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Tuesday
Nov132007

Wondering Thoughts From 5 Time Zones Away

The underpinning of this blog is that change in the US airline industry is underway -- whether some like it or not. Over the past week there were some stories that grabbed my eye and are listed in order of importance from my point of view. There were many stories that warranted discussion like the orders coming from the Dubai Air Show, another meeting between US Airways CEO Doug Parker and Senator Arlen Specter, oil prices testing $100 per barrel, airline stocks getting beaten down, schedules at JFK, United suggesting it might, and could, put up to 100 airplanes on the ground given the changing economics and the list goes on that further underscore change.

Speaking of the Dubai Air Show and the aircraft orders being placed there – doesn’t it bother US readers that the orders are not from US carriers but rather from previously obscure points on the map that have every plan to change the shape of global aviation? It sure does me. Is the US being relegated to a supporting role in tomorrow’s global aviation market? I sure hope not.

These Are Not “Competitively Virgin” Markets

Holly Hegeman in Planebuzz ran a great piece last week where she summarized a research note from Gary Chase at Lehman Brothers click here. In his note, Gary finds that Virgin America is pulling down capacity in its transcon markets without any noticeable shift of that capacity to other markets.

The markets where the low cost sector has chosen to operate have generally been the densest US domestic markets. You would have thought that Virgin would have learned something from jetBlue and others that the competitive profile of the network carriers is vastly different today than just 4 years ago. The days where the legacy carriers that are most dependent on transcon revenue, whether from nonstop or connecting flights, are going to stand idly by and see further market share and revenue degradation take place are over.

In a Spring 2003 MIT forum, I did a piece on the Low Cost Carriers, subtitled “Thou Shalt Not Inherit the Earth” click here. LCC growth was the talk of the time. This piece was shared with mainstream press but largely ignored. Now it is mainstream, and even “futurist” by some, to talk about the revenue generating difficulties faced by the LCC sector. Whereas, Virgin America is well capitalized and arguably has a brand, it further underscores the point that the opportunities are limited for this sector to grow at previous rates.

We talk about consolidation with respect to the legacy sector of the industry when in reality the more interesting plays may be in the LCC sector – a sector that is highly dependent on revenue in the largest US markets. A capacity shift here, a capacity pulldown there and ………

Say It Ain’t So Joe

AirTran Chairman, Joe Leonard, sells his remaining stock holdings a week after stepping down as CEO click here. As for AirTran, it is unfortunate that their bid for Midwest fell apart. This company has performed admirably, but remains badly in need of diversification of its route portfolio and Milwaukee, along with Minneapolis, remain two of the largest markets without meaningful LCC presence.

While Northwest suggests it is only passive in its partnership with TPG, you have to look at that partnership and wonder what TPG sees other than to know an exit strategy is there for them at any time. Midwest’s recent performance does not warrant that kind of interest from a TPG and its business plan is circa 1999.

Do these changes at AirTran signal something?

This Is Not Bill Nyrop’s Airline: At Least Today?

Following a wrenching summer of customer and labor strife after emerging from bankruptcy, the external messaging we hear from Northwest is quite different from what we have ever heard in Minneapolis? In an article by Liz Fedor in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: NWA Puts An Emphasis on Service click here highlights comments from the Board’s new Chairman, Roy Bostock, citing his desire “to create a better environment for Northwest's employees and customers and develop more sophisticated techniques for measuring customer experiences”.

Is this real or will Northwest realize the same fate that is playing out in Ft. Worth between labor and management after an attempt to find a new way? Given the contentious nature of the labor-management relationship that has historically been the norm at Northwest, this would at least appear to be a good start. It is always easier to begin these programs when amendable dates are years away. However, with Northwest in the center of consolidation talk (click here and click here) we will be watchers of the airline’s progress on service and employee relations.

Maybe This Time, “Delta” Really Does Mean Change

In an AP story covering Delta’s President and Chief Financial Officer, Ed Bastian called consolidation a “front burner” issue for the carrier click here. And as the company discusses consolidation, its message to all stakeholders has been consistent. But while the company suggested it would like to answer the consolidation question before it makes any decisions regarding spin offs, it made an agreement last week that would grow its internal maintenance operation click here.

This on top of its transatlantic deal with Air France and KLM and a decision pending on whether to sell Comair suggest that this company is doing anything but managing its enterprise for the future. I could not have been more wrong on my views of this company. I have spoken publicly about an airline with presence everywhere, pricing power nowhere and generally lacking a plan and direction. We will not know for sometime whether or not their international strategy is the right one, but the results since emerging are impressive.

Business Week made a case that the logical acquisition target for Delta should be Northwest click here. This story is a good read, not so much for the combination case it makes but more to the references made about an industry badly in need of continued restructuring ….

American and the TWU: Talk of gAAin v. pAAin

Trebor Banstetter of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram did a nice summary of the TWU’s remarks as it presented its Section 6 opener to the company last week click here. If there is a union at AA with a substantial opportunity, and a competitive platform, to discuss “gain sharing” with the company it is the TWU. But I would argue it is not the entire TWU membership that is in the same position. It is the mechanics, the skilled workforce, that have this substantial subject matter to discuss.

One does not have to read too many articles to realize that American has chosen to invest in its maintenance organization – obviously a profit center that warrants the use of internal capital to fund an operation that has been successful in bringing in new work – and new revenue. The TWU suggests that they would like to return to 2003 levels of pay and work rules (not likely given the industry’s profit position). The company seems open to linking earnings to performance and productivity goals click here (an opportunity to make at-risk compensation a reality).

Whereas the AP story suggests a union “less friendly” – that may be true. But at least on its face, there is an understanding that preventing an environment that has caused significant pain for their co-workers at other carriers that filed for bankruptcy is a better path to follow. My hope is that the TWU and AA find some inventive ways to proceed that can reward the skilled workforce that is making Tulsa a new revenue source.

I further hope that the TWU does not use the skilled workforce to cross-subsidize the other members it represents as the sub-labor markets are quite different. There are too many lessons to be learned from the IAM on this subject ….