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Entries in Ft Worth Star Telegram (4)

Wednesday
Jan282009

In Dallas/Ft. Worth: Compare and Contrast; Contrast and Compare

This blog has made no bones about its fascination with airlines in Texas generally and those in the Dallas Metroplex specifically. This past weekend’s post on Southwest Airlines ranks among the most widely read posts ever on Swelblog.com. Despite recording it 36th consecutive year of profitability, many are writing opinions on Southwest that are very different from those we have historically come to know.

I have been traveling or otherwise less connected this week and I am behind on my reading.

But I was glad I was sitting down when I read a Sunday column from Mitchell Schnurman of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram on Southwest’s cross-town competitor, American Airlines. The title of Schnurman’s piece: Things are looking up at AMR. Schnurman takes a look back at the numerous management actions undertaken by the legacy carrier’s management absolutely necessary to position the high cost airline for a better tomorrow. For what seems like a very long time, there have not been many positive stories written about American, its prospects or its management.

Schnurman is correct that there has been a lot done at American. And there remains a lot more to do. If AA had not taken the actions it has since its 2003 restructuring, Schnurman would have written a very different story. A story that might have been reminiscing rather than thinking that tomorrow will be better.

The compare and contrast as we begin 2009 is very interesting. Particularly in the Dallas Metroplex where at least one or two of 2009's most impacting aviation stories will likely be written.

Friday
Dec192008

AA’s Labor Negotiation Scenarios Get Even More Interesting

I am thinking that we should consider changing the name of the NMB, National Mediation Board, to the AAMB or the American Airlines Mediation Board. Or the FWMB, the Fort Worth Mediation Board, because the docket at the Mediation Board is about to be anything but National.

Trebor Banstetter, at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Sky Talk blog, reports that American Airline’s flight attendants represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) have jointly filed with the company to the NMB to take over the talks. This one did catch me by surprise but as I think about it, this is a brilliant strategy.

If the application by American and APFA has indeed been made, it raises some very interesting scenarios. Terry Maxon asked on his AIRLINE BIZ blog the other day: Will TWU be first American Airlines union to impasse? Maxon’s question was spot on given that the company and the TWU, sans the mechanic group, had arguably narrowed their differences in a super negotiation session that concluded one week ago. I do appreciate that the starting point will be something other than the final issues remaining on the table, but the TWU and the company each made clear to one another what is important to each side in their negotiations.

We potentially have the majority of American’s employee groups in mediation. The one group not in mediation, the mechanics, is the one labor group at AA that have a sound platform from which to negotiate "gain-share" improvements given the outside work being conducted. This is not to say that there are not some difficult issues ahead in these negotiations given that AA is planning to park their older – maintenance heavy – MD80 fleet on an accelerated pace beginning in 2009. But the fact is this group has enabled AA to find new revenue sources.

Brilliant, Why?

Often, the NMB is forced to make a decision as to which negotiation on its docket has reached impasse first. Typically a decision is between airlines and not labor groups at the same airline. American now has an entire company in mediation. A release of any one group would certainly result in sympathy strikes from other groups with unresolved contracts.

How quickly would new President Obama agree to ground the nation’s second-largest airline? With nearly $2 trillion in economic stimulus to be injected into the economy during the early days of his administration, I am not sold that “labor’s savior” will be trigger quick to ground a company of American’s size in an industry that is inextricably tied to the health of the economy.

Another benefit is that the NMB will be able to truly gauge progress within each negotiation. This is particularly important when determining the “impasse pecking order”. With regard to the TWU and APFA groups, at least some movement has taken place in the non-economic areas. The APA cannot say the same as it has put itself into such a politically-tenuous position that it cannot move off of an opening proposal. A proposal that could not be afforded on the day it was presented – let alone now.

Mediation in this industry can be a good mechanism to work through issues but only after issues begin to narrow. That is how the process is designed to assist. Not to clear the underbrush from 30+ sections of a collective bargaining agreement.

