAL CEO Jeff Smisek said last month a US merger "net, net, that would be good for us." Will there be more competition on certain city pairs?  Yes.  But neither United nor Delta are afraid of competition much less the threat posed by the paper tiger US Airways/American combination.   Smisek and Delta’s Richard Anderson are smart. They know the synergy formula US has seduced some media and AA’s unions with is but a calculation at this point.  Even American’s own pilots admitted in bankruptcy court this week its faux “deal” with US doesn’t include cost assumptions or valuations.

In other words, US is spending money it has no idea whether it will actually have. It is one thing to have a term sheet and quite another to have written contractual language.  My bet is United and Delta see that the first mover advantages created by mergers have already been mined.  For AMR’s creditors – including the labor unions – there are a host of other issues with this proposed takeover.  It is my opinion that US’s new math adds up to the likelihood that they may need to visit out-of-court cost cutting exercises within a very short time to finish the job that they are choosing not to finish during the courting stage – particularly if exogenous shocks again plague the industry.

Showdown in Houston

Most readers of www.swelblog.com know I was asked by United to help study the findings of the Houston Airports System (HAS) report about Southwest flying internationally from Houston Hobby Airport.  HAS and its consultants originally claimed that 23 flights by SWA from Hobby would create in excess of 18,000 jobs and generate more than $1.6 billion in new economic activity for the City of Houston. 

Stratospheric numbers like those don’t pass the sniff test, yet Southwest executives Gary Kelly, Bob Montgomery and Ron Ricks reference the HAS findings as if they were they were gospel.  More on this later.

I believe the HAS study is seriously flawed and is based on what has become known as the “Southwest Effect.”  Problem is, the “Southwest Effect” is a largely a thing of the past.  It got its name from a study completed more than 20 years ago by the U.S. DOT when jet fuel was the equivalent of $30 per barrel.  The fundamental premise is lowering fares will create a disproportionate level of “new” demand in a market. 

Despite the fact Southwest has no experience in flying to international markets, the HAS study assumes traffic will increase 180 percent.  Relevant empirical data shows Southwest’s (135 city pair markets entered since 2006) entry into new markets over the past five years resulted in traffic stimulation of only 10 percent. The latest data shows fares in those markets have actually increased – not decreased.  The HAS study, at a minimum, grossly exaggerates the benefits of a Southwest entry into duplicative markets and is based on a host of unrealistic assumptions. Publicly available cost data shows international flying done by Southwest from HOU would lose more than $76 million per year.  Even Southwest is not flying markets that lose that kind of money despite its self-proclaimed benevolence toward the air travel consumer.

The economic stimulation predicted by the HAS study claims that prices will decrease 55 percent lower than United’s fares.  The truth is, what Southwest calls “stimulation,” is comprised mostly of the cannibalization of IAH traffic which adds nothing to the Houston economy.

The “Southwest Effect” does not drive benefits to local economies as it once did.  Even Gary Kelly agrees.  When pinned down by the Houston City Council on the number of jobs that would be created at Southwest from its limited entry to routes already served, Kelly admitted that total number (nationally) would be 700 and direct Southwest jobs created in Houston would be 50-100. Kelly went on to say that even these 50-100 jobs would be achieved only if Southwest flies the maximum number of flights in its projections several years after entry.  

Even with outrageous multipliers, the number of direct, indirect and induced job creation cannot even begin to approach 10,000 – let alone 18,000.  Not even by relying on the long-obsolete conclusions of a 20 year old study.

The United Pilots

The United pilots are at it again.  While the Delta Air Lines' pilots reached an agreement seven months early, the United pilots are busy building websites whining about outsourced jobs (their term, not mine) and the salaries of United Airlines’ executives. 

Labor leaders in the pilot ranks would have you believe this “outsourcing” (international code sharing and the use of regional flying within the network) is all about management abusing provisions of their collective bargaining agreements to enrich their shareholders. In fact, reducing costs through the relaxation of scope provisions has been labor’s “quid” in return for increases in compensation (or to give less in a concessionary contract) and benefits for 20+ years [the “quo.”]

Among many myths portrayed on the website, United ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association) claims that after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the management of United Airlines launched a strategic plan to offshore and outsource jobs in an effort to cut costs.  Look no further than the unaffordable contract negotiated between United and its pilots in 2000.  The pilots significantly relaxed scope provisions in return for increased wages, work rules and benefits.  I rest my case.

First of all, the fundamental economics underlying the health of the U.S. airline industry began deteriorating during the second half of 2000.  September 11 ensured that there would be no return to prior industry conditions particularly on the revenue line.  The incursion of the low cost carriers and the use of the internet for airline ticket distribution were every bit as powerful forces as 9/11 in compelling the industry to restructure.  The operating models sought by the network carriers were to find cost savings much like the low-cost carriers – a sector that outsourced a significant portion of its maintenance.  The advent of the regional jet in the mid-1990s was the catalyst driving a reduction in pilot and other costs.  Pilots at all network carriers permitted extensive use of the regional jet well before September 11, 2001.

Perpetuating myths to a public that largely doesn’t care (pilots are much better compensated than the average passenger) is probably a disservice to United’s ALPA members.  Put energy into negotiations like the Delta pilots and you might actually get somewhere.  That requires leadership and telling the entitled pilots at the old United that things are not going to return to the days when the company negotiated contracts it couldn’t afford.  It is just not going to happen.

Concluding Thoughts

Delta Air Lines just continues to do things a little differently.  When it merged with Northwest, Delta made the pilots “buy in” to the concept that consolidation was inevitable and that it was in their best interests to participate.  Delta’s financial performance relative to the industry has been very good quarter after quarter.  Then it buys an oil refinery and negotiates a deal with pilots seven months before the amendable date.  Hell, most negotiations have just completed the uniform section at this point in the proceedings – maybe.

It is clear Delta’s largest unionized group understands industry realities.  That’s a rare thing these days when, too often, reality is sacrificed for political expedience.  Simply look at how much has been made in the media about American’s unions joining hands with US Airways.  That was the easy part.  Which union wouldn’t agree to give up less and suffer fewer job losses?  It sounds great to members and union leaders can knowingly smile and say, at the very least, they’re putting pressure on management.  But reality says they’re weakening their own position, opening themselves up to my favorite term – unintended consequences and simply ignoring the truth that US Airways would have to carry 15,000 more heads than United, while generating the same level of revenue.  That’s not reality; that’s fantasy.

There is little doubt industry consolidation has helped catapult financial results beyond what could have been imagined for the industry based on past performance.  In that reality, my guess is Delta just made it more expensive for US Airways - and United - yesterday by negotiating yet another joint collective bargaining agreement.  US Airways needs those lower labor rates because its network produces below industry unit revenues. So now US is in the position of not only promising American’s pilots increased pay, but having to actually pay its own pilots at Delta +.

But hey, what is a couple of hundred million here and a couple of hundred million there?  After all, the margins for the US airline industry are plentiful.  Right?

Thursday
Jan262012

Swelbar: Pondering More of American’s Bankruptcy “News”

So much speculation around what American Airlines might be upon exit from bankruptcy; so many scenario possibilities.  Some media and those with specific interests in the industry are moving pieces around the game board with talk of mergers and acquisitions. I’m willing to play, but with a caveat; no one should take all the recent posturing seriously – at least not yet. And it won’t be tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. More likely the serious gamesmanship will begin approximately 7-8 months from now as creditors evaluate and negotiate American’s proposed plan of reorganization.  Right now, AMR has no choice but to approach the upcoming Section 1110, 1113, 1114 and all other discussions as if it will emerge as a stand-alone entity. 

The world is much more comfortable with the bankruptcy process today than it was even a few years ago.  Lessons have been learned.  Hostile runs on companies in bankruptcy are probably not the answer if a potential suitor really wants to be successful in being a part of the ultimate entity that emerges – unless there is no other option as creditors get close to signing off on some other plan of reorganization.  American will tell stakeholders what IT thinks needs to be done to put the company on a viable path. 

American’s $4 Billion In Cash – It Is Not Quite What It Seems

I just have to get one thing off of my chest:  $4 billion in cash on November 29, 2011 was about to become something much less.  It is one of the reasons why American filed for bankruptcy protection before it was too late.  Can we stop talking about a cash-rich filing?

Reactions ranging from dumbstruck employees to PBGC Director Josh Gotbaum’s comments regarding AMR’s bankruptcy filing with over $4 billion in cash leave me smiling.  The fact is AMR’s $4 billion cash reserve would have depleted quickly had the company continued without bankruptcy – possibly to the point of corporate oblivion.  AMR’s Board of Directors had no choice but to file as the company likely had very little access to affordable credit markets since few of the company’s assets were unencumbered.

Since September 2001, airline companies have significantly increased their liquidity (unrestricted cash plus available credit) as a percent of trailing twelve month revenues from roughly 10 percent to 20+ percent.  In 2011, only American and US Airways held liquidity balances of less than 20 percent.  While American’s cash erosion will be mitigated in bankruptcy, it resembles only adequate operating liquidity not a pool from which to pay large fixed obligations.

With that $4 billion in cash, American faced a pension contribution of $100 million during the fourth quarter of 2011; and $560 million in 2012; maturities of long-term debt including sinking fund requirements were $1.1 billion during the fourth quarter of 2011; and $1.8 billion during 2012.  These obligations should be considered against the backdrop of an airline entity that was burning cash at the operating level and the fact nearly all of its assets were pledged as collateral.  While it is true that some $800 million in assets would have become unencumbered during 2012, the amount is certainly less than necessary to maintain sufficient liquidity and meet fixed obligations assuming American would need to collateralize any credit it would seek.

In fact, if AMR were to pay its obligations with its existing cash balance, it is highly likely that the company would have faced a liquidity squeeze at some point during 2012. And that’s assuming no fuel spikes or world events that might impact airline operations.  I think it can safely be deduced the company did what was prudent to preserve the enterprise. Moreover, employees in denial and a PBGC with its own vested interests should step back and reexamine whether the $4 billion is really $4 billion. 

I don’t think so. The case is clear that a $4 billion liquidity balance is on the low end of optimum for a $22 billion dollar revenue generating airline company whether in bankruptcy or not.

Last Friday’s Bloomberg “News” – A Combined US Airways and American

The cynic in me just loves to read airline news published late in the day on a Friday afternoon.   But that is precisely what we got from Bloomberg last week titled:  US Airways Said To Consider American Airlines Merger To Fill Revenue Gap.  There were no sources to the story, only the classic reference to “people familiar” with the Tempe-based airline’s current activity.  Neither US Airways nor American Airlines would comment.  You know how it goes.  [On the US Airways 4th quarter earnings call Wednesday the company did confirm the hiring of the advisers to study the matter mentioned in the story]

It has been suggested by some that American needs to pare capacity along the lines of other U.S. airlines in the domestic arena because it hasn’t done enough to date.  US Airways is often used as the example of a company that has demonstrated stringent capacity discipline and now has significantly improved margin results.  Yet the article says American Airlines might have pared too much capacity – to the point where the Fort Worth carrier is no longer attractive to significant portions of the revenue rich corporate travel sector. Someone is right - I guess?

In some circles, both American and US Airways’ networks are referenced as sub-optimal.  My question then:  does sub-optimal plus sub-optimal equal optimal (at least when compared to United/Continental and Northwest/Delta)?  Probably not, but there is the possibility the whole could/would equal more than the sum of the parts and thus generate more revenue. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best-case scenario because there are plenty of questions when considering an American - US Airways combination -- but one can consider such a combination. 

A merged American and US Airways would be the second-largest U.S. airline on paper, but US Airways got out of the mid-continent hub business when it left Pittsburgh. So, how would the Chicago hub fit in? Philadelphia might be the poor man’s JFK (absent sufficient slots at the New York airport), but could Philadelphia prove to be an acceptable surrogate Northeast U.S. gateway to oneworld as it battles STAR and SkyTeam for high yielding east coast traffic?  What happens to the jetBlue relationship forged by American that could certainly be expanded when expected scope relaxations are achieved?  If the carriers combined, is there really a need for both a Phoenix and a Dallas/Fort Worth hub?  I don’t think so.  If not, where would the headquarters be?   

