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Thursday
Feb182010

Patience and Perseverance: Tilton Walks It Like He Talks It

There is no way to describe United Airline leader Glenn Tilton other than resilient.  He is disliked internally by organized labor and questioned externally by nearly everyone who has an eye on this industry.  He has taken his role as the industry spokesperson seriously, perhaps more seriously than anyone before him.  We listen intently to Giovanni Bisignani, the CEO of IATA.  But we do not listen enough to Tilton. Why? Because Tilton’s is a message of change not cluttered by this industry’s history, and some people don’t like the message.

Tilton was quoted shortly after United ended a three year stay in bankruptcy: “If I were able to draw a visual image of the beginning (of bankruptcy) to today, it would be one continuous experience of knocking down internal and external barriers.”  In his role as chief spokesperson for the US airline industry as Chairman of the Board of the Air Transport Association, Tilton waxes philosophical about the barriers that impede the industry’s natural evolution.

I have a long history at United and knew the “old company” well.  United epitomized all that was wrong with the US airline industry prior to its bankruptcy in December of 2002.  One of Tilton’s predecessors as CEO, Stephen Wolf, did some very good things along the way that provided United with its global roots.  But even Wolf did little to address the company’s bloated cost structure and a management bureaucracy that often resulted in paralysis.  For every cubicle in Elk Grove Village, one could find at least one silo. 

Tilton cares less about the history of United than its future.  His history lesson was a short one – whatever structure in place when he arrived in 2002 did not work and therefore needed to be changed.  If Tilton was wed to preserving United’s legacy, then he likely would not have taken the same course in fundamentally reshaping the company. He would not have taken on the pilot union, ALPA, over its actions to disrupt United’s operations – winning an airtight legal victory for management that ranks among the most significant victories in decades.  Rather he would have permitted bad behavior – or paid the pilots to stop behaving badly - just as prior administrations had done. 

Today United is a lot smaller, with a mainline operation 30 percent smaller than it was 10 years ago.  For this, Tilton takes a lot of heat.  As the pilots union watches its ranks diminish, ALPA constantly reminds Tilton that an airline cannot shrink its way to profitability.  This may have been true in United’s past, but on Tilton’s watch growth will only occur if it is profitable growth.  It is hard to envision a day when United will again have 12,000 pilot equivalents on the payroll.

Tilton and others recognize that the industry is still too big.  In the most read Swelblog article to date, Montie Brewer makes a clear case that the industry’s capacity-lead business model is the number one reason why the airline industry will never be profitable over a sustainable period.  Also weighing in on the subject is Professor Rigas Doganis who writes about over capacity in Airline Business.  According to Doganis, the airline industry is inherently unstable and airlines have only themselves to blame for the constant state of oversupply and the downward pressure on fares that result.

Doganis goes on to discuss how airlines are “spasmodically” profitable, quoting Tilton on the fact that the industry has "systematically failed to earn its cost of capital."  This is a fact that has long bothered the former oilman.  In a recent speech to the Wings Club in New York, Tilton raised the industry’s continuing and daunting challenge: “How to navigate to sustainable profitability in light of our financial instability.”

In London he made the point again and differently:  “Volatility and losses have been the norm for this industry, as has our systemic failure to earn our cost of capital and achieve any level of consistent financial resilience. The industry has lost nearly $50 billion worldwide since 2000 and a staggering $11 billion last year alone.”

Tilton at United – From Hands On to Chief Strategist

One can be sure that when Tilton arrived at United in September 2002, he had little idea just how bad things were.  But he would soon find out.  Three months after his arrival in Elk Grove Village, United landed in a downtown Chicago courtroom for more than three years as the company restructured itself.  There were mistakes along the way.  There was some bad luck along the way particularly as it pertained to rising values in the aircraft market.  There was the decision to terminate employee defined benefit plans, which among other things permanently damaged Tilton’s reputation in the labor ranks, but enabled the airline to get the exit capital it needed to start anew.

As United exited bankruptcy protection in February 2006, oil prices were on the rise.  The company restructured itself around $55 per barrel oil – a price that was fast becoming a memory and a bad assumption in the company’s plan of reorganization.  Company performance – operational, financial or otherwise – was nowhere near expectations set based on an entity that had spent three years fixing itself.  For either right or wrong reasons, Tilton kept many of United’s legacy management team around to complete the bankruptcy process.  What he belatedly came to appreciate is that leadership at the company had to change – and change it did.

United mainline is much smaller today than it was the day it emerged from bankruptcy.  Tilton oversaw its downsizing in bankruptcy and continued the work as oil prices climbed.  But he also recognized that he was not the guy to handle the day to day operations. Like any good restructuring guy, Tilton knew to hand over the operation of the company to others on the executive team, particularly  John Tague, Kathryn Mikells and Pete McDonald.

And the plan seems to be finally working.  United is starting to produce some good results.  There might be a lesson here for others in the industry, including the consideration of whether CEOs should delegate the day-to-day functions and concentrate on their role as the company’s chief strategist.  Just as pivotal, in United’s case at least, was Tilton’s decision to focus on tearing down the barriers to change – something all industry CEOs should consider in improving the financial prospects for a once proud industry relegated to underperformance, in part by the stakeholders who benefit from its inefficiency.

Tilton and Government

In one way or another, Tilton delivers the message that “no matter how well United or any U.S. carrier transforms its business, none of us will be as strong as we should be - much less in a position to compete in the emerging global aviation industry - if there's no change to the regulatory environment in which we operate.” Without a coherent U.S. aviation policy that “reverses the bias against airline size and removes the barriers that prevent us from constructive consolidation, U.S. carriers will be unable to compete on a global scale and we risk being marginalized,” Tilton said.

Among the questions for the industry, as Tilton outlined in a talk to the UK Aviation club, is what motivates the protectionists’ view of the industry.  “What is it that they are “protecting? A chronically underperforming industry?” he asked.

Concluding Thoughts

For what it’s worth, I focus on Tilton not because of his work at United but because of the message he delivers and its relevance to the rest of the industry.

As I predicted in my last post, February 2010 has been a significant month for airline news – some of it good and some of it bad like government’s call for slot divestitures in the USAirways – Delta slot swap.  It appears likely that oneworld will get permission to compete on an equal footing with the STAR and SkyTeam alliances.  This is the necessary next step to ensure inter-alliance competition as we think and talk about the industry’s structure going forward.   Tilton is a huge proponent of alliances who quickly recognized that one airline cannot be everything to everybody and that network scope and scale can be economically garnered through partnerships that leverage each member airline’s strengths.

