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Thursday
Aug052010

Market Realignment: Labor, Mexico and the U.S. Regionals

Variable Compensation and “Upside Protections”

A commenter on my most recent post wrote:  “Variable compensation?? That implies that you think I trust airline executives to treat me fairly. Their behavior over the past decades clearly shows that they can't be trusted, and you want me to buy-off on a scheme where they CONTROL the data?”

Another commenter wrote quoting AMR CEO Gerard Arpey:  "And again, our hypothesis is that we’re going to continue to work in good faith, cut responsible agreements with our unions and that all of the network carriers in the next 24 months are going to go through the same funnel. And that when we all come out of that funnel, ultimately the market is going to be brought to bear on all of these companies and the market will determine wages and benefits in this industry just like it largely does other industries."

Just what is a responsible agreement? For one, a responsible agreement benefits both sides. It is one unlike those negotiated in the past where companies were forced to ask for concessions in a downturn because they cannot afford the terms of what had been agreed to previously. And for labor, it is one that is sustainable – one that won’t require concessionary bargaining in a downturn and provides protection on the upside to prevent companies from earning outsized profits on labor’s back. 

This is the area where unions have missed the boat in the past.  Too often, labor leaders spend too much time negotiating protections on the downside and ignore similar protections on the upside.  Think back to the period when this was most relevant - between 1995 and 2000 when the U.S. airline industry earned record profits.  Unions had just completed ratified concessionary agreements negotiated during the economic downturn begun in 1991.  As the industry’s fortunes turned, employees did not share in the most profitable period in U.S. airline history.  Rather employees sat and watched because their unions did not negotiate protections on the upside that would have ensured their sharing in the profits – some of which were made possible from lower labor costs.

The industry has been anything but profitable in the years since, so upside protections would have returned little if anything following the negotiations during restructuring.  Instead many employees got performance bonuses when their companies met stated operational goals.  But let’s suppose the U.S. industry now sits on the brink of a profit cycle.  If upside protections had been negotiated then, employees would share in the profits while new collective bargaining agreements are under negotiation. That would send a far stronger signal about the connection between productivity, competitive costs and profitability than has the long and painful cycle of give-some, take-some negotiations.

Can we expect realignment in labor during this round of airline negotiations?   And what will that mean for labor rates by the time every airline makes it through the funnel of negotiations? 

One thing is clear: carriers with relatively expensive labor rates today will need to adjust expectations at a time that industry economics, particularly domestic market economics, do not support outsized increases in flying rates, mechanic rates or most assuredly “below the wing” rates.

Mexicana

Two days ago, Mexico’s largest carrier filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. and insolvency proceedings at home.  Precipitating the filing, according to the carrier, was its inability to achieve significant wage and productivity concessions from its flight crews.  When negotiations did not produce the company's desired outcome, the employees were offered the keys to the company for one peso.  The employees said no thank you.  Like bankruptcy filings here in the U.S., the burden of proof will be on the company to make a case that deep concessions are necessary.

Like the U.S., the Mexican market is deregulated.  Like the U.S., low cost carriers (LCCs) fly in major markets throughout Mexico, driving down prices all the while the Mexican economy has suffered more than most around the world.  In fact, Mexicana holds two low cost carriers in its fold (neither of which will be affected by the bankruptcy filing of the larger legacy carrier).  Mexico is a microcosm of what occurred in the U.S. where LCCs grew at the expense of the network legacy carriers, driving prices down because they enjoyed cost advantages.  And like in the U.S., the Mexico domestic market does not produce sufficient revenue premiums for the legacy incumbents to offset their high and out-of-market cost structures.

Might Mexicana’s bankruptcy filing result in liquidation?  It could.  Already planes have been repossessed in anticipation of the filing.  Sounds like the U.S. industry immediately after deregulation but before Section 1110 protections became part of the bankruptcy code.  Today, unions in the U.S. are calling for changes to the bankruptcy code (Sections 1113 and 1114 specifically).  Ever wonder just how many U.S. airline jobs might have been lost if there were no Section 1110 protections?  I digress.