If American’s exit were to include US Airways, would oneworld make US Airways a full partner in each the transatlantic and transpacific joint ventures?  I would think so because, if US Airways’ domestic system is so fertile as to fill a hole in American’s U.S. network as the media stories claim, then it must be every bit as powerful in filling oneworld’s intercontinental revenue deficiencies.  Assuming that, nearly overnight, oneworld would become a more vigorous competitor with SkyTeam and STAR for traffic flows that neither carrier could capture on their own.  There would be a shift of revenue share from STAR to oneworld in addition to new competition.  How might STAR react if there were an overnight shift of 15 points of revenue share to oneworld?  Might STAR – or United - move quickly to make US Airways a full joint venture partner? 

For airline nerds like me, thinking about mergers/acquisitions by only looking at a map is fun. As games are supposed to be.  But reality means there is much more to consider.

Like any other potential bidder, if US Airways were to emerge as a party to American’s exit, the Tempe-based carrier will have to win the hearts and minds of the employees, the PBGC, the rejected Section 1110 lien holders and the unsecured debt holders to name a few along with Boeing and Airbus.  The onus would be on US Airways to demonstrate its plan will ensure higher returns than a stand-alone plan by American or a plan submitted by other interested parties.

Labor will be a key target.  US Airways, or anyone else, will tell labor a combination can offer an option to the cuts AMR is all but certain to require.  While that sounds great, labor will have to weigh any alleged benefits against a certainty it will be forced into a seniority integration process.  And we all know how emotional seniority integration proceedings can be in the airline industry. 

US Airways and its pilots have not negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement because of a failed seniority integration process that started in 2005 and today flounders in litigation – an internal union issue and not the company’s.  Nonetheless, would that mean American Airlines’ pilots could not achieve raises/improvements from the company because the integration of US Airways and America West pilots is not complete?  What about the flight attendants?

The Section 1113 and 1114 process at American all but ensures those employees will take significant cuts in work rules and benefits as those are the areas where AA has the largest competitive exposure.  Even after those cuts, though, some AA employees (like pilots) will still likely make more than many peers at the current US Airways.  So, would the theoretical combined carrier ask AA employees to take less so US Airways employees can get more than they might?  How does that apply to work rules, benefits? There are those who would (and, in fact, are) dismiss these issues saying they can be dealt with later, but that’s short-sighted.

A Combined Delta Air Lines and American

I still cannot get beyond the regulatory hurdles this combination would face, let alone the fact that all of the issues discussed above would also apply.  But here are four things that immediately concern me:

  1. There are significant overlapping routes that would need to be addressed by the U.S. regulatory agencies to the point the carve-outs necessary might look and feel like a breakup of American, similar to Delta’s past devouring of parts of Pan Am.
  2. Given the current strains between the U.S. and the European Union, combined with the latter’s consternation over the existing alliance construct, I cannot imagine the EU having an appetite for seeing three global alliances reduced to two.
  3. The concentration at New York JFK specifically and New York generally.
  4. Given the Obama Administration’s expressions of regulatory angst and outright displeasure when #2 AT&T proposed combining with #3 T-Mobile, I find it unlikely that any of the respective agencies would embrace a similar proposition in the airline industry.

As they say in the South, “this dog don’t hunt”.  But let it be clear I respect Anderson, Hirst and the Delta team as they did push a merger with Northwest and the slot swap with US Airways through the regulatory process.  And that is no small feat.

Concluding Thoughts

At this point, three/four names are circulating as having an interest in a restructured American Airlines:  US Airways, Delta Air Lines, TPG Capital and, possibly, IAG.  Whether American emerges from bankruptcy alone or with a partner(s), the case is going to take many twists and turns – some daily.

In pure laboratory conditions where American could restructure without any outside influences, AA would emerge as a much lower cost entity and, therefore, pose competitive threats to other U.S. airlines. 

To mitigate American’s potential cost advantage, other airlines will be sure to muck up the process to ensure that American is not fully successful in achieving its stated result.  Delta is not necessarily just gaming US Airways to cough up more in a bid or vice versa, but as I’m fond of saying, it is the law of unintended – or in this case intended - consequences.  Both are trying to ensure American has to pay more.  The conditions for American will prove anything but pure.

Of course, the game changes if United moves to buy US Airways in order to prevent losing the 15 points of transatlantic revenue share it delivers to the STAR alliance.  I do not believe Delta has a chance unless the Unsecured Creditor Committee (UCC) recommends, and the bankruptcy court agrees, that the parts of American are worth more than the carrier as an ongoing enterprise.  In that scenario, Delta will try to secure as many of American’s assets as it can conceivably digest and still get regulatory approval.  

But there we go again, speculating.  In order of least employee/corporate disruption I rank today’s possibilities as follows:

  1. American as a stand-alone
  2. American and IAG/oneworld
  3. American and TPG Capital
  4. American and IAG/oneworld, TPG Capital
  5. American and IAG/oneworld, TPG Capital and US Airways
  6. American and US Airways
  7. American and most anything Delta
  8. Liquidation of Assets

The one thing I can positively guarantee, though, is there will be employee/corporate disruption and plenty more speculation to come. Let the games begin.

Friday
Jan132012

Swelbar: Just Thinking About A Few Things

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal

Susan Carey, Gina Chon and Mike Spector report that Delta Air Lines and TPG Capital are separately evaluating potential bids for American Airlines’ parent, AMR.  This story, along with the myriad of others discussing a US Airways bid for the Fort Worth, TX carrier, is just a warm-up for the main event of AMR’s trip through court-assisted restructuring and the ultimate filing of a plan of reorganization acceptable to creditors.

Delta might seem like an odd suitor.  First, we have to accept the fact Richard Anderson’s Delta is not your father’s Delta.  He and his team are aggressive and understand American holds many assets and relationships that are valuable and thus important to Delta (and SkyTeam) like:  Chicago (where Delta has been adding select domestic flying), a relationship with British Airways, a relationship with JAL, a relationship with LATAM, more of New York (this is where regulators will really struggle along with the absolute size of the combination), a deep South America presence, more of Mexico, Miami (where Delta has been adding select domestic and international flying), and a way to defragment Los Angeles. It could also simply be an attempt to keep a restructured competitor from emerging.

Delta is reported to have performed an antitrust analysis that concluded - with certain carve outs - the massive combination could pass regulatory scrutiny.  While I can see such a combination would bolster Delta’s market positions in many areas including the middle and eastern regions of the U.S., across the Pacific and into burgeoning Latin America, there is also a lot of overlap between hubs.  If Detroit and Cincinnati competed before, imagine the hub competition – and redundant flying – with Chicago thrown into the mix.  Nonetheless, just on sheer size alone, I think an American-Delta combination would  prove hard for U.S. regulators to grasp and approve. Delta would also have a difficult task of selling such a merger to an already skeptical European Union.

Fort Worth-based TPG, on the other hand, likes to work with strategic partners according to the Journal.  TPG has strong ties to the current management team at US Airways.  Richard Schifter, TPG partner, served on US Airways Board of Directors.  Schifter is currently a director at Republic Holdings.  Schifter and another TPG partner, David Bonderman, have extensive ties to the airline industry stretching from Continental to Ryanair.  No one should be surprised a private equity concern like TPG Capital might have an interest in a restructured AMR.  For TPG, the strategic partnership possibilities are many and include US Airways, British Airways or any oneworld partner that fears the loss of its only meaningful access to the traffic rich U.S. market.

This Wall Street Journal story highlights something I think is very important; AMR is attractive to strategic buyers as well as a financial buyer like private equity.  Today, the list of names publicly discussed as interested in AMR is three.  That list will grow over the coming months. 

It is also highly likely that this story was leaked by a party to mask something else.  We will see. It is important to remember potential bidders will likely wait a few months until a lot of difficult decisions regarding network and fleet are largely complete. They’ll wait until contentious negotiations with labor are complete – probably including layoffs -  as any new owner will not want to get their fingernails dirty in that process. Potential bidders will also likely wait to see how creditors are treated in a debtor negotiated exit plan.

A question remains however:  will any bid attempt by a strategic or a financial buyer for AMR be friendly or hostile?  US Airways tried an unsuccessful hostile run for Delta. There are a myriad of possibilities here and all that is guaranteed is the debtor has the exclusive right to file a plan of reorganization until the court says otherwise.  That plan may include an offer from a strategic or a financial interest, but at this point, it is all conjecture providing an opportunity to opine.  That said the news reported yesterday officially begins AMR’s journey through bankruptcy.

LAN/TAM

If there is an airline company built with more innovation and creativity than LAN, then someone give me a call and let me know who it is.  Or was it just being in the right place at the right time?  Either way, LAN Airlines has quietly grown into one of the global elite carriers and has earnings and a market capitalization to match.

LAN is an airline I rarely mention, but have a deep admiration for.   Based in Santiago, Chile, LAN’s strategy of taking equity stakes and, in effect, becoming a surrogate flag carrier for a country in an economically struggling region where other airlines have failed, has been brilliant. The strategy has allowed the former Lan Chile to diversify its traffic base away from Chile-only and grow to become the de facto flag-carrier for other countries on the continent. LAN’s ability to take advantage of non-Chilean country bilaterals has produced growth opportunities where a reliance on Chile-only would have only led to diminishing returns.

The carrier began as Línea Aeropostal Santiago-Arica in 1929 before becoming Línea Aérea Nacional de Chile (Lan Chile) in 1932. The Chilean government privatized Línea Aérea Nacional de Chile in 1989, and the carrier absorbed Chile’s second carrier, Ladeco, in 1995. Today, the LAN umbrella covers LAN Chile; LAN Peru; LAN Dominicana; LAN Ecuador; LAN Argentina; LAN Cargo; and LAN Express, among others. Some said LAN refers to Latin American Network. Any way you cut it, LAN is a brand!

LAN was just given authority to complete its merger with Brazilian-based TAM and the combined entity will be LATAM.  To become a true South American airline powerhouse, LAN absolutely needed a significant stake in Brazil, which it now has.

One of the merger problems is each carrier is currently a member of a competing alliance.  LAN is a member of oneworld and TAM is a member of STAR.  If Brazil was essential for LAN, imagine just how important the emerging market is to each of the global alliances.  This story might take on the characteristics of the fight for JAL between SkyTeam and oneworld.  South America is yet another critical geographic area where oneworld is under attack.

American Eagle

Two months ago, most industry watchers were scratching their heads about the investment reasoning for American Eagle as parent AMR intended to spin it off.  High unit costs largely stemming from a very senior workforce, along with a fleet that was built around an archaic scope clause at mainline American Airlines, defined the carrier.  I am confident virtually every carrier comprising the regional industry had little to no fear that Eagle was going to steal any potential business. 

Now with bankruptcy and the freedoms to cut costs, American Eagle may look very different coming out of court-assisted restructuring.  Fleet alignment is sure to occur, and is happening, with any and all 37 and 44-seat aircraft immediately being taken out of service.  Certainly there are numerous out-of-market leases on aircraft controlled by the parent that can be reduced.  In fact, we may see a new market rate established for a 50-seat aircraft that takes into account a $120 per barrel jet fuel environment.  Labor rates and rules are sure to be reduced.  If the ground handling services Eagle offers were the crown jewel pre-bankruptcy, just imagine how much more attractive Eagle’s rates to other carriers will become after the restructuring.

Don’t let the point regarding a new ownership market rate that takes into account the high cost of jet fuel get lost.  While Eagle might be successful, it is likely that Pinnacle will not.  This factor is potentially significant.  If a new rate can be found through the bankruptcy process along with reduced labor rates, suddenly for American, a number of small markets served could be removed from the chopping block and remain a part of the reorganized American network.   

