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Entries in Delta-Northwest Merger (16)

Wednesday
Apr012009

Empathy for Ron Gettelfinger

What, Swelbar showing empathy for a labor leader? Yes. In fact, my feelings are not dissimilar to the emotion I felt for airline labor leaders a few years back, when the solvency of so many carriers was in question and some of the biggest went on to file bankruptcy. Trust me, no one wanted to be a labor leader in the airline industry following 9/11. Today, I’d bet that there is no human being that wants to sit in for Ron Gettelfinger, the damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don’t President of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

On Tuesday, Fox.com posted a piece entitled: With GM's Wagoner Ousted, Should Union Head Have Met the Same Fate? In my view, absolutely not. In the early days of Swelblog.com I wrote a piece entitled Self Help in which I praised the negotiating strategy of the UAW. This was on October 11, 2007, long before the spike in oil prices, the freeze in credit markets and the downturn in the economy that has left consumers with little to no confidence in the future and contributed to a decline in consumer spending.

The contracts Gettelfinger negotiated at GM 18 months ago attempted to address many of the competitive disadvantages the US auto industry faced. Those negotiations resulted in, among other items: 1) freezing base pay for 4 years; 2) shifting a significant share of the burden of retiree health care from GM to the union; 3) creating a two-tier compensation structure in return for job protections for the current workforce.

Think about these terms. Unpopular? Anti-worker? Unsuccessful? Yes to all. But the new contract made significant ground in bringing about some of the necessary changes to a collective bargaining agreement born of decades of negotiation between the UAW and the Big Three carmakers and costs that had spiraled out of control. These were well-intended fixes to contractual language written when times were different – but the fixes allowed some historical language to remain. This was well-intended language that would only produce real benefit if the industry grew.

It is like pilot scope clauses: there is only value in the language when it happens. Some might argue this point – don’t scope clauses restrict airlines from even considering new routes/planes/partners when it would potentially violate scope – even when company growth presents itself? Only growth is not in the cards for U.S. auto industry, - or the US airline industry - at least not unless, and until, there is real change.

Just like the automakers, the legacy airlines continue to negotiate from outdated language. Most of these contracts were written when technological changes facilitated productivity improvements that could offset pay increases, and when targeted capacity growth would build airline markets where there was no evidence that the market could support new air service. At the time, collective bargaining agreements did more to ensure that labor would take advantage of technology change rather than to adjust work rules and expectations to account for the advantages new technology brought.

Unfortunately for the airline industry, there is no techological change on the horizon that will increase the speed of the aircraft in a meaningful way.

I have written many times here that the auto industry cannot make the necessary changes without a court-assisted restructuring. The same was true for the airline industry. The problem is that, even in bankruptcy, the airline industry still left decades-old and largely irrelevant language in their collective bargaining agreements. Bankruptcy was effective in dealing with the low-hanging fruit, but did not do enough to position the airlines for long-term success.  Simply, the flexibility to match the work force to the demand environment was not negotiated.

So here we sit with significant negotiations to be done at United, American, US Airways, Continental and AirTran. No labor leader at any of these carriers has stepped up the way Gettelfinger did 18 months ago when he was willing to challenge decade’s worth of old-labor ideas and ideals in return for better positioning GM in tomorrow’s world.

Lee Moak, the head of the pilots’ union at Delta, came closer than any other union leader in acknowledging that change was inevitable as the Delta-Northwest merger moved forward. Moak did what any first-mover in a merger world would do and negotiated the best deal for his members. The problem is that Moak did too good of a job given the state of international markets. I only hope he can hang on to what he negotiated.

We have new contracts getting done across the industry. Interesting and different mindsets at Alaska and Hawaiian have produced some very different agreements. Southwest ground workers have ratified a deal. Southwest has announced a tentative agreement with its flight attendants.

And Southwest this week revealed details of an agreement with its pilots that in my view will prove to be a mistake – with the company caving to the union and giving pilots too much specificity in scope. Southwest did show amazing restraint in agreeing to wage increases, but I had expected it to come without “handcuffs” on code sharing. With this contract, we can see quite clearly how Southwest is aging and facing many of the very same labor struggles that have long dogged the legacy carriers.

I feel for those employees that have “given back,” whether through concessionary contracts or at the demand of a bankruptcy court. But that doesn’t change the fact that the give back was from a level that was unsustainable and would have occurred, eventually, come hell or high water.

This current negotiating period is important to both management and labor. Hopefully, the airline industry will produce leaders like Gettelfinger that recognize that tomorrow has different challenges than yesterday, and that labor leaders have a crucial role in negotiating contracts that protect the workers who helped build the industry, while at the same time ensuring that US aviation can be competitive in the future.

Some call this approach “eating their young”. I call it smart. Because there is nothing that Gettelfinger and the UAW can do today to fix what was done 20 years ago. But labor leaders in the airline industry should do everything in their power to avoid the situation automobile labor now faces. Labor leaders who succeed in the long term will be those who set realistic expectations for their members, resist the urge to overpromise and, like Gettelfinger, recognize that change is inevitable and that labor can and should be a key player in making it work.

More to come.

Thursday
Nov202008

Delta's Singular Focus: Executing Its Singular Vision

Labor issues at many US airlines are emerging that underscore this blogger’s call that these upcoming negotiations will be the most important since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978. And we are not really talking about economics yet...

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Friday
Nov072008

The Dinosaurs Are Extinct ... Right?

You would think that in a week with this much news, I could find something to write about. Obama is elected. General Motors' October sales fell by 45 percent. GM loses $2.54 billion in the third quarter. A legacy industry seeks government help. US Airways bolstering liquidity through deals with the same regional partners that...

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Friday
Sep262008

“Capital Is Global, Labor Is Local”

The title is not my words but rather those of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA). On Tuesday of this week, I sat on a panel with Captain Paul Rice of IFALPA to discuss consolidation at the ACI World Conference in Boston. Captain Rice is a most articulate and passionate speaker when it comes to issues important to labor.

