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Wednesday
Jul272011

Thinking About American’s Contrarian Path to Transformation

The list is long of those kicking American Airlines for not producing near-term results because that is, after all, what Wall Street wants and needs.  Wall Street’s lead striker and headline maker has been Jamie Baker, airline equity analyst at JP Morgan Chase.  Baker was quoted in a Wall Street Journal story last week saying AMR's poor financial results and worsening margin deficit raises questions about the wisdom of a giant aircraft purchase. He said,  “We cannot reconcile spending incremental capital while failing to earn returns on [the] existing capital base.”

It was Baker who, on a company earnings call that outlined some near-term strategies to address American’s underperformance, first asked AMR executives, “Is that all you got?”  In the WSJ story referenced above, Baker stated “we think the best thing AMR can do is figure out a way to generate more profitable flying with the current fleet." 

Jamie, is that all you got?

Baker and much of Wall Street’s short-sightedness is perplexing, even for a group that has a hard time seeing six months ahead.  I agree American’s quarterly revenue performance relative to peers was disappointing and concerning, as pointed out by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch analyst Glenn Engel. The point I think the Street is missing is American’s re-fleeting isn’t about six months from now or even next year. It’s about transforming a Robert Crandall vintage 1983 airline spending nary a dime. 

American’s MD80 fleet has basically been around since the earth cooled.  And it shows.  American flies more small narrowbody aircraft (150 seats and less) than any network carrier except for Southwest.  In 2009 (2010 data incomplete/incorrect) it’s the fuel guzzling, maintenance intense 140 seat per aircraft fleet flies about 9.7 hours per day (less than its peers); with an average stage length of 870 miles (about the same as its peers); and less than 4 departures per day (less than its peers).  More importantly, on those missions, the fleet burns 957 gallons of jet fuel per block hour – the same amount of burn as in 1995 when jet fuel was 56 cents per gallon – not $3.00+ per gallon.  No airline, except for maybe portions of Delta’s fleet, has to keep more spares available to maintain some sort of schedule integrity and thus have the potential for more operating leverage than American from a re-fleeting order.

And yet Baker and Wall Street want American to do more with less than its industry peers?  Maybe – and this isn’t a stretch - that aging fleet contributes to some to the airline’s under performance?  I’d say yes even though it’s difficult to quantify and I like my numbers cold and hard.  Perhaps most puzzling is the Street never offers a better time to re-fleet. When was it supposed to take place?  When it was too late and even more spares would have been required to maintain some semblance of a schedule?  That might have slaked some analysts’ thirst for capacity cuts, but that type of cutting is eerily close to shuttering an airline… and more expensive than marginal revenue improvements might lead you to believe.

Let’s Think About This Aircraft Order

American is not alone.  All of the industry, especially the more mature United, US Airways, Delta and Southwest – yes Southwest - all face some sort of replacement order.  It is just that American has a more real-time issue than do those that effectively used bankruptcy – not Southwest - and other means to get rid of aircraft with poor operating economics.  I am not being self-righteous… bankruptcy was necessary to address many legacy issues that would have buried others in the airline graveyard.  Fleet replacement is not like going to the store and grabbing something off the shelf.  Long lead times define aircraft purchases. 

What is wrong with placing an order at the bottom of the cycle versus the top of the cycle? It's a long-standing industry practice to do the opposite. It’s been a proven recipe for bad economics by adding capacity during a weakening economy that only leads to even poorer results. This quarter was less about writing down results than communicating a contrarian message – a re-fleeting announcement.  The rest of the industry, along with American, has been engaged in balance sheet repair over the past two years. 

The Street immediately pointed to the increased financial leverage associated with the new order and the fact that even though American will finance the first 230 aircraft with operating leases there will be a need to adjust upward the Fort Worth carrier’s debt by seven times the lease cost to reflect the long term commitment stemming from the lease financing negotiated with Boeing and Airbus. American’s hard won terms with the manufacturers does little to nothing to impact the company’s near term liquidity.  There is nothing to stop American from further balance sheet repair should operating results improve over the next five years as the first 230 aircraft are delivered.

Keep in mind, this order isn’t just about American. It’s also very much about Boeing and Airbus. They’ve thrown their balance sheets on the table as well, betting on American’s strategy and willing to take on the cost of building planes with no cash up front. That doesn’t normally happen in the airline industry. That’s serious backing and just how much of a deal both manufacturers gave American could very well be a game changer.