Whatever the size of Eagle when it emerges, it is going to be much leaner than the majority of its competitors.  My guess is SkyWest, Pinnacle, ExpressJet and others are watching this restructuring with bated breath because a new market rate for 50-seat flying, and other flying for that matter, will present itself in the coming months.  And a new competitor for future regional flying will emerge.

American Pilot Scope and Pilot Negotiations at United-Continental

As American and its pilots union attempted to negotiate a new agreement up until the time the company filed for bankruptcy protection, certain aspects of what was being discussed were leaking into the mainstream media.  The game changer being discussed was the new A319 fleet would be flown at rates and rules much lower to reflect the difficult economics of the domestic business and appropriately reflect the market/aircraft size. 

If this is indeed the road American travels down in its Section 1113 negotiations, there are significant and immediate ramifications for the negotiations taking place between United-Continental and its pilots.  As the UA-CO pilots spend more time taking on the company using safety as a hot-button, a new baseline is about to be established as to how pilots work and get paid.  If the UA-CO are hung up on nothing more than 50 seats, then I ask:  what about 115 seats? 

The United-Continental pilots’ strategy to exert a leverage point blew up in their face on November 29, 2011.  Where AA is going is in the right direction as it accomplishes multiple things that will benefit their business:  1) it is better able to match costs with the domestic revenue environment; and 2) it puts an end to the pilot scope discussion.  Regional partners will not be doing any 100 seat flying because, in this seat range, mainline pilots have a better ability to match the cost of flying done by the regionals.

Whether United-Continental pilots either figure it out (or not), the focus then shifts to Delta where scope is already a hot button issue.  In 2013, US Airways pilots are absolutely going to be forced to consider something similar to what the AA pilots are likely to agree to. 

Then you just have to wonder what Gary Kelly is really thinking.  The tables just may be turning.

Tuesday
Jan032012

How the Weeks Ahead Will Shape AMR In The Years To Come

The biggest story in the U.S. airline industry right now is, of course, American Airlines’ parent company seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. After a flurry of initial filings and some alterations at American Eagle, there hasn’t been a lot of movement from AMR.

The lack of news from it or the bankruptcy court probably has a lot of people - union leaders, media, employees, communities – wondering what is taking so long. That’s the first key to understanding this airline bankruptcy is different and why other airlines such as United, Delta and Southwest as well as the federal government and even regional carriers are keenly watching and waiting.

Unlike all the other airlines that have gone through Chapter 11, American doesn’t have a Debtor In Possession (DIP) lender breathing down its neck. That’s because the AMR board of directors made a strategic decision to file for bankruptcy with more than $4 billion in cash in the bank. That’s more cash than any airline that’s ever entered bankruptcy has had on hand and one of the highest totals in U.S. corporate history.

That gives AMR and American some flexibility to run its business during the initial period of exclusivity, protect its interests and, most importantly, time to ensure that its ultimate plan of reorganization (POR) is the very best it can be. While time is still of the essence to put forth a POR, it gives the debtor (AMR), time to look carefully at its network (mainline and regional partner), its labor contracts, its fleet and then make unhurried and potentially dramatic changes.

When United filed in December 2002, the DIP lenders and creditors demanded interim labor deals within 30 days, some even hammered out on Christmas Day. Delta and the Old US Airways faced similar pressures. As much as is possible in the bankruptcy process, American controls its own fate. It needs to use the time it has to get this right and make sure its labor costs and operations are where they need to be when it emerges. If it doesn’t, I don’t believe American in its current form gets a second chance.

A quick aside: This is usually when AA employees harrumph they gave millions in concessions to management in 2003 and that should balance what other airlines gained in bankruptcy court. I have the greatest respect for what American’s unionized employees tried to do back then, but it was apparent by 2006 those concessions weren’t enough. United, US Airways and Delta’s labor cost competitive advantage continues to pound American. The Airline Data Project (ADP) numbers show American’s employees get paid more, work less and have a range of benefits that are distant memories for peers at other airlines. That’s not an accusation; it’s simply the way the industry restructuring unfolded.

It’s also why all the other airlines, including venerated low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines, are nervously waiting to see what American looks like when it emerges from restructuring.  Following AMR’s Chapter 11 filing, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly posted an open letter to employees saying American, and the other major carries that went bankrupt, did so because of “high costs” and that “Great Customer Service cannot overcome high costs.”

I view Kelly’s letter as an important glimpse into what became American’s inevitable bankruptcy filing and what it means for the rest of the industry.

Kelly said he expected American to become leaner and warned, “If they do emerge from bankruptcy, as I believe they will, they will join the New United, New Delta, and New US Airways as giant, lower-cost airlines. They are, collectively, much more formidable competition than their predecessors. The term “Legacy Carrier” no longer will apply.”

In what had to be a stunning admission to most Southwest employees, Kelly also said, “We currently do not have a sufficient cost advantage to stimulate the market because our fares are much closer to our New Airline competitors.”  In effect, this is what I’ve been saying for years: the “Southwest Effect” is dying, if not dead.

If that’s the feeling in the executive suite at the most consistently profitable airline in aviation history, then I can only imagine how raw nerves must be at Delta, United and US Airways.

American’s filing is the airline industry’s version of “Freaky Friday” with role reversals that have long-term implications. Delta’s pilots are next up in negotiations and, like American did for the last several years, management will essentially be negotiating against itself. Remember, it was just within the last year plus that a significant number of Delta’s pilots began earning more than their colleagues at American… and that was with an infinitely more flexible scope clause that permits the higher pay at the mainline. Delta will be left negotiating improvements to the highest cost pilot contract in the industry knowing American will attempt to emerge from Chapter 11 with significantly improved scope and much lower costs. That’s essentially what American faced from Delta in 2007.

The recent NMB rulings upholding election results afford Delta only a temporary reprieve from unionization efforts. I can all but guarantee Delta will face additional organization campaigns, forcing it to, once again, spend millions to counter labor representation drives with no assurance it won’t be saddled with costly union contracts.

At the new United, the world’s largest airline might be facing world-class headaches. Integrating Continental pilots into the system is already shaping up to be a long, contentious fight, especially as many of Continental crew currently enjoy better pay rates than United peers. Continental flight attendants make considerably more per hour than their United counterparts. Those facts should not only make United’s future negotiations lively, but also mean it will likely have higher costs than a correctly restructured American.

It’s not just big brother that will garner all the scrutiny either. Eagle has already shed leases and announced potential layoffs. When AMR exits restructuring, the once-for-sale Eagle could look completely different and potentially pose real competition to SkyWest, Republic and the apparently spiraling-toward-Chapter-11 itself, Pinnacle Airlines. With American’s fleet purchase plans and a revamped Eagle, momentous change is potentially in the offing for regional airlines as well. I’ll have more on that at a later date.

As I outlined in my last post, American’s payroll is proportionately out of whack compared to its major competitors. A quick glance at the ADP numbers shows every carrier that’s gone into bankruptcy since 2002 has seen a double-digit reduction in workforce within one year of filing. That doesn’t include the nearly 25,000 jobs Delta shed in the four years prior to going into bankruptcy. Those statistics are small comfort to the employees at American who will likely lose jobs, but there is no disguising the pain this type of necessary transformation causes.

Layoffs will get the bulk of the media and general public’s attention, obscuring changes – scope, productivity, benefits – that will have more far-reaching effects. An American that comes out of Chapter 11 with significant changes in those areas potentially sends tsunami-sized ripples through the industry – particularly the flying within the U.S. domestic industry.

Yet the federal government, industry observers and, likely, the media, will spend considerably more time and hand-wringing on another hot button issue: pensions.

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) Director Josh Gotbaum has been very vocal about what he thinks AMR should do with its industry-leading pension plans. In short, he doesn’t want them to become PBGC’s problem. Gotbaum is also very quick to point out the additional burden AMR’s pensions could add to the $26 billion deficit the PBGC currently faces.

A couple of things strike me about the pension issue. Gotbaum has questioned American’s commitment to employees, which I find a bit wrongheaded since the airline spent eight years in a good faith effort to keep its pension obligations off the PBGC rolls. 

Gotbaum said American Airlines employees could lose one billion dollars in pension benefits if the airline terminates plans. That’s a bit misleading as all of the carrier’s employee pension plans are not created equally.

Like employees at the other bankrupt airlines, the majority of employees at American will most probably get their pension benefits in full. In 2012, the maximum PBGC payout is going to be more than $55,000 for those who retire at age 65. That’s more currently than the average American ground worker and flight attendant makes. The pensions really at risk will be those of the people who can most afford it – management and pilots. The bottom line is if American terminates its plans, the PBGC will do what it was designed to do: protect the investments of the working class.

AMR’s bankruptcy process will likely dominate the airline industry’s financial and economic headlines in 2012. What happens in the next few weeks and months as the new American (and Eagle) takes shape, though, will be felt by employees, competitors and taxpayers for years to come.

More to come.

 

Friday
Dec162011

If History Is A Lesson – American’s Labor Cuts Will Be Large

 

There is much anticipation regarding when American will file its petitions for labor relief under Sections 1113 and 1114 of the US Bankruptcy Code.  The clock is ticking in terms of the airline’s ability to get its network and costs in line generally and its labor costs specifically.  This needs to be done without undue rancor and in time to implement a workable plan. 

Further, the bankruptcy road has many unknown twists and turns as experienced by US Airways (not one filing but two), United (a three year stay and multiple approaches for concessions from labor) and Delta (an unsolicited offer to buy the company from US Airways).  American will face surprises along the way as well.

Let’s consider some facts.   Today United/Continental fly 39 percent more ASMs than American, yet its payroll is only 17 percent higher.  Delta flies 27 percent more ASMs than American, yet its payroll is only 7 percent higher.  US Airways is 53 percent smaller than American in terms of ASMs but its payroll is nearly 1/3 the size of American’s.  Any way you consider it, American pays significantly more for labor to fly its schedule than its network carrier peers.

I concluded a recent blog noting that American’s problems are bigger than any check labor could write outside of bankruptcy, but that employees will pay a much higher cost inside bankruptcy.   And that’s a painful situation that might have been avoided if all of the employee groups had the will and found a way to negotiate cost savings the airline requires to survive and prosper.

As APA President Dave Bates told The Wall Street Journal, "Sometimes in life it's easier to have something imposed upon a person than have them agree to it voluntarily." 

UNITED

The same story played out at United in 2002 and, sure enough, the toll on employees was much higher in bankruptcy than what the company originally sought in direct negotiations. Early that year, the company proposed a package of concessions totaling $9 billion over six years – or $1.5 billion per year.  The unions went back and forth for months and ultimately proposed a give of $5.8 billion over 5.5 years as a package they said employees could live with.  But as with the American negotiations, deadlines kept slipping as the unions sought more time to ratify the agreements. 

United, losing millions of dollars a day at a time the carrier was trying desperately to win a loan guarantee from the Air Transportation Stabilization Board (ATSB).  As it was, the ATSB was about the only potential source of capital then available to a company hemorrhaging cash and seemingly unable to control its labor and other costs.

As the clock ticked, the unions finally agreed to the $5.8 billion package, only to have the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) vote the deal down.  With the ATSB loan imperiled as a result, United filed for court protection 11 days later, on December 9, 2002.

US AIRWAYS

Four months earlier, inside of court protection, US Airways in its first filing asked for $950 million in labor relief per year on a total labor bill of $4 billion.  This was US Airways’ first bite at the labor apple as the company quickly emerged from bankruptcy number one and filed again in 2004 where a subsequent $800 million in concessions were granted.  By the time US Airways emerged from its second bankruptcy and was being merged with America West, the company was half its size in terms of employees and its payroll was 58 percent smaller.

DELTA

On September 14, 2005 Delta Air Lines filed for bankruptcy reorganization.  In the year before Delta’s filing, its payroll was $5.8 billion and it employed nearly 58,000 employees (down from 71,000 in 2000).  Through the bankruptcy stay, Delta shed nearly $2 billion in payroll and reduced the number of employees by an additional 11,000.