As our panel progressed in its discussion, I challenged Captain Rice on his use of his phrase describing events occurring in the industry on consolidation. My basic assertion was: that labor is capital and its flow is being hindered by seniority and other fundamental union rules that probably will not serve tomorrow's work force as currently designed. Restrictions on the flow of capital, or anything, are good for no one. The Boston Beacon reported on our panel.

Yesterday’s Northwest – Delta Shareholder Vote

There is no event currently taking place that highlights the “Labor is Local” mantra more than the pending Northwest - Delta merger. Susan Carey of the Wall Street Journal writes: Northwest's Unions Face Tough Reception at Delta. This comes on the heels of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA testifying before Congress earlier this week that the rules for union elections at airlines need to be altered. Ah, we are again back to that contemporary law that governs airline labor relations: the Railway Labor Act of 1926 as amended in 1936.

What is interesting to me is that unions negotiate hard to have Sections 3 and 13 of the Allegheny-Mohawk Labor Protective Provisions in their contracts. In February of this year, I wrote a piece entitled: F + E = LPP^DL: Fairness and Equity; Seniority Integration; Union Representation; and Lee Moak Again. Delta had offered these protections to its employees ahead of the announcement of a deal, and they did not have to bargain for it.

There will almost certainly be elections among the IAM and AFA-CWA work forces but now union leaders are concerned that, under NMB rules, a ballot sent to an employee that is not returned is counted as a no vote therefore making a representation election most difficult to win. Just as it has been for years and years.

But like any election, isn’t it up to the union to convince potential new members that being represented by a collective bargaining representative is better than not being represented at all? So, if labor is going to ask that we review only Sections of the Railway Labor Act that serves their local interests only, I say no. If labor is going to ask that an Act of Congress that is more than 70 years old be amended to address issues and concerns that prevent the US airline industry from fully participating in global capital flows because current labor capital says no, then I say yes.

If nothing else, the two mature airline industries in the US and Europe should be able to find common ground that separate continental seniority lists could provide.

Wednesday
Sep172008

Olympic, Alitalia, American and the Wings Club

And we thought the last 10 days of news regarding financial institutions was interesting. In this industry we have legacy flag carriers dying on many continents. We have continued, and even aggressive, consolidation activity in Europe. In the US we have Delta and Northwest pointing to a date before year end to complete their deal. All that remains a constant, it seems, is the Allied Pilots Association creating press releases that ignore the realities of the world to virtually everyone except Lou Dobbs. But before we go there………

Today, Greece finally announced that it would shut down Olympic Airlines and start anew. The Greek flag carrier has only been going through gyrations of Olympic-sized restructuring efforts since I began to study the industry. Nearly 30 years later, its legacy carcass is finally put to rest.

All the while, the investor group that has been assembled in Italy to rescue Alitalia has given certain unions that have not signed on to their business plan until Thursday to do so. Today, a small union caused the carrier to cancel flights as it struck. The bankruptcy laws in Europe are different than in the US and honestly, they are the kind that should be adopted here. If the investor group were to walk away, there is a high probability that Alitalia could be liquidated. Not that Rome is burning, but maybe a “Flying Pig" Roast is in the offing.

Whereas saving Alitalia has become a front-burner issue for newly elected Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Rome will not burn; Milan will not burn; and all other markets in Italy will not burn if flag carrier Alitalia does liquidate. The world really will not miss Alitalia. Just like the hub closures that have occurred in the US over the years, replacement capacity will be sure to find the market opportunities that are presented. Lufthansa and Air France and others have already identified markets where they will deploy capacity to address the void left by Alitalia should it exit the space.

So, two more carriers in Europe, each once proud flag carriers, are close to succumbing to the high cost of jet fuel, a slowing economy, a strengthening of the dollar, hyper-competition for traffic flows over European hubs/gateways and high intrinsic cost structures that simply cannot be supported.

Now we turn our attention to the US. Similar pressures are forcing its carriers to engage in gut-wrenching decisions of resizing networks in order to adapt to the new economic order. Leave it to the Allied Pilots Association to cause most interested observers of this industry to scratch our heads yet again. Not only did APA’s President write to the CEO’s of British Airways, Iberia, Finnair and Royal Jordanian advising them not to enter into an immunized alliance structure with American Airlines, they also wrote to the US Government urging them to postpone their review of the application.

When all other carriers, including Southwest, are actively seeking new revenue sources that can only work to bolster the bottom line, the APA continues to act in the most destructive of ways. The revenue sources its company is seeking to participate in are those carried by American’s competitors today. To ignore them only initiates American's walk down the path of Olympic, Alitalia, Sabena, and the many US carriers that have ultimately succumbed to the same fate.

But only APA’s membership can decide if they are being led for the better or ultimately to their detriment. I cannot answer that.

Finally, James Hogan, the Chief Executive of Ethiad, spoke to the Wings Club in New York about a 'New Wave' in Global Aviation. If anyone does not believe for a minute that this “new wave” coming from Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi will challenge the European partners of the US carriers in a big way, then you are just not reading the tea leaves.

There are traffic flows that are critical for American and British Airways to participate in that require competitive strength. There are possibilities for Iberia that do not exist today. Today, each of the carriers have a strong position in some markets. Absent a relationship similar to that of STAR and SkyTeam, oneworld’s global market position will only continue to erode and will result in less and less flying for US pilots working under the American Airlines’ seniority list.

Just look at the loss of legacy carrier employment in the US today. American has not suffered the half of what United, US Airways and others have suffered. There is no growth at home and that is precisely why APA’s actions of today just simply ignore the evolution of the global industry and the forces of a global economy. Tomorrow’s world is not about Abilene, it is about Asia. It is not about narrowbodies to Eugene, it is about widebodies to Europe. And it sure as hell is not about Midland/Odessa, it is about the Middle East.

It is also not about 12,000 American pilots that Captain Hill states he represents, it is about the other 65,000+ proud employees of American Airlines.

