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Thursday
Jul092009

Are Some US Airlines Too Big to Fail? Hell No!

Holman W. Jenkins Jr., writing in the July 8 Wall Street Journal gets it right: "The new administration seemingly won't let companies fail, and won't let them succeed either," Jenkins wrote of Justice Department opposition to antitrust immunity for Continental Airlines and the Star Alliance. Such alliances, he argues, are the industry's "self-help solution" for companies looking "to share losses and preserve capacity in a downturn." By denying that option to struggling carriers, Obama may soon be forced to "add the airlines to the collection of failed industries being run out of the White House."

 

Sadly, What is Good for One is Not Good for the Other Two

Congress, of course, has a long-held penchant for meddling in the affairs of industries and organizations. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights spent taxpayer money to hold hearings on college football’s selection process for placing teams in its Bowl Championship Series. So we should not be surprised to see a growing government role in an industry that has managed to lose more than $30 billion over the past nine years.

If government oversight of the airline industry is going to stand in the way of corporate success, then there is no airline too big to fail. So why not let them fail? Airlines are criticized for not being innovative. True - and for the most part their innovations over the past 10 years amount to little more than finding ways to maximize revenue within a system of constraints.

Delta/Northwest is the largest carrier in the world, and even it commands less than a 5 percent share of the global airline market. No other U.S. airline claims more than a 3 percent share. Yet the government continues to treat the U.S. airline industry as if it is a threat to competition and slap the hands of airlines that attempt to improve/augment their business models through partnerships and alliances with foreign carriers.

Antitrust laws are designed to protect consumers from corporate power. Does a well-established trend line of fares falling at rates greater than inflation for three decades demonstrate corporate or industry pricing power? A passenger traveling from Greenville/Spartanburg to Los Angeles has a choice between more than 20 flight combinations to get from California and back.  Does that demonstrate corporate or industry power? Does an industry that makes the price of its product fully transparent to the buyer sound like an abuse of the consumer?

The fact is that most U.S. air travelers still have plenty of choices when it comes to flying – albeit in an industry that still carries more capacity than it needs.

 

Southwest: The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Let the record show that I have not joined the chorus of analysts and observers who predict rising fares by Fall. The recession holds. Many consumers are tapped out. Enter: Southwest Airlines.

Southwest has a long history of leveraging difficult financial times -- profiting at the expense of competing airlines because it could. It profited because of the chasm in its CASM versus it competitors; it profited because of the chasm in the RASM charged by competitors; it profited because it smartly used its balance sheet to make a wildly successful bet on the future of fuel prices . . . Southwest profited because it could. So this week’s fare sale in which the airline is selling tickets at $30, $60 and $90 says one of two things: either Southwest is struggling mightily with the forward booking curve, or the airline smells blood. I think the answer is both, but more the latter.

Southwest is now the big dog in the US domestic market and a player that must be reckoned with in any discussion of domestic market competition. If the nation’s lawmakers and policymakers continue to equate low fares with sufficient competition and consumer benefit, then deregulation has clearly come full circle.

Southwest is not now the big dog to those in Greenville/Spartanburg, Knoxville or Duluth. But most travelers can get in a car and drive less than a few hours to fly Southwest from these markets or more than 280 others not now served by LUV.

If this is what the regulators and policymakers really want, then that’s what they’ll get. Therefore, there is no reason to think that any airline flying today is too big to fail.

With Southwest adding the dots of the largest population centers where it did not previously fly to its route map, the industry could be at a tipping point. These markets also represent large sources of feed revenue to many legacy carrier hubs, and with Southwest offering fares too low for some legacies to match, this fall and winter may be a long, cold one for the traditional carriers.

Will the government continue to stand in the way of airlines that are desperately seeking new revenues? If so, no bailout will save an airline – not until U.S. airlines are allowed to act like other multinational industries serving a global economy. There already is enough taxpayer money bailing out other industries with similarly troubled attributes – adding airline rescues to the mix would only throw more good money after bad.

 

Union Rhetoric

What’s behind Congressional opposition to these common-sense alliances? The loudest voice in the room is labor. Even at this financially treacherous time, the industry is split from within, the result in part of union leaders that refuse to recognize economic trends and realities when they don’t serve the union’s objectives. When are the unions going to recognize that the transfer of domestic market wealth from the incumbent carriers at the time of deregulation to the new wave of carriers that followed is largely complete? And that tomorrow’s opportunities do not reside inside the 48 contiguous states?