WHAT IS THE LESSON FOR AMERICAN?

First, the bankruptcy court proved to be a more effective means to achieving the cost savings than any airline is able to accomplish through traditional collective bargaining.  Remember, United asked for $1.5 billion per year from its labor groups prior to bankruptcy and the unions would agree to about two-thirds of that. Under Section 1113, United asked for, and received, $2.4 billion dollars of an annual labor cost savings over 6 years – for a total of $14 billion in concessions.  And this would only be United’s first of three bites at the labor apple.

The second bite occurred in early 2004 when United filed for relief from paying contractual retiree medical benefits under Section 1114 of the US Bankruptcy Code.  The third bite came in late 2004, with fuel prices beginning their march to $147 per barrel and clear recognition that the company had not cut enough while in bankruptcy, United went back and asked for an additional $725 million per year that would include the employees’ defined benefit pension plans.  These two additional bites at the labor apple cause American to stand out as having benefit packages significantly more rich than the industry and productivity constraints dictated by terms in the existing collective bargaining agreements more onerous.

According to the MIT Airline Data Project, if American’s contract with its pilots union allowed it to match the productivity of Continental’s pilot workforce, American would need 800 fewer pilots to fly its current schedule.  That amounts to $400 million in costs mostly attributable to a labor contract that puts artificially low limits on the amount to hours an American pilot can fly.

If American were to achieve the same flight attendant productivity as Delta, it would require 1,500 fewer flight attendants than it now carries to fly the schedule.

And had American relied even partly as much on outsourcing as does every one of its competitors, American’s maintenance operation, represented by the TWU, would be a fraction of its current size. American today outsources only 24 percent of its maintenance and related work, compared to an average of 40 percent outsourcing among all other carriers.  When United began its restructuring, it outsourced 17% of its maintenance.  By 2007, that had grown to 46 percent.  So it’s not unreasonable to expect something similar when all is said and done in American’s trip through the restructuring process, particularly as its maintenance-heavy Super 80 fleet is retired.

According to AMR, American’s labor cost disadvantage versus the industry now tops $800 million a year.  One of the he main questions outstanding is where the airline cuts, resizes and reconfigures its network to get to a place that it can compete and earn sustained profits.

That plan could, and probably should, contemplate significant outsourcing in the aircraft and traffic servicing department, particularly “under the wing” work in small stations with limited flight activity.

And as the airline rethinks its overall fleet and flight schedule under the watchful eye of its creditors, every position from the flight crews to ground workers to airport agents will be examined to determine how many employees will be necessary to support a resized operation.

How much power do the unions have to “protect” these jobs? If history is any guide, very little. Ultimately, the bankruptcy court will determine the viability of the company’s operating plan based on its ability to balance costs and revenues and return a profit. And if that means fewer jobs, then that’s the reality the court will consider.

This is an admittedly harsh portrait, particularly in light of the $1.8 billion in concessions granted in 2003 by American’s unions – alongside another $2+ billion in non-labor cost reductions that affected employees across the company. 

I have no direct knowledge of what American will ultimately ask of its employees or the other elements of its restructuring plan. But I don’t believe the ask will be light, or easy, and that is more a factor of the economics of the industry and the competitive marketplace than anything American could have done through other means.

 

Tuesday
Jun072011

In The Airline Business We Just Do Not Talk About Balance Sheets Enough

In the Gulf States, we have Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker saying to Gulf Business Nothing Can Stop Us Now.  In the article Al Baker talks about the high cost and inefficient airlines in the west.  In the U.K., a headline in The Independent reads:  More Carriers Could Fold Warns IAG’s Willie Walsh.  Bruce Smith, writing for the Indianapolis Star publishes a story on hometown Republic Holdings titled:  Republic Emphasizes Cost Cuts As It Fights To Compete.  Like a lot of airlines these days, Republic’s branded carriers – otherwise known as Frontier and Midwest  – are not only fighting to compete, they’re fighting to simply stay alive.

It’s easy to forget Republic now flies its own airline flag. Prior to purchasing Frontier and Midwest out of bankruptcy, Republic Holdings’ predominately did fee-for-departure flying for U.S. network carriers.  In October 2008, I asked:  Just Who Will Inherit the U.S. Domestic Market? Don’t Forget Today’s “Regional Carriers”.  Nearly two years ago, after Republic staved off Southwest from sponsoring Frontier’s exit from bankruptcy, I asked,  Is Republic Changing the Face of the US Domestic Market?   

In each of the Swelblog.com articles referenced above, I talked about how smart Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Holdings (RJET) is.   Bedford made the move to acquire Frontier and Midwest in an environment where it was increasingly clear the legacy carriers did not – and cannot over the long-term – operate under a cost structure that will not support the number of airlines trying to survive in the hypercompetitive U.S. domestic airline business.  Since then, consolidation among U.S. carriers has taken off – for network, low cost and regional airlines alike.

Smart or not, the price of jet fuel puts pressure on Bedford’s balance sheet more so than other carriers given Republic’s incipient fragility.  I have written time and again the most important financial statement for any airline today is its balance sheet.  As Republic Holdings trades near a 52 week low, many analysts are jumping off the RJET bandwagon.

Mike Linenberg, equity analyst at Deutsche Bank, wrote following Republic’s first quarter results, “Republic ended the March quarter with $467 million in total cash, $37 million higher than at the end of the December quarter. While the company’s restricted cash balance increased $87 million to $226 million, driven by the seasonality of its Frontier business, unrestricted cash declined $50 million to $241 million, impacted by the company’s relatively high credit card holdback provision of 95%. Regarding additional sources of cash, Republic indicated that it had some collateral-backed debt that could be refinanced to produce an additional $70- $80 million of net cash to the company.”

In the airline business, cash is king and fuel is the wildcard. With its fee-for-departure contracts, Republic left the fuel risk to its mainline partners.   (Of course the price of fuel affects the decision of the mainline carrier as to whether to buy regional capacity).  Now Bedford has to buy fuel for his Frontier and Midwest subsidiaries… that helps to explain why RJET’s unrestricted cash declined by some $50 million.

Why I was bullish on the Republic – Frontier combination in the early days was because the Indianapolis based holding company had bought a brand, one that came with a vibrant flying community – Denver.  With a community comes inherent demand.  With demand comes revenue.  But Last month, Ann Schrader of the Denver Post reported Southwest had jumped over Frontier in terms of market share at DIA.    

Republic announced the acquisition of Frontier on June 22, 2009.  On that date, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil was $64.58 and the price of a gallon of jet fuel was $1.78.  In 2011, WTI has traded in excess of $100 per barrel and one gallon of jet fuel tops $3.  It is one thing to be in the regional business when the cost of fuel doesn’t directly affect you. It’s another when you actually have to pay for the gas.

Southwest

On the flip side, I think that Southwest’s purchase of AirTran is brilliant.  In many catchment areas around the contiguous 48 states most populated and wealthy areas, the combined carrier has at least two beachheads.  While I still don’t believe Southwest, jetBlue, Frontier and Spirit will inherit the domestic U.S. marketplace; I am increasingly convinced the not-so-meek Southwest will inherit more earth than any of the others.  The U.S. domestic market has always been about the survival of the fittest. 

Might we be headed for another round where Southwest captures five points of domestic market share?  Possibly. What’s different this time versus the 2001 – 2006 period when Southwest and the other LCCs captured nearly 20 points of domestic market share is the airlines losing ground won’t be the network carriers.  More will come from weak competitors – like Frontier, Midwest and Spirit. .  There should be little surprise that Spirit sold a fraction of its intended shares at 25 percent less than desired price in its Initial Public Offering (IPO). 

Frontier is quickly losing pricing power in the very place it called home.  Presumably the value in the Frontier franchise was its cult following in the Denver local market. Without a meaningful, and growing, share of the local market, pricing power is compromised.  No pricing power in a high jet fuel cost environment does little to bolster a fragile balance sheet.  Southwest has the time and the financial wherewithal to whittle Frontier's following and, thus, its franchise value.

Southwest isn’t Frontier’s (and Bedford’s) only headache. United has a presence in Denver as well, one that’s not necessarily focused on local traffic. That makes Denver somewhat different than other cities where three carriers have tried to hub.  My guess is something is going to give in Denver because, at some point, the law of diminishing returns is sure to play out for any one of the three competitors.  And I’ll bet on Southwest’s balance sheet winning the war.

Southwest is an opportunistic competitor.  I expect Southwest to fill any voids left by either Frontier or United in Denver.  Where United or Frontier might be vulnerable, Southwest will likely exploit that weakness by adding capacity.  It can be patient because Southwest has a balance sheet that is far stronger than either of its two Denver competitors.  Frontier is, by far, the weakest. The high cost of fuel is its immediate enemy and Frontier has fewer options than either Southwest or United.

Labor - It Really Is About The Balance Sheet

The one thing that the pre-Frontier/Midwest Republic did not have to worry about was earnings as long as it delivered the product promised to the mainline carriers.  Today, the branded operation is suffering losses and is forecast to lose money going forward while most major players are going to make money.  As Linenberg’s analysis suggests, Frontier needs to generate cash internally because it has limited borrowing capability.

The strong get stronger.  The weak get weaker.  Survival of the fittest at its most emblematic. As Bryan Bedford told his shareholders – and the world - he needed to find $100 million in cost savings, his pilots protested outside.  No earnings and a weak balance sheet usually do not equal wage increases. It’s not about whether pilots deserve increases – that’s not what I’m talking about.  Balance sheet repair is not sexy.  Balance sheet repair does not add to earnings.  Balance sheet repair does not produce wage increases and work rule changes that resemble 2001.

What balance sheet repair does is keep airlines flying. If struggling carriers don’t find ways to fix their sheets, they won’t be around. I don’t mean they’ll file Chapter 11 and hope to reorganize or sell themselves off at the last minute. I mean they will cease to exist. Their one-time employees will be out of work, their assets will be auctioned off. No one is going to pump capital into an airline whose balance sheet is out of whack, whether that’s because of fuel, diminished market share or labor costs.  

It really is why pattern bargaining should be a thing of the past.  Every airline is different.  Every airline competes in different geographies, with different goals and has labor needs that other carriers don’t. 

The more I think about it, US Airways pilots – and whichever union/group is currently representing them - are really doing the company a favor by not coming to grips with reality.  US Airways is more exposed in the U.S. domestic market than any other network carrier.  The U.S. domestic market is a low-fare environment and requires lower labor costs than, say, a United or a Delta that have more capacity in international markets.  The same holds true for flight attendants and below-the-wing personnel. More to come on this one.

I see employees picketing and I scratch my head.  This industry lost nearly one in every four jobs during the past decade, yet still has more than 350,000 employees with wage and benefit packages in excess of $85,000.  This is an industry of good paying jobs despite the economic environment it operates in. Yet many labor groups refuse to recognize the need for balance sheet repair… and that labor costs have to be part of the fix. You can’t just tweak revenue or fuel costs or charge more for a ticket. Shoring the balance sheet requires a holistic approach.

Without that type of approach, as Willie Walsh recently said, more airlines will fold.  I’ll even venture more could merge. Frontier is a classic example of why this industry is not out of the woods.  And why even the network carriers are not done.  And why the regional carriers are not done.  Isn’t it interesting that Sean Menke, the former head of Frontier just joined Pinnacle Airlines – a truly regional carrier at this point in the industry lifecycle?  What does he know that the rest of us do not?  Me thinks that the domestic market will also be made up of today’s regional carriers; today’s low cost carriers and of course; today’s network carriers as Jeff Smisek, CEO at the new United said, "A domestic operation sized solely to feed our international traffic".  It will be different no matter what pilot scope clauses suggest.

Thursday
Dec162010

Will Restrictive Foreign Ownership Finally Lose Its Virginity?

Sky News Online reported that Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines is assessing various merger and/or tie up proposals.  While there is no formal process underway, US carrier Delta Air Lines is rumored to be among the interested.  Sky News City editor Mark Kleinman has learned that “Delta's interest, while at an early stage, may have gone as far as recruiting investment bank Goldman Sachs to advise it.”