Thank god for Lee Moak and his counterparts at Northwest. At least they recognized that changes were needed to compete in tomorrow's marketplace.

Wednesday
Aug132008

Campaign Season: Little Substance and Fewer Facts

At least in the race for the US Presidency, a winner will be declared. In the corporate campaigns being run by the American and United pilots against their respective employers, no one wins. 25 years ago, corporate campaigns had some effect as they were new. They are often targeted at individuals, either senior executives or board members in hopes of exposing something “dirty” in exchange for leverage that can be traded at the bargaining table. As we have written here before, this upcoming round of labor negotiations is odd in that neither side has significant leverage and the most important in history since the industry was deregulated.

So the pilots, the “professionals”, the “flying investment bankers”, at United and American have taken to erecting billboards, calling for the heads of their CEO, challenging executive compensation schemes, talking openly about safety and ensuring that each carrier’s operating statistics remain in the press long after they have been reported - all the while hiding behind the veil of improving the product for each carrier's customer base. And hiding behind the financial and still unknown economic condition of the industry. What a laughable approach that promises no more leverage than what they have today as the path to a Presidential Emergency Board is carved.

I could have entitled this blog: The Summer of 2008 Part II.

Presidential Campaign

Like many I talk to, I am disappointed that we have not heard peep #1 of substance from either McCain or Obama on transportation issues generally and nothing on the airline industry specifically as they march toward the November general election. Some band-aid ideas on energy from Obama and the energy solutions suggested by McCain would have a long road to hoe to be implemented. Nonetheless, I am disappointed at this juncture that little is being discussed regarding this battered industry.

Corporate Campaign(s)

My view of the antics undertaken by the Allied Pilots Association and their current leadership, who still can claim that they represent 8,300 airmen at American Airlines, has been well documented in this blog. But most of the unprofessional behavior demonstrated by this current administration has been displayed by leadership of this independent union during every other cycle in the past.

Not so long ago, a desperate grasp for leverage only cost APA’s members $45 million in dues dollars. Today, their inflexible bargaining position based on a dream and actions undertaken against the employer to try and bully the employer to accept their outlandish ask could cost the American pilot membership more. Maybe much more. But they have been there before………. And I am still betting that this one gets put on ice and lands before a Presidential Emergency Board 18 months from now - long after the Delta and Northwest pilots begin to enjoy the improved terms of their new collective bargaining agreement that required the loss of certain legacy mindsets.

One thing that has always perplexed me about this industry, and I was persuaded to pursue the same actions in my past as a union leader: why do this industry’s unions perpetually make deals that minimize the headcount reduction while maximizing the pay cut undertaken by all employees? I have talked about how the industry has always over-expanded in the up cycles and never taken enough uneconomic capacity out in the down cycles. Well the same is true with labor.

The unions choose bigger paycuts to preserve jobs in the down cycles. Stated another way, pay cuts have masked the fact that legacy labor has engaged in bargaining practices that have made them less and less productive in the down cycles. These practices then lead to the airline hiring more employees than needed in the subsequent up cycle. This is a classic example of another inefficiency that has compounded itself over three decades of deregulation. But no, we will try to injure the entire membership to protect 200. Makes a strong cost-benefit analysis case don’t you think?

Corporate Campaign #2: United Pilots Call for Tilton to Resign

I was beginning to believe that the corporate campaign season would be limited to the independent union suspects: APA; and USAPA. But no, we are now joined by the United Airlines chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. [And anyone that knows a few things about ALPA politics know about the cowboys at United.] First we have a public cry challenging the safe maintenance of their airplanes by the company’s own mechanics. Then we have the claim of an unlawful action on the part of the union by the company. Now we have the pilots at United calling for their CEO’s head.

This Is Nothing New......

A little history would be helpful here. Let’s take a walk down memory lane of United pilot and CEO relationships. In 1981 I believe, the United pilots made a significant concessionary pact in productivity to the company called “Blue Skies”. The subsequent negotiations between the company and the pilots did not return those concessions to the pilots and the result was a six-week strike in May of 1985.

The pilots claimed that Richard Ferris, who remained Chairman and CEO following the strike, was diverting money from the airline to invest in Westin and Hertz, a combination that ultimately became known as Allegis and included United Airlines. The United pilots hire F. Lee Bailey and began a push to buy the company following the end of their strike. Ferris was pushed out and the company sold its interests in Hilton and Hertz along the way. The CEO and Chairman chairs were held warm until Stephen Wolf was named head of the airline in late 1987.

But the pilots at United were exercising their power over being disgruntled with Ferris’s actions and were making headway toward a leveraged buyout until “Black Monday” – the market crash in October of 1987. Yes, the stock market crash in October of 1987 ended their initial bid. A failed attempt where the pilot union still paid its advisors some $16 million. Ever think how much that was in 1987?

Then, in walks Wolf in late 1987, a deal-friendly CEO that had cashed out nicely at each Republic Airlines and the Flying Tiger Line. By late 1989, Wolf was Chairman and CEO, the Allegis name was dropped and the subsidiaries sold. As Wolf’s tenure in the Chairman and CEO chair began, the economics of the industry were generally strong. Then came 1991. High oil prices and a recession. In 1993, Wolf turned to the unions seeking concessions from contracts negotiated in a much better economic period. [What we did not know at the time was that an inside ALPA lawyer would be financially rewarded for being an intermediary to turn these talks from simple concessions to the vehicle that would be used to sell the company to the employees] The company sold the flight kitchens following a near $1 billion loss in 1992.

The 1993 concession negotiations ultimately led to the ESOP structure that was closed in July of 1994. Nearly seven years after their initial attempts, the United pilots had their wish. Wolf was paid off handsomely and in came former Chrysler CEO Gerry Greenwald to head the company and usher in this new era of employee relations. Greenwald was hand-picked by ALPA to head the new airline, as was his number 2, John Edwardson. And the pilot advisors were paid yet another $16 million in the process.