The Mexicana story causes me to reflect on the U.S. domestic market.  The realignment of the U.S. domestic industry is not done.  Mainline carrier presence in the domestic market will continue to shrink unless the labor economics change.  Network carrier presence in the domestic market is now more a function of moving a passenger from Lansing to Lagos than it is Lansing to Los Angeles. 

Since 2000, network carrier revenues are down 36 percent.  Since 2000, when mainline network carrier domestic Available Seat Miles (ASMs) reached their historic apex, capacity flown by the same carriers has been reduced by 30 percent.  Over the same period, domestic ASMs added by the U.S. LCCs increased by 134 percent.  ASMs flown by the regional sector have increased by 178 percent.

These trends are a function of the economics of flying today.  Labor contracts in the past were based on $30 “in the wing” jet fuel.  Today’s reality is $90.  With domestic revenue generated by the network carriers down more than capacity since 2000, it is uncertain what kind of contracts will come out of that funnel, and whether the U.S. airline industry as we know it today we be able to sustain higher costs.

SkyWest Subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines to Purchase ExpressJet

Another story occurring within the industry that has labor ramifications is the consolidation taking place within the regional industry. One of the catalysts for consolidation within the regional sector is the unknown outcomes of scope negotiations between the mainline carriers and their managements as to what kind of flying will be done by the regional providers tomorrow.  Another catalyst is the known, but yet undetermined, push for new regulations governing how much regional pilots can fly.   

Readers at Swelblog.com know that we have been talking about consolidation and realignment of the regional industry since the beginning.  Does a consolidating network carrier sector need nine providers of regional capacity?  No.  

Given that new, expensive changes to regulations governing regional carriers and their relationships with mainline are expected this year, the network carriers would be wise to look carefully at their regional feed composition. With the merger of Continental and United and new regulation pending, it simply makes sense to realign regional relationships.  United is one of SkyWest’s two major partners and it does business with each Atlantic Southeast and ExpressJet (who is Continental’s primary regional partner).

The SkyWest/Atlantic Southeast announcement comes on the heels of Pinnacle buying Mesaba and expanding its presence under the Delta umbrella.  These types of realignments are now a trend and not one-off and ill conceived acquisitions.  Just like network carriers need scale economics, so do the regional partners in order to minimize labor and maintenance costs regardless of what type of flying they are permitted to perform tomorrow. 

This is healthy consolidation and the idea of scale economics may be what just makes American Eagle attractive.

More to come. 

Wednesday
Jun092010

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. 

Monday
Jun022008

Rambling, Musing and Pondering on Airline Industry Issues

In past years, the industry’s trade associations have not always been strong voices for issues, particularly economic issues, impacting the industry, whether it is the global industry or the US industry. In recent years that has changed. Each respective organization is fortunate to have two very capable Chief Economists: Bryan Pierce with the International Air Transport Association; and John Heimlich with the (US) Air Transport Association. The data and analysis provided by each should be a link on every serious industry watchers favorite list. And watch them daily, as meaningful insight is provided by each man.

The IATA Annual General Meeting opened today in Istanbul and IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani warned that the global industry is on course to lose $2.3 billion if oil should average $107 per barrel and $6.1 billion if oil should average $135 per barrel. Less than a year ago, IATA was forecasting a global industry profit in excess of $10 billion. Bisignani has been a loud voice on the need for consolidation in the global industry citing important facts regarding this industry’s unhealthy and fragmented state. I really like this guy and I particularly like his call for a clean whiteboard as this blogger has wanted the UPS whiteboard guy to redraw the global map for some time.

