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Wednesday
May162012

Musings From the Last Five Weeks

US Airways - American

$130 here - million I mean.  $100 million there.  Couple hundred here and there.  A chunk of the company for you.  A less than desirable chunk for me.  Hey PBGC, what do you need so we can carry a pension liability on our balance sheet going forward? That’s not a problem since the “old” US Airways terminated its plans!  While we are at it, let’s keep 15,000 more employees than a similar-sized United (each carrier would generate approximately $37 billion in revenue) because, after all, the synergy generation will surely cover it.  It’s the new math - circa 2012.

In its quest to acquire American Airlines, US Airways sounds like a teenager with its first credit card, spending money it doesn’t have.  Paper wealth.  What cracks me up about this “plan” is the new math I mentioned. Critics pan AA’s goal of creating $1 billion in new revenue as bogus because, among other issues, it assumes no competitive response.  Does anyone really think United and Delta are going roll over and let US Airways improve its revenue generation at their expense? Not a chance.

UAL CEO Jeff Smisek said last month a US merger "net, net, that would be good for us." Will there be more competition on certain city pairs?  Yes.  But neither United nor Delta are afraid of competition much less the threat posed by the paper tiger US Airways/American combination.   Smisek and Delta’s Richard Anderson are smart. They know the synergy formula US has seduced some media and AA’s unions with is but a calculation at this point.  Even American’s own pilots admitted in bankruptcy court this week its faux “deal” with US doesn’t include cost assumptions or valuations.

In other words, US is spending money it has no idea whether it will actually have. It is one thing to have a term sheet and quite another to have written contractual language.  My bet is United and Delta see that the first mover advantages created by mergers have already been mined.  For AMR’s creditors – including the labor unions – there are a host of other issues with this proposed takeover.  It is my opinion that US’s new math adds up to the likelihood that they may need to visit out-of-court cost cutting exercises within a very short time to finish the job that they are choosing not to finish during the courting stage – particularly if exogenous shocks again plague the industry.

Showdown in Houston

Most readers of www.swelblog.com know I was asked by United to help study the findings of the Houston Airports System (HAS) report about Southwest flying internationally from Houston Hobby Airport.  HAS and its consultants originally claimed that 23 flights by SWA from Hobby would create in excess of 18,000 jobs and generate more than $1.6 billion in new economic activity for the City of Houston. 

Stratospheric numbers like those don’t pass the sniff test, yet Southwest executives Gary Kelly, Bob Montgomery and Ron Ricks reference the HAS findings as if they were they were gospel.  More on this later.

I believe the HAS study is seriously flawed and is based on what has become known as the “Southwest Effect.”  Problem is, the “Southwest Effect” is a largely a thing of the past.  It got its name from a study completed more than 20 years ago by the U.S. DOT when jet fuel was the equivalent of $30 per barrel.  The fundamental premise is lowering fares will create a disproportionate level of “new” demand in a market. 

Despite the fact Southwest has no experience in flying to international markets, the HAS study assumes traffic will increase 180 percent.  Relevant empirical data shows Southwest’s (135 city pair markets entered since 2006) entry into new markets over the past five years resulted in traffic stimulation of only 10 percent. The latest data shows fares in those markets have actually increased – not decreased.  The HAS study, at a minimum, grossly exaggerates the benefits of a Southwest entry into duplicative markets and is based on a host of unrealistic assumptions. Publicly available cost data shows international flying done by Southwest from HOU would lose more than $76 million per year.  Even Southwest is not flying markets that lose that kind of money despite its self-proclaimed benevolence toward the air travel consumer.

The economic stimulation predicted by the HAS study claims that prices will decrease 55 percent lower than United’s fares.  The truth is, what Southwest calls “stimulation,” is comprised mostly of the cannibalization of IAH traffic which adds nothing to the Houston economy.