Tilton also remains a proponent of consolidation.  His voice is growing increasingly louder on the subject of cross-border mergers and the flow of capital based his belief that the US and the European Union should move forward on Phase II of a transatlantic agreement and pave the way to permitting cross border commercial activity in the airline industry.  As Tilton noted in his UK speech, “capital is global and doesn't have sovereign inhibitions."

Like him or not, Tilton rarely shies away from stating his views, even at the risk of ruffling some stakeholder’s feathers.  For Tilton, too many people focus on the past rather than the future and what needs removed in order that the industry can continue to evolve. That evolution may continue to prove painful for some in the industry as Open Skies and re-shaped alliances bring new competition all the while presenting new opportunities for agile and nimble operators.

Tilton’s role, like that of the Anderson, Arpey, Smisek , Parker and other airline CEOs, is to serve as agents of that change and find a way to balance the demands and interests of labor, shareholders and other stakeholders that depend on a robust, profitable industry.

 

Note:  I hold stock and options in Hawaiian Holdings, Inc. as a result of my Board position.  I also hold stock in United Airlines accumulated at various points in time since the company emerged from bankruptcy.

Thursday
Nov272008

Stuffing Romy's Thanksgiving “Turkey”

Over the past month, news emanating from Wall Street has muted some of the stories taking place in the airline industry. So on this Thanksgiving morning, I thought I would stuff the bird with some stories that leave me scratching my head...

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Aug132008

Campaign Season: Little Substance and Fewer Facts

At least in the race for the US Presidency, a winner will be declared. In the corporate campaigns being run by the American and United pilots against their respective employers, no one wins. 25 years ago, corporate campaigns had some effect as they were new. They are often targeted at individuals, either senior executives or board members in hopes of exposing something “dirty” in exchange for leverage that can be traded at the bargaining table. As we have written here before, this upcoming round of labor negotiations is odd in that neither side has significant leverage and the most important in history since the industry was deregulated.

So the pilots, the “professionals”, the “flying investment bankers”, at United and American have taken to erecting billboards, calling for the heads of their CEO, challenging executive compensation schemes, talking openly about safety and ensuring that each carrier’s operating statistics remain in the press long after they have been reported - all the while hiding behind the veil of improving the product for each carrier's customer base. And hiding behind the financial and still unknown economic condition of the industry. What a laughable approach that promises no more leverage than what they have today as the path to a Presidential Emergency Board is carved.

I could have entitled this blog: The Summer of 2008 Part II.

Presidential Campaign

Like many I talk to, I am disappointed that we have not heard peep #1 of substance from either McCain or Obama on transportation issues generally and nothing on the airline industry specifically as they march toward the November general election. Some band-aid ideas on energy from Obama and the energy solutions suggested by McCain would have a long road to hoe to be implemented. Nonetheless, I am disappointed at this juncture that little is being discussed regarding this battered industry.

Corporate Campaign(s)

My view of the antics undertaken by the Allied Pilots Association and their current leadership, who still can claim that they represent 8,300 airmen at American Airlines, has been well documented in this blog. But most of the unprofessional behavior demonstrated by this current administration has been displayed by leadership of this independent union during every other cycle in the past.

Not so long ago, a desperate grasp for leverage only cost APA’s members $45 million in dues dollars. Today, their inflexible bargaining position based on a dream and actions undertaken against the employer to try and bully the employer to accept their outlandish ask could cost the American pilot membership more. Maybe much more. But they have been there before………. And I am still betting that this one gets put on ice and lands before a Presidential Emergency Board 18 months from now - long after the Delta and Northwest pilots begin to enjoy the improved terms of their new collective bargaining agreement that required the loss of certain legacy mindsets.

One thing that has always perplexed me about this industry, and I was persuaded to pursue the same actions in my past as a union leader: why do this industry’s unions perpetually make deals that minimize the headcount reduction while maximizing the pay cut undertaken by all employees? I have talked about how the industry has always over-expanded in the up cycles and never taken enough uneconomic capacity out in the down cycles. Well the same is true with labor.

The unions choose bigger paycuts to preserve jobs in the down cycles. Stated another way, pay cuts have masked the fact that legacy labor has engaged in bargaining practices that have made them less and less productive in the down cycles. These practices then lead to the airline hiring more employees than needed in the subsequent up cycle. This is a classic example of another inefficiency that has compounded itself over three decades of deregulation. But no, we will try to injure the entire membership to protect 200. Makes a strong cost-benefit analysis case don’t you think?

Corporate Campaign #2: United Pilots Call for Tilton to Resign

I was beginning to believe that the corporate campaign season would be limited to the independent union suspects: APA; and USAPA. But no, we are now joined by the United Airlines chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. [And anyone that knows a few things about ALPA politics know about the cowboys at United.] First we have a public cry challenging the safe maintenance of their airplanes by the company’s own mechanics. Then we have the claim of an unlawful action on the part of the union by the company. Now we have the pilots at United calling for their CEO’s head.

This Is Nothing New......

A little history would be helpful here. Let’s take a walk down memory lane of United pilot and CEO relationships. In 1981 I believe, the United pilots made a significant concessionary pact in productivity to the company called “Blue Skies”. The subsequent negotiations between the company and the pilots did not return those concessions to the pilots and the result was a six-week strike in May of 1985.

The pilots claimed that Richard Ferris, who remained Chairman and CEO following the strike, was diverting money from the airline to invest in Westin and Hertz, a combination that ultimately became known as Allegis and included United Airlines. The United pilots hire F. Lee Bailey and began a push to buy the company following the end of their strike. Ferris was pushed out and the company sold its interests in Hilton and Hertz along the way. The CEO and Chairman chairs were held warm until Stephen Wolf was named head of the airline in late 1987.

But the pilots at United were exercising their power over being disgruntled with Ferris’s actions and were making headway toward a leveraged buyout until “Black Monday” – the market crash in October of 1987. Yes, the stock market crash in October of 1987 ended their initial bid. A failed attempt where the pilot union still paid its advisors some $16 million. Ever think how much that was in 1987?

Then, in walks Wolf in late 1987, a deal-friendly CEO that had cashed out nicely at each Republic Airlines and the Flying Tiger Line. By late 1989, Wolf was Chairman and CEO, the Allegis name was dropped and the subsidiaries sold. As Wolf’s tenure in the Chairman and CEO chair began, the economics of the industry were generally strong. Then came 1991. High oil prices and a recession. In 1993, Wolf turned to the unions seeking concessions from contracts negotiated in a much better economic period. [What we did not know at the time was that an inside ALPA lawyer would be financially rewarded for being an intermediary to turn these talks from simple concessions to the vehicle that would be used to sell the company to the employees] The company sold the flight kitchens following a near $1 billion loss in 1992.