Employee seats on the board were negotiated with unprecedented and unhealthy corporate governance power. Greenwald makes himself a lame duck during this period by announcing half way through that he would only fulfill the initial 5-year term of his agreement. My guess is he fully appreciated that the economics and the governance construct would inevitably lead to a bad outcome. He left in 1999.

During 1998, employees that had made concessions to buy the airline were entitled to begin negotiating interim wage increases. Management recognized that the increases being sought could not be sustained. Then, using their power at the board level, ALPA and the IAM voiced strong opposition to John Edwardson – the chief opponent - and he was ultimately replaced by Jim Goodwin. Goodwin, was another President and COO that needed the blessing of the unions. Then in early 1999, following Greenwald’s departure, Goodwin was named Chairman and CEO.

The ESOP construct ended in 2000. But as the ESOP construct was ending, which meant that United had to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements with all of its bargaining units except the flight attendants, Goodwin began to pursue a merger with US Airways. Labor tensions mounted as the merger now posed many issues that could negatively impact the outcome of their negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement.

The pilots ultimately won a ransome-like contract, based in part on their actions, that made virtually their entire portfolio of international flying unprofitable. Further the contract established a false market on the rates the industry could afford to pay for pilot labor. Ultimately the US Airways bid was abandoned in 2001. Then the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, exactly one-year after ALPA agreed to accept its ransome. And surprise, surprise: as the unions still possessed the extraordinary governance powers negotiated during the ESOP transaction, Goodwin was gone by November of 2001. His chair was held warm by board member Jack Creighton until a successor could be found.

Like the rest of the industry, United suffered in the aftermath of 9/11. The company began negotiations with all of its unions seeking an unprecedented give of $2.5 billion annually. Creighton retires, as he was not the one to lead this company through this difficult period. With governance powers still in place, ALPA, the IAM and the board replace the retiring Creighton with Glenn Tilton. The former oil executive will be the one to lead United into, and out of, bankruptcy protection. Remember, it was ALPA that hired Tilton - like many before him citing that it was one expensive hire but definitely the very best of the candidates interviewed.

Concluding Thoughts

Now United is nearing the time to begin negotiations to replace the consensual agreements reached while the company was in bankruptcy. One of Tilton’s strongest attributes upon his hiring was his familiarity with the bankruptcy process so I guess in some ways that makes him a restructuring guy. It did not take him long to recognize that the negotiations with the unions that were concluded prior to the filing on December 9, 2002, were not going to be enough. And I do not think that Glenn believes the work is done at United yet.

For years, the United pilots have taken to calling for the head of each and every CEO that said no. They were more than willing to put in place those they believed would say yes. But even they had to say no at some point and when they did - they were gone. Tilton has said no and continues to say no so that means that the United pilots should keep with what they know and call for his head. But any good restructuring guy knows when the work is done and when it is not done. Many have stayed too long. I don’t think this will be the case as United works toward righting its operation in anticipation of an alliance with Continental Airlines.

I think some history is important for those looking at the United pilots calling for Tilton’s head as a significant event. It is not significant. It is nothing more than a piece of a tired, three-decade old tactic that the United pilots are using in Corporate Campaign 2008. If the United pilots are serious, as they were in the mid 1980’s, then buy the company again. Otherwise there are two choices: be creative and constructive; or be legacy-minded and destructive. United probably has a liquidation value that shareholders might just view as attractive.

I love how history repeats itself in this industry. This blog was largely written from memory as I have spent a lot of my life at United in these dealings. I am sure that I will be corrected if I have made a mistake on the chain of events.

And further, isn’t it interesting that on the day the pilots call for Tilton’s head, the Delta and Northwest pilots approve a new collective bargaining agreement that will be in place when the merger of the two companies is finally approved. At least at some carriers represented by ALPA there are constructive actions being undertaken to address a changing world.

More to come.

Wednesday
Jun252008

Is Oil A Cancer Or A Cure?

As I write this morning, I am without an internet connection. On Monday and Tuesday of this week I was in Chicago speaking to, and participating in a roundtable discussion with senior executives of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. A most enlightened group that depends heavily on the airline industry to deliver people and goods to the large trade shows they run. Rather than run from the issues plaguing this industry and others, this group was meeting to strategize on proactive stances and rethink their many successful approaches – many of which were designed around a low fuel environment.

Today, I sit in rural Maryland as the coolest, little guy in my world, Sam, plays in his first Titleist Tour event. Not being the doting one, I watched him hit a very good tee shot down the right side of the first hole then strap his bag on his back and begin play. And I found a quiet spot under a tree to write. In case you have not figured it out by now, the game of golf is a passion and it is way cool to watch Sam embrace the game and pay respect to the many traditions that make the game so great.

I Think We Are Beginning to Actually Define Overcapacity

The naïve notion that high load factors somehow suggested that there is no overcapacity is in the process of being put to bed. A better term to have used would have been uneconomic capacity because we know that on many flights that there are somewhere between 10 – 30 seats that too often get sold for less than the cost to carry the passenger occupying one of those seats.

My guess is some readers here have also been questioning my lack of writing over the past 4-5 weeks. For the same reason that I got out of the day to day grind of the consulting business where I devoted an inordinate amount of time to restructuring airline labor agreements. How many ways can you tell someone or a work group that their collective bargaining agreement has cancer? How many ways can you write that the treatments being recommended may/or may not work? Another attribute of cancer survivors is attitude – a positive attitude has proven time and time again to transcend many things that require wholesale change. And it does not take an Oncologist to tell anyone that.

Is the price of oil a cancer or a cure for the industry’s ills? I do not know the answer and the question is probably best left to the individual. For some, the price of oil is a cancer in that its very presence will prevent certain stakeholders from achieving what they somehow believe they are entitled to. More than likely a positive outcome will be prevented by the lack of acceptance that additional treatment is necessary and succumb to the “woe is me” attitude. For others, they will accept that the treatments taken over the past 5 years are simply not enough and that more has to be done – and the only path left is invasive. [for those that will comment that I am suggesting more concessions, I am not]

Already this week, labor news surrounding the industry has been plentiful. I wake up in Chicago on Tuesday morning to the headline on the front page of the Chicago Tribune that United will furlough 950 pilots between now and the end of 2009. Later that day, the Delta and Northwest pilots announce that they have reached a tentative agreement on a joint contract covering both the Delta and Northwest pilots. In addition, a protocol agreement has been put in place to merge the seniority lists prior to closing of the transaction. Today American Airlines began to detail its previously announced service cuts. And New York is prominent on that list.