Now, in the years since airlines sought and won aggressive cuts in labor costs during restructuring, it is increasingly clear to me that continual change/modification to outdated collective bargaining agreements cannot overcome the structural seniority chasms that exist between the legacy carriers and their lower-cost, younger competitors – at least in the domestic market. For decades, as the network carriers have been forced to compete for ways to average down labor costs through protracted bargaining, the low-cost carriers simply use seniority arbitrage to facilitate their growth. And I think we are about to see another run of growth by the LCC sector.

When it comes to the airlines seeking immunity to maximize revenue and, in the case of United/Continental/Air Canada, address certain cost efficiencies as well, the strategy is to maintain as much of the current operation as is financially feasible. Unlike the US steel industry that lost nearly 400,000 jobs because producers in other countries could do it significantly cheaper, blame for the next round of airline job cuts most go in part to the airline unions that have been busy trying to convince the dinosaurs at the Department of Justice and on Capitol Hill that alliances will result in job loss and a further deterioration of wages and working conditions.

Between the time Eastern Airlines and Pan Am died and 2000, the industry’s high-water mark for employment, U.S. airlines added nearly 100,000 jobs. Since 2000, the industry has lost nearly 140,000 jobs - and it should have been more -  mostly because nearly all the airlines and virtually all the existing hubs have been protected in one way or another by patrons on Washington. Indeed, many of the jobs lost from a failure of one or two of today’s carriers likely will be replaced as market positions in the largest cities are filled by new and more efficient carriers.

 

Let Some Airlines Die – And Then Let DOJ and Congress Rethink

At this point no one US airline is too big to die. Competition remains plentiful whether that competition comes from another ticket counter at the same airport or cheap fares at a nearby airport. Either way, the industry is still too big – with too many network carriers, too many regional carriers and too many hubs.

And, except for a few “up cycles” along the way, revenue has not supported the industry’s growth or size. The time is right for lawmakers to hear the new reality in the industry – one focused not on a false threat of monopolies and price gouging, but the very real threat in an industry so bloated, burdened and inefficient that it fails to provide the very thing a business must: a reliable return for investors and real job security for employees.

Saturday
Jan242009

“South by Southwest”: A Theme of Mistaken Identity; Deception; or the Airline’s New Reality?

Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” title offered no clue about the movie’s content either. It has even been said that it is an “anomaly and a clue to the absurd, confused plot where no one is who they appear to be.” “South by Southwest” is an anomaly at least from the growth story that has defined its corporate life. But a confused plot – no. It is nothing more than the reality this blogger has been writing and talking about for years. There are simply few profitable route opportunities even for those with very low unit costs. And nobody really wants to acknowledge it.

Three airline earnings calls down. More to go. The general consensus is that the fourth quarter of 2008 would result in deep losses as would the first quarter of 2009 largely due to “hedges gone bad,” as well as the fact that the two quarters define the shoulder season for this industry and the fact that demand in this new world is not fully understood. Jamie Baker, airline analyst with J.P Morgan, went as far as to say to a reporter: "Out of respect for our clients and managements, we do intend to show up for work during earnings season, in the event anything interesting should occur." Baker went on to say, "Our suspicion is that nothing will."

I have agreed with Mr. Baker on many points over the years. But I do not agree that this quarter’s calls are lacking in storylines. Items of interest have emerged from this week’s calls with United, American and Southwest that will prove important as 2009 unfolds. In fact, they may prove to be among the most important stories -- ones that dictate the evolution of the North American marketplace as we know it.

Cost per Available Seat Mile (ex-Fuel)

This year, non-fuel unit costs in a time of decreasing capacity will test management at all airlines. Managing unit costs of any kind, in any network industry, in a shrinking capacity environment challenges the best managers even in the most favorable economic conditions. Between United and American, we heard two very different stories.

United demonstrated excellent non-fuel CASM performance during the quarter, reporting that it will be able to manage 2009 costs at something less than a 3 percent increase. On the other hand, American pointed to sharply higher non-fuel CASM performance as its capacity shrinks further and underperforming pension assets add to the carrier’s numerator. For 2009, its non-fuel CASM is expected to increase more than 7.5 percent.

Yep, it is one thing to talk about managing unit costs at American and United – two carriers that have been forced to rethink many old operating practices as options for cost cutting dwindle. Yet, it is an entirely different thing to think about Southwest sans growth. I’m talking about the “G” word. Growth is the bedrock strategy that arguably has been the single most important component of the company’s ability to build – and maintain – its enviable culture and low unit operating costs. Growth does many things: moves a pilot from the right seat to the left seat; allows a flight attendant to have weekends off; and even masks cost mistakes in the short term.

A Redrawing of the Competitive Landscape?