The 1993 concession negotiations ultimately led to the ESOP structure that was closed in July of 1994. Nearly seven years after their initial attempts, the United pilots had their wish. Wolf was paid off handsomely and in came former Chrysler CEO Gerry Greenwald to head the company and usher in this new era of employee relations. Greenwald was hand-picked by ALPA to head the new airline, as was his number 2, John Edwardson. And the pilot advisors were paid yet another $16 million in the process.

Employee seats on the board were negotiated with unprecedented and unhealthy corporate governance power. Greenwald makes himself a lame duck during this period by announcing half way through that he would only fulfill the initial 5-year term of his agreement. My guess is he fully appreciated that the economics and the governance construct would inevitably lead to a bad outcome. He left in 1999.

During 1998, employees that had made concessions to buy the airline were entitled to begin negotiating interim wage increases. Management recognized that the increases being sought could not be sustained. Then, using their power at the board level, ALPA and the IAM voiced strong opposition to John Edwardson – the chief opponent - and he was ultimately replaced by Jim Goodwin. Goodwin, was another President and COO that needed the blessing of the unions. Then in early 1999, following Greenwald’s departure, Goodwin was named Chairman and CEO.

The ESOP construct ended in 2000. But as the ESOP construct was ending, which meant that United had to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements with all of its bargaining units except the flight attendants, Goodwin began to pursue a merger with US Airways. Labor tensions mounted as the merger now posed many issues that could negatively impact the outcome of their negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement.

The pilots ultimately won a ransome-like contract, based in part on their actions, that made virtually their entire portfolio of international flying unprofitable. Further the contract established a false market on the rates the industry could afford to pay for pilot labor. Ultimately the US Airways bid was abandoned in 2001. Then the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, exactly one-year after ALPA agreed to accept its ransome. And surprise, surprise: as the unions still possessed the extraordinary governance powers negotiated during the ESOP transaction, Goodwin was gone by November of 2001. His chair was held warm by board member Jack Creighton until a successor could be found.

Like the rest of the industry, United suffered in the aftermath of 9/11. The company began negotiations with all of its unions seeking an unprecedented give of $2.5 billion annually. Creighton retires, as he was not the one to lead this company through this difficult period. With governance powers still in place, ALPA, the IAM and the board replace the retiring Creighton with Glenn Tilton. The former oil executive will be the one to lead United into, and out of, bankruptcy protection. Remember, it was ALPA that hired Tilton - like many before him citing that it was one expensive hire but definitely the very best of the candidates interviewed.

Concluding Thoughts

Now United is nearing the time to begin negotiations to replace the consensual agreements reached while the company was in bankruptcy. One of Tilton’s strongest attributes upon his hiring was his familiarity with the bankruptcy process so I guess in some ways that makes him a restructuring guy. It did not take him long to recognize that the negotiations with the unions that were concluded prior to the filing on December 9, 2002, were not going to be enough. And I do not think that Glenn believes the work is done at United yet.

For years, the United pilots have taken to calling for the head of each and every CEO that said no. They were more than willing to put in place those they believed would say yes. But even they had to say no at some point and when they did - they were gone. Tilton has said no and continues to say no so that means that the United pilots should keep with what they know and call for his head. But any good restructuring guy knows when the work is done and when it is not done. Many have stayed too long. I don’t think this will be the case as United works toward righting its operation in anticipation of an alliance with Continental Airlines.

I think some history is important for those looking at the United pilots calling for Tilton’s head as a significant event. It is not significant. It is nothing more than a piece of a tired, three-decade old tactic that the United pilots are using in Corporate Campaign 2008. If the United pilots are serious, as they were in the mid 1980’s, then buy the company again. Otherwise there are two choices: be creative and constructive; or be legacy-minded and destructive. United probably has a liquidation value that shareholders might just view as attractive.

I love how history repeats itself in this industry. This blog was largely written from memory as I have spent a lot of my life at United in these dealings. I am sure that I will be corrected if I have made a mistake on the chain of events.

And further, isn’t it interesting that on the day the pilots call for Tilton’s head, the Delta and Northwest pilots approve a new collective bargaining agreement that will be in place when the merger of the two companies is finally approved. At least at some carriers represented by ALPA there are constructive actions being undertaken to address a changing world.

More to come.

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
May152008

Pondering the Next Move; But Before I Do…….

Wednesday’s Hearings: “Forgetting About History”

If there is another “something” in the works, surely no one really believed that anything would be announced before yesterday’s House hearings on Delta – Northwest? Jim “Hell NO”berstar was anything but “Hell No” in yesterday’s hearings. To be sure, he was anything but Hell Yes. He seemed to save his “powder” for the testimony of the Departments of Justice and Transportation. But even that was dry and in the end about all we could do was “take heart” that the investigation would be thorough.

I am not one that is going to give a protectionist much slack. But I kind of felt sorry for him when it became clear that he had not quite grasped that Phase I of the US-EU liberalization deal was in effect and that all six US legacy carriers could fly to Heathrow. But where I really struggled was with the continued pointing to American Airlines and their purchase of TWA’s assets. Remember, not a merger but rather, an acquisition of assets. There was much discussion about how St. Louis was reduced from 500 flights per day to 250 flights per day.

When American made the decision to purchase TWA’s assets, congestion was the rule/industry fear of the day. The “Summer from Hell”, or the Summer of 2000, was in the books. Chicago O’Hare was in the headlines most days during that summer. Delays in Chicago were either based on thunderstorms or Rick Dubinsky choking the golden goose. From American’s strategic perspective, St. Louis could potentially be that reliever of congestion in Chicago as connecting traffic is well connecting traffic and can be accomplished in either city.

But “NOberstar and the Fear Mongers” sang the tune that American sat in the very same hearing room and vowed to keep St. Louis whole. We heard it over and over. If we forgot about Phase I being in place; surely we did not forget about September 11, 2001 and the effects it had on the US domestic airline industry in general and the network legacy carriers specifically. Yes, St. Louis was downsized and most non-hub flying was eliminated. Pittsburgh was carefully eliminated. Atlantic Coast died under its own lack of weight. And an over-exhuberant industry replaced mainline flying with regional flying.

St. Louis was a dying hub. McDonnell Douglas was gone. Its local economy was built on reputation and not on strong underlying economic attributes. American made the only decision that was in its best corporate interest. Remove capacity from a weak point and focus on a strong one – Chicago. Nuff’ said.

Pondering the Next Move

My guess is Jim “Hell NO”berstar is keeping his powder dry until the next move is announced. The next move will face more intense scrutiny based on the “I told you so” line that was most prevalent yesterday. Honestly, I do not know of another deal scenario that is interesting – let alone transformational – and provides the kind of investment thesis that helps this period come alive.