Just last week, I was addressing the ACI-NA International Aviation Issues Seminar on the very topic – that we should expect to see a serious push, and hopefully a meaningful discussion among stakeholders, to consider changes to the archaic restriction that limits foreign ownership of airlines.  Whether or not this Virgin – Delta story has merit, I am confident that it will not be the last headline we read regarding tie-ups of airlines with different nationalities in the coming years.  The motivations for mergers or tie ups with various airlines will vary depending on strengths and weaknesses of the carriers involved.

The financial case for this merger activity is quite compelling.  In my presentation, Emerging Markets and Evolving Models: Challenging the Industry’s Structure, I questioned whether the alliance structure is the best operating model to compete with the emerging airline models in Latin America, the Middle East or China.

Some Numbers for Context

Consider earnings.  In 2010 the global airline industry is expected to report a $15 billion profit.  While impressive in absolute terms it represents net earnings of 2.7 pennies for each one dollar in revenue.  This is paltry when compared to other businesses that earn on the order of 6-7 cents and more for each dollar of revenue.  Even with a slow recovery underway, profits for the industry are forecast to decline by 40 percent in 2011, which means that industry earnings are forecast to fall to 1.5 cents for every dollar of revenue generated.  Surely 2010 is not as good as it gets? 

Such slim profits cannot support the 1,500 or so airlines out there for long.  The industry simply needs to be able to consolidate shares of a disparate and a highly fragmented global structure just as steel and autos and shippers have done.  Those industries would certainly not be happy earning 2.7 cents on the dollar if that was as good as it gets.

It is not the mature economies that are expected to grow at high rates, but rather the emerging economies in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.  Moreover, it is the emerging airline models serving these regions that are certain to pose serious threats to iconic names like Lufthansa, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, Air Canada, British Airways/Iberia and the alliances of which they are members. 

Just as there is consolidation activity within the US and European airline industries primarily, traffic is consolidating around and among the largest metropolitan centers on the global map.  Competition for this traffic is already vigorous.  Strong brands and strong balance sheets will be required to mine this traffic.  Can alliances be brands?  I think not given the large numbers of airlines that make up these alliances.

According to Airbus, Asian demand is highly concentrated around 11 points on the map:  Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lampur, Singapore and Jakarta, with nearly half of the demand in the Asian-Pacific market traveling between these cities and 91 percent flying to and from these cities.  Given the rapid growth of the low cost carriers in Asia and the Middle East carriers targeting traffic from each of these points, it is clear that individual carriers cannot possibly compete with the emerging low cost juggernauts. So the next question becomes whether the alliances as they now stand could do so either?

Just as capturing and retaining connecting traffic is driving consolidation activity in Europe, flow traffic is the necessary ingredient in making the Middle East airline model work.  The geographic advantage to the Middle East carriers to compete aggressively for global flows is staggering.  Within 2,500 nautical miles of the region lives 36 percent of the world’s population and 16 percent of the world’s GDP.  Within 4,500 nautical miles lives 86 percent of the world’s population and 63 percent of the world’s GDP.  Move the distance to 8,000 nautical miles – the distance where new aircraft technology can and will fly – and the world is virtually captured on a one-stop basis.  North American and European carriers cannot make the same claim.

Today, Emirates’ route map alone covers Asia, Europe, China, the Middle East, the commodity-rich African continent and Commonwealth of Independent States. Ethiad and Qatar serve many of the same points as well.  Will the Middle East airline models under construction be the catalyst for the first global airline merger?

A Financial Case for Global Mergers

Why can industries that serve the airline industry consolidate – often across borders – and the airlines cannot? 

  1. Air Traffic Control:  One per country
  2. Aircraft Manufacturers:  Two to four providers with 95+ percent market share
  3. Aircraft Leasing Companies:  Two providers with 45 percent market share
  4. Global Airline Industry:  More than 1,500 providers.  Top 10 have less than 40 percent market share
  5. Ground Handling:  Less than three providers at deregulated airports
  6. Catering:  Top two providers have 40 percent market share
  7. Airports:  Arguably are natural monopolies
  8. Maintenance Repair Organizations:  Top five companies have 50 percent market share
  9. Global Distribution Systems:  Top three providers have 85 percent market share

The global airline industry’s response to limited foreign ownership has been to create more and more elaborate relationships with partner airlines.  In the "Alliance Phase", we have gone from interline agreements to special prorate agreements to sales incentive agreements to codeshare and blocked seat arrangements to the free sale of code sharing.  Today the industry has evolved into an "immunized joint venture phase" either sharing profits or revenue.  Assessing the level of synergies that can be realized by either a JV or an outright merger, a joint venture only captures 50 percent of the financial potential.

Alliance relationships capture more than two-thirds of the revenue potential from new domestic and intercontinental origin and destination traffic.  The alliance JV’s capture nearly 70 percent of the benefits to be derived from the frequent flyer plan.  But the JV mines very little in terms of cost synergies, arguably deriving only 20 percent.  In addition a merger would permit a full network redesign that would benefit both the revenue and the cost sides of the equation.

While it is true that the size of the three alliances is increasing, the top five carriers in each alliance drive the strong majority of the synergy benefits.  The four immunized JV STAR alliance carriers generate 75 percent of the traffic share across the North Atlantic; the immunized JV carriers in SkyTeam garner more than 85 percent of the North Atlantic traffic; and the immunized JV carriers in oneworld are expected to carry nearly 100 percent of that alliance’s traffic.

Branson Has Reason to Explore His Options

The North Atlantic market is now hyper competitive as all three alliances have anti-trust immunity.  And while Virgin Atlantic is unaligned at this point, I can make a case that Virgin Atlantic’s value increased after AA and BA were granted the ability to form an immunized transatlantic joint business agreement.  Why?  Just like there has been a mad scramble among the three alliances to bolster their respective competitive positions at New York and Tokyo, London cannot be ignored given its importance on global airline map.  And Virgin has slots and a meaningful presence at London’s coveted Heathrow airport.

When you think about it, oneworld is in no position to increase its share of slots at LHR without inciting the envy of its rivals and the harsh scrutiny of regulators, while STAR has British Midland’s slot holdings through Lufthansa.  That leaves SkyTeam.  Delta has been exhibiting a thirst for new Heathrow flying from Miami and Boston (both important oneworld markets).  Delta has also enhanced service to Heathrow from each of its important gateways at New York, Atlanta and Detroit.  But there is only so much Delta can do on its own at LHR.  And there is only so much SkyTeam can do given its slot portfolio.

SkyTeam does not need a hub at London as it already has two of the finest connecting hubs on the European continent in Amsterdam and Paris Charles deGaulle.  In order to compete fully, airlines need to be able to sell on both sides of the ocean. Assuming that there is a modicum of truth to the Delta-Virgin Atlantic rumor, a Delta play at Heathrow is no different than what has been taking place in New York/Newark and Tokyo over the past year.  London’s importance in each alliance’s portfolio is no different.

Singapore Airlines owns a 49 percent share of Virgin Atlantic.  Singapore and Delta have had a long relationship, with both carriers having a cross 10 percent equity stake in a prior life.  Or, Branson may be feeling like he would like to monetize some of his 51 percent holding given the changed competitive dynamics taking place across the North Atlantic and the new and potential competition coming from the Middle East.  Imagine if he were to sell an equity piece to a Middle East-based airline?

The United States and the European Community still have the ownership issue to negotiate per Phase II of the original US – EU Open Skies Treaty.  The Europeans are interested in expanding the ownership levels while the US wallows in labor and Defense Department concerns.  In the past, the US has played catch up with global metamorphosis.  Now is the time to be proactive, not passive, as competition from the Middle East gains ground.

If:

  • If vendors serving the airline industry are allowed to consolidate into dominant positions with few border restrictions, and . . .
  • If other industries like steel are permitted to consolidate market power around 4 global providers, and . . .
  • If the global airline industry has not one dominant player, and . . .
  • If Joint Ventures only capture 50 percent of potential synergies, and . . .
  • If the five biggest alliance members produce 60 percent of the benefits, and . . .
  • If the new and emerging competition is obvious,

Then....

  • Why should airlines be hamstrung in their ability to maximize financial performance?
  • Why should airlines be forced into Band Aid solutions like alliances when new and emerging competitors are building truly seamless, organic and homogenous products?
  • Why should companies that are, or are certain to be, under attack from new competition be prohibited from joining hands to mount the strongest possible competitive reaction?

A far flung alliance formation has less chance to build a global brand than the new and emerging competition.  Imagine a day when the carriers involved in today’s JV schemes are allowed to invest in one another and use the equity capital to homogenize service offerings.

Imagine a day when decades old protectionist thinking gives way to an understanding that the airline industry is a global industry.  Imagine a day when US flag carriers are able to adapt their business plans to the reality that the business is not domestic but rather how the domestic market interacts with the international market?  

Imagine . . .

Monday
May102010

The NMB Finally Issues Its Representation Rule: What’s Next For The US Airline Industry?

Today, the National Mediation Board issued a new rule governing union organizing that is probably the most controversial thing this government panel has ever done.

So, after sifting through 103 pages of legal citations falsely hoping that the rule as proposed in December would have been changed to address at least some of the opposition’s concerns, I now realize the truth: The NMB has become a political body.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a registered Democrat so this not a rant against all things Obama. But there are places politics shouldn’t figure so heavily and the NMB should be one of them.

The new representation rule comes as Delta and US Airways are suing the government over its proposed solution to the slot swap between the two carriers; and just a week or so since implementation of that visionary tarmac rule.  So yes, I am in a bit of a cynical if not downright snarky mood today.

In the final rule filed in the Federal Register, the National Mediation Board summarized:  “As part of its ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act, the National Mediation Board (NMB or Board) is amending its Railway Labor Act rules to provide that, in representation disputes, a majority of valid ballots cast will determine the craft or class representative. This change to its election procedures will provide a more reliable measure/indicator of employee sentiment in representation disputes and provide employees with clear choices in representation matters.”

In its proposed rule, the NMB is seeking to change the election process by which unions organize workers in the railway and airline industries. The new rule that will change 75 years of practice, would for the first time determine the outcome of union representation elections in the airline and railroad industries based on a majority of those who vote rather than current practice, where a majority of all eligible voters must support joining a union.

It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to read between the lines. The NMB is doing organized labor a big favor with this rule. So it is laughable to me that the Board describes the change as part of its “ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act.”  Funny, because the overarching statutory goal of the RLA is to minimize the disruption on interstate commerce stemming from labor-management disputes.  And this rule would likely do just the opposite, with unintended consequences, by increasing the likelihood of union activities that could yet be another destabilizing force in an industry that needs anything but -- a destabilizer that comes just as the industry tries to consolidate in order to stabilize.

The first 81 pages of the document were a little dry.  But starting on page 81 the dissenting opinion of NMB Chairman (and sole Republican member) Elizabeth Dougherty began: “I dissent from the rule published today for the following reasons: (1) the timing and process surrounding this rule change harm the agency and suggest the issue has been prejudged; (2) the Majority has not articulated a rational basis for its action; (3) the Majority’s failure to amend its decertification and run-off procedures in light of its voting rule change reveals a bias in favor of representation and is fundamentally unfair; and (4) the Majority’s inclusion of a write-in option on the yes/no ballot was not contemplated by the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and violates the notice-and-comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).”

Ouch.  But no matter. The Final Rule will become effective on June 10, 2010, unless opponents use the courts to stop it.

Let the Lawsuit Begin

The industry, speaking from the Air Transport Association platform said:  "It is quite clear to us that the NMB was determined to proceed despite the proposed rule's substantive and procedural flaws, leaving us no choice but to seek judicial review." 