The United news of pilot furloughs is the first real indication just how far that carrier is willing to go to find its profitable core. Clearly, the carrier recognizes that major changes/treatments are necessary. United has been quite busy of late announcing an alliance with Continental; making a number of fare rule changes including bringing back the unpopular Saturday night stay provision; being so bold that it would put down 100 aircraft units; and entertaining any and most of the ideas – including some of their own - regarding charging for most unbundled services.

Layoffs associated with aircraft retirements will be many as we work toward the fall and winter months of 2008. But I do not see the numbers of jobs lost approaching the 125,000 jobs lost post 9/11. Unless we liquidate a large airline or two.

The Confused Business Travel Coalition

On the heels of the Business Travel Coalition testifying against the proposed Delta and Northwest merger on two separate occasions, the confused advocacy group underwrites a study suggesting that the current crisis (the price of oil) facing the industry is leading to a catastrophe. A crisis for some stakeholders to be sure. But a catastrophe?: absolutely not. Why is it a catastrophe if inefficient players are finally removed from the industry? Or if uneconomic capacity is finally removed from the system?

This industry will be here after this storm has passed. Only the liveries on the tails will be different unless invasive treatment is accepted, implemented and met with a survival attitude. Based on this group’s track record, I thought it was a catastrophic event if carriers merged. Now everything is a catastrophe. Maybe the upcoming lesson on network economics in the fall will shed some light on approaches other than the group's tired refrain that the “sky is falling”.

In this environment combined networks, whether it is through merger activity or through the formation of an alliance, promise to preserve more capacity than if carriers operated individually. As carriers begin the process of weaning capacity, the industry will get a real live lesson on the interdependencies between nodes that exist within network industries. We will take a cue from consumers as to whether the Southwest’s, jetBlue’s and AirTran’s can satisfy all consumers wants from air travel in the domestic industry. I am prepared to bet that all consumers will not be happy with their limited services - but we will see.

So while the news is bad and additional dislocations are all but assured, I see the price of oil as a cure to 30 years of cancer that never received the proper treatment. When we come out of the other side, however long it takes, it will be better as many bad business practices that have plagued this industry will have been eliminated. And not thought to have been eliminated when they were actually in remission.

Monday
Jun092008

A Recent Swelbar Interview

The ANALYST is the flagship publication of ICFAI University Press* which caters to a niche segment comprising finance professionals, bankers, academicians, economists, corporate executives and students. Just published.

The ANALYST: Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines have recently agreed to merge in a $3.1 billion deal. How do you see the deal?

Swelbar: I see the deal as the real beginning of the second phase of the restructuring of the US airline industry. The first phase began with the bankruptcy filings in 2002 and concluded with the emergence from bankruptcy of Delta and Northwest in early 2007. The industry (largely the legacy carriers) shed nearly $20 billion of cost during this period with nearly 60% of that being reductions in employees, rates of pay and benefit reductions. But the necessary cost reductions were designed to address a revenue environment that was increasingly influenced by the low cost carrier sector of the industry that had grown to nearly 30% of industry capacity. This created more competition with an industry that was producing $30 billion less in revenue as the relationship of revenue to GDP fundamentally shifted beginning in early 2001. The restructuring cuts were not made with the idea that oil would increase from $45 per barrel to $117 per barrel today. And it is the cost of oil today that is the catalyst underscoring that the restructuring work to make the industry sustainably profitable is far from done.

The ANALYST: What are the parameters considered at arriving at the deal?

Swelbar: I will answer this as the catalysts to consolidation: high oil; a softening economy both domestically and globally; increased global competition; and tightening credit conditions to name a few. The US domestic market, where all US carriers have the strong majority of their capacity deployed, remains a highly fragmented and hypercompetitive market. Therefore it is a most difficult space to realize higher fares absent the push from higher fuel. Today fares are on the increase domestically but not near enough to offset the cost of higher commodity prices. Therefore the industry is exploring two different paths: 1) consolidation of industry capacity through merger and acquisition activity; 2) consolidation through liquidation of airlines; and 3) consolidation of industry capacity by removing uneconomic capacity. Both strategies are being employed simultaneously and can be expected.

The ANALYST: What are the expected synergies of this deal?

Swelbar: Delta and Northwest, while announcing some capacity cuts prior to announcement of the deal, are betting that the linking of two end-to-end networks is the way to drive increased revenues without increasing flying expense. This is possible through a larger network providing for an increased number of new city pairs to sell. On the cost side, the combined carriers see that the ability to best match aircraft size to city pair markets will provide a cost savings going forward. As to other benefits, the North Atlantic alliance with Air France, KLM, Alitalia and CSA will remain and can only become more robust. Obviously Northwest's delivery position for new transoceanic equipment is a benefit. But most of all this is a step, among many, to continue to work toward finding a more stable platform for employees, communities and stockholders that stand alone plans cannot begin to guarantee. Is there risk? Yes. But there is arguably more risk with a stand-alone plan.

The ANALYST: What could be the challenges to this merged entity?

Swelbar: The obvious challenges are the age old challenges that present themselves when the US airline industry looks to consolidate: the regulators and organized labor. Change is difficult but an industry that took $20 billion of cost out of their combined operations and produced only two years of industry profitability underscores that the current industry structure is far from healthy. In addition the Congress is sure to raise consumer issues. But concerns that consolidation will raise prices are muted by the industry's fuel bill increasing by nearly $20 billion in 2008 versus 2007. Fares have to go up, otherwise we will have a bankrupt industry rather than a few bankrupt carriers. And the US market under deregulation has proven time and time again that if one carrier tries to gouge consumers in certain markets, there will be a lower cost provider ready and willing to exploit that market opportunity.

