Archive Widget

Entries in Doug Parker (9)

Thursday
Oct172013

US and AA Labor: Stop Hiding Behind the Idea of Consumer Benefits

When it comes to Wall Street analyst commentary on the proposed merger of American and US Airways, I have come to appreciate the work of John Godyn at Morgan Stanley.  He is a pragmatist.  His analysis and commentary are not fraught with emotion and Henny Pennyish ramblings as if the sky is falling if a deal does not get done.  He models the industry assuming a deal does not get done.  Certainly Godyn would prefer a deal versus no deal.  However, he assigns a probability of less than 50 percent of a deal happening, much like this observer.

This week’s Wall Street analysis and media coverage caught my eye.  First US Airways’ Captain Bill Pollack, a man I know and respect, wrote an op-ed in the USA Today in support of the merger. The subtitle reads:  “Airline employees have made concessions to survive. It's time our sacrifices paid off.”  Godyn hosted American’s flight attendant union, APFA, to a lunch to discuss the merger.  Like Pollack, the unions tout what they claim are enormous benefits to the consumer but fail to define them.  Then a note comes across my desk:  “Today, Representatives Marc Veasey (D-TX) and Ed Pastor (D-AZ) and 66 of their Democratic colleagues sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to allow American Airlines and US Airways to move forward with a merger.”

Imagine what Jim Oberstar is thinking now?  Imagine, 68 Democrats supporting a merger of two airlines that will ultimately put 87 percent of domestic supply into the hands of four companies.  A party that prides itself in being the protector of the consumer.  Let’s stop kidding ourselves; this merger is about labor and the notion, and a near-term truth, that a consolidated industry can pay more than a fragmented industry. 

This would-be merger is perhaps the most sophisticated labor deal ever struck in the deregulated airline industry.  But don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. This is not about the consumer.  This is not about small communities.  This is about a very clever strategy by a management team to win over labor in order to achieve an exit strategy for US Airways - a highly performing company in search of an identity in tomorrow's industry.  In my view, Doug Parker’s US Airways was no true competitor to the network giants, even before they merged.  So to get there, he agreed to write a check to the airline unions that US Airways – I mean the “New American” - may not be able to afford . . . now, or in the future.

What’s wrong with this picture?  For one, union interests run contrary to consumer interests even if simply when labor costs go up, consumers pays more.  The unions say the merger is necessary to compete with the Delta and United duopoly. What does that mean? Even Parker agrees that mature industries yield few growth opportunities, so the synergies that the “New American” touts are likely to come from a share shift away from incumbents rather than generating new business.  Do we really think that Delta and United are going to sit back and surrender their market to a “new competitor” without a fight?  I don’t think so either.

But the check to labor has been written.

As Glenn Engel points out in his work, “being important is better than being big.”  This is based on the fundamental economics of the S-Curve in which each capacity share point above 30 percent in a given market drives a greater than 1 percent share of revenue up, at least until some point when the law of diminishing returns takes over.  In a merger that touts little to no overlap, where is the consolidation of two carrier’s positions that results in outsized revenue gains to the tune of $1 billion?

That’s right, the check has been written.

In Godyn’s note he talks with the APFA about the lack of a Plan B: “Consistent with what we heard from the APA, the APFA is universally focused on ‘Plan A’ which is to help management raise the probability that LCC is successful and is not actively pursuing any standalone plan alternative,” he wrote. “They also reminded us that no standalone plan had actually been formally submitted and approved by the creditors. Thus, if the deal does not go through, a new reorganization plan would need to be created and approved by creditors.” 

Godyn continues:  “Why are labor costs omitted from the complaint? The APFA expressed real concern that if a deal did not go through the short-term ramifications could cause existing labor contracts to be revisited and the pension to be put at risk, depending on how the new plan of reorganization is shaped as well as the judge. A restructured labor contract could not only include lower wages but also workforce reduction – not to mention labor discontent.” 

Exactly right because this a labor deal.

It is time that we start thinking about Plan B. Let’s assume that, because a number of senior US Airways’ executives have already moved to Dallas and enrolled their kids in school, Parker et al will run the “New American.”  But he has a track record in this type of case, and that is that the company will likely get smaller before it gets bigger. [An idea that will make Wall Street happy.]  A network considered inferior to others cannot pay its workers the same as can larger competition. The workforce will likely need to get smaller rather than reap the benefits promised. Parker’s conundrum is his exuberance to parcel out the synergies before they were realized.  Remember that share shift idea.

Suddenly, Plan B gets somewhat complicated even with the Golden Boy in charge.  In the event a merger is blocked, what if another party enters the fray and files a separate plan of reorganization?  That could happen in a Plan B scenario and my guess is capital would likely be treated more favorably than labor in that case.  So it may not be only Tom Horton who ends up on labor’s dart board.

I have long been critical of labor leaders who indulge in the overpromise and under deliver message.  But it is no different than Parker and his merry band buying labor favor without first proving on the battlefield that it can win the revenue necessary to fund those promises.  Remember, this is a labor deal. And US Airways may have reached too far in its assumption that it can accomplish what Delta and United did after being number 4 at the altar.  I am not aware of fourth mover benefits.  Think of the concept of the S-Curve and the idea that being important is better than being big.

The merger’s proponents are right that the “New American” will be able to offer more destinations. They are right that it will be able to offer more services in competition with Delta and United.  But proponents also are right in acknowledging that Plan B would result is something far less than labor has been promised. 

Where the unions get this wrong is in the assumption that because they have been to the table and made concessions they are entitled to the same compensation paid to employees of Delta and United, which have generated the revenues to support higher labor costs.  Other than an expanded network, where/what are the benefits for consumers?  I see many benefits for US Airways’ flyers; I see fewer for today’s American flyers.  Other benefits like investing in a re-fleeting and international growth are being implemented.

The DOJ is right to at least challenge the combination.  It may not win, but it is right to challenge.  The industry’s structure is much more concentrated than when it considered and approved the prior three mergers.  If this is indeed the last big deal in the US airline industry, it deserves a very close look.  Based on the combinations that preceded it and the string of events that have impacted the industry since the first merger was approved, it is really difficult to find any consumer benefits other than the fact that a profitable industry is finally investing in products that the consumer wants and desires.