The unions, of course, took a different tack. The AFA-CWA, a big winner here as it seeks for the third time to organize flight attendants at Delta, made clear where it stood on any legal challenge. "We applaud the NMB for taking this historic and courageous step to bring democracy to union elections. By allowing workers to have a voice in these elections, whether it be yes or no [author adds: or by write in], will only bring benefits to all parties. We look to airline management and their third party supporters to respect their employees' voices and the concept that guides our country every day, and not to bog down this significant achievement in legal appeals."

Having now devoted four blog postings to this subject, I may qualify as one of those third party supporters. Not because I’m carrying water for airline management, but because I think this rule stinks just like the tarmac rule and decision by this administration on the slot swap.  The only hope I have with this rule is that the incumbent unions start to be smarter in their negotiation strategies.

Included in a statement by AFA-CWA International President Patricia Friend’s statement lauding the cram down rule is her insistence that job security is a union function.  What is job security in today’s world?  Is it contract language?  Or is it a strong company?  When I think of pilot scope language that is designed and negotiated for the sole purpose of protecting jobs I see 14,000 mainline pilot jobs lost and nearly 800 narrowbody aircraft taken out of service because the economics (largely unproductive labor) could not translate into profitable flying.  But that unproductive labor paid union dues – for awhile.

I have a lot of union experience.  I worked as a local union president.  I have experience as an advisor to labor in distressed negotiations.  I serve in a union-appointed Board of Directors position at Hawaiian Airlines. While I know there is strong flight attendant union leadership at Hawaiian, the same cannot be said around the industry and I note in particular American and United and US Airways.

From what I can see, airline unions are all about yesterday.  Bankruptcy did not fix the labor problems at airlines or the ability of many airlines to manage their costs with still-bloated income statements.  But still the unions want to look back, back when labor costs were even higher and productivity was at an all-time low.  If productivity was given in the restructuring negotiations, union-represented employees would be earning more today.  But I digress.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that unions are all bad.  Good leadership on the union side and a willing management can make deals.  Look at the most unionized carrier in the US industry – Southwest – which thanks in part to a strong relationship with its unions has managed to pay well and do well in the marketplace by building a great corporate culture and making productivity and customer service a priority.

But unenlightened and parochial thinking pervades the leadership ranks of many other airline unions.  The industry will continue to face change and challenges. Unions that adapt and are able to let go of the past will flourish.  Unions that cannot adapt to the new direction of the global airline industry will struggle to deliver for their members. 

And Why Are We Changing This Rule?

It is pretty simple and transparent.  Neither the AFA-CWA nor the IAMAW believes that they have the votes necessary to win an election in their efforts to organize the combined work forces from the merger of Delta and Northwest.  So labor prompted a friendly administration to change the union representation process to help them pick up these coveted new members – particularly on the Delta side where the flight attendants and maintenance workers have never been union.  Imagine how happy those former Delta employees must/will be?

Or, as the union leaders have clearly calculated, if you fail to win hearts and minds at the ballot box (as they have not once but twice) then change the rules. And despite an outcry and outpouring from the industry about the rule as first proposed by the NMB, the Board made no changes to address the concerns expressed by opponents. Instead the rules were relaxed even more to the advantage of unionization. Decrease the barriers to entry (union representation) and leave the barriers to exit high (no direct union decertification procedure).  So off we go to court.

As I have written before, it is not so much the rule change as the way the "politically neutral" NMB went about it.  With the tarmac rule it is the arbitrary nature of the three hours.  With the slot swap deal it is denying the incumbent carriers the right to sell what they invested in over the years and determine an adequate return on that asset.

I understand that most things governmental are heavily political.  But politics have had too much influence over this industry, and not for the benefit of the airlines or the hundreds of thousands of workers they employ.

More to come.

Wednesday
Mar242010

Dear Southwest: Grab Your Bag of Fiction; It’s On

On Tuesday morning a headline in The Washington Post read “Southwest Airlines Feeling Squeezed Out at National Airport”.  Terry Maxon wrote on The Dallas Morning News blog “Delta, US Airways Maneuver Around Southwest Airlines.”  The headline in Business Week read “Delta, US Airways Sweeten NYC-Washington Plan by Boosting Small Rivals.

As I prepared to write this piece, I began by reviewing the various comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) by the air carriers during the comment period set forth following its tentative decision on the proposed Delta Air Lines – US Airways slot swap deal.  When I got to Southwest’s, I thought I was in a time warp.  A time warp whereby many of the same arguments used in Southwest’s fight to repeal the Wright Amendment were being dusted off and employed again.  Another opportune time for poor, little Southwest Airlines to get something on the cheap from the carriers that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their respective infrastructures over the past decades.  But here’s the thing:  Southwest is neither poor nor little.

Background

All of these stories of course pertain to a repackaging of the proposed Delta-US Airways slot swap first announced in August 2009.  In the initial deal made between Delta and US Airways, US Airways would receive 42 slot pairs from Delta Air Lines at Washington’s Reagan National Airport and a route authority to Sao Paulo and Tokyo Narita in exchange for 140 slot pairs at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. 

In February 2010, the DOT tentatively approved the deal between Delta and US Airways. The caveat was each carrier had to sell 14 National and 20 LaGuardia slot pairs to U.S. or Canadian carriers that have less than 5% of the total slot holdings at the respective airports. This stipulation materially impacted the value of the deal, so US Airways and Delta went back to the drawing board.

Late Monday, the two airlines announced a restructured proposal.  Only this time, they included provisions providing slots to competing carriers.  Delta concluded deals with WestJet, AirTran and Spirit to transfer up to five slot pairs each at New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA).  US Airways will transfer up to five slot pairs to JetBlue at Washington Reagan (DCA).  The inclusion of WestJet, AirTran, Spirit and jetBlue certainly satisfies the DOT’s requirement that divested slot pairs be provided to a U.S. or Canadian carrier with less than a 5 percent share.

Let’s Get Some Southwest Non-fiction on the Table

In its submission, Southwest complains that at LGA, "instead of an airport balanced among three airlines of roughly equal size, the slot swap would catapult Delta into a dominant position more than twice the size of the nearest competitor."  But Southwest does not ever mention anything pertaining to its size within the U.S. domestic market. In 2008 there were only 6 airport markets with more domestic origin and destination (O&D) traffic than LGA.  Southwest is the largest carrier in three of those six markets.  At the 48 domestic airports where Southwest is the largest carrier of O&D traffic, it is at least twice the size of the next largest carrier in 27.

At Dallas Love Field, Southwest controls 94.3 percent of O&D traffic and the second largest carrier has 2.2 percent.  At Houston Hobby Airport, Southwest controls 86.2 percent of O&D traffic versus 5.2 for the nearest competitor.  At Chicago Midway, Southwest has 79.1 percent control while the next largest competitor has 8.8 percent.  At Love Field, Houston Hobby and Chicago Midway the average fares rose at those airports 36.2 percent, 21.8 percent and 29.4 percent respectively between 2005 and 2008.  In each of the 48 airport markets where Southwest is the number one competitor, fares on average increased 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2008. 

Southwest would have us all believe that their presence at an airport is the ultimate discipline on fares and they claim it in every regulatory filing and certainly on every advertisement.  Despite what Southwest likes to say, it is not the same Southwest that sprinkled the “Southwest Effect” on markets in 1992. The claims of low fares stimulating new demand just do not hold today - because everyone offers low fares. 

During the period between 2005 and 2008, wasn’t Southwest enjoying the benefits of a fuel hedging program that provided the carrier with a most significant cost advantage relative to an industry that had largely restructured itself?  I assumed that cost advantage benefit garnered from a fortuitous bet on the price of oil was being passed on to the consumer.  Instead Southwest was raising fares.  In their filing they actually go as far as calculate the cost saving their low fares would bring to each the DCA and LGA markets.  The calculation is performed after including a $25 bag fee on top of the fare of the competition. 

Fiction Fatigue

If Southwest wants to gain entry to the few remaining slot controlled airports, then it should make the incumbents an offer – one that provides the slot holder a return on that carrier’s prior investment.  In a 2006 regulatory filing, Delta described how it took 22 years to build its slot portfolio at LGA.  The Buy-Sell Rule is a mechanism in place permitting such purchase.    

The filing states, “In sum, Delta acquired the right to operate most of the 243 LGA slots it currently operates at LGA through market-based transactions.  Delta acquired them through diligent investment in private market transactions, not by regulatory fiat. Delta has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding its service at LGA because Delta valued the right to expand its service at the airport, believing it would be profitable to make such investments.  Delta’s decisions to acquire slots in market-based transactions and develop its landside infrastructure at LaGuardia over three decades have permitted Delta to grow steadily and to offer greatly expanded services there to meet consumer demand.”

Carriers that purchased slots at the controlled airports did so expecting they would earn a commensurate return on their expended capital.  Of course that would mean average fares would more than compensate the cost of operating at those airports.  The average fare at LGA in 1990 was $150; by 2005 the average fare had fallen to $136; and in 2008 that fare was $159.  A similar trend can be found at Washington National, although fares in 2008 were higher.

Southwest Is Not Special

Southwest’s growth has caused/forced the industry to reduce costs in order to match the fare offerings from it and the so-called low-cost carriers it helped spawn.  Today, however, Legacy carriers with iconic names like American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways are also offering low fares to passengers.  Low fares to air travel consumers in smaller communities that the Southwest operating model ignores.  It is these legacy carriers that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars at slot controlled airports. 

If Southwest wants to play, it should have to write the same type of check.  They won’t because the low fare structure at either of these airports will not produce adequate revenue streams to justify the investment.  Instead Southwest somehow believes it is “entitled” to the slots being divested by US Airways and Delta.

Southwest is no longer the only game in town.  It talks about all the money consumers will save as a result of Southwest’s entry into DCA and LGA, subtracting its entry level fares from average fares plus bag fees for the incumbents. Once Southwest is imbedded, there’s a new “Southwest Effect.” As mentioned above, in markets where Southwest is the largest carrier, fares increase the fastest.

Ted Reed at TheStreet.com wrote “Southwest Blasts Revised Slot Deal.”  In his story, Reed quotes Southwest, "Allowing two of the country's largest airlines to collude on trading assets in a way to reduce competition while dramatically increasing their market dominance at two of the United States' most important airports is, on its face, an alarming prospect that should not be permitted."

Who is the largest US domestic airline?  Southwest.

To me the more alarming prospect is allowing Southwest to get something for free – yet again.  Think Wright Amendment and the undoing of a deal because the market had changed and they needed to find a new way to grow.  Simply you have to pay to play, Southwest.  You have the cash.  Make someone an offer they cannot refuse.  The rules to do so are in place.  I have every confidence that neither LGA nor DCA absolutely needs Southwest.  I am confident that JetBlue, AirTran, Spirit and WestJet can do just fine.

It’s On. 

Wednesday
Mar172010

Continental Makes a Most Interesting Proposal to Its Pilots: Delta plus $1

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.  The pattern on this holiday is all things green.  And maybe the luck of the Irish will make this St. Patrick’s Day a lucky one for Continental pilots as the company presented the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) with a new contract proposal. The pattern for collective bargaining in the airline industry is to secure all things deemed as best in class.  As I see it, Continental made an offer to its pilots that actually addresses pattern bargaining.  Not quite sure if I love it, but it is interesting.  Most interesting.  

The two sides have been in discussions for more than two and one-half years.  The amendable date has come and gone, yet the parties have not filed for mediation.  There’s been some movement on the non-economic issues, but little progress has been made on the economic ones. 

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  This week, that’s what much of the talk from American Airlines’ flight attendants centered on as they asked for release from the National Mediation Board.  Several unions at American and United increasingly point to the long periods of time it is taking to reach an agreement. 

In its letter to Capt. Jay Pierce, President of the Continental ALPA Master Executive Council, Continental Airlines addresses how long it might take to negotiate an agreement:  “We have weighed the fact that it has taken ALPA two and a half years to compile and propose an exceptionally complex and comprehensive opening economic proposal that nonetheless still has a number of substantive items open. Despite its complexity, that proposal remains only conceptual, lacking specific contractual language. We have also considered the considerable period of time it would take to negotiate and craft specific contractual language that is fair to the pilots and fair to the Company. Even if we had no significant disagreements over terms of that opening proposal (a highly unlikely circumstance given the excessive increase in costs it contains), negotiating and refining ALPA's current proposal into to a final executable agreement is a task that would clearly take a very long time.”

