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Monday
Dec272010

Time to Look Forward – Not Back

Historically,www.swelblog.com has taken space this time of the year to reflect on the biggest stories of the year. In this column, I want instead to spend more time looking at issues that will be important in 2011.

First, the look back: 2010 began with me taking sides in the battle for JAL and siding with the ultimate victor, American.  We wrote about the National Mediation Board, wondered aloud whether the labor-friendly Obama Administration would permit an airline strike given the fragility of the economy. We challenged Captain John Prater, President of the Air Line Pilots Association, on multiple fronts, offered a favorable perspective of the controversial Chairman and CEO of United Airlines, Glenn Tilton, and looked at mainline pilot scope and the pilot unions’ associated rhetoric. We challenged Southwest to put its money where its mouth was in the proposed slot swap between Delta and US Airways and noted Continental’s contract offer to its pilots that offered Delta wage rates plus $1 per hour. We laid out why we did not like the proposed United – US Airways merger; criticized the tarmac delay rule, pondered the American and jetBlue tie up at New York’s JFK airport; applauded the United and Continental merger and argued that American and US Airways will be fine in a consolidated world – at least for the foreseeable future.  We questioned why the airline industry was losing numerous battles in Washington, the looming threat from carriers in the Middle East,  the price of regulation in terms of what is a public good and lobbed yet another challenge to now ex-Congressman James Oberstar. We also weighed in on the Export-Import Bank; the Southwest – AirTran merger; the national elections; and questioned the need for the number of commercial air service airports in use today. We explained why pilot picketing and other union activity revealed only part of the labor quandary at US carriers, and predicted that foreign ownership restrictions will be the subject of ongoing debate.

Meanwhile, we only touched on airline profitability – a nice change, but noted with caution as three quarters do not make a trend. The airlines are doing what they should be doing in de-leveraging their balance sheets, with consolidation occurring not just in the mainline sector, but beginning to reshape the regional sector as well.  Oil was less of an issue in 2010, with price volatility muted compared to the prior two years. And the revenue picture brightened, particularly coming off a dismal 2009.  Finally we saw pivotal votes rejecting unionization at Delta, although the jury is still out whether labor’s defeat there was due to something unique to Delta or a broader referendum on a union’s ability to improve the lives of dues-paying members

Thanks to all of you who are regular readers and those who check in occasionally, readership was up significantly in 2010 and I hope you continue to read in 2011.

LOOKING FORWARD:

LABOR:  Labor promises to remain a significant story in the coming year.  There is new leadership at the Air Line Pilots Association; the Allied Pilots Association; and the AFA-CWA to name a few.  While it is hard to predict whether things will change at the largest flight attendant union, AFA-CWA, after multiple terms under Patricia Friend, I am confident that changes in leadership will benefit the pilots represented by both ALPA and the APA.  This is not to say that I expect either of the unions to roll over, but believe that there is much to gain for both sides in a constructive dialogue that was too often absent in the previous union administrations. It is safe to say that the terms served by Captains Prater and Hill did more to set the unions back than advance the pilot profession.

The NMB will remain on my watch list.  We could see action sooner rather than later at American, where Larry Gibbons, Director of the Office of Mediation Services, will now oversee the negotiations that have been underway for several years. Will the NMB become even more political as Gibbons sits closer to the board members than do other members of the team he oversees?  Will the Board play a crucial role in facilitating new and joint agreements at Continental – United?  Will the Board side with the unions in determining whether Delta interfered in the IAM and AFA representation elections as the unions allege? Ultimately, the unions will determine how aggressive they need to be to leverage the support of employees at the merged carriers anxious about recent changes in working conditions and how the seniority list is constructed.

It is clear that the industry will be watching as Delta manages one of the least-unionized workforces, particularly as former union members from Northwest are brought into the fold. One might say that the hard work is now done as the votes have been cast and the election is over.  But I say the hard work is just now beginning.  It won’t be that long until another election can be called.  And the difficulty of the task is highlighted by the civil war between the work groups at US Airways that continues into yet another year.  It seems unlikely that the legal issues dividing the merged pilot groups and pilots and management are near resolution. All eyes will be on United CEO Jeff Smisek and Southwest CEO Gary Kelly to see how they manage culture change at their bigger, more complex carriers.

Finally, look for organizing activity to increase at other airlines.  The losses at Delta will make the unions hungry for increased membership and recent changes to federal election law under the Railway Labor Act make it easier for union to win a secret ballot election.  Already unions are targeting jetBlue and SkyWest –where unions lost past elections under the old rules.  If the Delta vote is a referendum on the former Northwest employees not being content with their union, might there not be opportunities for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to begin raiding select work groups?

