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Entries in economic impact of air service (2)


Swelblog: On Election Morn

This has been a busy month for the US airline industry with earnings and all.  As a result there has been lots of news and most of it good. Of course, two quarters do not make a trend -- something I'm frequently reminding people when I'm out on the road speaking on all things airline industry. 

So as we sit awaiting results on what promises to be a most interesting mid-term election, I want to look back on what has been a very political two years

First up: labor. Unions are all politics all of the time and that has played a big role in the airline industry since President Obama took office.  A cynic would say -- and I might agree -- that unions are simplistic organizations that too often focus on only on the next contract or the next election.  The result is too often a strategy in which they do everything they can to “choke the golden goose” for all of the pay and benefits possible at the time, which only puts their successors in the difficult position of presiding over concessions when the "gains" are no longer economically viable. There are some who say that this blog is too quick to bash unions.  But as I've said before, I'm equal opportunity in calling out bad behavior when I see it. And when it comes to airline labor leadership, I've seen a lot of it.

I've spent a lot of time challenging the leadership at the two largest pilot unions: Captain Lloyd Hill of the Allied Pilots Association and John Prater of the Air Line Pilots Association, both who ended their terms as president this year.  My fundamental criticism was each man’s decision to run on the opportunistic platform that all concessions would be returned and more.  Unrealistic.  Unfortunate.  Unfulfilled.

Lo and behold, the two important pilot unions have replaced “over promise and under deliver” with two new but seasoned presidents: Captain David Bates at the APA and Captain Lee Moak at ALPA.  [Moak has been the subject of much commentary on this blog and I encourage you to learn more about him].  I had the opportunity to spend time with both men last week at the Boyd Group International’s 15th Annual Aviation Forecast Summit in New Orleans.

I don’t want warm and fuzzy from union leaders and I don't expect it from management. What I want is a sense that each side understands and negotiates with a clear understanding of the economic environment in which the industry operates.  From both pilot leaders I am confident that principled negotiations and decisions will be the rule of the day.  From both pilot leaders I sense a potential to depart from gridlock and enter disciplined negotiations.  From management I want to see a renewed effort on communicating clearly the rigors of the business from a global perspective.  That would be true leadership.

Unions and management must break through the gridlock that leads to protracted contract talks and ultimately keeps money from pilots' pockets.  And both sides need to be honest with pilots about the extent to which the world has changed and the industry continues to change with it.  For example, today’s union negotiations should be less about who should fly 76-seat small jets and more about how to position an airline to challenge new and vigorous competition in Latin America, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific regions. For the mainline carriers, competition is now more about Dubai than Duluth, and more about Auckland than Austin.

It is fast becoming clear that flight attendant union leaders are also increasingly out of touch.  And no one is more out of touch than the President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants President Laura Glading. Glading, more than any union leader in the past or present, is too quick to threaten chaos and strikes without a clear understanding of the competitive realities that affect contract negotiations.

In her latest unconscionable act, Glading is calling on American Airlines flight attendants to write letters demanding a release to a "cooling off period" and possible strike from the National Mediation Board. Maybe Glading doesn't really understand the Board and its mission which, last I checked, is to try to prevent work actions that would threaten the nation's air transport system. Further, it would be unconscionable if the NMB were to cave into a letter writing campaign by a union that has done more to cause dissension in its ranks than promote the high level of customer service and professionalism the airline needs to compete. 

It has been interesting to watch the flight attendant negotiations at Continental and United. The Continental flight attendants actually voted down a tentative agreement that would have put money in their pockets immediately at a time the industry remains vulnerable economically. "Immediately" should have been an important factor considering that there will need be a representation election between the AFA-CWA and the IAM before any real negotiations can begin at the merged carrier.  My guess is that it could now take a couple of years before either the Continental or United flight attendants realize any economic gains over what they earn today.

As for negotiations with under-the-wing employees other than mechanics, the TWU negotiations at American provide a lens for one of the most difficult issues facing airlines: how to appropriately compensate ground workers.  In almost every case, this work could be outsourced for a fraction of the costs of keeping the work "in house" -- particularly when you consider the comparatively rich benefits package most airline employees receive. The baggage handlers are the most vulnerable yet the union group still holds out with demands for more. 

But if the unions may have a false sense of power because the worst-kept secret in the airline industry is the fact that baggage handlers have long ridden the coattails of the more skilled mechanic group, demanding wages that far exceed what these workers could command outside the airline industry. Said another way, because the skilled mechanic group has "carried" these less-skilled workers for so long, they have received less in negotiations over the years because the political structures of the TWU and the IAM includes baggage handlers in the same "class and craft" as a way to boost their ranks.

This week we will know the outcome of vote of the Delta and Northwest flight attendants, who are deciding whether to organize under the AFA-CWA banner (which would be a first for Delta flight attendants) or be a non-union group.  This election is the biggest yet under a new NMB rule that made the most significant change to the union election process under the Railway Labor Act in 75 years. That new rule likely will be the deciding factor in the outcome.  The change in the rule was all about politics, with a clear disregard for prior practice and arrogance in its refusal to address key subjects in the labor arena, including the ability of employees to decertify a union.