I still think Maxon is right that the TWU group in mediation is number 1 on the “impasse pecking order” list. For the APA, you just moved to a distant third on that list – unless of course you get to participate in a sympathy strike. Or maybe, the APA will actually read the tea leaves and remove their opener and conduct a negotiation with the real world in mind and not the terms and conditions offered at Air Nirvana.

This really is fun to watch.

Thursday
Apr102008

Is American Airlines Playing the Final Round of the Masters on Thursday?

Some Thoughts for Gerard Arpey

With my mind firmly on Magnolia Lane and the Masters, my mind finds itself drifting from excitement and anticipation to Amon Carter Boulevard. As I do from time to time when I am online, I look to the Dallas Morning News' blog to take the temperature of airline happenings in the Metroplex. And what is going on with AA is no trip down Magnolia Lane. The Masters for me is the culmination of what I call the “Finest 30 Days in Sports Television”. The back nine of the Masters on Sunday provides the fitting bookend to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Show.

For those of us who relish the tradition of each year’s first major golf tournament, we are familiar with the suggestion that the back nine at Augusta on Sunday is considered the most exciting two and one half hours of golf we will witness. Given the recent happenings at American surrounding the flight cancellations – not from a safety of flight perspective - I am beginning to feel like the company may be playing the final nine holes of the Masters on Thursday. If that were true, then all American could act on under the rules of golf would be to withdraw from this year’s first major. If that’s what the employees want, then the internal noise is equal to the external noise.

American Airlines is not going to withdraw. Or I hope not. But even I have to say it is time for American management to rethink its course strategy after shooting a 40 on the front nine. Tiger did demonstrate that the Masters can be won even after shooting 4 over on the outward nine. Mr. Arpey, I am not trying to put you in the unenviable place of being compared to Tiger, but you are the CEO of the world’s largest airline in terms of traffic and capacity and in some circles that makes you the world’s number one. And just like Tiger has to deal with cameras going off in his backswing, you are going to have to block it out, deal with fuel and an over-zealous FAA and find that will to win.

Mitchell Schnurman of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram wrote a column this week about the situation at American where he took management and labor to the wood shed in the ongoing saga at American. While Mr. Schnurman and I have not always laughed at each other’s jokes, he does make some good points. My views about the TWU’s action toward Mr. Conley were written two posts ago. But the very idea that transformational change is needed at American, and in the industry can no longer be ignored as the industry’s problems continue to mount. And, if, somehow the foundation issue for your company is how management is compensated then it is time for your Board to consider making changes.

Mr. Arpey, as you make your way to the tenth tee, the bookmakers are starting to bet against you. For the second time in nearly as many days, 24/7 Wall Street mentions AMR as a bankruptcy candidate. Remember it is not about how much money you have made for Wall Street in the past or how many of your decisions and actions have preserved their capital, it is how much money you can make for capital now. With your labor groups, it is not that you have managed your company at a tremendous cost and balance sheet disadvantage because you did not file for bankruptcy; it is because you are deemed to be over-compensated as a result of your Board of Director’s design of AMR’s management compensation system.

I sit on a Board of Directors of a publicly traded company in the airline industry and it gives me a lens into your issues. I know how difficult it is to design a compensation structure that is not only fair and incents the best to stay yet meets today’s rigorous plan design rules. In fact, these rules were put in place to prevent business activities that earned headlines early in this decade. Every plan requires a funding mechanism and yours is stock price from what I can interpret. Other funding mechanisms can be used. But despite what your work groups may think, designing compensation plans today is much more difficult than it might appear.

In theory, stock price is an obvious funding source for a management compensation pool because stock price should be that self correcting mechanism. And that is sound thinking in theory and not always in reality. And that has proven true at AMR. The fault is that stock price reflects expected future earnings and not company performance that has just transpired. Mr. Arpey, your problem is that while you kept your company out of bankruptcy and industry fundamentals started to turn more positive in 2005/2006, your stock price far outperformed the industry. Shame on you for positioning your company that way [and please read this with tongue firmly in cheek].