United; United-US Airways; American; and Jim “Hell NO”berstar

I don’t know about you, but I am very happy that United said “NO” to walking down a road toward a formal combination with US Airways last week. Something just did not feel right about that one. Yes the labor issues were significant. The IT issues were significant. The combined networks left a bit to be desired from my perspective as the regulators would surely have required some auctioning off of valuable airline real estate. United has more than its share of problems to be sure, but the deal was far better for US Airways’ stakeholders from my perspective as there is little the Phoenix-based carrier could offer in terms of route portfolio diversification.

It took us 30 years to get into this mess and it will take time to get us out.

Despite industry consensus, Tilton did not pursue a deal for deal’s sake. Instead he said "NO" – at least from public reports. The historic US industry leaders – American and United – both began the process of battening down the hatches last week. Each carrier began to make announcements and pronouncements that their respective businesses would be managed in the near-term as stand-alone entities. So Jim “Hell NO”berstar looks less like a soothsayer as the wave of industry deals he suggested has come to a halt.

I like the decisions. I particularly like United’s decision because Tilton has been saying that the industry needs to restructure. Consolidation is part of the restructuring he has suggested. Consolidation has been the operative word used for mergers in the industry – but mergers rarely consolidate much if anything. Consolidation has been the scare word used by the naysayers to signal that consumers will get hurt. Consolidation has been used by labor to extract monopoly rent only to return to the bargaining table to give most of the rent won back to the respective company. Consolidation has been used by those on Capitol Hill to suggest that service will be lost.

Well, we are about to begin a real consolidation of the industry and it cannot be laid at the feet of a merger and acquisition proposal/era. Capacity will be cut because it is not economic to run individual networks of the scope that are operated today. Prices will go up, but not because of a merger and acquisition proposal but rather because a business that needs to pass on the costs of providing the service. Labor will negotiate their next contracts just as they have before, except for the Delta pilots that recognize that certain scope restrictions standing between revenue and principal are not in anyone’s interest. And the condition of the economic environment will be taken into account in either direct or mediated talks or whether the case lands in front of a Presidential Emergency Board.

American and United are, and will be making some tough decisions. Delta and Northwest have made a tough decision to join hands. But that decision is in the best interest of two companies that are so dependent on network scope to maintain service to a maximum number of points. Northwest would be particularly hard-pressed to maintain all of the service it provides. Continental is blessed by geography but still has fragility in its financial position. And the question becomes for the remaining legacy carrier, is US Airways’ cursed?

As for the sectors incorrectly referred to as Low Cost and Other Carriers: Southwest is blessed with capital and well all that is-Southwest; Alaska, jetBlue and Virgin America are arguably blessed with a brand; and AirTran is blessed – in the near-term with flexibility of selling off delivery positions to help it today - but could hinder it tomorrow when the market does make a turn for the positive.

This really is a cool time in the industry’s history. A time that will be embraced by the survivors. The "oil era" will be sure to have its place in history. And for some the slippery slope caused by the commodity will land some in airline oblivion; for others it will end on a path toward something much better than today.

The Price of Oil and Attributes of a “Bubble”

Over the weekend, a number of articles appeared suggesting that the oil chart replicates some of the stock – or shall we call them commodities’ – charts of the late 90’s. One thing I have learned from years in this industry is not to second guess the markets and not to try and predict the price of oil. Do today’s oil prices have “bubble” attributes in the traditional sense – yes. Does history suggest that anything that is market influenced will remain on this trajectory – no. And this is yet another reason why, if I am labor, I would be putting some chips with insurance on the come line. Leverage with the business is the only hope of coming close to replacing a majority of what was given up during the restructuring period. Only it will be in a one-time payment and not a legacy payment embedded in a contract.

CEOs, Policy Makers and Shareholders

I like to refer to today’s CEOs as “Agents of Change”. Popular? – no. Hell bent on change – yes. Standing in the way of preventing the past practice of doing business – yes. Concerned about their place in history – yes. Afraid to get dirt thrown their way in the process – no. Bringing the shareholder into the “virtuous circle” of airline industry prosperity – yes.