In advocating for the merger, unions are doing what they should be doing to reap the promises the new management team made.  I would be doing the same.  But they should stop hiding behind the consumer because their interests are not aligned.  It will take customers to pay off Doug’s dubious deal and, as a result, customers will pay more - a necessary fact for decades.  And that’s the reality.

 

Note to readers:  I am long in the equities of Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Sprit Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines.  Thank you to many readers that have reached out over the past months encouraging me to return the keyboard.  It is nice to be back.

Wednesday
Feb062013

THE END GAME: IT’S ULTIMATELY ABOUT RETAINING THE CUSTOMER

Paint me a skeptic.  Paint me a contrarian.  Paint me stupid.  I’ve been painted with worse colors. I’ve been one of the lone voices really challenging the proposed merger between American and US Airways – one that any read of the newspapers makes clear will likely go forward. And to be honest, many of the concerns I have raised about the merger have been addressed in the talks underway.

By all accounts, the deal is done but for a decision about who will lead the new airline. The analysts and the unions are betting on Doug Parker in the leadership beauty contest between American’s Tom Horton and the US Airways’ CEO.  It’s the nature of this kind of deal to want to crown a winner.

I’m not going to weigh in on the relative merits of Parker over Horton or make this about personalities or executive legacy, which misses the point. In my view, the most successful mergers focus not on the victor to whom goes the spoils, but rather focus on building a leadership structure that brings the experience necessary to maximize the synergies and fulfill promises made to stakeholders.

So for that reason and many others, it would be an error to approach a merger of AA and US as another notch in Parker’s bedpost so he can impose his personal style on the combined airline. US Airways has done a very good job of running the airline it is, but it will take a breadth and depth of experience to a run the airline the new American would be. This is the case because this merger perhaps more than any others will require a delicate marriage of cultures and operating styles.

There is little comparison to the three big mergers that have preceded it:  Delta – Northwest; United – Continental; and Southwest – AirTran.  All three had some international angle to the redrawn networks. Northwest brought the Pacific to Delta and Delta brought some Latin America to Northwest; United brought the Pacific to Continental and Continental brought Latin America to United; and AirTran brought international capabilities to Southwest, providing Southwest the ability to “take out” a potential long-term nemesis in the lower cost AirTran. 

Other than strengthening American’s presence in the northeast US and along the eastern seaboard, US Airways brings little to American from a network perspective. US Airways will transfer a nice chunk of international revenue away from the STAR Alliance to oneworld, and, of course, the sheer size of the combined carrier would return the new American to the number one spot American lost when Delta and Northwest merged.

But to effectively run the combined airline, the new American can’t alienate its high-value business customers who won’t put up with the growing pains we’ve seen with United-Continental. And if the new airline is uncertain in its pace or fails to impress those most valuable customers – many of them the core of American’s revenue base – then a successful merger is far less certain.

The award for the biggest network airline merger failure should go to the team that put together the 1987 deal to combine PEOPLExpress, Frontier and New York Air into Continental Airlines.  The idea was to merge Texas Air Corp.’s holdings to form the nation’s third largest carrier.  But instead of creating a worthy competitor for the two largest airlines at the time, the combination resulted in a balance sheet bloated with debt, unit revenue deficiencies in every corner of the network and no commonality in the combined fleets.  The merged company ultimately filed for bankruptcy protection in in 1990, emerging three years after that.  Ultimately a new management was put in place and the turnaround is legend.  

An American – US Airways combination would not be Continental circa 1987. American is simply too good of an asset.  Nor do I think it will be Delta–Northwest circa 2008, in part because the execution risk strikes me as very high, particularly considering disparities between each airline’s model and culture. One flies to China, the other to Chattanooga.  As a result, they bring two very different customer bases to the entity as well, so customer expectations will differ, too. 

Many analysts have focused on US Airways’ deft courtship of American’s labor leaders as evidence that the US Airways culture is a superior model. But I believe that analysis focuses on the wrong stakeholder group.  At this late stage of the consolidation process, American’s ability to retain existing customers and win new ones is critical to the success of the new airline. A culture transplant alone won’t get the job done. The highest barrier to success would be the one set by a new leadership team that insisted upon its way or the highway in running a combined airline.

Collaboration is critical. That doesn’t mean Tom Horton must be a part of the new American if the architects of any deal determine he’s not welcome. Nor does it mean that the entire American team in place today is necessarily the best choice.  But if the leadership crown goes to Parker’s Phoenix posse, they would be making a grave error to impose the US Airways style on the new American without leveraging American’s successes and cultural assets.

American has proven adept at managing its regional affiliations, code share partners, joint ventures with British Airways and JAL and a loyalty program that arguably is more valuable than US Airways itself.  Its marketing and IT capabilities exceed anything US Airways has ever tried. And American knows far better than its potential new partner how to treat the premium customer who wants warm nuts and lie-flat seats in first class.

I can only hope that the “best of the best” of the two companies will be a part of any new one, because that’s the only way the new airline will compete effectively with first movers Delta, United and Southwest.

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.

Wednesday
May052010

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: What About US Airways After All?

One fascinating story resulting from the news that Continental and United intend to merge is what might happen to those on the sidelines, namely US Airways and American. 

Let’s begin with US Airways.  I have written before that US Airways’ route portfolio is inferior relative to other US legacy network carriers. I also have written before that US Airways is hamstrung because of its precarious labor position – a constraint primarily caused by the dysfunction in its pilot corps.

Immediately following Delta’s January 2008 rejection of US Airways’ overture, it was clear to me that US Airways CEO Doug Parker was right in his efforts to be a first mover in the consolidation arena. In making a run at Delta, Parker provided a blueprint for the industry to merge networks, and ensure air service to communities of all sizes, while at the same time reducing fixed costs. But something stood in the way then:  Parker’s pilots. He was hamstrung by pilot leadership blinded by the prospect of an unlikely outcome – a better seniority arbitration decision. [See note below:  Delta attempt came before seniority list decision was issued]  As I wrote then:  “For Parker, bringing labor along would certainly have proven expensive – and maybe just too expensive.”

Today the US Airways pilots await a decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stemming from a lawsuit initially won by the former America West pilots after USAPA, the union that represents the US Airways pilots, refused to honor a binding arbitration decision on seniority integration.

Because of that circumstance—and the consistent objection by USAPA to every strategic initiative generated by US Airways management—last month I challenged speculation that United and US Airways could put together a merger where they twice failed before.