The ANALYST: How do you see the future of US airlines industry?

Swelbar: Honestly, I am concerned. Our market remains the most regulated, deregulated market in the world – or so it seems to me. And some of that regulation stems from parochial interests on Capitol Hill that somehow believes that if there is a runway, a terminal building and security that the airport is somehow entitled to air service – not whether the economics make sense. Consolidation along the lines of Delta and Northwest and others that might follow is but one step along the way. Globalization is an economic force that cannot be ignored. Recognition that the airline industry is a global industry would be a good start for the US policy makers. Recognition that US airlines need to be freed of the shackles that largely tie them to the US market need to be unlocked. Unless labor and policy makers can move their mindset away from believing that the US airline industry can support jobs and remain US-centric will only ensure that we continue to experience the boom and bust cycles that have been the rule for the industry over the last 30 years. And that has not proven to benefit anyone.

The ANALYST: Any other comments?

Swelbar: Unless something changes along the way that paves the path for a more globally focused US industry, I am afraid that we will see another icon like Pan Am or TWA disappear from the US landscape. Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you.

*this interview was done $20 per barrel ago.

Thursday
May152008

Pondering the Next Move; But Before I Do…….

Wednesday’s Hearings: “Forgetting About History”

If there is another “something” in the works, surely no one really believed that anything would be announced before yesterday’s House hearings on Delta – Northwest? Jim “Hell NO”berstar was anything but “Hell No” in yesterday’s hearings. To be sure, he was anything but Hell Yes. He seemed to save his “powder” for the testimony of the Departments of Justice and Transportation. But even that was dry and in the end about all we could do was “take heart” that the investigation would be thorough.

I am not one that is going to give a protectionist much slack. But I kind of felt sorry for him when it became clear that he had not quite grasped that Phase I of the US-EU liberalization deal was in effect and that all six US legacy carriers could fly to Heathrow. But where I really struggled was with the continued pointing to American Airlines and their purchase of TWA’s assets. Remember, not a merger but rather, an acquisition of assets. There was much discussion about how St. Louis was reduced from 500 flights per day to 250 flights per day.

When American made the decision to purchase TWA’s assets, congestion was the rule/industry fear of the day. The “Summer from Hell”, or the Summer of 2000, was in the books. Chicago O’Hare was in the headlines most days during that summer. Delays in Chicago were either based on thunderstorms or Rick Dubinsky choking the golden goose. From American’s strategic perspective, St. Louis could potentially be that reliever of congestion in Chicago as connecting traffic is well connecting traffic and can be accomplished in either city.

But “NOberstar and the Fear Mongers” sang the tune that American sat in the very same hearing room and vowed to keep St. Louis whole. We heard it over and over. If we forgot about Phase I being in place; surely we did not forget about September 11, 2001 and the effects it had on the US domestic airline industry in general and the network legacy carriers specifically. Yes, St. Louis was downsized and most non-hub flying was eliminated. Pittsburgh was carefully eliminated. Atlantic Coast died under its own lack of weight. And an over-exhuberant industry replaced mainline flying with regional flying.

St. Louis was a dying hub. McDonnell Douglas was gone. Its local economy was built on reputation and not on strong underlying economic attributes. American made the only decision that was in its best corporate interest. Remove capacity from a weak point and focus on a strong one – Chicago. Nuff’ said.

Pondering the Next Move

My guess is Jim “Hell NO”berstar is keeping his powder dry until the next move is announced. The next move will face more intense scrutiny based on the “I told you so” line that was most prevalent yesterday. Honestly, I do not know of another deal scenario that is interesting – let alone transformational – and provides the kind of investment thesis that helps this period come alive.

We have United and US Airways merger discussions being tossed around by “those close to the situation”. Now we have a United and Continental alliance in the news. Readers know I like what Tilton says as he talks about the industry from 40,000 feet – and I am in fundamental agreement that the current construct is good for no stakeholder group.

If I lean to one of the two scenarios being painted in today’s mainstream press, I lean to a United - Continental alliance. Gravity takes me there because it differentiates the combination from Delta and Northwest. Delta and Northwest individually, and collectively, are/will be highly reliant on connecting traffic as their hubs are located in smaller population centers. [And this is why their commitment to maintaining the most extensive network possible is absolutely factual] United and Continental would be building around hubs/gateways where core onboard traffic would be largely local.

Now, I understand that the transatlantic onboard traffic mix can be different based on other competitors in the market. We do not have to look much further than Washington Dulles and the fact that Lufthansa carries more Washington local traffic to Germany and beyond than United. United’s airplanes are filled with more behind and bridge traffic based on the connection to its US domestic network at Washington Dulles.

But doesn’t this also suggest intra-alliance competition for traffic that is being bastardized by comments from the fear mongers that the transatlantic will soon face a scenario where barriers to entry are much too high?

LIQUIDITY AND SOUTHWEST AND UNITED

Over the last couple of months, this blogger has written about how liquidity will be back in the headlines just as it was following the events of September 11, 2001. American has looked to relax fixed charge covenants. Delta and Northwest are looking to a combined balance sheet. United has worked to relax covenants in its loan agreements. US Airways balance sheet is actually in pretty good shape for the moment. Southwest recently borrowed $600 million against owned aircraft to bolster an already strong liquidity position. jetBlue has sold aircraft and sold equity to Lufthansa to bolster liquidity. AirTran has sold delivery positions and just completed a convertible to bolster its liquidity. And the market yawns.

Holly Hegeman of Planebuzz.com asks the question: PlaneBuzz: Follow up on Southwest Nuts: Why Do They Need More? If she had not written before I had a chance, I would have asked the same question but probably not as eloquently. Me thinks, Southwest plays a meaningful role in the next move. These guys – and sorry Laura – are smart. Based on their model, there are just simply not many markets left in the US.