With the exception of Delta-Northwest, the litmus test is underway. Each of the legacy carriers is on a path toward restructuring their respective businesses. The naysayers should be happy. Of the six legacy names, the current construct will preserve five. Yet service will be cut and prices will go up – and it will not be because of consolidation in its historic definition. It will be of business decisions necessary to preserve the capital of the day’s stakeholders. Not all of them. But….. Today’s CEOs will do that as their fiduciary duties begin and end with that fundamental charge.

Labor will be tested and will probably say on some Monday morning: “Man, that merger proposal may have been better than riding out a business that has to make these decisions to cut, cut, cut”. Congress will ask: “Maybe this business is not a utility that serves my region’s airport? Some sort of rethinking the emotional issues may have provided my constituents with something better?” Regulators will say: “I knew if we kept our hands off the US market would be better served”. And hopefully the Executive Branch policy makers will say: “this boom and bust is good for no one, so let’s give them a clean whiteboard and if it gets out of hand will step up. But the way we are doing this just does not work”.

And the shareholders will finally say: “the barriers – oh I mean excuses – have been removed and if this guy cannot do it now then let’s find another guy”.

Thursday
May222008

Unbundling Our Way On The Search To Find The Inelastic Demand

I am beginning to believe that there is a silver lining in the high price of oil.

Last month, I wrote a piece entitled The Elastic Induced Ride to Inelasticity. With seat belts on, seat backs and tray tables up, we are ready for takeoff. Yesterday, while American and Southwest were holding their Annual Meetings of Shareholders, I was on an airplane back from Honolulu. So I missed the news flying out of those meetings that found its way onto the wires as rapidly as it could be transcribed. I missed the latest $4 per barrel rise in the cost of crude oil that now equates to $4+ per gallon of jet fuel. I missed …….. or, did I really miss anything?

Oh, I missed something all right. Whereas I believed the industry would transform itself more through merger and acquisition activity, I am now a believer that the price of oil, and the market, is truly what is needed to fully address the many structural ills that have plagued this industry for years. I would like to return to a few paragraphs I wrote in an Airline Business piece earlier this year: Are US carriers really ready for competition?

Despite claims to the contrary, nothing is new in the US. The same old ways of doing business remain intact, which calls into question whether the industry’s fabled “restructuring” has made any meaningful changes in the competitive profile of the US airline business. Despite deep cuts, many outmoded, and troubling, business practices remain.

Following an industry life cycle of value destruction, US legacy carriers now face a dilemma: whether to invest in their core businesses or not? Certainly the tendency to legislative and regulatory gridlock did not get restructured. An inflexible labor construct did not get restructured. The fragmentation of the US domestic market did not get restructured. The infrastructure, whether it be ATC or the airport system, did not get restructured. And the historic mindset that capital will be forever recycled among manufacturers, vendors, labor and government imposed actions did not get restructured.

Little has changed when it comes to labor and regulator views on consolidation. The mindset among the 535 decision makers on Capitol Hill still assumes that any congressional district with a runway, a terminal building and security is entitled to air service. Compounding this sense of entitlement is labor’s sense that the industry will return to its previous “pattern bargaining” – a supposition that fails to recognize the structural change in markets, labor and city pair.

Gerard Arpey’s Words

The full text of Mr. Arpey’s comments to his shareholders can be found here: Remarks Of Gerard Arpey At American Airlines Shareholders Meeting. As we approach the 30th birthday of US Airline Deregulation, it is the price of oil that is demonstrating its power to force the industry to address the many legacy mindsets that did not get restructured during the post 9/11 period. Among many, it includes the customer’s assumption that they actually pay the “all-in” price of the service and are therefore entitled to multiple access points to the air transportation system. NOT.

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal front page, column six, story by Susan Carey and Paulo Prada, they wrote: “If oil prices keep climbing, rising fares could start to push a significant percentage of travelers away from flying entirely. That could reverse one of the most dramatic effects of the industry’s deregulation in 1978, which led to a huge increase in flights, and brought intense fare competition, opening the world of air travel to millions of people”.