To be fair, as discussions proceeded between US Airways and United, it was becoming clearer to this observer that USAPA was beginning to understand and even embrace the idea that consolidation may not be a bad thing for employees.  The math is easy.  A $30 billion corporation is in better shape to provide for raises and long term employment stability than is a $13 billion company susceptible to geopolitical, oil and economic shocks.  But it remains to be seen if this was just USAPA being opportunistic or a sign that the union is changing its stripes.  As I will discuss below, a change in approach by USAPA will be necessary to secure an improvement in pay for the US Airways pilots in the short term and the benefits of consolidation for all US Airways employees in the longer term.   

Let’s Put Some Things into Perspective

In recent days, I’ve read many stories that attempt to etch US Airways’ livery on the next gravestone in the airline cemetery. But the rumors of the airline’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  In theory, US Airways, American and other carriers should benefit, albeit indirectly, from industry consolidation.  Moreover, most of these stories missed the fact that this consolidation is taking place at the bottom of a recovery cycle, not at the top.  Assuming that the health of the US airline industry is inextricably tied to the health of the US macroeconomy, then a rising tide should float all boats.  Right? 

On May 3, Vaughn Cordle of Airline Forecasts Inc. published a white paper titled:  “United + Continental is Good News for all Stakeholders:  More Mergers are Needed.  Is American and US Airways next?” Cordle writes: “If the industry is not allowed to consolidate in the most rational manner, the result will be a continuation of the slow liquidation and the inevitable failure of US and AA, the two remaining network airlines in need of restructuring.  The most likely outcome would be an AA bankruptcy and outright liquidation of US.”

Cordle makes a case for consolidating US Airways and American citing expected future increases in fuel prices, airport charges, security and labor costs against the backdrop of less than credit worthy industry.  And these come before the industry begins paying to conform to inevitably new environmental regulations.  Don’t misunderstand, I agree that participating in consolidation is the best outcome for US Airways.   But I don’t buy the gravestone argument.  Let’s take a look at the fundamentals.

Everybody remembers America West Airlines.  A legacy-like model—that we all knew ultimately would be combined with another airline—around the turn of the century America West "flirted" several times before tying the knot.  Before its 2005 merger, America West survived and produced competitive margins through focused management, the support of labor unions that recognized the company’s place in the industry, and by offsetting a revenue generating disadvantage by maintaining a cost structure advantage.  Oh yeah, and the airline was based in Tempe, AZ and run by a guy named Doug Parker.  Sound familiar?

Today US Airways does suffer from about a 12 percent stage length adjusted unit revenue disadvantage versus its legacy carrier peers.  But it also enjoys about a 12 percent stage length adjusted unit cost advantage versus these rivals.  Despite the revenue generating deficiency, for the first quarter of 2010 only United among the legacy carriers saw a bigger increase in total unit revenue than the Tempe-based airline.  Like the rest of the industry, US Airways continues to see its corporate revenue and booked yield (passenger revenue per revenue passenger mile) improve.

Maintaining a Cost Advantage Is Critical for US Airways

And this revenue disadvantage is offset by US Airways continuing to maintain a cost advantage.  For the first quarter of 2010, only Delta saw its unit cost (operating expenses per available seat mile) increase less than US Airways when compared with all legacy network carriers. As a result, US Airways’ pre-tax margins show little to no difference when compared to other legacy carriers.  In fact, during the first quarter, US Airways saw a pre-tax margin improvement of 7.2 points, which compared favorably to its peers. The cost advantage the carrier enjoys cannot be overstated nor can the company hide behind the fact that the vast majority of that difference can be found in lower labor costs.  By contrast, United and Continental are only now beginning to navigate what it might cost to buy labor peace, particularly among the pilot groups. 

One imperative for US Airways will be to educate employees about the difference between US Airways when compared to Delta and the new United.  If US Airways’ unions push the company to match rates paid by other carriers with significantly bigger networks, more profitable hubs and less capacity dedicated to the US domestic market, then Cordle just may be right in predicting the potential for liquidation.

But what if the unions recognize US Airways position in the industry and adopt a longer term approach?  What if US Airways can maintain its current cost advantage?  Or enough cost advantage to offset the company’s structural revenue deficiency?  What if the airline get its internal labor house in order so that old US Airways and old America West contracts are one with matching seniority lists and affordable economics?  Is that really any different than America West at the beginning of the last decade?  Is this any different than United going back to Chicago in 2008 after being snubbed by Continental and getting its house in order?  I think not.

In the US Airways route structure, Philadelphia and Charlotte are gems.  I will concede that Phoenix is confounding given the extent of direct competition from Southwest Airlines.  And while US Airways does enjoy a 23 percent unit revenue advantage versus its low-cost competition, it also carries a 29 percent cost disadvantage when adjusted for stage length.  No legacy carrier has more direct exposure to Southwest.  But this is not new and it is not a death knell.  Parker and his colleagues have been successfully managing this challenge for 15 years.  Rather an important part of the education of US Airways employees and unions need to fully understand the importance of keeping costs low.

It’s Hard to Kill an Airline

In my view, an airline today is like a cockroach.  You can beat it, burn it, kick it and starve it, but it doesn’t die easily.  And over the last ten years Doug Parker has defied even a cockroach’s odds on numerous occasions. Remember, we are at the bottom of a recovery cycle – a fragile recovery cycle to be sure.  US Airways cash as a percent of twelve month trailing revenue is comparable to its legacy peers and relative to its size (revenue), comfortable.  Compared to its peers, the company also has fewer debt obligations to be repaid as a percent of revenue over the next two years.

This is not to say that US Airways does not have its issues – some that are easier absorbed by consolidated balance sheets that produce a higher cash cushion.  And there are plenty of sensitivities that can disrupt the company’s vulnerable cost advantage:  1) a 1 percent change in mainline unit cost ex-fuel cost the company an additional $60 million per year; and 2) a $1 change in price of a barrel of crude cost the company $34 million assuming that crack spreads stay at today’s levels resembling historic norms.  On the other side, as little as a 1 percent change in unit passenger revenue bolsters the company’s top line by $93 million.