This Order Is About Both Finance and Competitive Positioning

When comparing American’s small narrowbody economics with Continental’s, American burns 262 more gallons per block hour than does the newly Chicago-based carrier.  I use Continental because its fleet is the most modern among the network carriers. Let’s not forget Continental began its re-fleeting project at the bottom of a profit cycle beginning in 1995 upon exiting bankruptcy #2. At 10 hours per day per month and with fuel assumed to be $3 per gallon, American’s new planes would immediately save $236,000 per month per airplane in fuel costs versus its MD80 fleet.  For every 10 cent increase in the cost of jet fuel, American would save an additional $8,000 per month per aircraft.

Few fleets have realized maintenance cost increases like American’s narrowbodies over the past decade.  I appreciate there are many ways to pay for maintenance expenses across the life of an aircraft, but during the honeymoon period of 5-10 years, American will, at least, not be paying $600 per block hour just to keep its MD80s in the air.  Instead it will likely save about $400-450 per hour.  Using the same calculus as in fuel savings, that saves the company another $135,000 per month per aircraft.

Yes, American still has to pay for the airplanes. As a general rule, the lease cost of an airplane is one percent of the sticker price.  If the retail cost of the various airplanes is $40 million per copy, then the lease cost is somewhere around $400,000 per month.  The fuel and maintenance savings are estimated at $370,000 per airplane per month. 

But wait a minute. We know that American did not pay retail for the airplanes.  Reuters reported American will only pay 70 percent of the list price on the Airbus equipment.  Airbus disputes that and I normally don’t believe numbers bantered around in the press, so let’s split the difference. Assume American is paying 85 percent of sticker price.  That brings the operating lease cost of the first 230 airplanes to $340,000 per month.  Even Wall Street can do this math.  If the planes cost $340,000 per month and the potential exists to save $370,000 per plane per month (and we haven’t talked about ancillary revenue possibilities from IFE, crew cost efficiencies from a simpler fleet once complexity costs are addressed, crew cost savings from a more reliable fleet, new passenger acceptance of a modern fleet etc), all of a sudden, American’s income statement and thus its balance sheet looks much different.

Is The Fleet Order Itself Transformational?

In a word, no.  Or maybe, sort of. The fleet is transformed, but that alone doesn’t necessarily transform the way American works today.  What would make this order even more exciting is to see a pilot agreement that really is transformational and recognizes the sub optimum economics of the U.S. domestic market.  What if the pilots were to negotiate pay banding, training language that does not create a bubble and benefit packages better resembling what corporate America provides its employees?  That would really make things interesting.  Problem is, those are all long-term realizations, which makes no one in New York any happier than they are today.

Another benefit from a pilot deal that could be labor transformational is to break the current regional – mainline mold.  If the economics of the smaller mainline airplanes (pilots, flight attendants and airplane) just ordered can match the economics of the largest regional jet airplanes out there, then much of the discussion over scope just might be over.  American needs access to more 76 seat aircraft (existing scope relief) with two class service, but the ask of the mainline pilots would not be further relief into the 90 and 120 seat range – unless of course there is no headway with APA making necessary changes.

Another thing to consider is, if some of the new planes are less efficient than even newer models or the price of oil goes significantly higher, the leasing options let American re-fleet the re-fleet.

Odds and Ends

Some say that American’s transatlantic partners are not the same airlines today as they were in yesteryear – namely British Airways.  That may be true in some respects, but either way, 1 + 1 is greater than 1 and that addresses those that believe American and their London counterpart are but half of their previous selves.  It was nice to read BA’s earnings release Wednesday morning citing improved traffic flows from American.  That will only continue to get better.  Realizing the full benefits of the joint business agreements is transformational for American as it evolves from a single entity into a much broader network.

But the most important fight taking place to transform American – and the industry for that matter – is the fight with the Global Distribution Systems.  Imagine the revenue benefits that will accrue to American in addition to just passenger revenue if they are able to package the product for the individual consumer.  If they are successful in breaking the monopolistic practices and reclaim their inventory – now that is transformational.

Taken together, there are some interesting possibilities taking shape in Fort Worth, Texas.  What needs to take shape immediately are the unit revenue benefits supposedly coming from the cornerstone strategy.  As analysts have correctly pointed out, that hasn't happened yet, which might explain the Street’s shortsightedness about other things American.

Look, I’ve been teasingly picking on Baker, Keay (indirectly) and Wall Street types. I realize their job is gauging the near-term forecast for clients.  But we’ve gotten so wrapped-up in Street predictions and instant opinions we’ve forgotten long-term, especially in the airline industry, like January 2015. American is resetting itself with a bold move that, honestly, shocked competitors and analysts. It deserves credit for making an astounding and first comer economic deal. Whether it works won’t be known 24 months (or five years given the jet fuel price) from now or even possibly 72 months.