Ms. Carey and Mr. Prada are right. And the industry is right to evaluate the cost of providing the product at every juncture. And the industry is absolutely right to charge what it costs to produce the product. From the time the customer logs onto the internet to consider purchasing the ticket; to the actual purchase of the ticket; to the airport experience including check-in; the trip through security; down the jetway; taxi out; inflight service; taxi in; deplane; and collect luggage. Everything has a cost. And the management teams of each and every airline are being forced to “drill down” as never before in order to fully calculate those costs. And after calculating the costs of provision, many, many difficult decisions are being made.

Now this does not make any CEO popular. But being a CEO today is not a popularity contest during these difficult times. [And the most popular CEO of all time, stepped down from a 40+ year career BOD position yesterday] Being a CEO today means having the fortitude to say no. Being a CEO today means questioning anything and everything just because that is the way it has always been done. Being a CEO today means making the tough decisions even though dislocations of certain stakeholders might occur. And being a CEO today means having the guts to say out loud what CEOs knew before them but failed to act.

Mr. Arpey said and the WSJ highlighted: “The airline industry will not and cannot continue in its current state”.

Concluding Thoughts

With all of the actions being taken by the industry to charge for things that were never charged for before, what is interesting is how each carrier is sure to ensure that their most important customers will not pay those fees. Loyalty programs have just become a/the most important asset to an airline – not that they were not before – but rather it is this “inelastic” air traveler that the industry needs to rediscover. And cater to. And build for. And so on. And maybe this is why Mr. Arpey suggested that it was just not a good idea to sell its AAdvantage program. And maybe the market will begin to rethink how it values these currently undervalued assets.

This industry is now recognizing that it cannot be everything to everybody. Yes the industry has met its match – and it is not labor, government, or the macro economy. It is the high price of fuel that is causing the industry to continue the process of fully transforming the way business is done. My guess is that if we had not faced this potentially murderous economic period, then the industry would not have been forced to fully examine itself. The current industry architecture is a picture of what the deregulators envisioned – and the industry delivered. But the architecture produced does not work.

So Mr. Arpey, as your unions marched, I for one am glad you spoke. And you spoke clearly as to how American is moving forward. Your message was not popular. Your message pushed the envelope a little further and added to the debate significantly. No one knows how all of this will really play out. There has to be recognition before there is action. The industry is taking action and one can only hope that labor and government begin to recognize that we are not going back to the same old, same old.

Except for the fact that each airline will "return their attention" to those core, “inelastic”, customers that are willing and able to pay for the service being provided. And those customers will complain less over time. As for the rest of the traveling public and lawmakers that believe they are entitled to air service - well you are not.

More to come.

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.

Monday
Mar242008

Not Time For “Hush Money”

The Status Quo Is the Issue; Not Firing CEOs

Today I received a comment from Carmen on my latest blog post. Carmen is a frequent reader here, student of the industry and a person that is not afraid to say and write what he believes. Even if it means that he is not the first person other pilots seek out in the crew room when he checks in for his trip. He suggests that invoking force majeure might incite a revolution – and I paraphrase.

Carmen is not a current member of his union and his philosophical differences with his union have been written here and on multiple blog sites that cover the industry. Carmen, like others, point to the lack of a people element in the US airline business today is what stands in the way of a successful and sustainable industry when contrasted to the industry we know that perpetually teeters on the edge.

I Said I Would Not Acknowledge

Regarding Carmen’s comments, I responded in a pretty matter of fact tone. After responding, I started thinking back to Bob Reed's piece in Business week last week entitled: It's Time for United's CEO to Go; UAL should keep United Airlines in Chicago—but send Glenn Tilton, its deal-hungry CEO, packing. OK, for those that know me, you know that I have an affinity for Tilton. Do I agree with everything that has been done at United under his watch? No, I do not. Where I absolutely agree with Mr. Tilton is that the status quo does not work for any stakeholder group. Period.