Also US Airways’ labor unions need to recognize the value of cooperation and moderation in the near term.  Those unions also need to consider that “moderation” could mean significantly improved pay—if they are prepared to eliminate anachronistic scope restrictions and improve productivity.  And they need to see that there is a big pay day if US Airways is involved in industry consolidation, and that their behavior—and the terms of their collective bargaining agreements—will play an important role in determining whether that pay day occurs.

Message to US Airways’ Labor Generally; USAPA and AFA-CWA Specifically

Git’r’done. Enough already.  The pundits who suggest that US Airways is dead do so partly in recognition of the dysfunction of union leadership at your company.  They are not all together wrong.  But most are not aware that there may be recognition by US Airways’ labor leadership that their members may actually benefit by participating in consolidation.  To participate in a strategy designed to promote industry stability requires labor stability as well – and this is an area that needs improvement at US Airways particularly among the two unions representing flight crews, USAPA and AFA-CWA. 

Some suggest in comments to this blog that management is keeping the groups apart to save a few bucks.  If that is what they are doing, then shame on them.  But no one can make me believe that this is the case.  What's in it for Parker to do that?  Also it is in everyone’s best interest to negotiate joint collective bargaining agreements with competitive productivity and scope language that permits a company to navigate the complex competitive landscape and to have a single seniority list for the various class and crafts of employees.   And it is critical to both shareholders and employees that impediments to mergers be eliminated from collective bargaining agreements.

What makes this round so damn difficult is that every carrier is now a little different and it stems from an individual carrier’s portfolio of flying.  For this reason it is increasingly difficult to compare costs at one carrier to another and, as such, pattern bargaining should be a practice of the past.  If airlines engage in union efforts to chase the best contract – even when their networks don’t pay the tab -- then they deserve their place in the airline graveyard.  The price of buying “labor peace” is too high if it means an airline can’t ultimately support or survive its own labor cost structure.

These negotiations, whether at United, Continental, American or US Airways, are about the future of the airline industry as we know it.  As such, the negotiations are about more productivity and flexibility in return for higher wages.  Fixed costs must be removed.  And a union’s demand that a company carry more employees to do the same level of flying as a competitor simply creates a structural disadvantage any rival can exploit.  For a standalone US Airways, the company is in a position to survive given the up cycle ahead.  But come next the down cycle, or geopolitical event, or oil at $100 . . . then all bets are off.  So at US Airways, the negotiations need to be about ensuring the company's relevance while supporting industry consolidation.

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: In a couple of years give US Airways a call. 

More to come.

Monday
Mar242008

Not Time For “Hush Money”

The Status Quo Is the Issue; Not Firing CEOs

Today I received a comment from Carmen on my latest blog post. Carmen is a frequent reader here, student of the industry and a person that is not afraid to say and write what he believes. Even if it means that he is not the first person other pilots seek out in the crew room when he checks in for his trip. He suggests that invoking force majeure might incite a revolution – and I paraphrase.

Carmen is not a current member of his union and his philosophical differences with his union have been written here and on multiple blog sites that cover the industry. Carmen, like others, point to the lack of a people element in the US airline business today is what stands in the way of a successful and sustainable industry when contrasted to the industry we know that perpetually teeters on the edge.

I Said I Would Not Acknowledge

Regarding Carmen’s comments, I responded in a pretty matter of fact tone. After responding, I started thinking back to Bob Reed's piece in Business week last week entitled: It's Time for United's CEO to Go; UAL should keep United Airlines in Chicago—but send Glenn Tilton, its deal-hungry CEO, packing. OK, for those that know me, you know that I have an affinity for Tilton. Do I agree with everything that has been done at United under his watch? No, I do not. Where I absolutely agree with Mr. Tilton is that the status quo does not work for any stakeholder group. Period.

So Mr. Reed, my question to you: are you singling out Tilton or are you joining hands with certain industry stakeholders that are looking for any leverage to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the self-imposed gridlock toward change which afflicts the US industry? It seems to me that any question you asked in your article could have been asked of Richard Anderson at Delta, Doug Steenland at Northwest, Doug Parker at US Airways and yes, even Larry Kellner at Continental. And I am going to include Gerard Arpey of American and I will discuss that later.

And Mr. Reed, I am sure glad you mentioned Continental and its transformation. From my read, about the only thing in your article that comes close to even describing the competitive reality that faces this industry each and every day is the fact that Continental survived the “controversial and oft-despised” Frank Lorenzo era. And I quote further: “the airline survived his tenure (along with two bankruptcies) and eventually morphed into one of the country's most successful large carriers. Now Continental is enjoying solid financial returns, improved customer satisfaction, and stronger employee relations. What's more, its CEO doesn't want to merge and is even ordering new planes”.

Pretty bold statement on the intentions of Continental’s current CEO who has done anything but rule out merger efforts should other carriers in the industry decide to join hands. Then again, it is hard to talk about joining hands when you are encumbered by a golden share that also serves as golden handcuffs. And even bolder to insinuate that other airline CEOs would not want to achieve the same thing that took Continental 10 years to begin fully realizing. And for that matter, that type of success is what CEOs want to be paid for. But the type of transformation that continues at Continental is more akin to a marathon than a sprint.

Where This Whole Post Started

Like today, the industry then was engaged in a shakeout and survival of the fittest when Continental began its transformation. For any Continental, PEOPLExpress, Frontier, New York Air, Texas International (see comment section) and Eastern (did I leave any carrier out?) employee of the time there are plenty of horror stories. But 20+ years later, we continue to witness the legacy carrier that first underwent necessary quadruple bypass surgery to transform itself to a US industry leader.

The only thing different today is that the transformation is more difficult. In the 1980s it was important to build a network, with a cost structure, that gave a carrier some form of presence/dominance within a particular US geographic region. Today it is about building an entity that maintains is preeminence in the US domestic market while spreading its reach to all world regions with a cost structure that allows it to compete where external forces are increasingly complex. Mr. Reed, airline labor, airline consumer activists and Rep. Oberstar would all have us believe that today’s airline world should remain focused on Altoona rather than Auckland; Duluth rather than Dubai.

Carmen in his comment to me mentions pandering and appeasement against a backdrop of a leadership void. Where I am stuck, is that I think there is finally leadership within the industry and there is a vision as to where this industry needs to morph to. When there is leadership and vision, there will be reasons to say no. And today’s CEOs are saying no to a return to the way things have been. They are saying very clearly and in their own way, no to the various issues that led each of their respective entities into bankruptcy or restructuring.