We have United and US Airways merger discussions being tossed around by “those close to the situation”. Now we have a United and Continental alliance in the news. Readers know I like what Tilton says as he talks about the industry from 40,000 feet – and I am in fundamental agreement that the current construct is good for no stakeholder group.

If I lean to one of the two scenarios being painted in today’s mainstream press, I lean to a United - Continental alliance. Gravity takes me there because it differentiates the combination from Delta and Northwest. Delta and Northwest individually, and collectively, are/will be highly reliant on connecting traffic as their hubs are located in smaller population centers. [And this is why their commitment to maintaining the most extensive network possible is absolutely factual] United and Continental would be building around hubs/gateways where core onboard traffic would be largely local.

Now, I understand that the transatlantic onboard traffic mix can be different based on other competitors in the market. We do not have to look much further than Washington Dulles and the fact that Lufthansa carries more Washington local traffic to Germany and beyond than United. United’s airplanes are filled with more behind and bridge traffic based on the connection to its US domestic network at Washington Dulles.

But doesn’t this also suggest intra-alliance competition for traffic that is being bastardized by comments from the fear mongers that the transatlantic will soon face a scenario where barriers to entry are much too high?

LIQUIDITY AND SOUTHWEST AND UNITED

Over the last couple of months, this blogger has written about how liquidity will be back in the headlines just as it was following the events of September 11, 2001. American has looked to relax fixed charge covenants. Delta and Northwest are looking to a combined balance sheet. United has worked to relax covenants in its loan agreements. US Airways balance sheet is actually in pretty good shape for the moment. Southwest recently borrowed $600 million against owned aircraft to bolster an already strong liquidity position. jetBlue has sold aircraft and sold equity to Lufthansa to bolster liquidity. AirTran has sold delivery positions and just completed a convertible to bolster its liquidity. And the market yawns.

Holly Hegeman of Planebuzz.com asks the question: PlaneBuzz: Follow up on Southwest Nuts: Why Do They Need More? If she had not written before I had a chance, I would have asked the same question but probably not as eloquently. Me thinks, Southwest plays a meaningful role in the next move. These guys – and sorry Laura – are smart. Based on their model, there are just simply not many markets left in the US.

Now, I have no clue as to what the plans are – or if there are any - as I am not a source close to the situation. But I am willing to bet that the next move involves Southwest purchasing assets. Whether they are Washington National assets; Laguardia assets; or something else they are the only name that can assure “NOberstar and the Fear Mongers” that competition will remain robust. If Southwest is involved, the strategy is brilliant. And I am not one that will discount Tilton.

I am the guy that has lived a life liking and rooting for: Illie Nastase; Jimmy Connors; Derek Sanderson; Craig Stadler; well you get the picture.

As I have said, this time is cruel but it will lead to something better. Simply because the current construct just does not work for anyone. So for the consumer groups: you will pay more and it is not because of a changing industry structure, rather it is an industry that must simply charge at least as much as it costs to produce the product. And for labor, the best bet to recapture what you think is entitled is to bet on the future. It just might be good.

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.

Saturday
Mar082008

The Era of Transition, and Hopefully Transformation, Is Top of Mind for British Airways as Well

Industry cycles often adopt a theme – and often too late. The late 1990’s through, at least, the first three quarters of 2000 was arguably a bubble period where revenue generation was too good to be true – even in hindsight. Yet the US industry added billions dollars of costs believing that the revenue trajectory was sustainable. For US carriers, the period from late 2001-2007 was a restructuring period. A period necessary to begin making wholesale changes based on the unrealistic cost structures that developed during the inflating of the bubble.

Now today, we find an industry that has indeed taken billions of dollars of cost out of any number of carrier’s respective operations. But it was clearly not enough to produce an industry structure that can profitably support all of the current players. All you have to do is read 2008’s best-selling daily horror novel named the Wall Street Journal to realize that we are on very shaky ground. And about the only thing we know for sure is that the revenue health of the US and global airline industries is inextricably tied to the health of the US and global macro economies.

Views from Willie Walsh

Back in October, I wrote the shortest swelblog.com post to date. And the themes from that post are the one’s I use most when speaking. In Transforming the Transatlantic Market Into a Transcon Market, I reference a Reuters article that interviewed British Airways’ Chairman Willie Walsh. In that post I characterize the story in the following sentences: “Clearly British Airways is (re)evaluating the best use of its capital as the current architecture of the transatlantic market is being (re)examined. This story comes on the heels of reports that BA is considering a major expansion of new services into the US market”.

In the Reuters article, Walsh uses the term transformational. Transforming the global airline industry is precisely what is being done in Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Sydney. It is precisely what Glenn Tilton of United, Doug Parker of US Airways, and now Richard Anderson of Delta and Doug Steenland of Northwest have been/are saying as well.

There are Many Parallels Between BA’s Views and US Industry Views…..

……and I will touch on a few.

Individual airline growth around the world is taking place in multiple ways. Among the elite Asian carriers, the robust growth is largely organic. The same is true in Latin America. Except for LAN who is expanding through both organic growth as well as providing a brand on which flags of countries with struggling airlines can rely on for access to the global air transportation system. In the Middle East region, it is all about organic growth. This region is blessed with geography, capital and a vision that I appreciate more today than I did just a month ago.

In Europe though, growth for the legacy carriers has largely come through acquisition strategies. Sure Ryanair and Easyjet are growing organically but they are not the answer to Europe’s global access anymore than Southwest, jetBlue and AirTran are in the United States. It is just naïve to believe that the low cost sector is that answer.

On March 7, 2008 the Financial Times wrote a very good story entitled: BA looks to play the consolidation game. It is from this story that I will attempt to draw out some of the many parallels that exist between BA and the thoughts on industry structure espoused by the leaders of the US legacy carriers.

For British Airways, global travel is everything. For the US legacy carriers, global travel is quickly becoming everything as the US domestic market’s fragmented structure promises little to nothing in terms of profitable new business. But when BA looks at the size its principal regional competition (Air France/KLM and Lufthansa/Swiss) has grown to through acquisition, it, like its US counterparts, need to be concerned. They are big in virtually any metric imaginable.

While much is being written about what the new open skies agreement means for the industry in 2008, arguably the most important event for BA begins in December of 2008 when Lufthansa has a call option to begin buying BMI British Midland. With BMI comes a large London Heathrow slot portfolio that is sure to bring lots of interest from carriers around the globe. As BA moves to the brand new T5, and with the move the ability to move many more passengers, the slot issue is not lost on Walsh.