The “Southwest Effect” does not drive benefits to local economies as it once did.  Even Gary Kelly agrees.  When pinned down by the Houston City Council on the number of jobs that would be created at Southwest from its limited entry to routes already served, Kelly admitted that total number (nationally) would be 700 and direct Southwest jobs created in Houston would be 50-100. Kelly went on to say that even these 50-100 jobs would be achieved only if Southwest flies the maximum number of flights in its projections several years after entry.  

Even with outrageous multipliers, the number of direct, indirect and induced job creation cannot even begin to approach 10,000 – let alone 18,000.  Not even by relying on the long-obsolete conclusions of a 20 year old study.

The United Pilots

The United pilots are at it again.  While the Delta Air Lines' pilots reached an agreement seven months early, the United pilots are busy building websites whining about outsourced jobs (their term, not mine) and the salaries of United Airlines’ executives. 

Labor leaders in the pilot ranks would have you believe this “outsourcing” (international code sharing and the use of regional flying within the network) is all about management abusing provisions of their collective bargaining agreements to enrich their shareholders. In fact, reducing costs through the relaxation of scope provisions has been labor’s “quid” in return for increases in compensation (or to give less in a concessionary contract) and benefits for 20+ years [the “quo.”]

Among many myths portrayed on the website, United ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association) claims that after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the management of United Airlines launched a strategic plan to offshore and outsource jobs in an effort to cut costs.  Look no further than the unaffordable contract negotiated between United and its pilots in 2000.  The pilots significantly relaxed scope provisions in return for increased wages, work rules and benefits.  I rest my case.

First of all, the fundamental economics underlying the health of the U.S. airline industry began deteriorating during the second half of 2000.  September 11 ensured that there would be no return to prior industry conditions particularly on the revenue line.  The incursion of the low cost carriers and the use of the internet for airline ticket distribution were every bit as powerful forces as 9/11 in compelling the industry to restructure.  The operating models sought by the network carriers were to find cost savings much like the low-cost carriers – a sector that outsourced a significant portion of its maintenance.  The advent of the regional jet in the mid-1990s was the catalyst driving a reduction in pilot and other costs.  Pilots at all network carriers permitted extensive use of the regional jet well before September 11, 2001.

Perpetuating myths to a public that largely doesn’t care (pilots are much better compensated than the average passenger) is probably a disservice to United’s ALPA members.  Put energy into negotiations like the Delta pilots and you might actually get somewhere.  That requires leadership and telling the entitled pilots at the old United that things are not going to return to the days when the company negotiated contracts it couldn’t afford.  It is just not going to happen.

Concluding Thoughts

Delta Air Lines just continues to do things a little differently.  When it merged with Northwest, Delta made the pilots “buy in” to the concept that consolidation was inevitable and that it was in their best interests to participate.  Delta’s financial performance relative to the industry has been very good quarter after quarter.  Then it buys an oil refinery and negotiates a deal with pilots seven months before the amendable date.  Hell, most negotiations have just completed the uniform section at this point in the proceedings – maybe.

It is clear Delta’s largest unionized group understands industry realities.  That’s a rare thing these days when, too often, reality is sacrificed for political expedience.  Simply look at how much has been made in the media about American’s unions joining hands with US Airways.  That was the easy part.  Which union wouldn’t agree to give up less and suffer fewer job losses?  It sounds great to members and union leaders can knowingly smile and say, at the very least, they’re putting pressure on management.  But reality says they’re weakening their own position, opening themselves up to my favorite term – unintended consequences and simply ignoring the truth that US Airways would have to carry 15,000 more heads than United, while generating the same level of revenue.  That’s not reality; that’s fantasy.

There is little doubt industry consolidation has helped catapult financial results beyond what could have been imagined for the industry based on past performance.  In that reality, my guess is Delta just made it more expensive for US Airways - and United - yesterday by negotiating yet another joint collective bargaining agreement.  US Airways needs those lower labor rates because its network produces below industry unit revenues. So now US is in the position of not only promising American’s pilots increased pay, but having to actually pay its own pilots at Delta +.

But hey, what is a couple of hundred million here and a couple of hundred million there?  After all, the margins for the US airline industry are plentiful.  Right?