But that is reality in Washington today as it pertains to the airline industry.  We have had a number of issues become political in the name of consumer protection.  There are a number of matters being regulated or legislated in the name of safety.   A FAA Reauthorization bill cannot get passed because of all the non-FAA issues lawmakers stuck in the Senate and House versions as goodies for their own political constituencies.  But no matter the outcome of the national elections tomorrow, gridlock promises to rule the day in Washington for the next two years as well.

As British author Ernest Benn wrote:  “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”  That sums up how Washington deals with an industry that delivers value and jobs to the economy each and every day.


01. It’s Airline Deregulation Bday Week: Economic Impact of Commercial Aviation

First in a series on Deregulation

For the past couple of months I have been doing a fair amount of public speaking. Appreciating that this month/year represents the 30th birthday of the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, most of my engagements have focused on the industry's evolution over the past three decades. Over the coming days on this blog, I will focus on where deregulation got it right; wrong; indifferent; or maybe even backwards. Today, I am going to start with one idea that just might be backwards.

Between Airlines and Airports: Who Really Creates the Economic Impact?

Do a Google search for the economic impact of aviation. The impacts on North Carolina, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Oregon, Nebraska and Texas will all populate the first page of that search. On the same page of the search you will find the Air Transport Association’s study of the economic impact of commercial aviation on state economies. As the ATA’s study and other studies say in their own ways: commercial aviation is inextricably linked to the health of the local, national and global macro economies.

The first page of ATA’s report quotes Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Yergen:. "Every day, the airline industry propels the economic takeoff of our nation,” Yergen observes. “It is the great enabler, knitting together all corners of the country, facilitating the movement of people and goods that is the backbone of economic growth. It also firmly embeds us in that awesome process of globalization that is defining the 21st century."

My question: Are the airlines themselves enablers? Or facilitators? Yergen is probably right in suggesting a combination of inputs are necessary to create the commercial aviation industry. Any economic assessment of the impact of commercial aviation will measure direct benefits of the service; indirect benefits generated from the service; and induced benefits derived from air service on the economy as a whole.

In the most simple form, direct impacts are the earnings and employment generated by the service. Indirect benefits typically measure expenditures driven by the passengers who travel to the destination on the service. And induced economic activity is measured by related industries that benefit from the direct and indirect economic activity of the service – typically a multiplier of the direct and indirect activity.

Can Airlines Make Themselves Profitable on a Sustainable Basis?

Given estimates that the US airline industry will lose nearly $20 billion since deregulation, while local and national economies have expanded, could it be argued that the model is backward? Government policy is hell-bent on promoting competition in each and every market. The industry has delivered a network platform comprised of carrier-to-carrier competition, hub-to-hub competition, and the competition between network legacy carrier and low cost carriers. There is not a single airline flying for which the current revenue model works if only the fares charged passengers are counted.

In an article published in the current edition of Foreign Policy magazine, I note that US carriers of all ilks lose money per enplaned passenger when only passenger revenue is counted – a simple but telling analysis. Counting only passenger revenue, both the legacy and low cost carrier sectors have lost money per passenger since 2001. In fact the low cost carrier sector has only made money based on this metric three times since 1995. Thus the industry absolutely needs to raise fares, charge ancillary fees and/or continue its efforts to cut fixedcosts - or all of the above - as the loss per enplaned passenger calculations exclude interest expense and direct investments in the business.

Airlines have a long way to go before they find a sustainable operating model that manages to “feed” various stakeholders. In some circles there are calls for re-regulation. But this ignores the fact that the federal government already heavily regulates this so-called “deregulated” industry, so it is unlikely that further regulation is the answer.

Now the Question?

Maybe it is the communities that realize the economic benefits of commercial airline service that should subsidize the airline’s losses?

After all, it is not the airlines that are realizing millions– and in some cases billions - of dollars in economic benefits – profits that they would otherwise use to pay higher wages or invest in new equipment. Rather, most of the gains go to the communities in the US and around the globe that depend on air service to drive direct, indirect and induced benefits, even while many complain that air fares are too high. Some of these economic benefits go to support airports and the infrastructure around them, but most subsidize the local economy without direct gain for the airlines that generated benefits.

It Is All Local – Until You Have to Pay For It?
Let the Local Market Wet-Lease Service

If all politics are local; and local economies depend on airline service; then shouldn’t politicians in local markets explore ways to “buy” the air service they believe is necessary to support the regional economy while also satisfying the expectations of their constituencies on the price of that air service? In effect we already have a similar model in place in the practice of network carriers that purchase capacity from their regional providers that includes a cost plus arrangement.

If politicians and the communities they represent protest higher fares, fees and reductions in service, then the answer should be a simple matter of economics. Have the community pay the difference between the ticket revenue and the cost-plus of maintaining the air service, plus some reasonable profit for the airline to reinvest in its business. Already, politicians and community leaders boast about the the economic benefits of air service; alternately, those facing air service reductions are the first to cry foul based on their estimates of economic costs. The decades old airline-airport/community operating model of today could be reworked to meet the financial realities of tomorrow’s aviation market.

Economic activity stemming from commercial aviation service is already calculated every day. What is suggested should be a simple investment decision for communities. There is a price to pay for being a node on the global trading map and decisions to be made about what type of service best meets the need of a community. But it is not the responsibility of airlines to ensure your dot remains on the map.

Today many think that the low cost providers would be the answer to end all discussion. We would see, wouldn’t we?

More to come.