So Mr. Reed, my question to you: are you singling out Tilton or are you joining hands with certain industry stakeholders that are looking for any leverage to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the self-imposed gridlock toward change which afflicts the US industry? It seems to me that any question you asked in your article could have been asked of Richard Anderson at Delta, Doug Steenland at Northwest, Doug Parker at US Airways and yes, even Larry Kellner at Continental. And I am going to include Gerard Arpey of American and I will discuss that later.

And Mr. Reed, I am sure glad you mentioned Continental and its transformation. From my read, about the only thing in your article that comes close to even describing the competitive reality that faces this industry each and every day is the fact that Continental survived the “controversial and oft-despised” Frank Lorenzo era. And I quote further: “the airline survived his tenure (along with two bankruptcies) and eventually morphed into one of the country's most successful large carriers. Now Continental is enjoying solid financial returns, improved customer satisfaction, and stronger employee relations. What's more, its CEO doesn't want to merge and is even ordering new planes”.

Pretty bold statement on the intentions of Continental’s current CEO who has done anything but rule out merger efforts should other carriers in the industry decide to join hands. Then again, it is hard to talk about joining hands when you are encumbered by a golden share that also serves as golden handcuffs. And even bolder to insinuate that other airline CEOs would not want to achieve the same thing that took Continental 10 years to begin fully realizing. And for that matter, that type of success is what CEOs want to be paid for. But the type of transformation that continues at Continental is more akin to a marathon than a sprint.

Where This Whole Post Started

Like today, the industry then was engaged in a shakeout and survival of the fittest when Continental began its transformation. For any Continental, PEOPLExpress, Frontier, New York Air, Texas International (see comment section) and Eastern (did I leave any carrier out?) employee of the time there are plenty of horror stories. But 20+ years later, we continue to witness the legacy carrier that first underwent necessary quadruple bypass surgery to transform itself to a US industry leader.

The only thing different today is that the transformation is more difficult. In the 1980s it was important to build a network, with a cost structure, that gave a carrier some form of presence/dominance within a particular US geographic region. Today it is about building an entity that maintains is preeminence in the US domestic market while spreading its reach to all world regions with a cost structure that allows it to compete where external forces are increasingly complex. Mr. Reed, airline labor, airline consumer activists and Rep. Oberstar would all have us believe that today’s airline world should remain focused on Altoona rather than Auckland; Duluth rather than Dubai.

Carmen in his comment to me mentions pandering and appeasement against a backdrop of a leadership void. Where I am stuck, is that I think there is finally leadership within the industry and there is a vision as to where this industry needs to morph to. When there is leadership and vision, there will be reasons to say no. And today’s CEOs are saying no to a return to the way things have been. They are saying very clearly and in their own way, no to the various issues that led each of their respective entities into bankruptcy or restructuring.

Definitely Not the Time for Hush Money

I asked Carmen in my response: “but isn't what labor wants is an historical return to pandering and appeasement? Throwing good money at the age old problems only makes people happy in the short term. Then the industry has to return and ask for concessions because they can no longer afford the hush money that was negotiated. I am all for saying no and trying to find a way to break this age old pattern. And I think finally this industry has a group of CEOs that can and will say no rather than push off the tough decisions that have been deferred over the past 3-4 negotiating cycles. Popularity contest -- NO. Necessary action – YES”.

It seems that the Northwest employees were more than willing to vote Steenland out in the event of a Northwest – Delta deal. And apparently he was willing to drop his “ego” and step aside in the event of a transaction that he and his board deemed in the best interests of all stakeholders.

My bet is Mr. Tilton and others would/will do the same in return for a deal that satisfies a vision. United has been out front in the consolidation view to be sure. But, United has been out in front suggesting they would put down capacity in the event of high oil prices also. And that simply sounds like managing the business to me. Mr. Reed pleads with United’s Board to “give Tilton his due, provide him fair compensation for time served—and begin the hunt for an executive who can build on his accomplishments and take an independent airline to greater heights”.