Like the US carriers, BA has shown very little growth since 2001. It has been engaged in its very own restructuring process. BA generates strong cash flow like the US legacy carriers but also relatively low returns on capital which also resembles the US legacy carriers. The FT article states that BA is readying for a growth period that is likely to be some combination of organic and acquisition related. In a theme that is quite reminiscent of what US legacy CEOs have been saying, Walsh is quoted in the article as saying "Some of the shackles have been removed," he told investors and equity analysts on Thursday, "we have not quite fixed the core business, but we are well on the way".

Ah, that core business thing again. To invest? Or not to invest? - and let the enterprise attrit into oblivion. That IS the question.

The FT piece expands on BA’s interest in BMI and goes on to say that an interest remains in Iberia. But outside of these two carriers, there is little interest in anything else European. Walsh states, "We are mindful of the opportunities consolidation can offer," he said. And his gaze is not only fixed on Europe”.

But Before We Go There – Yet Another Parallel

In a paragraph which caused me to pause and read multiple times, Walsh commented on the acquisitions made by each Air France and Lufthansa: "we look with admiration" at how both deals had generated substantial revenue synergies, a possibility BA had largely discounted, as it concentrated much more on the potential for cutting costs”.

This sounds a lot like what Delta and Northwest have been discussing. Network and revenue synergies first. I, along with many observers, have also struggled with the strategy outlined in a number of press reports which suggest that Northwest and Delta will maintain their current network structures. But after a period of domestic cuts and a restructuring of networks with a sharp focus on an international strategy, we will just have to wait and see whether the same synergies can be realized here in the US as are being realized in Paris and Frankfurt.

On US Consolidation and Views on the Regulatory Landscape

The article and Mr. Walsh offer views on US consolidation that are also in concert with statements made by US legacy carrier CEOs. "US consolidation would be a good step forward," said Mr Walsh, "it would benefit the US and the global industries".

There has to be a strong US industry for there to be progress in the next stage of transatlantic liberalisation and a dismantling of US restrictions on the foreign ownership and control of US airlines.

BA had a "good relationship" with its US partner American Airlines, but the development of any deeper deal was "inhibited" by the two groups' lack of antitrust immunity from the US and European competition authorities.

"There is evidence that the regulatory landscape is changing," said Mr Walsh, but it was not yet clear that it had changed sufficiently to make a fresh application for a deal with American, he said. "We will continue to look and examine."

Bringing Back a Few of My Favorite Glenn Tilton Statements

For those of you that have read this blog since the beginning, you will have seen these quotes used before. For the purposes of this blog post, the parallels between a US airline CEO and Mr. Walsh are certainly evident.

Glenn Tilton, UAL’s Chairman and CEO said in a speech to the Nikkei Global Management Forum in Tokyo: “If there is one imperative for every business in the global economy today, it is simply this: evolve, adapt, reinvent . . . or risk irrelevance in the global marketplace”. He went on to say: “As everyone here today knows well: the reality of our world is that globalization is relentless. Think of any industry represented in this room; choose any business listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange; and one can be sure: it looks nothing like it did ten years ago; and looks nothing like it will ten years from now”.

In his Tokyo speech, Tilton asks the following question: “As globalization gives rise to new economic powers within the developing world, the real question for all of us operating in mature economies today is this: will the legacy systems that contributed to the success in developed nations in the 20th Century be an asset or an impediment to growth in the 21st Century”?

He goes on: “The airline industry is a perfect platform from which to focus this discussion, because it is subject to virtually every imaginable challenge -- every human challenge, industrial challenge, financial, regulatory, and security challenge -- throughout the global economy. And then, of course, we also contend with the weather”.

So BA, like the US legacy carriers have evolved largely by being pushed by economic and competitive forces to engage in a necessary restructuring. The restructuring was necessary to adapt to both a changed and hypercompetitive domestic market and to better prepare for a world that has been largely liberalized. But, the reinvention of former legacy airlines into entities that can thrive in tomorrow’s economic world is not complete. And that is clear for each BA and United and Northwest and Delta and others to be sure.

More to come.

Tuesday
Jan222008

Converging Catalysts Making a Case for Consolidation?

Don’t look now…….

…..but there is something that feels different to me. In the vial, mix:

1. a lot of anxiety with commensurate posturing
2. non-traditional capital sources with skeptical labor
3. parochial tendencies against global economic forces
4. a weak dollar relative to foreign currencies
5. a weakening US economy and record high oil prices that appear to be the new standard

What do you get? Consolidation chatter that has the feel that it is real. Not talk; not speculation . . ..the real deal.

The US Home Market

The last meaningful airline consolidation period that involved multiple players began in the mid-1980s. Piedmont bought Empire; American bought AirCal; Northwest bought Republic; TWA bought Ozark; United bought Pan Am’s Pacific Division; Delta bought Western; USAir bought PSA; USAir and PSA bought Piedmont; United bought Pan Am’s London Heathrow authority; and American bought TWA’s London Heathrow authority. And that’s only the larger transactions of the period.

It is these transactions that formed the commercial backbone of the industry today. Nearly 20 years have passed since the industry recognized that economies of scope, scale and density would prove important to survival in a deregulated network industry. And it brought a significant regional concentration of services. Two Minneapolis hub carriers merged; two St. Louis hub carriers merged; and two predominantly East Coast carriers merged. Arguably, only Delta and Western represented an “end to end” merger of carriers.

In the years since, there have been periods of mainline capacity cuts, mainline capacity growth and regional carrier growth – explosive at times and largely facilitated by technological change and a disparity in labor rates. And by the late 1990s, we also had the explosion in new capacity by low-cost carriers, and not just Southwest. The growth by the LCC sector was largely driven by the gap in the cost structures between the upstarts and the legacy carriers.

That Was Then, This Is Now

We have talked on Swelblog.com about how the barriers to exit are greater for this industry than are the barriers to entry. We learned the latest lesson on this topic during the bankruptcy era when more-than-sufficient capital was available to fund each of the respective plans of reorganization.

I would be surprised if one serious analyst did not question the virtues of the reorganization plans. Costs were cut and network changes were made, to be sure. But now, compounding the price of fuel is a weakening economy. Airline share prices plummeted throughout the month of December. Thus far in 2008, virtually every market is off to one of the worst starts of any year on record. The markets know something. The only time I want to see the highs getting lower, and the lows getting lower, is in my golf score.

At some point, the current credit crisis, increasing food prices and the impact of rising fuel on the consumer pocketbook will begin to put real pressure on consumer disposable income. And this will impact airline travel. Consumers will simply be less inclined to travel, even if the ticket price is right. From everything I read, it is clear that planned capacity for 2008 has not factored in any meaningful loss of consumer disposable income, nor should it as the macro economic indicators continue to provide us with mixed signals at every turn.