A Southwest in capacity retreat – albeit only 4 percent worth – is a very different story than the one written between 2002 and 2006 when the carrier grew at the expense of the crippled network carriers. And it is a very different story than the one that sets Southwest apart from the industry’s competitors: its low unit costs, ex labor, ex fuel. Yes, its "hedges gone good" made Southwest nothing more than a "flying trading desk" since 2004, a carrier setting profitability records while on the Airline Growth Hormone (AGH). Now it is time for the airline to be something very different.

I admire Southwest CEO Gary Kelly. I, and others, acknowledge that there is no harder CEO Job in the global industry today because the storybook company must now remake itself just as the network carriers were forced to do. Southwest must undergo surgery as capacity shrinks. And it cannot do cosmetic surgery; it must do invasive surgery.

The Revenue Line

Southwest anticipated that it would have to begin a process of weaning itself off of AGH. Kelly has done what any good CEO would do in fully anticipating that cosmetic surgery was not an option. He and his team focused on the revenue line - and they have delivered good results. Despite Southwest’s dominance in frequency in the markets it serves though, the airline was still pricing itself more than 40 percent less than competitors in common origin-destination markets as early as 2000.

Since that time, Southwest has worked hard to increase fares as its cost advantage was eroded by the restructuring network carriers undertook – a restructuring forced in part by Southwest’s competitive challenge. I predict that Southwest will still be pricing fares well below its competition across its network for years to come. And therein lies the rub.

For a carrier that is so reliant on low unit costs to offset its historic pricing strategy (read: low non-labor unit costs,) a shrinking of capacity only makes the carrier’s job harder. As I have written and lectured, the carrier’s costs will only increase due to structural issues that define the few remaining markets without Southwest or low-cost carrier competition.

Tables Turning?

Much is being written about fares on the decline. While I am not happy to hear this, the economic headwinds and the need to manage revenue in the shoulder season probably drive pricing actions – even with significantly less capacity. So, let’s think about this from a different point of view.

For the past 15 years, Southwest has largely dictated pricing actions in the US domestic market. Yes, up until the late 1990s, the actions were mostly predicated on the carrier’s limited geographic presence. But today it can be said that Southwest is at least virtually present (including highway access) in US markets that comprise 95+ percent of domestic demand.

Southwest absolutely needs to raise fares – or find other revenue. The carrier can now be said to have a cost disadvantage - particularly its labor costs. The other carriers in Southwest markets can cross-subsidize their base fares with ancillary fees -- fees that Southwest has said it will not charge. My guess is that the network carriers are now setting the base fare price and are more than happy to decrease base fares to keep a non-hedged Southwest in detox as it gets treatment for AGH and the fact that it is no longer a flying trading desk.

Just Another Airline?

Of course, Southwest is anything but just another airline. But it is about to have to deal for the first time with issues that other airlines have struggled with for two decades, in many cases contributing to the undoing of their respective cultures. This is particularly true of carriers that had weaned themselves off of AGH in the late 1980’s, even when AMR’s-revered CEO Bob Crandall was preaching “time of day” service was the only answer to tomorrow’s success.

How does Southwest tell its workers that it cannot afford increases in its union contracts? Can it generate enough revenue to close its historic pricing gap? Can it even consider pulling out of markets that are economically challenging given its long track record of staying? Can Southwest be a US domestic player alone? Can it be only a US provider for international revenue sources? Can it actually reduce costs and restructure its operations without layoffs or other changes that threaten the culture it has built?

Concluding Thoughts

I have been on the other side of Southwest issues for years. So with all due respect to Mr. Baker, I think there is a hell of a story to come from the earnings announcements. A shrinking Southwest is a big part of that story– one that has the potential to reset the many arguments that have been used to demonstrate US domestic competition. In fact, it potentially resets many myths surrounding the US’s most luved carrier.

Finally, maybe finally, the story will read that the network carriers are responsible for driving down fares and promoting competition as capacity goes “South by Southwest”. How do you think Jim “Hell No”berstar and the Fear Mongers will feel about that?

Much more to come.

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.

Wednesday
Feb272008

Time Well Spent; Unchanged Catalysts to Consolidation; and Concerns Surrounding the Delta – Northwest Deal

Time Well Spent

A significant amount of my career has been spent participating in labor negotiations surrounding a distressed situation. There are two principles I always adhered to when advising clients: 1) you can always make a bad deal; and 2) strive to make a deal where either both sides are happy or both sides are unhappy because in both scenarios that probably means you have negotiated the best deal possible. Trying to avoid a scenario where one side is happy and the other side unhappy means you have negotiated a bad deal – and that is precisely what Northwest and Delta are trying to avoid.