But Tilton’s work at United is not yet done and therefore the United Board should no more pay Tilton his hush money to walk today anymore than the prior United administration should have paid the United pilots the hush money to end the dreaded “Summer of 2000” that ultimately landed the carrier in bankruptcy. And certainly Mr. Arpey should not be paying his pilots, flight attendants or any other employees the amounts of hush money they are seeking over an executive compensation plan designed by American's Board. A compensation plan that could have been altered by the Board, not by Mr. Arpey and his management team.

Breaking the boom-bust cycle is much more important than perpetuating the status quo. Maybe we should invoke the force majeure clause on the self-imposed gridlock toward change which afflicts our industry …

To call for one CEO's head when an entire group of industry CEOs recognize that the status quo just does not work is well.......unfortunate.

More to come.

Friday
Oct262007

Just Put It On Ice: American’s Ability to Pay ≠ APA’s Expectations

As I read this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the headline on page 2 is “Economy’s Weak Signals Persist” and the headline on page 3 is “Oil Tops $90 on Range of Worries.” What this means for the airline industry is well documented in Planebuzz click here.

We said the eyes would be on Texas airline labor negotiations, and we got a good glimpse of that this week. The Allied Pilots Association presented its Section 6 opener to American Airlines on Tuesday. This writer’s take on what American is seeking is a cost-neutral contract (which in effect preserves APA’s industry leading position) where productivity gains could cross subsidize increases in other sections of the agreement. By contrast, APA asked for pay increases in the 50% percent range.

This is one rich deal. Add the productivity gains and the multiplier effect of wage increases on pension and benefit costs (and well before any opportunity costs or opportunities lost are analyzed), my back of the envelope calculation suggests the price tag on this proposal is comfortably a three comma number. Yes, the number starts with a B and not an M. And this is before negotiations start with the other unions representing the vast majority of AA employees.

Let’s put this in perspective: Today, American has a pilot cost per block hour disadvantage versus every single one of its major competitors in the US market click here. If American had a pilot contract along the lines of the Continental agreement, that is at or above the industry in terms of compensation and productivity, American would need to reduce its annual total pilot costs by as much as $500 million click here. But American is not seeking concessions; it is seeking a competitive contract recognizing the “gives” by labor outside of bankruptcy.

I argue that the APA proposal fails to serve its members. Not just because of the costly demands, including the proposal that pilots receive holiday pay if they fly Super Bowl Sunday, but because the union’s demands insist upon a return to 1992 wages adjusted for inflation. That sets completely unrealistic expectations when put in context of the massive change in the landscape for network carriers, and the US airline industry for that matter, since the mid-1990s. American’s average “nominal” domestic fares were actually lower in 2006 than they were in 1995 click here.

In the media coverage, the APA suggested that its opening proposal would lead to a quick settlement. I beg to differ.

When two sides are so far apart on an agreement that there is no basis for movement, it is said that negotiations are “put on ice.” For many reasons, this round of labor negotiations is the most important since deregulation. For the major airlines to have any hope of succeeding for the long term, this upcoming round of contract talks must produce agreements that are durable and sustainable and make strides toward eliminating the cyclicality that has plagued discussions between labor and management for the deregulation generation.

There remains a real opportunity for these negotiations to be “industry interesting” in a good way and think about ways for employees to share in any upside while still realizing some protection in the downturns. That’s what the unions should be aiming for in getting their members a deal.

But if, in the APA’s view, the upside means in a 50+% increase in base rates then there really is no starting point. Openers are supposed to be starting points, not the point of no return.

Executive Compensation

We cannot discuss industry economics and labor without also discussing executive compensation. For as long as I have been in this industry, airlines have been run for pilots, by pilots and in fear of what pilots might or might not do. As a former flight attendant – that is how I put myself through school - I constantly questioned it and still do. For virtually any carrier, in a list of the top 100, 200 or 500 most highly-compensated employees, the majority would be pilots.