Now, I have no clue as to what the plans are – or if there are any - as I am not a source close to the situation. But I am willing to bet that the next move involves Southwest purchasing assets. Whether they are Washington National assets; Laguardia assets; or something else they are the only name that can assure “NOberstar and the Fear Mongers” that competition will remain robust. If Southwest is involved, the strategy is brilliant. And I am not one that will discount Tilton.

I am the guy that has lived a life liking and rooting for: Illie Nastase; Jimmy Connors; Derek Sanderson; Craig Stadler; well you get the picture.

As I have said, this time is cruel but it will lead to something better. Simply because the current construct just does not work for anyone. So for the consumer groups: you will pay more and it is not because of a changing industry structure, rather it is an industry that must simply charge at least as much as it costs to produce the product. And for labor, the best bet to recapture what you think is entitled is to bet on the future. It just might be good.

Thursday
Apr242008

Reflecting on Today’s Congressional Testimony in the DL-NW Deal

I did my best to listen to as much of each hearing as I could today. I certainly found the Senate hearing much more interesting than the House hearing. The only players to testify in each hearing were Delta CEO Richard Anderson and Northwest CEO Doug Steenland. For the most part, similar testimony was offered in each the House and Senate hearings.

I did think both CEOs were much better and much sharper in the Senate give and take. But I sure did feel the pain for Anderson as he tried in many ways to describe how networks work and how networks can create new product as the nodes are leveraged post-deal. Both were particularly good in the afternoon discussing the fuel issue and Steenland finally reminded everyone of the fact that the weak dollar versus virtually any world currency is just another issue weakening the competitive posture of US airlines today.

But the other two panelists in the Senate session?………And for me the most interesting testimony was from Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition.

12 Mitchellisms

I just cannot help myself and will spend a little time picking out some of my highlights from the testimony of each Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition and Dr. Darren Bush of the University of Houston Law Center -- and I am just not sure what he was saying. No, I will spend virtually all of my time with Mr. Mitchell’s testimony as he has been around this industry a long time, and well…….should know better on many points.

In his first full paragraph of his overview, Mitchell rightfully discusses the importance for the Department of Justice to evaluate competition from both a city pair and network perspectives. Then the 5 minutes of scare tactics begin. Mitchell #1: “Moreover, Congress needs to understand the total consumer costs resulting from massive service disruptions and the degradation of the reliability of the system. The direct, indirect and opportunity costs for mid-size communities that lose efficient connectivity to important business centers around the country and globe need to be quantified”.

The reliability of the system? Don’t you think that the government has a significant stake and has failed the consumer, and small and mid-size communities, by failing to upgrade the very air traffic control system within which the carriers operate? It seems to me that even without these high fuel costs that the industry may not be in such “dire straits” if it did not need to add time to the schedule each quarter because of the system’s inefficiency. “money for nothin’”.

If the economics are not there, just because an airport has a runway, a terminal and security does not mean that the airport market is entitled to air service. Maybe another question could be: how have global forces impacted that community and possibly moved much of the economic base away because they were simply not competitive? A fair question to ask before laying it all at the feet of the industry. More simply, if those customers are willing to pay the cost for the service, then they will continue to receive the service.

Mitchell #2: “The managements of Delta and Northwest drove their companies into painful bankruptcies”. Based on what we know about Gerry Grinstein, my guess is bankruptcy was the last arena he preferred to visit. As for Northwest, they along with their labor, worked arduously to avoid a trip to a court-assisted restructuring and stood with labor on the pension issue along that troubled road. Management did not drive anyone in. Market forces did. And each carrier had very different competitive reasons for filing.

Mitchell #3: “With respect to Delta / Northwest, how can one accept that there are billions of dollars in revenue synergy when there are no plans to restructure either network? Unless Delta can convince expert outsiders of something on the order of $5 billion dollars in readily achievable synergies, there is no possibility that this merger could benefit consumers or the public interest”. No plans to restructure either network? Why did they want a complete pilot deal done first? So they could immediately begin to move aircraft around the network to best match aircraft to market sizes I thought. $5 billion in achievable synergies? Well you must have been much more a fan of the US Airways hostile as it did involve capacity cuts that would have been much greater than anything considered here even with the announcements made on each of the carrier’s earnings calls.

Mitchell #4: “The Delta / Northwest proposal emphasizes all of the features of past mergers that have consistently failed and doesn’t exploit any of the synergies of the rare mergers that did produce positive returns, e.g., TWA / Ozark and Northwest / Republic”. You did forget Delta-Western. What I find most interesting about your statement is that each of these mergers, except Delta-Western removed a competing carrier sharing the same hub. Talk about anti-competitive!? My flip comment on the mergers in the mid 80's was if they approve these, then anything goes.

Mitchell #5: “Megamergers create a risk of an operational meltdown that could cripple the nation’s aviation system". Fuel prices and the lack of merger-related synergies would create huge pressures to cut corners on implementation spending, creating pressures that would exacerbate conflicts with (and among) employee groups”. You are right, economic forces, competitive forces, antiquated air traffic control systems and uncontrollable crude and refining costs have no effect at all – so blame it on M&A activity [please read with tongue in cheek].

And further each carrier today, operating as a stand alone, will avoid the fates of Aloha, ATA, Skybus and Frontier? For someone that has made fares a career, do not forget that it is an accepted principle that volatile prices are most unsettling on commodity industries – and the US airline industry has become a commodity industry. Any one of your members should do a net present value calculation on travel expenditures and compare it to other input costs that they have paid.

Mitchell #6: “Merged mega airlines will leverage their route structures to dictate terms and conditions (pay more for less) to corporate buyers, even for those airline pairings without significant route overlap”. Mr. Mitchell, consumers are going to pay more. And if they don’t, labor is part of your constituency and they would not get anymore either. On the more for less issue. Short-term maybe. But this industry knows it has been lacking in making both aircraft and non-aircraft capital expenditures in the business and the most recent earnings announcements suggest they will get further cut back. For virtually every carrier, another trip to bankruptcy is not an option – and Southwest, jetBlue and AirTran are not the option for the constituency you represent.

