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Mirror Mirror on the Wall: What about American after All?

This week AMR CEO Gerard Arpey and CFO Tom Horton are taking their “look at American” story to Wall Street. The AMR Investor Presentation starts and ends with the company’s Flight Plan 2020 – a plan that frames the company’s strategy around 5 tenets:  Fly Profitably; Strengthen and Defend Our Global Network; Invest Wisely; Earn Customer Loyalty; and Be a Good Place for Good People.  It’s not uncommon for Wall Street to be skeptical of this kind of strategic framework. Consider, for example, the sharp-tongued response of JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker during AMR’s 1Q earnings call with Arpey and Horton. Referring to Flight Plan 2020 and its bullet-pointed strategy, Baker asked:

“Is this really all you have got?”

But Baker didn’t stop there. “I don’t want to beat around the bush here,” he said during the Q&A with analysts. “You have the highest costs. You have the lowest margins. You are the only major airline expected to lose money this year. Your year-to-date equity performance has trailed that of your peers. In other businesses I can think of when there is a company standing out like this you sort of expect a major overhaul and it isn’t clear to me that Flight Plan 2020 is that plan.”

In many ways, Baker’s question is a fair one for a company that appears more plodding in its strategy than what we’ve seen elsewhere in the industry during recent years of bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions. I think American is looking at anything that flies and assessing whether the benefits of the combination outweigh the costs of combining.  And there’s no doubt that American is taking stock of how Delta’s merger with Northwest and the proposed merger between Continental and United will hurt AA sales in key US and global markets.  It is the ability to sell to corporate customers that may be the ultimate arbiter of whether to merge or not.

In its investor presentation, AMR rightfully focuses on its network and the expected approval of both its transatlantic and transpacific joint ventures..  It talks about its focus on the largest population centers in the US – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas/Ft Worth and Miami.  It talks about AA and oneworld’s focus on the largest population centers around the globe – New York, London, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Hong Kong.  The AA/oneworld strategy clearly targets the STAR Alliance with United and Continental and its focus on the largest population centers in the US, but pays less heed to the SkyTeam network with more small cities in its route portfolio. I am not saying that oneworld is ignoring SkyTeam at all and New York is but one example.

Let’s Talk Network

My review of the latest available origin and destination data offers some surprises about where AA is strong relative to other carriers.  The markets are listed in descending order of American origin and destination passengers for the first quarter of 2010.

  1.           Dallas (DFW, DAL):                          AA, 52.7; WN, 21.4%; US, 5.8%; DL, 5.6%
  2.           Miami (MIA, FLL, PBI):                      AA, 24.1%; DL, 13.4%; B6, 9.7; WN, 9.0%
  3.           Chicago (ORD, MDW):                      AA, 25.3%; UA, 24.6%; WN, 22.6%; DL, 6.2%
  4.           New York (EWR, JFK, LGA):              CO, 19.4%; DL, 16.4%; AA, 14.2%, B6, 13.6%
  5.           LA Basin (BUR, LGB, LAX, ONT, SNA): WN, 26.3%; AA, 12.2%; UA, 11.3%; DL, 8.5%
  6.           Washington (BWI, DCA, IAD):          WN, 21.6%; UA, 16.8%; US, 13.7%, AA, 9.8%
  7.           Boston (BOS):                                  B6, 19.1%; AA, 15.1%; DL, 14.2%; US, 13.8%
  8.           SF Bay (OAK, SFO, SJC):                   WN, 31.7%; UA, 18.4%; AA, 7.8%; DL, 6.2%
  9.           St Louis (STL):                                  WN, 38.1%; AA, 25.2%; DL, 11.0%; US, 6.8%
  10.           Transcon:                                         UA, 21.7%; AA, 18.2%; B6, 15.1%, VX, 12.0%
  11.           Raleigh (RDU):                                  WN, 23.6%; AA, 20.9%; DL, 18.4%; US, 15.4%

So AA enjoys a position of strength relative to other network carriers in 4 out of 5 of the markets in its “cornerstone strategy” ­ -- Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Miami.  In New York, AA is currently third, But coming in fourth is jetBlue, AA’s most recent partner feeding 12 international markets from 18 of the low cost carrier’s markets.  If one of the tenets of Flight Plan 2020 is to strengthen and defend its network, then AA is beginning to address its relative weakness in New York with the jetBlue relationship.  Among AA’s largest  ”origin and destination” markets, it is neither #1 or #2 in New York, Washington or the San Francisco Bay Area. 