But I doubt anyone is going to be asking if that’s all American’s got anytime soon.

Friday
Mar212008

Ironical Catalysts; Seniority No More?; and One Last Comment on Force Majeure

Ironical Catalysts

Isn’t it ironic that the number one catalyst cited as driving a consolidation phase for the US industry is now being discussed as the number one reason that consolidation is being put on the back burner – or even being pulled off of the stove? Ted Reed of the Street.com writes a column offering the Northwest pilot’s take on the industry at $110 per barrel oil as well as their views on how oil might stand in the way of executing what the pilot leaders termed as “an aggressive business plan” by the other carrier [read Delta even if not mentioned by name].

On the surface, Mr. Reed’s story might be read as the Northwest pilots pointing to anything and everything rational that could provide cover for not reaching agreement over an emotional issue. On the other hand their counterparts at Delta, whether ALPA or management, are not suggesting much compromise, let alone capitulation, either. So we have a stand off. The Northwest pilots have a bird in the hand, assuming that no adjustments are made to the terms of the single collective bargaining agreement, versus Section 6 negotiations in 2011. And as I have written here, only the MEC can decide that issue.

What is encouraging about the industry today is its willingness to address some difficult issues with swift and decisive actions – like making the hard choice to further reduce capacity. But these decisions are not limited to Delta. We now have CEOs in the industry that are willing to address these tough issues that prior management teams would have decided to “fly through”. And in the last week, jetBlue, AirTran and Frontier have all sold aircraft or delivery positions largely to augment their respective liquidity positions.

When I first read Mr. Reed’s column this morning, fresh off of a 24 turn between Los Angeles and Washington, I interpreted it to suggest that consolidation is dead. That is not what he is saying at all. But US Airways sure views the lull in the action as a potential entry point to get back in the game as Mr. Reed reports.

Seniority No More?

Let’s segue from seniority integration into seniority. Today, the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein writes in his column about industry woes, commercial airline pilot careers and questioning seniority generally.

He concludes with the following two paragraphs: “The reason it's so hard for airlines to find a fair and rational way to combine pilot seniority lists is there is nothing fair and rational in the way seniority is used. It causes a disconnect between performance and reward, discourages movement of employees between and within companies, creates a corrosive caste system that breeds resentment among junior employees and an overblown sense of entitlement among those who are most senior”.

“Airline customers, employees and shareholders would all be better off if the industry spent less time and energy figuring out how to combine seniority lists and more time on how to eliminate them”.

Back in December, two days before Christmas in fact, swelblog.com questioned whether seniority worked for each airline management and labor. Now two days before Easter, a similar question is being raised by Mr. Pearlstein. While some of what Mr. Pearlstein suggests is impossible given equipment qualifications, he raises a fair issue. It is fair particularly when an industry is in serious need of a total overhaul.

While I am confident that any suggestion of seniority will raise the ire of organized labor, this is the time to explore such issues. It is time because many of the legacy constructs within this industry are prohibiting it from moving forward – and seniority is but one. And based on the many issues burdening the industry that are not of its own doing, everything should be on the table and everything explored.

A Little More on Force Majeure

Clearly my prior post generated some comments and most were not in agreement with what I had written. I knew that when I wrote the piece it would not be embraced by all. I certainly expected the note from the American pilot. I did not expect the “call out” by Blackbook, who is one this blog’s most astute commenters. Blackbook's fair questions and comments, and my answer to Blackbook, are available for all to read in the comment section.

While Force Majeure has many, many legal issues surrounding its use and I, admittedly, am not qualified to answer those questions, my intent was to raise a number of issues out there that bother me and to look at pools of expense that could be explored for cost savings. On Thursday of this week, Suzanne Marta of the Dallas Morning News blogged on research notes written by Kevin Crissey at UBS and Jamie Baker at JP Morgan.

Mr. Baker writes: "We would note that with the exception of the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the only time the industry even approached a single-year capacity correction of this magnitude was during the Gulf War I recession - and it required the failure of Eastern, Midway, Pan Am, several discount airlines, and bankruptcies at America West, and Continental to get there."

Immediately following 9/11, certain force majeure clauses were invoked. While force majeure may not be the effect - or even the right action - stemming from today’s environment, the macro environment has many attributes of a cause.