The Catalysts for Consolidation

1. The price of fuel: Consolidate this time will mean consolidate, or risk getting smaller. Consolidate means eliminating any and all duplication of service and costs associated with providing that service. And no, it does not have to harm the consumer as I believe that the leadership of the US airline industry may actually be more concerned about further erosion of consumer confidence in the industry than the health of the economy and oil threats.

2. The US domestic economy: A weakening economy will only shine a harsher light on service to communities that can’t be operated at a profit. The US airline industry made a good bet on 50 seat capacity during the latter half of the 1990s. That bet helped the industry to remain connected during the dark days of 2001 – 2004. But if that capacity was not economic at $50 oil, then it certainly is not economic at $90 oil. I do not think the industry has any overt intentions to disenfranchise entire communities from access to the US air transportation system. Rather, the industry will rightly ask if the same revenue can be generated with six frequencies instead of nine or three frequencies instead of five.

3. Hyper domestic competition: If anyone on Capitol Hill ignores the simple fact that US airline industry growth has slowed at home because few profitable opportunities remain, then we will just keep having the circular conversation – mostly driven by parochial concerns – that rejects consolidation out of an irrational fear that it will limit competition.

4. Increased international competition: If not a catalyst today, incursions into our market from foreign carriers promise to become a pressure point in the near term. The immediate impact of the US-EU deal is not much more than a change of the three letter airport code from LGW to LHR. But LHR, like JFK, is important airline real estate. Given this fact, what will bmi do? It has significant slot holdings that are sure to be bid on by any number of carriers like BA, Virgin, Lufthansa (with rights to exercise), Singapore, Emirates or any one of the Indian carriers. Any one of these carriers can force a changed transAtlantic environment overnight if LHR slots land in their portfolio. And we will sit and watch just how BA will compete with its Open Skies subsidiary from non-LHR points on the continent. Game on.

5. Foreign Capital: Just as plenty of money was available from many sources to fund bankruptcy exits in the US, foreign capital will prove to be plentiful as the US considers merger partners and deal structures. I am not convinced that all alliance structures are set in concrete. This being said, the alliances are sure to be most interested parties in how the network structures might evolve. In fact, some of the competition among the alliances to secure their place at a preferred table may be the catalyst to satisfy the many currently unsatisfied shareholders in US airlines today.

6. Labor: In a recent post here (no, not the one where the Terrapins beat the Tar Heels), I wrote about the emerging leadership of Lee Moak, ALPA MEC Chairman at Delta. Since that posting, the leadership of the pilots at United and Northwest have also spoken. Why the rising volume in the union leadership ranks? Because I am increasingly convinced that the industry is moving beyond recognition that structural change is about to occur -- and with that recognition comes preparation. Unions representing pilots and the flight attendants signal that preparations are underway to address respective issues in any consolidation scenario. They are seeming to believe, as do I, that with a seat at the table comes opportunity.

7. Management: In their public statements, the leadership at each of the airlines is increasingly more resolute in their comments regarding consolidation. United’s Tilton and US Airways’ Parker have been joined in recent weeks by Delta’s Anderson and Northwest’s Steenland speaking out in support of consolidation. Keep watching – it appears that Continental’s Kellner and Southwest’s Kelly may not be far behind.

With jetBlue partnering with Lufthansa; Frontier under increasing competitive pressure in Denver; and AirTran certain to be challenged by a growing and more vibrant Delta footprint, this discussion is not confined to a single sector of the industry.

A Few Concluding Thoughts

There is just something different this time. If after taking billions of dollars of cost out of the industry’s operations, all we get is a two-year profit cycle, then there will have to be something different this time. Yes, we might get three years of profitability, but that’s not where the smart money is now. Already profit estimates for 2008 are being reduced by 40 percent versus what the industry earned in 2007.

The fact is, the industry already has used most of the rabbits in its hat. In 1985 the industry was in its infancy and the focus was on the domestic market as network size could not be built organically in the face of deregulated pricing. The same is true in 2008, but now we’re talking about network size in the global marketplace. Like in 1985, the networks that are necessary to survive cannot be built organically, not when airlines lack critical pricing power that stems from a fragmented and hypercompetitive home market.

Some very good things came out of that merger period in the 1980s. Some very good things will come out of this merger period as well. Yes, there will be dislocations and the loss of an icon or two. But we should embrace the change. It may be the last shot for many airlines. And it is a risk worth taking because the current model will only produce the same deaths by a thousand paper cuts.

Wednesday
Nov212007

Thank you flyby519

Whereas this blog has not matured to the level of others in terms of receiving a large number of comments to my posts, flyby519 has taken the time to respond twice and asks some very good questions while offering very good insight to the industry. While I am thankful for much this holiday season – family, friends, a successful career redirection and a lower handicap – I am truly thankful to this reader for the questions raised. So my Thanksgiving post will respond to each question asked by flyby519.

In a comment to my post, Wondering Thoughts From 5 Time Zones Away, flyby 519 asked the following questions:

Question 1: “I agree that VA [Virgin America] isn’t going to go far just doing transcon service in a saturated market, but do you think there is a future for them feeding the Virgin Atlantic routes”?

Answer: My simple answer is yes I do. But given that Virgin Atlantic is not a large connecting carrier on the London end, and much of Virgin America’s initial service launched in the US has been from the largest gateway markets to London, it will take some time for the Virgin Atlantic – Virgin America connection to play itself out. My struggle with getting excited about Virgin America is its timing into the US market. 5 years ago, I would have a much different outlook and level of excitement for its ultimate success. But if attrition is expected in the US market, then probably a good bet to make by Branson.

Question 2: “Is creating a global brand the ultimate plan for the Virgin Group”?

Answer: We have to acknowledge that Branson is a branding genius and it is hard to suggest that this venture is any different than any of the 200+ ventures he has entered to date. While feed to Virgin Atlantic may develop over time, enhancing the visibility of the Virgin brand in existing gateways, just as the transatlantic is expected to become even more competitive, will prove to be an import indirect benefit to Virgin Atlantic in the near term.

Question 3: “I also am concerned with the aircraft orders coming just from foreign airlines. The weak dollar and sad state of US airlines are forcing them to pass up expansion, which (combined with open skies) leaves room for invasion from the foreign carriers. What will happen with increased competition and reduction of market share internationally for our struggling carriers”?

Answer: Flyby519, thanks for picking up on this statement as I rank this question in the top 3 or 4 points I have made here.