Mitchell #7: “Coordinated Effects. Going from 6 to 5 airlines would make fare increases easier to stick, especially if Northwest were absorbed into another large carrier because this carrier has often played the role of the “spoiler.” And of course, the problem with fare increases is even more enormous if the industry goes from 6 to 3 super major carriers. United Airlines recently brought back the infamous Saturday Night Stay requirement that will virtually fence-off lower-priced fares for business travelers increasing ticket prices by hundreds of dollars”. Market forces are the catalyst. All sectors of the industry are affected by the current environment. No more free lunch. But again I impress on you to do that net present value analysis I suggested earlier.

Mitchell #8: “Congress should be concerned with the market power of super-mega airlines and their incentive and means to frustrate new airline entry at hub airports”. With the low cost carriers approaching 30% of US domestic market share, your scare tactic that suggests low barriers to entry are simply not true. The US market should not fear individual carrier failures or consolidation. Indeed, this market has demonstrated time and time again that where competition is vulnerable, a new entrant will exploit that vulnerability. Where there are market opportunities, there will be a carrier to leverage that opportunity. Where there is insufficient capacity, capacity will be sure to find the insufficiency.

Mitchell #9: “Congress should also view with great concern the increased joint purchasing power of the global alliances (buying groups) with respect to their ability to exercise monopsony power and drive supplier prices below competitive levels”. To suggest the current laws and regulations even permit this type of action by US airlines is yet another scare tactic. Yes the world will evolve. And alliances are nothing but a band-aid to access the world.

Mitchell #10: “The primarily objective and dirty little secret of these megamergers is the permanent end to meaningful competition between the U.S. and Continental Europe—two airline competitor groupings would control 90-95% of a profitable, growing market of over 30 million people, where there would be zero possibility of new competition”. This is among the more laughable suggestions. Whereas the European-based carriers are healthy today, have you noted the downgrades on British Airways; the story surrounding the continent’s sixth largest carrier, Alitalia; continued moves toward further consolidation that make the Europeans stronger? Further have you noted that Europe’s next competitor originates in the Middle East? To suggest that the game’s conclusion is now decided is another unfortunate scare tactic.

Mitchell #11: “All of the potential external funding for Northwest / Delta and United / Continental would come from the European airlines that would be the leaders of this two-airline duopoly, Air France and Lufthansa”. Interesting comment. Most interesting, as they are not participating in the deal that has been presented. I am not saying that Air France will not, but interesting. And Lufthansa invested $300 million in jetBlue but you did not mention that.

Mitchell #12: No comments on your conclusion.

Thank goodness, Cliff Winston of the Brooking Institution testified today so that market forces could get entered into the record. Not sure what the unions were trying to accomplish as you cannot have a seat at the table until you set the table. My guess is you will have a seat once you have made it clear that that a collective bargaining agent outweighs other options.

Much more to say. Much more to come.

Tuesday
Apr152008

April 15, 2008: A Day to Remember or a Day to Forget?

End the speculation. We can now begin to debate the facts surrounding the Delta-Northwest combination. I must say that I expected to see significant changes from the deal that wasn't. What appears unresolved today is not much different than what was unresolved yesterday. As this day closes, I am an industry observer that is pleased to see a consolidation round begin in earnest.

Over the coming days, weeks and months we will be hearing about how the sky is falling. I remain steadfast that consolidation is in the best interest of all US airline industry stakeholders in the long run at this juncture. For some, consolidation through merger and acquisition activity means that the sky is falling. For me this type of consolidation is much better than consolidation through liquidation. In that case, airlines are falling from the sky and dislocations are forever.

Over the coming days much will be written. I will write. In any number of conversations I had today, the issue of labor risk; technology risk; and any other risk that could be raised as standing in the way of a successful combination of Delta and Northwest required addressing. And oil, the number one catalyst (read risk) behind the discussion of consolidation traded at levels approaching $114 per barrel of crude. Assuming that the crack spread is similar to last week’s level, then the "in the wing" price for the industry approached $145 per barrel today.

All of us really do need to stop talking about oil in a per barrel of crude denomination. We have to remember to add the crack spread to the cost of a barrel of crude. Me included. John Heimlich, the Chief Economist at the Air Transport Association has made some additions to his presentation on oil and its impact on the industry. Read it as it provides great perspective and why we find the US industry in its current position.

There Was Other News

We cannot have a day with news of promise in the US without a story on the “Flying Pig”: Alitalia. Reuters reported on the ongoing saga and how, and why, newly elected Prime Minister Berlusconi vows to keep Alitalia flying. The article reports, “Alitalia's ready cash is shrinking by about 3 million euros a day and now has funds left only for the immediate future -- a question of weeks or at most a couple of months, observers say”. The article goes on to say, “IATA, the airline industry association, has told Alitalia it must provide guarantees to be able to stay in IATA's system to settle ticket purchases if it were to go into administration”. Time is a tickin’ in Milan.

And finally, as the day really does come to a close, I sit and watch Neil Cavuto interview Captain Sam Mayer representing the Allied Pilots Association regarding their march today on American Airlines’ largest customers and institutional investors. As I have written all too often, this situation of labor suggesting that they join with customers to force American (or the industry) to address internal issues is reckless and has a higher probability of backfiring than benefiting any one stakeholder at American Airlines (or any other carrier). This is about getting a contract. I just wonder if APA told these valued customers and investors about the magnitude of the ask in their proposal and that they claim that only minimal fare increases are necessary to fund their ask. Best I know, fare increases are what customers like to hear. I doubt it.

And Frontier Receives Notice of Delisting. This story for me truly underscores the fragility of the industry today and why liquidity is king. An interesting day indeed.

One step forward for some and steps back for others. But we will get there someway, somehow.

More to come.

Monday
Apr142008

Delta - Northwest Deal Is Real

This link will lead you to information available at this time: http://www.newglobalairline.com