Given that the Delta pilot agreement had become a template for the Continental pilots in their negotiation of a new agreement, Continental simply said that they would offer their pilots the Delta pilot contract except for a seat on the Board of Directors and by adding $1 to the pay rates included in the Delta Pilot Working Agreement (PWA).  The offering includes the Delta pension and benefits section as well.  This is important – very important – because benefit costs go into the calculation of the cost of an agreement.  We are finally at the point where we talk about the all-in cost – not just hourly rates of pay.

Capt. Pierce responded:  “the proposal is no surprise and much of the bargaining agenda that we have already presented is based on the Delta PWA. Hence, our Negotiating Committee is very familiar with that agreement and has referred to it often. Notwithstanding this fact, any such transition would be a very complex matter and there is much to consider before we commit ourselves to such a process. We will be carefully reviewing the ramifications of this proposal with respect to our bargaining objectives over the coming days. However, while we must proceed with caution and based on a complete understanding of the Delta contract, we are obviously interested in any process by which we can legitimately avoid extended negotiations during which a concession agreement will remain in place.”

Pattern Bargaining

This is the second time this week where I’ve see pattern bargaining embraced by management. First, it was American and how it structured pay increases for flight attendants in the last offer.  Now it is Continental adding $1 to the pay rates included in the Delta pilot agreement.  I hate pattern bargaining.  I think it is counter-productive as no one airline is the same.  Just because Delta negotiates an agreement with rates and working conditions it believes it can afford, that does not mean Continental’s network can afford the same. But this pattern is a little different than pattern bargaining of the past – and deserves a closer look.

Pattern bargaining typically resulted in best-in-class provisions being included in the union’s opening proposal.  It was/is a cherry picking exercise. Whether the unions want to believe it or not, the cherry-picking of agreements also contributes to negotiations taking longer than a party might wish.  Why?  Because each and every collective bargaining agreement has sections that work in tandem with another section.  As one section was made more complex, other sections of the agreement were impacted.  Simply, the interdependencies within a collective bargaining agreement must be analyzed, understanding a change in Section 7 affects Sections 11 and 14 and so on.  It’s a process that has become increasingly complex over the years.  Circular logic can be hard to avoid for you excel users.

What is interesting about Continental’s offer is the idea of a single collective bargaining agreement – one where the interdependencies are understood and identified – avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional pattern bargaining.  What the company points out in its submission letter is the Delta PWA “is a post-merger, post-concessionary pilot agreement at a legacy carrier that is also the world's largest airline, it will likely set the pilot contract standard for years to come.”   

For me, what the company seems to be saying, is if we are going to engage in pattern bargaining, then no more picking what you want from that agreement and from this agreement.  The same agreement produces no need to distinguish between pilot rates of pay; rules governing work; and benefits (to be determined).  Presumably, the work rules when applied across a respective network would yield the same hours of productivity except for structural seniority differences.  Differences in pension plans and retiree health insurance are company specific and therefore may be or may not addressed by this type of a proposal exchange.  Talk about a way to speed the process.

The Delta Nuance

The Delta PWA was negotiated under the watchful eye and focused leadership of Captain Lee Moak.  I have written about Capt. Moak many times. What seems to set Moak apart is an understanding the industry has undergone significant structural change and the Delta agreement needs to embrace that change.  For example, because Delta serves many small and medium-sized markets in the U.S., there are few limits on the use of regional jets 76 seats and smaller.  Continental is the only legacy carrier that does not permit use of regional jets with more than 50 seats.  This line in the sand keeps Continental at a domestic competitive disadvantage relative to the industry.      

Mainline pilot scope has been quite the topic here at www.swelblog.com over the past week.  Some have suggested I drew the line – or heard what they wanted to hear - at 50 seats.  I did not.  To me the line begins with the next generation of small jets that are bigger than the current aircraft platforms doing 76 seat-and-less flying within networks.  The domestic scope issue is but one scope concern at Continental.  The real issue of significance is that Continental cannot implement the joint venture with United, Air Canada and Lufthansa without the relaxation of language contained in the existing Continental pilot agreement.  There is a regulatory deadline to complete aspects of the joint venture and anti-trust immunity agreements.  Scope is not just domestic.

This is where the Continental situation gets a little murky.  Moak understands that the globalization of the airline industry will drive his carrier’s success.  Further, he demonstrated his understanding of such when he negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement for the merged Delta and Northwest pilots.  Moak accomplished something extraordinary in the history of merger negotiations in the U.S. airline industry. 

Ted Reed of TheStreet.com wrote about the Continental situation last month.  Reed wrote and quoted Continental’s pilot leader Jay Pierce, “Among the network carriers, two models exist for pilot relations. Pilots at Continental and Delta have generally enjoyed positive relationships with the carriers. Pierce said he is an admirer of Lee Moak, chairman of the Delta ALPA chapter; the two talk frequently. "We both recognize that our airlines need to be profitable," he said.”

Depending on how you look at it, the Continental pilots are searching for leverage and public pronouncements seem to suggest they have found the leverage in their scope section.  Now the company counters by offering pilots the agreement they have held out as "industry leading".  The difference being the Delta contract negotiated by Moak allows 76 seat-and-less flying and embraces the direction of international joint ventures.  [All sections of an agreement have interdependencies with other parts of the agreement]

In his interview with Ted Reed, Pierce says he recognizes the need for his company to be profitable.  The pilots also say their current proposal would only cost the company $500 million. [Note:  the $500 million is an ALPA cost estimate, and not a company estimate.] When was the last time Continental reported net income in a year of more than $500 million?  But the ask is not just $500 million.  The $500 million would compound in perpetuity.  And that is before contractual improvements are offered to other Continental employees.

Why I Like the Continental Approach 

  • What I like about this offer from Continental is it does some tearing down of the cancerous practice in the airline industry of pattern bargaining. 
  • It challenges both sides to come to terms in a more expedient manner than the current construct produces. 
  • It embraces Delta’s long-time approach to pay commensurately well in return for operational flexibility and productivity. 
  • Most of why I like the approach is that it is different.  As I say too much for some on this blog, the old way just does not work. 

As I wrote in the last piece on pilot scope, my real fear is for management to again overpay for scope.  That makes me nervous this time.

The more I think about it though, I am starting to like it because it addresses the real issue of how long it takes to get a deal done under the Railway Labor Act.  Whereas I have defended the RLA in the past, maybe the time issue does need to be discussed.  But to do that, we would have to limit the number of issues that require mediator expertise?

And another reason I like it -- maybe this will build the stage where the legacy carriers can compete on service and price and not on a labor cost differential?

Friday
Jan222010

Pondering Washington Politics and Dilemmas over Airline Strikes

Things just happen when things move too far too fast.

Wow.  All I could say after Tuesday night’s victory for Scott Brown in Massachusetts was wow.  I am still in a head shaking wow mode as is much of the country.  Then again, this has been one amazing 40 days for the country when it comes to politics.  Much of the political power grabs have been occurring within the health care reform debate arena where the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the unions wringing a “Cadillac Plan” tax exemption out of the White House emerged.   

During these amazing 40 days, the airline industry was not immune from political meddling and arrogance that somehow manage to turn politicians into CEOs and airline route planners either.  Nevada Senator Harry Reid went so far as to write a letter to US Airways CEO Doug Parker expressing concerns about the airline’s decision to significantly downsize operations at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.   Reid’s letter provides a lot of fodder for comment, but there are a few I want to highlight.

Reid writes, “As I am sure you are aware, Nevada has been particularly hard hit by the recession affecting our nation.”  Hey Harry, have you noticed the U.S. airline industry lost nearly $60 billion during the 2K decade.  Or that airlines shed 150,000 jobs because of economic conditions that plague the country and, thus, this industry which is inextricably tied to the health of the economy?  Or that taxes and fees on airlines increased while the revenue environment deteriorated?  Or that you chose to pursue, and fund, a railroad serving a few rather than funding an air traffic control system and equipping an industry now serving the masses?  I suppose not.

Then Reid has the audacity to write, “Because of the commitment you have shown to Nevada, I have been a longtime supporter of your airline.  From the merger with USAir to accessing additional slots on the East Coast, we have worked together to build the airline into one of the premier national carriers.”  Wow, how arrogant is that?  Does that mean if US Airways pulls down Las Vegas, Reid will stand in the way of a commercial arrangement that would make US Airways stronger?  Then again, that line of thinking is more typical than atypical of this Congress and its view of an industry that facilitates commerce.

Politics are the rule of the day even with quasi-government agencies charged with minimizing instability within those very industries. The way the National Mediation Board is going about changing a 75-year rule that worked until organizing possibilities presented themselves at Delta Air Lines is another example of politics run amuck.

Speaking of the National Mediation Board

There is a lot of talk in the mainstream and industry press about airline strikes.  The process by which airline and railroad unions can strike is quite different than other industries – and it all runs through the National Mediation Board.  It is explained better by some reporters than others. 

This round of negotiations is the first since the restructuring negotiations of 2002 that resulted in significant salary and work rule provisions being stripped from many collective bargaining agreements.  Some of those negotiations were done under Sections 1113 and 1114 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and others were not.  The current round of talks will involve the National Mediation Board in many, if not most, instances.  Complicating matters is the sheer number of cases already being negotiated under the auspice of the NMB.   And there are more cases on the way. 

As I write, all organized groups at both American and United Airlines (per a reader: except the IBT, PAFCA and IFPTE) are in mediation.  At some point, certain of those negotiations will have gone as far as they can before the NMB determines the two sides are at an "impasse".  Once an impasse is declared, then the parties are put into what is known as a “30 day cooling off period.”  If no agreement is reached inside that 30 day period, then either side is free to engage in “self help.”  Self help permits management to either “lock out” employees or to "impose its last offer" on the work force. The union can choose to withdraw its services – otherwise known as a strike - - or utilize other “work actions.”   The parties can mutually agree to continue talks until such point that further discussions are deemed fruitless by either side.

Dilemmas for Obama As He Considers a Request from Airline Workers to Strike

Going into this negotiating period and suspecting difficult, if not impossible, negotiations, I wondered aloud about how decisions would be made to release parties into a cooling off period.  I wondered aloud if strikes would be more prevalent than they have been in the past.  I have wondered aloud about who might be this decade’s Eastern Air Lines.  I have wondered just how the NMB is possibly going to manage this work load all the while promising a more speedy negotiating process as part of its new charge.  And recently I have been wondering how politics might affect NMB thinking when it comes to releasing parties from mediation. 

In my prior thinking I believed that this round would result in more Presidential Emergency Board proceedings to ultimately decide the terms of a contract.  A Presidential Emergency Board?  Yes, as the 30 day cooling off period expires and, more often than not, the union decides to engage in self help, there is a parallel decision that must be reached by the White House. 

The White House must determine how commerce might be disrupted if a certain airline were to go on strike.  That calculus involves, at a minimum, the level of unaccomodated demand in certain markets if one carrier were to strike.  Or said another way, can the remaining service in the market accommodate the passengers that cannot travel on the carrier they booked on due to the strike? 

In the era where 80+ percent load factors are the norm, the case for suggesting that demand can be accommodated by the remaining service is increasingly difficult.  It was already starting to get difficult when the Northwest pilots decided to strike in August of 1998.

So if Obama, in this case, determines that a strike would provide too much harm to certain air travel markets, he could stop the strike and order a Presidential Emergency Board to be convened… just like President Clinton did in 1997 when the American pilots chose to strike.  In the case of a PEB, a panel of neutrals, usually arbitrators, is formed to hear the economic case presented by each side.  If the parties cannot agree, then the panel will suggest a "non-binding" settlement.  There is still the possibility of a strike and also the possibility that Congress could legislate a settlement to avert such strike – more than likely the settlement offered by the PEB.