Your point on the dollar v. foreign currency and the effect it has on the “ability to buy” cannot be underestimated. We are about to witness the Boeing v. Airbus strategies (consolidate v. fragment) play out before our very own eyes. I do believe that the US carriers will be disadvantaged by carriers making extensive new aircraft orders and looking to expand their services into existing gateway markets. In addition, if new carriers begin to serve secondary points in the US, – and we should expect some - much like Continental and Delta are doing from the US into Europe, then the game is truly joined. But the US industry should not be alone in this concern.

If I am a major European carrier with an extensive network built to serve all world regions, I am watching with much anxiety what is going on in Dubai, Doha and multiple points in India where competition for global traffic flows is very much in its infancy. And if there is concern over what competitive juggernauts might be constructed in these regions, then some concern is warranted regarding the existing health and architecture of the global alliances built by the largest US carriers and their global partners as well.

Networks can be made vulnerable in many areas and this global network industry is about to get challenged by well capitalized, aggressive competitors like none we may have seen to date. My view is the game is just being joined and why I blogged on the idea presented by Willie Walsh, British Airways’ CEO last month click here. My question back to you is: Are we being naive to think that domestic consolidation is the best means to stave off vigorous competition from another world region that is sure to degrade our current sources of revenue?

In another comment to my post, "Musings and Meanderings Over the Past Week", flyby519 asked the following questions.

Question 1: It seems that Tilton has been jabbering about mergers, spinoffs, and crazy talk for the past few years. Is he just trying to play the "look at me" game to get investors cash?

Answer: The more I read Mr. Tilton, he is consistent in his message regarding the industry needing to restructure itself. His quote that I used in one of my posts click here - “Think of any industry represented in this room; choose any business listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange; and one can be sure: it looks nothing like it did ten years ago; and looks nothing like it will ten years from now”- really resonates with me.

Whereas he may be trying to play the “look at me” game, my sense is that he understands that creating value for shareholders is going to happen in one of two ways: 1) a slow liquidation (and I use that phrase guardedly); or 2) despite United’s size in the global spectrum and despite deep cost cutting that occurred during its bankruptcy, the business is far from fixed. In a parochial sense United is big, but in terms of how changes in the global airline architecture might play out the second largest carrier in the US is merely a piece of a much larger puzzle. He may get beat up for how he articulates issues but his arrival to the airline industry as an outsider gives him perspective that should not be totally discounted just because some might not like the message.

Question 2: “I also agree that there are way too many carriers of all types, but how can this be reduced when there is always a startup (ie: skybus, virgin america) waiting to jump into the game? Are the regulatory hurdles for consolidation greater than the barriers of entry for newcomers”?

Answer: Absolutely the regulatory hurdles for consolidation are greater than the barriers of entry for newcomers. Great point! And this is precisely the type of backdrop where the industry should be evaluated. Further, it puts front and center a US Government aviation policy that promotes fragmentation. At some point I would hope that the USG would take a look at the industry from a financial perspective and appreciate, that even with consolidation, significant levels of competition will remain – whether it be to Greenville-Spartanburg or to Geneva or to Seoul.

Oh I digress as that same policy has permitted a carrier like Korean to access multiple points in the US and carry significant levels of US traffic to China because of the route rights it owns on the other end. But in the interest of competition we will promote a policy of what is good for one is good for all and everyone should have rights to China even if the divvying up of service results in a duplication of services in a developing market. What is wrong with a few strong carriers carrying the flag to compete against direct and indirect competition?

Happy Thanksgiving to all. The readership of this blog has grown to levels I never imagined when I undertook this labor of love.

Sunday
Nov042007

My Beginnings and Increasingly Appreciating Tilton's Message

This little bit on me should go a long way to helping you understand where I came from and how it impacts my views on the airline world today. I now have history to reflect upon – I did not when I began in the industry and was forced to make decisions as a union leader to ensure that my carrier survived the war of attrition.

Glenn Tilton, UAL’s Chairman and CEO said last week in a speech to the Nikkei Global Management Forum in Tokyo: “If there is one imperative for every business in the global economy today, it is simply this: evolve, adapt, reinvent . . . or risk irrelevance in the global marketplace”. He went on to say: “As everyone here today knows well: the reality of our world is that globalization is relentless. Think of any industry represented in this room; choose any business listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange; and one can be sure: it looks nothing like it did ten years ago; and looks nothing like it will ten years from now”.

Some Personal Background

In 1979, I was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. And like many, going to school required I worked a job or two to make ends meet. In trying to incorporate all things important in life at the time -- beer, going to class or not going to class, going to work, girls, beer and getting up to do it all again, one thing was clear - I was not getting much out of school that felt particularly inspiring.

It was at this time that I had a conversation with a cousin who had been a flight attendant for TWA; she suggested that the job would allow me more than sufficient time off that I could finish school. I was turned down by Braniff and ultimately hired by North Central Airlines. While I was in training, North Central and Southern merged to form Republic Airlines. So, by the time I graduated in 1979, I was a Republic flight attendant on an airplane to be based in Detroit.

I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was more than I bargained for. I sat reserve for the first six months, constantly putting in for lines on the Convair 580. Soon, I was able to hold a line that had me overnighting in Huron, SD after making 11 landings from Detroit and facing 10 landings back the next day. So, in that first year at Republic, there was no school for me. The industry was deregulated just nine months before I was hired. Republic grew quickly and my relative seniority allowed me hold a line of illegal overnights. With that relative security, I enrolled at Eastern Michigan University.

There I was blessed to find a great academic environment with only 20 declared economics majors. Classes were small, the professors were engaged and, finally, the lust for learning emerged. I carried 15-18 hours per semester while flying my line and finally finished my undergrad in 1982. My flying took me from Huron to sleeping in the basement of the Sault Ste. Marie Airport on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. With only rare exceptions, I flew two years and never left the State of Michigan – flying at night from Detroit to Traverse City to Pellston to the Sault and then retrace those steps again beginning at 5:30 the next morning. Often the basement of that airport was my study room.

In 1981, the industry began an era of massive change promised by the deregulators. The dinosaurs, free from the yoke of regulation, began to rethink their approach to the business. What followed was the the quick liquidation of Braniff, the rapid entry of carriers into markets of all sizes based on the hub and spoke network model, the grounding of the DC10s, the PATCO strike, the birth of upstarts like New York Air and PEOPLExpress, multiple mergers and the era of Frank Lorenzo. By the end of 1981, Republic had acquired Hughes Air West and I got to experience a merger firsthand.