Definitely Not the Time for Hush Money

I asked Carmen in my response: “but isn't what labor wants is an historical return to pandering and appeasement? Throwing good money at the age old problems only makes people happy in the short term. Then the industry has to return and ask for concessions because they can no longer afford the hush money that was negotiated. I am all for saying no and trying to find a way to break this age old pattern. And I think finally this industry has a group of CEOs that can and will say no rather than push off the tough decisions that have been deferred over the past 3-4 negotiating cycles. Popularity contest -- NO. Necessary action – YES”.

It seems that the Northwest employees were more than willing to vote Steenland out in the event of a Northwest – Delta deal. And apparently he was willing to drop his “ego” and step aside in the event of a transaction that he and his board deemed in the best interests of all stakeholders.

My bet is Mr. Tilton and others would/will do the same in return for a deal that satisfies a vision. United has been out front in the consolidation view to be sure. But, United has been out in front suggesting they would put down capacity in the event of high oil prices also. And that simply sounds like managing the business to me. Mr. Reed pleads with United’s Board to “give Tilton his due, provide him fair compensation for time served—and begin the hunt for an executive who can build on his accomplishments and take an independent airline to greater heights”.

But Tilton’s work at United is not yet done and therefore the United Board should no more pay Tilton his hush money to walk today anymore than the prior United administration should have paid the United pilots the hush money to end the dreaded “Summer of 2000” that ultimately landed the carrier in bankruptcy. And certainly Mr. Arpey should not be paying his pilots, flight attendants or any other employees the amounts of hush money they are seeking over an executive compensation plan designed by American's Board. A compensation plan that could have been altered by the Board, not by Mr. Arpey and his management team.

Breaking the boom-bust cycle is much more important than perpetuating the status quo. Maybe we should invoke the force majeure clause on the self-imposed gridlock toward change which afflicts our industry …

To call for one CEO's head when an entire group of industry CEOs recognize that the status quo just does not work is well.......unfortunate.

More to come.

Monday
Mar172008

Invoking the Force Majeure Clause: Oil Taking Its Toll

...and Thinking About Northwest - Delta

As I prepared to write this week, I had outlined a piece around the NCAA basketball tournament generally and Selection Sunday specifically. I was going to talk about how the Delta-Northwest deal, destined for a #1 seed a month ago had become a “bubble” deal over the past month because of a less than stellar end to the conference schedule and “one and done” in the conference tournament. And then I was prepared to place them in the last 4 teams out group.

But rather than just isolate Delta-Northwest, I think it is time for the industry to think about consolidation in yet another way. Typically we think about consolidation as two entities combining through merger activity. But there is financial consolidation as well. It is similar to what we experienced during the 2002-2006 period where an industry contracts on its own volition. It is probably time to begin another round of contraction as the price of oil makes it very difficult for the industry to maintain its current service offerings.

Introduction to Force Majeur for Those on Capitol Hill
and a Refresher for US Airline Labor

From where I sit, the NCAA tournament will make great theater as always but will pale in news as to what I see coming for the US airline industry. In my last blog post, I purposefully left the piece hanging on an issue for labor and the politicians to seriously consider: “Politicians and labor should think real hard about the fallout that could stem from the current economic environment [read to include high oil prices] versus what the perceived fallout could be in a consolidation scenario”.

As the market opened this morning, oil traded near $112 per barrel. Whereas the price has pulled back from those highs, it is becoming clearer that oil is going higher as the highs get higher and the lows get higher. Heeding warnings from the industry that capacity will be closely examined at these prices, I began to write this piece.

Then as I was writing, I did my usual check of the headlines as the day wore on. In one check of the day’s news, I read, as everyone should when you are not reading here to steal a Maxon line, a blog post by David Field of Airline Business on his blog named appropriately Left Field. Mr. Field cites quotes directly from Delta’s Anderson, Northwest’s Steenland and Continental’s Kellner each questioning the size of their respective networks in the face of $105 per barrel oil.

Defining Force Majeure

Typically we do not like to talk about force majeure issues in the industry, but I am thinking it is time. Wikpedia defines force majeure as:

Force majeure (French for "greater force") is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as war, strike, riot, crime, act of nature (e.g., flooding, earthquake, volcano), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. However, force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance of a party, as where non-performance is caused by the usual and natural consequences of external forces (e.g., predicted rain stops an outdoor event), or where the intervening circumstances are specifically contemplated.

Time-critical and other sensitive contracts may be drafted to limit the shield of this clause where a party does not take reasonable steps (or specific precautions) to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference, either when they become likely or when they actually occur. A force majeure may work to excuse all or part of the obligations of one or both parties. For example, a strike might prevent timely delivery of goods, but not timely payment for the portion delivered. Similarly, a widespread power outage would not be a force majeure excuse if the contract requires the provision of backup power or other contingency plans for continuity.

A force majeure may also be the overpowering force itself, which prevents the fulfillment of a contract. In that instance, it is actually the Impossibility defense.

The understanding of force majeure in French law is similar to that of international law and vis major as defined above. For a defendant to invoke force majeure in French law, the event proposed as force majeure must pass three tests:

Externality

The defendant must have nothing to do with the event's happening.

Unpredictability

If the event could be foreseen, the defendant is obligated to have prepared for it. Being unprepared for a foreseeable event leaves the defendant culpable. This standard is very strictly applied.

Irresistibility

The consequences of the event must have been unpreventable.

A Non-Lawyer Discussion of Force Majeure

Force majeure (French for "greater force") is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as war, strike, riot, crime, act of nature (e.g., flooding, earthquake, volcano), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

Name any airline that spent time in bankruptcy and was required to file a plan of reorganization that correctly estimated the price of oil in that plan. United assumed $55 per barrel and that was $50+ per barrel ago. Northwest just recently emerged and it assumed oil $40+ per barrel ago.

Based on the assumed price per barrel of oil, contracts were entered into with the regional affiliates of the major carriers. The price of oil has long been described an uncontrollable expense for the airline industry. Is this an act of nature, I do not know. What I do know, is that this rise in the price of oil is beyond the control of the industry. Moreover, this recent price push makes oil more expensive than it was on an inflation adjusted basis in the early 1980’s and we know that the period will always be defined as an oil crisis.