I want to see this industry change. And change only occurs at the very foundation of how we do business. But, after watching your situation very closely through both good and bad, there is obviously something very wrong at the foundation of American Airlines. I am even more troubled by the public outcry about how this recent inspection has caused dislocations for many. And I am on record and believe fervently that this industry will never knowingly compromise safety. By absorbing tens of millions of dollars of losses for your company to adhere to the Airwothiness Directivenes, I know that you know that. And I will not comment on the unprofessional actions of the APA as I have been down that road way too many times.

What seems to be at the heart of all the bad news that emanates these days stems from AA’s senior management’s inability or unwillingness to communicate with employees and customers. I see you communicating through your actions to Wall Street and what you have done to your balance sheet is nothing short of remarkable with the lack of legal tools available to others. But now it seems that even capital is growing impatient not only with you but with the industry.

I am, and remain, a staunch proponent of variable compensation for both labor and management. This period of transition in our business will determine winners and losers. Whereas no Masters champion has ever shot over 75 on Thursday and been awarded the green jacket on Sunday, there is one champion who did shoot 4 over on the front nine of the first round. I know that there is nothing that can be done to change the management compensation plan design this time around or maybe even the next time. But it is time for you to urge your Board to consider making changes. And make that a priority because you have a lot of people rooting/depending on you.

Just as it hard to imagine a Sunday at the Masters without a Tiger on the prowl; it is just as hard to imagine a US airline industry without American Airlines.

There is still a lot of golf to play. But your course strategy needs to be rethought or you might be watching Saturday and Sunday on TV with the rest of us. And I am sure you do not want that.

Wednesday
Oct312007

Swelblog.com: The First 31 Days

Whereas it has only been one month since I ventured into this unknown world of blogdom, suffice it to say that this labor of love has been among the most gratifying endeavors I have ever experienced. As I said in my very first post entitled Swelblog.com Taxiing Into Position: click here “I did not start this blog to win friends or influence anyone. I’m a data guy, and I’ve been studying the industry long enough to come up with some strong opinions . . . many of which aren’t popular in either boardrooms or union halls. My approach is analytical because, in my view, the numbers don’t lie.”

I have been moved by the comments made in other blogs and the press about this site and the use of some of the comments expressed here. To Holly Hegeman Planebuzz, Terry Maxon Airline Biz, Trebor Banstetter Sky Talk, and Loren Steffy Houston Chronicle I am grateful. To these, and all other, enlightened influential watchers of the industry and the many other readers who have commented to me via other mediums, I very much appreciate your welcome.

While I may not need to reiterate this point, I am going to as I want to make sure the readership fully understands that this blog and the MIT Airline Data Project are separate. I use the MIT site’s data to analyze issues because I know how the various metrics have been calculated, vetted and presented.

It was the second post, “All Eyes on Texas” that certainly seemed to launch this blog. Some agreed with my ordering of the difficulty of the pilot negotiations and others questioned my ordering. That is the sort of healthy debate that I hope happens here as the blog matures. As a result of my immediate previous post where I addressed a sensitive issue regarding the cost of the APA pilot opener, there were a number of comments made. I have always wanted this site to show both the “positive” and the “negative” comments regarding what I have written and, until Monday, I have made each of the comments available for public review.

But as the days following that piece unfolded, Monday morning I posted a comment that I should not have posted and ultimately deleted it. While it had some valid points, this blog was starting to become a venue supporting the views of one employee at AA challenging another. Then after I authorized the post to be published, a follow on comment was made which I deemed was exacerbating the situation versus having a meaningful exchange of views. I rejected this post. It is one thing to attack me -- and trust me you are in a long line of those that have had the opportunity long before I started this blog.

I welcome, no, I want comments on the issues discussed here -- but check the emotion at the door. From this point on, this site will not be used for personal attacks on another person commenting – period. There are many other venues for that. This is my blog and my rules. And they are changing as I learn.

There was a comment from flyby519 posted to Swelblog that I did not acknowledge and should have as it was precisely the type of thoughtful comment that I want to address in this blog click here. We will pick up here over the next couple of days.

Happy Halloween