But that is a long way down the road.  I only raise the issues in this piece because politics prior to Massachusetts at least would seem to be nothing more than promises made to special interests (unions) in a dark room in order to garner their support for Obama.  And it worked and has worked.  But might things change?

Compunding the complexity of White House decisions in this round is the possibility of interstate commerce disruption when government stimulus money is in play.

Dilemmas for Airline Labor As They Decide to Strike

About the only thing that you can predict is that a strike at a major, legacy airline will more than likely result in yet another tombstone in the airline graveyard.  Said another way, if a union wants to strike one of today’s legacy carriers, I can see a lock out, use of replacement workers or the sale of assets to another airline that does not include employees.  Ultimately, the majority of the flying done by the striking airline will be replaced. Should a strike result in the liquidation of an airline, the flying will be done by companies that can do it more efficiently – which means fewer jobs.  And that cuts against this administration’s agenda too – doesn’t it?

As hard as it might be for unions to understand, not enough was done on the productivity side of the equation during the restructuring negotiations.  Yes, a judge presided over most of the restructuring negotiations.  But the unions were largely permitted to “pick their poison” when it came to making contractual changes with pensions being the exception.  The poison chosen was to reduce pay more than it needed to be reduced in order to preserve work rules. The tenet that rules the day in any union caucus room is that you can never get work rules back.

In order to get more money in the pockets of workers, more efficiencies need to be found in this industry.  For unions, that will mean fewer dues paying members.  But, this smaller work force would be earning more cash compensation.

One can only hope that a Presidential Emergency Board fully understands the tradeoff between pay, benefits and productivity.

Wednesday
Jan132010

A Battle for JAL or the Threat of Competition?

In this post, I’m going to pick sides in the mighty contest for the JAL bride.

But before we begin, let’s dispense with some business.

First, let the record show that I have long been a fan of Delta Air Lines on many fronts, particularly how it went about its merger with Northwest.  I applauded the strategy CEO Richard Anderson led in demonstrating the benefits of an “end to end merger” versus the old model merger with “significant network overlap.” It is interesting to me how Delta is suggesting to the world that getting immunity for a relationship with JAL will be fairly easy.

Second, I was recently asked by to present at a one-day seminar on the subject of anti-trust immunity hosted by American’s legal counsel Jones Day.  I am not retained by American in this matter, but the airline did cover my travel expenses.

My views are my own. And they are based on a very firm foundation of data.

Now, let’s talk about alliances.

The North Pacific Market

In the U.S. – Asia market, the two most important Asian gateways are Tokyo Narita and Seoul Incheon.  And just as airlines compete, gateways compete for the same traffic. Tokyo and Seoul offer services that can facilitate 10.4 million U.S. – Asia passengers a year.  Of those, 10 million passengers can be accommodated by either Tokyo or Seoul, while only 400,000 are uniquely served through Tokyo’s Narita gateway.

Airlines form alliances to partner with other airlines and more effectively participate in traffic flows between world regions. Alliances permit a carrier to leverage its own network across its partner’s network to create benefits that would not otherwise be logistically possible or economically viable. 

Now Japan Airlines is the “it” airline in a global contest to win its favor and woo it from one alliance to another.  The troubled airline’s current partners in the oneworld alliance are determined suitors in their effort to keep JAL happy at home, while Delta is playing the part of home wrecker, posing and making promises that the opportunities are greater for JAL as part of the SkyTeam alliance.

If I am Delta…..

I would be pursuing JAL as well.  Why?  Because Delta has the most to lose from any new competition into the U.S. – Japan/U.S. – North Pacific marketplace.  Why?  Because of the extraordinary rights Delta has to fly beyond Tokyo and Japan and carry traffic that originates in Japan.  Why?  Because the route rights granted to Northwest (Orient) in 1952 came at a time when Japan was dependant on the U.S. in its post war recovery.

The bilateral agreement in place between the U.S. and Japan has been largely unchanged since 1952.   Both sides have thought the pact unfair, but little progress was made until 2009.  To Japan, the bilateral was imbalanced, with too many NRT slots held by U.S. airlines using them to provide local intra-Asian service.  To the U.S., the bilateral was viewed as anticompetitive as it restricted frequencies, favoring incumbents and preventing market-driven price discounts.  Those incumbents are Northwest and United, which bought the rights from the late, great Pan Am.

What complicates the DAL’s JAL play is that Delta in effect already owns most of the rights of a Japanese flag carrier as a result of the 1952 bilateral agreement.  Along with its immunized relationship with Korean Airlines, Delta already enjoys a commanding market position in what promises to be one of fastest growing markets over the next 20 years – the North Pacific.   

Those route rights now held by Delta as a result of its merger with Northwest give the carrier significant market power.  Those route rights have over the past six decades enabled Delta to build a U.S. – Asia network via Tokyo that could only be rivaled by United.

Only now, under an Open Skies pact between the U.S. and Japan, can that incumbent status be truly challenged.

Oberstar and the Fear Mongers Sure are Quiet

As this story unfolds, one thing we’re not hearing is the usual braying from Congress’ self proclaimed, air travel consumer protection cop James Oberstar.  Is it because the situation involves his former hometown airline?  Or is it because the Congressman is just waiting to pounce?  In either case, the man who has previously been quick to try to apply regulatory and legislative “solutions” to the airline industry’s complex challenges is atypically quiet.

As regular readers know, I am no fan of the Minnesota Congressman’s approach to competition in the industry.  But as we approach a situation in which the term “duopoly” will describe inter-alliance competition should Delta and JAL form a partnership in Japan – his silence is, well, deafening.

Today, American + JAL at Tokyo, Northwest/Delta at Tokyo and Delta + Korean at Seoul are competing for U.S. – Asia traffic.  There are 413 city pair markets in that region that involve 19 overlapping Asian markets served by each Tokyo and Seoul that have at least 5 passengers per day each way.  Currently, 83 percent of those 413 city pair markets either originate in or are destined to points behind a U.S. gateway to one of those 19 points beyond the two Asia gateways. 

It is these markets that represent a competitive disadvantage to the non-immunized alliances today – chief among them  American’s oneworld.  These markets also represent true opportunity for the immunized alliances of tomorrow – those, that is, that would now be permitted by the U.S. – Japan Open Skies Accord – and that’s what has the incumbent airlines looking nervously over their shoulders at the prospect of new competition.

Today both STAR and oneworld are limited in their ability to compete for this traffic by a lack of immunity with their Japanese partners.  Northwest/Delta, on the other hand, can coordinate schedules and set fares for traffic connecting over Tokyo Narita (as a result of the agreement negotiated with Japan in 1952) and for traffic connecting over Seoul with its Korean Airlines partner.

In fact, on 98 percent of the 413 city pairs we’re discussing, either Delta/Korean or Northwest/Delta or both “immunized” combinations have a larger share of this critical connecting traffic than does American + JAL. 

This ability to generate traffic and offer passengers a choice of carrier and gateway is just one of the important benefits that accrue to airlines and consumers as a result of a relationship that allows immunized alliance airlines to coordinate schedules and set fares.

Today Delta’s U.S. domestic network is roughly 2.5 share points larger than American’s, yet it is able to connect disproportionately more traffic from the U.S. to Asia.  Network economics suggests that this relationship does not make sense unless one considers the power of immunity.

The Threat of Competition

Today, both oneworld and STAR compete for the same traffic against SkyTeam.  Today there is certain symmetry among the three global alliances for U.S. – Japan traffic and U.S. – Asia traffic.

In the U.S. – Japan market, STAR’s share is 31%; oneworld w/JAL is 38%; and SkyTeam w/o JAL is 30%.  In the U.S. – Asia market: STAR’s share is 34%; oneworld w/JAL, 22%; and SkyTeam w/o JAL, 28%. 

Based on MIDT data American commissioned from Compass Lexicon and analyzed by me, if JAL were to be lured away by SkyTeam, the numbers would look very different.  In the U.S. – Japan market:  STAR, 31%; oneworld w/o JAL, 6%; and SkyTeam w/JAL, 61%.  In the U.S. – Asia market:  STAR, 34%; oneworld w/o JAL, 10%; and SkyTeam w/JAL, 30%.

Delta will likely challenge that analysis, claiming that it should not include traffic between Japan and the U.S. “beach markets” of Hawaii and Guam. I will leave that argument to the lawyers.  But last I checked, one was a U.S. state and the other a U.S. territory and each are therefore governed by the U.S. – Japan bilateral.

In simple terms, the real threat of liberalization in the U.S. – Japan market is the overnight competition Delta/SkyTeam will face from oneworld and STAR for the nearly 10 million U.S. - Asia passengers.  Do the math: If Delta is successful at luring JAL away from oneworld, then SkyTeam and STAR will have a 92% share of the U.S. – Japan market.  In most economic analyses, that share represents a duopoly.  And that should not be the result of market liberalization. But then again, do we have a duopoly on the Atlantic given that oneworld is not immunized there either?

Oberstar and the Fear Mongers have already protested the prospect of limited competition in three alliances hell bent on “gouging” air travelers.  So where are they when it comes to the prospect of just two alliances controlling so significant a share of the Asian market?

Duplicitous Delta and the Source of My Confusion

In late 2006, while Delta was in bankruptcy, U.S. Airways made a hostile offer to take control of the company.  Delta rejected U.S. Airways’ overtures vehemently and was ultimately successful in fending them off. “US Airways’ principle goal in its hostile takeover attempt is to eliminate its key competition,” Delta(Grinstein) said at the time. “In a pro-competitive merger, the two airlines’ routes do not overlap excessively; they are complementary. Joining complementary networks can enhance competition and create consumer benefits that result in lower prices and increased service option.”

Then in late 2007, Delta, on its own terms, began to pursue a merger with Northwest. Anderson argued time and again that the two airlines had “complementary instead of overlapping route systems” that would maximize synergies.

With the two airlines already connected through alliance relationships, Anderson said:  “Alliance relationships are valuable and very difficult to extract yourself from.”  He noted that neither Delta nor Northwest needed to pull out of its existing alliance, which would have “disrupted revenues and required tearing out significant infrastructure and then rebuilding someplace else.” 

Given regulatory restrictions regarding cross border mergers, an immunized alliance is a defacto merger in the sense that it gives the combination the ability to act as one airline in determining service levels, pricing, marketing.

On the surface, the size of Northwest/Delta’s North American network is slightly larger than American’s.  However, the fit of the network is more important than size.  The ability to leverage one network against the other in order to create new city pairs to sell is critical to any network’s success.  American and JAL would make for a true “end to end” combination whereas Delta and JAL possess significant overlap with each other – the very combination it suggested results in an anti-competitive combination.

On the surface, the solution is crystal clear - at least to me: Three alliances across the Atlantic and the Pacific that each benefit from anti-trust immunity and equally competitive tools.  Even if JAL ultimately restructures through bankruptcy, a partnership with American would still provide a true end-to-end partner that Delta itself contends is the very best way to maximize the synergies of a commercial combination.

But the more I study the data, a different picture emerges. Delta’s play for JAL is not about JAL at all.  It is about preserving Delta’s dual flag status in Japan.  For 58 years Northwest/Delta has been tweaking its US network to sync with its Japan-based network – and they have done it well.  Under Open Skies, Delta will realize new and more vigorous competition on many routes where it enjoys little to no competition today.  Self preservation is a strong instinct and I am all for consolidation in this industry.  But I am also for open and fair competition, particularly where all three alliances are concerned. 

Either way, Delta wins.  It wins by delaying anti-trust immunity for each American and United and thus preserving its legacy competitive position.  And it wins by potentially eliminating a competitor (JAL) where redundant flying can be removed. 

Competition loses.  If Delta lures JAL away from oneworld and the U.S. grants the Delta/JAL combination anti-trust immunity, then perhaps Oberstar finally has a position he can defend. Three way alliance competition is robust.  Institutionalizing duopolies in Open Skies markets is something else.

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