However, force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance of a party, as where non-performance is caused by the usual and natural consequences of external forces (e.g., predicted rain stops an outdoor event), or where the intervening circumstances are specifically contemplated.

There is no negligence here by the industry or malfeasance by anyone. This is the market at work. The causes for the oil price increases are many but cannot be isolated to any one catalyst. And none of this is as predictable as rain on a hot summer night.

Time-critical and other sensitive contracts may be drafted to limit the shield of this clause where a party does not take reasonable steps (or specific precautions) to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference, either when they become likely or when they actually occur.

To say that the industry has not taken reasonable steps to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference would ignore the painful attempts to address cost structures that were simply not sustainable. As Jamie Baker pointed out last week in his research note, since 2002, the price of oil will have increased some $25 billion for the US industry while savings from labor over the same period amounts to $7 billion.

Through the restructuring period and practices that continue today, the industry cut costs to combat a declining revenue environment and to address the rising cost of oil. The industry has used hedges; pared domestic capacity as a way to reduce exposure to an unhealthy domestic market; increased international capacity as a way to increase revenue; cut back on amenities; cut distribution costs to a minimal level; reduced ownership costs; cut employee wages; improved employee productivity; improved asset utilization; terminated pensions; outsourced flying; outsourced maintenance; outsourced administrative activities; and experimented with hub structures to name a few of the hundred of cost cutting activities that have been employed.

Most, if not all, reasonable steps have been taken to prevent or limit the continued losses for the US industry – except for that outside interference called oil.

Included in the definition: A force majeure may also be the overpowering force itself, which prevents the fulfillment of a contract. In that instance, it is actually the Impossibility defense. As for the externality, the industry has nothing to do with the event’s happening. As for unpredictability, this industry has done everything it can do to counteract its influences. As for irresistibility, the consequences of the oil price rise were not preventable.

Delta and Northwest

About one month ago, I remember Bob Fornaro, CEO of AirTran Airways, referring to proposals made to his pilots in an oil-denominated way. Like Fornaro, Messrs. Anderson and Steenland I only hope that you tell your pilots and all other employees that the terms of the agreement you made in order to have a single collective bargaining agreement in place are now off of the table. You made an agreement where some of your pilots would receive 30% pay increases at $85-90 oil, surely those agreements should not be made at $105 oil. Invoke force majeur.

$20 per barrel ago, you said that your networks would be largely kept intact. Now today you seem to be hinting that the size of your networks may need to be reconsidered. Let’s just face the fact that there are too many regional carriers and too many hubs and as a result too much money being spent on serving communities that cannot economically support the frequency of access to the air transportation system today. Cutbacks like those Doug Parker of US Airways suggested were probably unavoidable at some point and at $105 oil, well……invoke force majeur.

In each case, these suggested actions seem prudent and can easily be explained by an unpredictable externality whose consequences could not have been predicted by you. Invoke force majeur.

Consolidation is still right. But as everyone has said it has to be the right deal for all stakeholders and given the externalities facing the industry, much harder choices will now have to be made.

More to come.

Tuesday
Dec042007

If It Doesn’t Add, Let’s Begin the Subtraction Process

What Is Wrong With US Regional Industry Attrition?

It is increasingly clear that, in addition to fuel, regional airline industry overcapacity – a “bubble” in this writer’s opinion - may be the second most important catalyst to consolidation in the US airline industry.

Today, USA Today wrote about the capacity issue in an article about cuts in airline schedules across the industry, even in the face of strong demand click here. Maybe this is a precursor of things to come.

When domestic market overlap is evaluated, it is the respective regional network webs that will give pause to regulators and legislators, particularly considering the extent to which consumers may be disadvantaged as the result of consolidation. This is where network overlap occurs, not on the densest routes replete with competition from all sectors of the industry.

At last week’s ACI-NA International Aviation Issues Seminar in Washington DC, I tried to come up with a politically astute answer when asked a question on consolidation. But given my inclination to tell it how it is, I ultimately acknowledged that, on this subject, there is no “politic” answer.

I think Doug Parker had it right. I’m in no position to make that call, but looking at Parker’s blueprint for US Airways, he was suggesting some smart decisions. Why does Jacksonville, NC need nine flights a day to connect its airport to the US air transportation system when six are sufficient? Why does Greenville-Spartanburg need 25 choices for 100 or so passengers a day to and from Los Angeles?

The US industry is now struggling to shed fixed costs in an era when many airlines already have achieved significant cost savings from labor; fuel costs are outside anyone’s control and therefore not an option; and most of the cost reductions already have been wrung out of the distribution area

Since 2002, transport related expenses as reported by the mainline carriers – the vast majority representing the purchase of capacity from regional partners - increased more than fourfold to more than $17 billion in 2006 click here. If there is a cost area that deserves, and needs, reevaluation it is regional capacity deployment.

To put it in perspective, the $17 billion in expense spent by the mainline carriers on regional capacity exceeds the market capitalizations of United, American, Northwest and US Airways combined.

A Contrarian View of American’s Decision to Shed Eagle

Since American announced its intention to spin out its wholly owned American Eagle unit, I am troubled by some of the analysis. This is not about American or even about the FL Group, an activist AMR shareholder that has pushed the company to divest assets. This is about a sector of the industry with failing economics – the regional sector. And this surely is not about mainline pilot scope clauses. This is about economics: pure and simple. This is about American continually persuing the cleanup of its balance sheet.

If Southwest is continually revising downward planned capacity, then this relatively expensive capacity is surely difficult to maintain, yet alone grow.

As I have written here before: there are too many network carriers; too many low cost carriers; too many hubs and too many regional carriers. Already, we are seeing some signs of a pilot shortage. And the growth of the regionals – much of it built on labor arbitrage and an over-reliance on regional jets over mainline narrowbodies – is now slowing to a crawl. So why shouldn’t we begin to shrink the regional sector? Delta has Comair up for sale or some other transaction, which has been public knowledge for some time.

Financial engineering the AA deal is not. Pinnacle was the last financial engineering attempt using a regional platform and in the end the market correctly valued the expected revenue streams based on activity in the industry at the time. Mainline carriers began paying lower margins based on reduced revenue flows as the bankruptcy parade commenced. If AA were looking to enhance shareholder value, they have two or three other options that surely would have been announced before this one.