Republic and its lineage were highly dependent on government subsidies that encouraged airlines to serve the small communities I flew to on a daily basis like Pellston, Muskegon and Ironwood. And as this subsidy was coming to an end, it was clear that Republic's costs and their revenues were falling out of alignment. Between 1981 and 1983, airlines across the industry negotiated several concessionary contracts during an era of change in which concessions were the rule rather than the exception. The contracts were in effect for only a few months at a time because most people assumed that the economic cycles were similarly short-lived ... and in virtually all cases, as soon as the concessions came to end, the return to the bargaining table was not far behind.

As I neared graduation, I was encouraged by my co-workers to run for President of the Detroit domicile, a position I won in the middle of this concessionary era. I crunched numbers and made some mistakes, but also began a different phase of my education in an industry well into transition. By mid-1983, the five Republic unions were tired of this constant return to the concessionary bargaining table and formed a steering committee to explore a leveraged ESOP of the company where I served as the flight attendant representative.

Our first job was to hire the professionals needed to do the job. We hired an airline economics firm, an investment banker, a labor lawyer, a lawyer familiar with ESOP law and a communications firm. Our second job was to figure out how to pay them – a task we accomplished by assessing the members of each union.

With professional arsenal in tow, we began to create a business plan that required hard discussions about the amount of labor concessions that would be required to fund an LBO. In our view, it was well worth the effort to try to fix the company rather than be forced to endure more and more concessions that amounted to mere Band-Aids that labor was putting on a carrier that was hemorrhaging cash as the industry changed around us.

The centerpiece of the union’s business plan was a the build up of the Detroit hub. So with business plan in hand, it was off to New York to talk with banks that might be interested in lending us inmates the $400 million or so it would take to buy the asylum. For the most part the five unions stayed together. The IAM and its maverick investment banker at the time, the late Brian Freeman, were in and out, but generally on board with a deal.

During one trip to New York that took us to Citibank -- Republic’s lead lender -- Republic CEO Dan May was relieved of his duties and replaced by a very tall man in red suspenders. Into the room walked Stephen Wolf. As Wolf came on board, the negotiations moved away from a leveraged deal to a more traditional give-and-take with equities as the quid in return for concessions – and take they did.

In the end the flight attendants agreed to a 23.5% pay cut and some work rule changes. In return, the best we could negotiate for all employees was approximately 20 cents on the dollar for concessions granted, a return on our “investment” made up of common stock, warrants and a liquidating preferred stock that was paid down with earnings. Following Northwest’s purchase of Republic in 1986, the employees at Republic were made whole for their concessions. That is the “upside” of variable compensation that has left an indelible mark on my thinking.

21 Years Later

Today’s airline environment feels about the same as it did in 1986. Structural change. Consolidation talk. And many people attempting to convince themselves that the Band-Aid approach to labor costs will only need to last through one cycle before they can get it all back.

This time, however, it is not so simple. For one thing, foreign airlines now play a far greater role in the important “domestic markets” that span the globe. Events like the Air France – KLM merger will dictate commercial strategies. Strategic models like the one LAN is implementing are sure to have made a lasting impact on commercial airline development when we look back in 2028. The two great unknowns are how Asia will develop and what will transpire in the nations comprising the United Arab Emirates. This region will certainly force change across the globe over the long term and will surely cause the European market to look in the mirror in the relatively near term.

Twenty-one years ago, we didn’t have the same rules of engagement or recent history as our guide - as there was none. In a changing marketplace, it took a proactive approach to make a flailing/fledgling carrier live to see another day and “create value” for a new platform when leveraged across a much bigger network.

UAL CEO Glenn Tilton, one of the most maligned CEOs in the US industry, began talking about the changes necessary for the industry and his carrier to survive soon after United emerged from bankruptcy. As can be expected, a lot of people took shots at the messenger, as they did at US Airways' Doug Parker who echoed Tilton’s warnings. But these chief executives now have company in the form of nearly every CEO at the major US network legacy carriers in discussing consolidation in their third quarter conference calls.

It’s time we accept the fact that this is a time of opportunity for both management and labor. Just as it was during immediate period following deregulation of the US domestic airline industry, the dinosaurs face continued, significant change or extinction. The old ways are certain to face additional challenges from the new, with youthful competition making inroads into our respective markets and new competition from airlines emerging from previously unknown dots on the world map.

The Pentultimate Question

In his Tokyo speech, Tilton asks the following question: “As globalization gives rise to new economic powers within the developing world, the real question for all of us operating in mature economies today is this: will the legacy systems that contributed to the success in developed nations in the 20th Century be an asset or an impediment to growth in the 21st Century”?

He goes on: “The airline industry is a perfect platform from which to focus this discussion, because it is subject to virtually every imaginable challenge -- every human challenge, industrial challenge, financial, regulatory, and security challenge -- throughout the global economy. And then, of course, we also contend with the weather”.

Aloha

Monday
Oct082007

Musings and Meanderings Over the Past Week

Over the past week or so, it seems like the news about the airline industry is getting even more interesting. On Thursday, October 4, US Airways click here actually increased its order for new narrowbody equipment – yes, a net increase in new narrowbody aircraft. The next day, Glenn Tilton, UAL CEO, speaking in a taped message to employees, actually talked openly about increasing non-aircraft capital expenditures click here – yes, an increase in the airline business itself. And for United, this represents a significant increase.

Then over the weekend, Dave Koenig of the Associated Press wrote a story on American’s labor situation click here predicting a tough road there as the company engages in negotiations with its pilots and other work groups. Today the Wall Street Journal carried one story by by Melanie Trottman who issued a warning on American’s stock price click here, and another quoting Tilton on the divestiture of assets and consolidation – areas where he is often the lone voice in the industry click here.

So in a span of a few days the industry chatter veered from a new round of investments on one front to speculation about divestitures and consolidation on another. Together, the news coverage makes clear that there is no clear path to success for the major carriers, not with – no compelling investment thesis and the on again, off again desire of some airlines to “go it alone.” There is ample reason for all the carriers to fear the next round of labor negotiations with unions itching for a fight. Add to that fuel nearing $80 per barrel and heading higher, little fat left on the bones of the operation and an infrastructure that is certain to stand in the way of efficiency gains. And with a revenue environment totally influenced by a hyper-competitive industry, pricing decisions are left almost entirely to market forces, giving airline management teams little room to maneuver.

Some want to believe that the cost cutting is done. It is not. Some want to believe that it cannot get worse and it likely will . . . at least for some carriers. The low hanging fruit has been picked from the expense tree which only means that the hardest work is still ahead.

Over the next 2-3 years the winners of this war of attrition will begin to emerge. I am not alone in my belief that there are simply too many airlines– mainline and regional -- too many hubs and too many parochial interests among the stakeholders to make this market work for everyone.