Justin Baer of the Financial Times writes an excellent piece describing why seniority is critical for pilots. So it is important to understand just why these discussions are taking so long. Given that we are more than 20 years from the US industry’s last round of consolidation involving multiple carriers, pilots recognize that decisions made today will more than likely impact the majority of their remaining careers. But the always thoughtful and insightful Liz Fedor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune raises the specter of a negotiating clock. Another important negotiating rule is that it is hard to negotiate without a deadline.

Whereas many journalists and pundits are suggesting that the end is near in these negotiations, and as a result the much discussed deal will die, I am not one of them. Ms. Fedor in her opening paragraph writes: “A veil of silence has encircled the pilot leaders at Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines who are struggling to integrate their seniority lists -- the lone impediment to a merger announcement”. So why is this important? I typically read no talking as a positive sign. And the only people I have heard say Hell No to this deal before seeing the details is Congressman Jim “Hell NO”berstar and members of his staff.

I am an open proponent of change. I am an opponent of closed mindedness. One of the big points that I think is being missed: if there is concern over a political clock running out to get regulatory approval, then weeks spent today could possibly save months gaining regulatory approval for the deal tomorrow. In concluding her piece, Ms. Fedor raises this very important point that I have not seen written elsewhere as well: “If an agreement is negotiated in advance of a merger announcement, the two pilot groups also would be expected to be political allies for a merger during a regulatory review in Washington”.

The Catalysts to Consolidation Remain Unchanged

This morning, William Greene, analyst at Morgan Stanley writes a research note referencing the widely covered internal Delta memo to employees yesterday. The text of Mr. Greene’s note follows:

Delta Air Lines, Inc.
Quick Comment: CEO Memo Does Not Change Our Views

Impact on our views: The Delta CEO memo made public on Tuesday highlights the difficulties involved in completing airline mergers. That said, we still believe a deal is possible near-term for 2 reasons: (1) Oil prices at $100/bbl and a slowing US economy will keep the pressure on major airlines “to do a deal” and (2) the very substantial pay increases and equity ownership that labor stands to receive should a deal happen will increasingly put pressure on labor leaders to find common ground on seniority issues. Moreover, the economic arguments supporting consolidation are as compelling today (if not more so given the macro backdrop) as they were 6-12 months ago.

What's new: On Tuesday, Delta released a memo from CEO Richard Anderson to employees that outlined guiding principles for Delta in the event of a merger. The memo is intended to allay concerns that Delta employees have regarding a merger. Key concerns for employees include: seniority, job security, career growth and maintaining pensions. The memo indicates that any deal must satisfy these key concerns and a deal that does has not yet been attained (see memo on next page for more details).

Investment thesis: We maintain an Overweight-V rating on DAL primarily due to the company’s positive stance toward consolidation and good position vis-à-vis our key themes (market exposure, strategic actions, and labor risk). We also see relative value in DAL, although we note that we see the group as a whole as overvalued on an absolute basis at current oil prices. This is one reason we continue to recommend that investors sell into strength on news of consolidation. Should the stock run sharply higher from current levels or if the outlook for consolidation changes dramatically, we may need to revisit our rating.

Concerns – And Yes I Have Some

In a post earlier this month, I asked the following question regarding a labor leader’s decision making whether to support a deal or not: is the implementation risk of a merger deal (seniority integration, single collective bargaining agreement etc.) any greater than a leader having to manage the expectations of any employee group that actually believes they can make themselves whole in the next round of Section 6 negotiations?

While I understand the Northwest pilots are not prepared to sign on just because they would work under Delta rates of pay on the day following consummation of a deal. But doesn’t the question beg, as far as career earnings are concerned, just how much would pilots earn at Northwest if the company were to remain a stand alone entity? What are Northwest’s 20 year growth prospects? Will Northwest be able to duplicate organically what it would get fairly quickly in a deal with Delta? Will labor have any better opportunity over the next 5 years to do any better by their members?

Only the Northwest MEC can answer these questions. Where I am concerned is that the Northwest MEC is being advised by counsel in the Northwest – Republic seniority integration and in the most recent US Airways – America West pilot seniority integration (also reported by Ms. Fedor). By now everyone is aware that there are few, if any, success stories in either of these two cases. I just hope that decision making is not being clouded by the prospect that somehow past wrongs can be righted through this deal. But only those that know, know.

So hopefully either all will be happy or all will be unhappy. Otherwise just go ahead and say "Hell No". At least someone will be happy.