Prior to its Chapter 11 filing, Delta sold ASA to Skywest for a fraction of the price it paid for the regional carrier. Skywest negotiated certain terms in the event of a bankruptcy filing by the parent. More importantly, the broken carrier Skywest bought at a deep discount also came with a 15-year Air Service Agreement with Delta on pay out terms that are believed to be significantly better than newcomers to Delta’s regional stable receive.

This is the type of deal I would expect in the case of AA and Eagle. American has signaled to the market that it plans to maintain the current lift being purchased from Eagle. Yes, a new Air Service Agreement would have to be negotiated along with the transaction. What will be different with this deal is that aircraft will begin to come “off lease” over the term so the “buyer” may be purchasing reduced cash flow streams going forward. This is not financial engineering but economic reality. But they will be buying cash flow streams nonetheless – and that revenue is what matters to the analysis, not scope clause limitations.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Maybe this deal could be a catalyst to begin a long and overdue attrition of the regional industry as we know it. If there is a pilot shortage, then you are buying pilots. If you are looking to build a capital base that could be leveraged in other areas, this could be an economical means to buy what you could not build organically – particularly in this environment.

Growth is not occurring with 50 seat flying; that has been a well- documented fact for the past two years. But it takes the same number of crews to fly a 70 or a 76 seat plane as it does to fly a 37, 44 or 50 seater. Carriers participating in new flying with mainline partners are now purchasing their own aircraft. The purchase of new aircraft requires both cash flow and a sufficient capital base. The inclusion of Eagle assets and cash flow will surely provide a regional provider with more long-term staying power to withstand the necessary changes within this sector.

Just as we have talked about a domestic airline industry that could ultimately shrink to three or four legacy carriers, then it also is safe to say that three or four regional carriers are more than sufficient to meet demand. Skywest and arguably Republic will be there in the end. The question is who will join them in supplying capacity to the mainline carriers. The regional carrier space needs multiple providers, not only to ensure the competition for feed that the buyers want in the marketplace, but also to avoid the labor disruptions possible when a carrier is dependent on feed from just one provider.

Concluding Thoughts For Government

This is not a time to be “knee jerk” in a federal response to U.S. carriers that are struggling to be profitable at home while quickly being relegated to secondary status in the global arena. Just because there is an airport in a congressman’s district does not necessarily mean it makes economic and financial sense for airlines to offer service.

Yes, the government should ensure access to the US and global air transportation systems for as many communities as possible. But it is not commercially viable to offer each of those airports around-the-clock service. This bubble has raised unrealistic expectations for air service. Now we need to relieve pressure on an industry before it breaks.

Sunday
Nov042007

My Beginnings and Increasingly Appreciating Tilton's Message

This little bit on me should go a long way to helping you understand where I came from and how it impacts my views on the airline world today. I now have history to reflect upon – I did not when I began in the industry and was forced to make decisions as a union leader to ensure that my carrier survived the war of attrition.

Glenn Tilton, UAL’s Chairman and CEO said last week in a speech to the Nikkei Global Management Forum in Tokyo: “If there is one imperative for every business in the global economy today, it is simply this: evolve, adapt, reinvent . . . or risk irrelevance in the global marketplace”. He went on to say: “As everyone here today knows well: the reality of our world is that globalization is relentless. Think of any industry represented in this room; choose any business listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange; and one can be sure: it looks nothing like it did ten years ago; and looks nothing like it will ten years from now”.

Some Personal Background

In 1979, I was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. And like many, going to school required I worked a job or two to make ends meet. In trying to incorporate all things important in life at the time -- beer, going to class or not going to class, going to work, girls, beer and getting up to do it all again, one thing was clear - I was not getting much out of school that felt particularly inspiring.

It was at this time that I had a conversation with a cousin who had been a flight attendant for TWA; she suggested that the job would allow me more than sufficient time off that I could finish school. I was turned down by Braniff and ultimately hired by North Central Airlines. While I was in training, North Central and Southern merged to form Republic Airlines. So, by the time I graduated in 1979, I was a Republic flight attendant on an airplane to be based in Detroit.

I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was more than I bargained for. I sat reserve for the first six months, constantly putting in for lines on the Convair 580. Soon, I was able to hold a line that had me overnighting in Huron, SD after making 11 landings from Detroit and facing 10 landings back the next day. So, in that first year at Republic, there was no school for me. The industry was deregulated just nine months before I was hired. Republic grew quickly and my relative seniority allowed me hold a line of illegal overnights. With that relative security, I enrolled at Eastern Michigan University.

There I was blessed to find a great academic environment with only 20 declared economics majors. Classes were small, the professors were engaged and, finally, the lust for learning emerged. I carried 15-18 hours per semester while flying my line and finally finished my undergrad in 1982. My flying took me from Huron to sleeping in the basement of the Sault Ste. Marie Airport on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. With only rare exceptions, I flew two years and never left the State of Michigan – flying at night from Detroit to Traverse City to Pellston to the Sault and then retrace those steps again beginning at 5:30 the next morning. Often the basement of that airport was my study room.

In 1981, the industry began an era of massive change promised by the deregulators. The dinosaurs, free from the yoke of regulation, began to rethink their approach to the business. What followed was the the quick liquidation of Braniff, the rapid entry of carriers into markets of all sizes based on the hub and spoke network model, the grounding of the DC10s, the PATCO strike, the birth of upstarts like New York Air and PEOPLExpress, multiple mergers and the era of Frank Lorenzo. By the end of 1981, Republic had acquired Hughes Air West and I got to experience a merger firsthand.

Republic and its lineage were highly dependent on government subsidies that encouraged airlines to serve the small communities I flew to on a daily basis like Pellston, Muskegon and Ironwood. And as this subsidy was coming to an end, it was clear that Republic's costs and their revenues were falling out of alignment. Between 1981 and 1983, airlines across the industry negotiated several concessionary contracts during an era of change in which concessions were the rule rather than the exception. The contracts were in effect for only a few months at a time because most people assumed that the economic cycles were similarly short-lived ... and in virtually all cases, as soon as the concessions came to end, the return to the bargaining table was not far behind.

As I neared graduation, I was encouraged by my co-workers to run for President of the Detroit domicile, a position I won in the middle of this concessionary era. I crunched numbers and made some mistakes, but also began a different phase of my education in an industry well into transition. By mid-1983, the five Republic unions were tired of this constant return to the concessionary bargaining table and formed a steering committee to explore a leveraged ESOP of the company where I served as the flight attendant representative.