This industry has never had a deep bench of management talent . . . in part because airline executive contracts have historically not been as rich as executive contracts in other industries. The executive management team in the airline industry is usually there because they have jet fuel running through their veins, not because the financial upside is so great.

Many say that there is no justification for the executive payouts in recent years across industry – not just the airline industry, but throughout corporate America. But the simple fact is that markets are at work. Not all markets are rational, but given that markets by definition operate on perfect information, ultimately they return to the trend line.

For CEO’s, CFO’s and CIO’s the market rates are set in New York, Des Moines, Singapore, London and Los Angeles as companies in the US and around the globe are seeking the same talent to do the job for them just as American seeks to find the best people to fill these positions as well.

The reality is, however, that a new market rate has been set for pilots and it is not 1992 times inflation to the sixteenth. It is $120,000 and not $180,000 click here.

For awhile, “pattern bargaining” fueled an unrealistic – and unsustainable – growth in average pilot wages. It began with Delta’s lucrative pilot contract in 1999, followed by United’s topper in 2000 as it followed the "Delta Dot" along the road to bankruptcy.

Now there’s a new pattern, and a new market reality, and that is the contracts reached in bankruptcy and ratified at United and US Airways in 2002 and 2003. That’s how the market works, and airlines – like companies in any other competitive industry – generally compensate management and employees at the going market rate and as necessary to retain its best people – period.

Don’t assume that I support executive compensation packages that have benefited senior leaders while workers have seen their lives negatively impacted. I do not. But, I am a believer in markets. The convergence of what is paid to pilots, flight attendants, ramp workers has found an equilibrium and that is what markets with perfect information do. Will the market rethink executive compensation as well? I think so.

So......

We can spend a lot of time thinking about the APA proposal or just recognize that negotiations in this round will take some time. During restructuring, the market realities dictated quick negotiations and resolution. This time it is different. Neither labor nor management has significant leverage. Labor is trying to create leverage using the executive compensation issue because there is little else that resonates as well with a broad base of employees and the public. Meanwhile, management teams are doing their job and actually posting profits at a time when pricing power continues to decline - with no adjustments for inflation. The only structural change now permitting increases in revenue is in reduced capacity and in the lofty levels where oil is trading and, finally, an industry willing to pass on a portion of those increases to the consumer.

There are many who say the industry’s recent profitability comes on the backs of labor. That argument ignores the fact that the recovery is the result of tactical and strategic decisions, combined with other management actions, to achieve profits in an environment that has been structurally changed.

Keep in mind: $4-5 billion in profits in an industry earning $130 billion in revenue does not signal a healthy recovery.

I’ve titled this post “On Ice” for more than one reason.

The first page I read in the newspaper is the sports page. In an interview in the October 25 USA Today, Paul Kelly, the new Executive Director of the National Hockey League’s Players Association had some profound thoughts to share click here.

1. "Do we need to understand where we should cooperate and where we should draw the line? Absolutely," Kelly said. "But anyone who thinks I'm going to fire the first shot across the bow of the NHL, they've got it all wrong."
2. "My view of the world is that unless you have a personal relationship, a real human relationship with someone, it's difficult to transact real difficult business," Kelly said. "I want to get to know Gary, and I want him to get to know me. And I understand that there is a line there — that we represent different interests."

Perhaps hockey and airlines have little in common. But negotiations are negotiations, and they are not done on an island.

At American, as well as across the industry, pilot negotiations are going to result in "transacting difficult business". Captain Hill, reach out to Gerard Arpey and begin a real negotiating process. Mr. Arpey, reach for Captain Hill and reiterate the commitment you have made, and kept, to maintain pension benefits and retaining the components of the pilot’s agreement that ensure that AA employees will have dignity in retirement and in their day to day living to the best of your ability to pay – something that cannot be said of all carriers in this industry. Otherwise it could be a long, cold winter in Ft. Worth.