American’s strength in the domestic markets will translate into added benefits if, as expected, anti-trust exemptions are approved to allow joint ventures with British Airways/Iberia/Finnair/Royal Jordanian and JAL.  Whereas American receives significant traffic from its partners today, there will be significant new benefits that will accrue to American as a result of being able to coordinate schedules and prices as well as jointly market the combined services – a benefit the other two global alliances already enjoy.  So alliance competition is about to take off as we transition to a three carrier contest for travelers rather than the global market that today favors STAR and SkyTeam.

Cost Advantages/Disadvantages

I’m no fan of American’s answer to its labor cost disadvantage, in which the company has said that labor costs will inevitably rise at the other airlines to even the playing field among carriers where now AA labor costs are markedly higher than its competitions’. Sadly this suggests that pattern bargaining is alive and well and that the industry will simply recycle profits among stakeholders as it has done for decades rather than focus on producing some return on capital. 

But I understand why American cannot talk any other way about its labor cost disadvantage.  Why? Because it is smack dab in the middle of negotiations with its unions – in some cases in mediated contract talks or in the process of awaiting union member votes on tentative agreements.  That makes any talk of labor costs particularly delicate, even considering the reality that the company’s current labor costs – in all cases at or near the top of the industry, means that AA doesn’t have much to give at the bargaining table.  Based on the tentative agreements reached so far, American is clearly willing to trade higher wages for the promise of higher productivity.  Beyond that, it remains to be seen – and the devil is in the details -- whether better productivity can mitigate the costs of the agreements.  If not, American’s labor costs are only going to increase further.

One thing the company can and should be talking about is what’s known as “non-labor” costs – all those costs outside of wages and benefits that are not driven by collective bargaining agreements. In this area AA has led the industry in lower costs over the past five years. In fact, non-labor costs at American should only keep coming down as the company takes a new aircraft every 10 days to replace the outdated and inefficient MD80 fleet, American should be touting this other side of its cost equation – the fact that its success in trimming non-labor costs mitigate some of its labor cost disadvantage, rather than bank on the hope that labor cost convergence at the other carriers will ease some of its labor pain.

So what should American say to the Jamie Bakers of Wall Street?

American says that between its cornerstone strategy and its expected immunized alliances, once fully implemented, could mean an additional $500 million on the books.  I believe that it could be even higher, particularly given American’s current position in which it lacks the legal ability to coordinate schedules, set prices and jointly market services with its partner airlines.

Some say that bankruptcy is the only option for American to strip out costs and strengthen the balance sheet against strong competition.  But this is not the post-9/11 era when it was a geopolitical catalyst that allowed several airlines to leverage bankruptcy to rewrite contracts and jettison debt and pensions.

I’ve read many stories that attempt to write American Airlines’ obituary. But the rumors of the airline’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  In theory, the unmerged US Airways and American and other carriers should benefit, albeit indirectly, from industry consolidation.  Moreover, most of these stories missed the fact that 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 benefit the entire industry.

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.”

The analysts may want a more compelling story, but sometimes slow and steady wins the race. After all, past acquisitions at American have not produced much for the airline’s bottom line. I believe American would benefit more by getting its labor house in order before making a big play.  There is enough work to be done in the interim to coordinate schedules with its immunized alliance partners.  There is enough work to be done to get the tentative agreements ratified and complete negotiations with its pilots and flight attendants.  And there is enough work to be done to improve the operational integrity of the system -- a renewed fleet will help but it is not the complete answer.  I am willing to believe that bankruptcy may be an answer for American only if its employees push it there . . . and they may be the ones hurt most by the experience. 

Mirror mirror on the wall:  the tortoise may beat the hare after all.