Our first job was to hire the professionals needed to do the job. We hired an airline economics firm, an investment banker, a labor lawyer, a lawyer familiar with ESOP law and a communications firm. Our second job was to figure out how to pay them – a task we accomplished by assessing the members of each union.

With professional arsenal in tow, we began to create a business plan that required hard discussions about the amount of labor concessions that would be required to fund an LBO. In our view, it was well worth the effort to try to fix the company rather than be forced to endure more and more concessions that amounted to mere Band-Aids that labor was putting on a carrier that was hemorrhaging cash as the industry changed around us.

The centerpiece of the union’s business plan was a the build up of the Detroit hub. So with business plan in hand, it was off to New York to talk with banks that might be interested in lending us inmates the $400 million or so it would take to buy the asylum. For the most part the five unions stayed together. The IAM and its maverick investment banker at the time, the late Brian Freeman, were in and out, but generally on board with a deal.

During one trip to New York that took us to Citibank -- Republic’s lead lender -- Republic CEO Dan May was relieved of his duties and replaced by a very tall man in red suspenders. Into the room walked Stephen Wolf. As Wolf came on board, the negotiations moved away from a leveraged deal to a more traditional give-and-take with equities as the quid in return for concessions – and take they did.

In the end the flight attendants agreed to a 23.5% pay cut and some work rule changes. In return, the best we could negotiate for all employees was approximately 20 cents on the dollar for concessions granted, a return on our “investment” made up of common stock, warrants and a liquidating preferred stock that was paid down with earnings. Following Northwest’s purchase of Republic in 1986, the employees at Republic were made whole for their concessions. That is the “upside” of variable compensation that has left an indelible mark on my thinking.

21 Years Later

Today’s airline environment feels about the same as it did in 1986. Structural change. Consolidation talk. And many people attempting to convince themselves that the Band-Aid approach to labor costs will only need to last through one cycle before they can get it all back.

This time, however, it is not so simple. For one thing, foreign airlines now play a far greater role in the important “domestic markets” that span the globe. Events like the Air France – KLM merger will dictate commercial strategies. Strategic models like the one LAN is implementing are sure to have made a lasting impact on commercial airline development when we look back in 2028. The two great unknowns are how Asia will develop and what will transpire in the nations comprising the United Arab Emirates. This region will certainly force change across the globe over the long term and will surely cause the European market to look in the mirror in the relatively near term.

Twenty-one years ago, we didn’t have the same rules of engagement or recent history as our guide - as there was none. In a changing marketplace, it took a proactive approach to make a flailing/fledgling carrier live to see another day and “create value” for a new platform when leveraged across a much bigger network.

UAL CEO Glenn Tilton, one of the most maligned CEOs in the US industry, began talking about the changes necessary for the industry and his carrier to survive soon after United emerged from bankruptcy. As can be expected, a lot of people took shots at the messenger, as they did at US Airways' Doug Parker who echoed Tilton’s warnings. But these chief executives now have company in the form of nearly every CEO at the major US network legacy carriers in discussing consolidation in their third quarter conference calls.

It’s time we accept the fact that this is a time of opportunity for both management and labor. Just as it was during immediate period following deregulation of the US domestic airline industry, the dinosaurs face continued, significant change or extinction. The old ways are certain to face additional challenges from the new, with youthful competition making inroads into our respective markets and new competition from airlines emerging from previously unknown dots on the world map.

The Pentultimate Question

In his Tokyo speech, Tilton asks the following question: “As globalization gives rise to new economic powers within the developing world, the real question for all of us operating in mature economies today is this: will the legacy systems that contributed to the success in developed nations in the 20th Century be an asset or an impediment to growth in the 21st Century”?

He goes on: “The airline industry is a perfect platform from which to focus this discussion, because it is subject to virtually every imaginable challenge -- every human challenge, industrial challenge, financial, regulatory, and security challenge -- throughout the global economy. And then, of course, we also contend with the weather”.

Aloha

Tuesday
Oct162007

“I hear the train a "C"omin'”

As earnings season kicks off for the third quarter, Delta announces great results click here and its CEO talks about consolidation click here This, is what the major newswires and bloggers picked up -- not that Delta’s earnings exceeded the Street’s expectations. The exception to these stories is Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News writing in his blog about the cleansing of bankruptcy which puts a different, but fair, perspective on the company’s performance click here.

One – no the best question of the day -- came from a significant trader in the airline debt world was: Will the news of Delta being part of consolidation considerations be bad for Delta CEO Richard Anderson? My immediate response was no, Anderson’s public comments have never shut the door on anything other than to make Delta the best it can be in his view and his board’s view.

So now that earnings season is underway, I just wonder how many times the “C” word will be used? We know that UAL has painted a target on its back but will others discuss the “C” word in their comments to the analysts? This, on top of an expected Delta announcement with alliance partners Air France and KLM click here, and today’s announcement click here, makes clear that the management team in Atlanta is not sitting still as it undertakes its transatlantic strategy.

Lots has been written about “unlocking value” by spinning off subsidiaries that are perceived by the market as to not being reflected in the current equity prices of US carriers. $86 oil points to a potentially mean and long cold winter for this industry. Therefore, expect the discussion of the “C” word to be included in this quarter's earnings’ overview. Moreover-- and this is true for each management and labor --remember tomorrow for this industry is about “capital creation” and not “capital recycling” or as some of my smart friends might say “capital destruction”. Or die.

The unfortunate visionary that is being left out of today’s (10/16/07) talk of consolidation is the CEO of US Airways, Doug Parker – but the earnings announcement is days away. He gave us a blueprint of how consolidation is good for the industry and individual companies in his bid for Delta. He openly talked – as to this writer’s take – on the benefits of reducing fixed costs while still maintaining access to the US air transportation system for air travel consumers in markets large and small. [I sure hope the US government reads and thinks about this statement]

What is unfortunate for Mr. Parker click here is the parochial interest of labor in the “C” word discussion. Certainly there is more to come on the US Airways situation in this blog -- but to stand in the way of market development for labor is a major mistake. It is global, it is real, it is now. So if labor thinks they are sitting in Folsom Prison and hoping that they’d moved it on a little farther down the line—stand ready.

“It's rolling round the bend"