FUEL:  As I write, West Texas Intermediate is trading at $91+ per barrel.  As Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, put it, volatility in fuel prices is the industry’s “No. 1 challenge” and “the single biggest threat to aviation.”

The price of oil is sure to be a story in 2011.  Goldman Sachs, the firm that predicted $200 per barrel oil in 2008, is predicting $100 per barrel during the first half of 2011.  Given growing confidence that economic recovery is finally taking hold and the levels of new industrial production activity in the Asia-Pacific region that often drives market oil prices, $100 per barrel seems reasonable. 

Here at Swelblog, we were among the first to suggest that the best thing that happened to the US and global airline industries was oil at $147 per barrel, which more than anything else served as the impetus to reduce capacity from an industry that had grown too big.  If oil prices continue to climb, it will serve as a discipline on any efforts to add marginal capacity to the system, particularly in the domestic market.  And this time around, a Southwest does not enjoy the same hedge book and fuel cost saving potential v. the industry as it had when oil prices surged in the 2004 – 2008 period. 

Should oil continue its rise, we will begin to see further reductions in small community air service.  For many communities, a fuel surcharge on top of what many believe are high fares will test the price elasticity of even the more inelastic customers - who will take to the highway as their first point of access to the air transportation grid.  This would be a healthy outcome for the industry that is still arguably over-connected.  Rising oil prices – along with regulation imposed costs that will come to fruition in 2011 - should be a catalyst for continued consolidation in the regional sector.

If fuel prices rise, the passenger carriers will likely be successful imposing fuel surcharges to fares, just as the cargo carriers were in the past.  Southwest may not charge for bags, but even they will have to consider fuel surcharges this time around.  That is a big differentiator for the US airline industry in 2011.  What makes this tricky is that the US consumer was long conditioned to paying fares based on industry costs of $30 per barrel in-the-wing jet fuel.  The industry has adapted.  At $95 per barrel the industry begins to be tested yet again.

WASHINGTON:   the Air Transport Association has a new leader in Nicholas E. Calio, a former Citicorp executive with keen bipartisan skills. Calio becomes the new President and CEO of the industry’s trade group on January 1, 2011, hoping to turn the airline industry fortunes after some trying legislative and regulatory losses in 2010.  With new costs and operating constraints posed by rigid new tarmac delay rules, increased passenger compensation for overbooking, a new push to have a total cost of trip (fare and fees) made known to the purchaser, proposed constraints on regional carriers,  changes at the NMB, investigative actions by the FAA, the rejection of the slot swaps between US Airways and Delta, and the loss on appeal of the right of airports to implement congestion pricing, airlines are hoping for kinder, gentler treatment in Washington in the new year.

In a recent media release, the ATA said it was pleased with the recommendations of Secretary LaHood’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee.  I am assuming this will prove to be a blueprint agenda for Calio and his team at ATA.

And with Oberstar now gone from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, new Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has an opportunity to make some headway on relevant and important issues that threatened to make US aviation a second-tier player in the global industry under the misguided direction of the former chairman.

I am encouraged by the leadership changes taking place in the industry and hope that we can finally have a discussion on issues with a mindset on positioning the industry within the global sphere.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

The industry’s work is far from done.  Progress on consolidation, cutting capacity, new technologies and efficiencies, and re-balancing labor costs have dramatically improved the cost structure in the industry, just as anti-trust immunity, open skies agreements and global partnerships have improved revenue opportunities for US carriers. But work must continue on alternative fuels and reducing the impact of aviation on the environment and ensuring that the airline industry is not paying more than its fair share of the tax burden.

There are still barriers to better operations on the labor front as well. Union leaders need to decide once and for all how to address the split between mainline and regional flying all the while securing/maintaining some form of scope protection their members expect.  A good start would be to stop the charade that this is a 76-seat issue.  The mainline does not want that flying because they will not accept the rates necessary to do the flying.  Once again, labor did much to create the problem, now it is time that they figure out how best to fix it.

Finally, it is time to stop playing politics with the FAA Authorization bill and put together a clean bill to address the aviation infrastructure.  Let’s get rid of the pet projects loaded into a bill that should be designed for efficiency.  And airlines and airports need to figure out how to work together.  The debate should not be about an increase in the PFC but the extent to which the industry has a say in how the money is spent.  Just as airlines need to be positioning themselves to succeed in a global industry, airports that add little to no value to the airline map of tomorrow should not be spending precious money building out an infrastructure that may not be used.

Let’s hope that in 2011, we can stop living in the past and look toward a strong future for the US airline industry. We have to get our impediments fixed at home to prepare for the next upcoming competitive battle for advantage in the global market.  For some this next competitive battle will be much tougher to win.

Happy New Year.