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Mirror Mirror on the Wall: What about American after All?

This week AMR CEO Gerard Arpey and CFO Tom Horton are taking their “look at American” story to Wall Street. The AMR Investor Presentation starts and ends with the company’s Flight Plan 2020 – a plan that frames the company’s strategy around 5 tenets:  Fly Profitably; Strengthen and Defend Our Global Network; Invest Wisely; Earn Customer Loyalty; and Be a Good Place for Good People.  It’s not uncommon for Wall Street to be skeptical of this kind of strategic framework. Consider, for example, the sharp-tongued response of JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker during AMR’s 1Q earnings call with Arpey and Horton. Referring to Flight Plan 2020 and its bullet-pointed strategy, Baker asked:

“Is this really all you have got?”

But Baker didn’t stop there. “I don’t want to beat around the bush here,” he said during the Q&A with analysts. “You have the highest costs. You have the lowest margins. You are the only major airline expected to lose money this year. Your year-to-date equity performance has trailed that of your peers. In other businesses I can think of when there is a company standing out like this you sort of expect a major overhaul and it isn’t clear to me that Flight Plan 2020 is that plan.”

In many ways, Baker’s question is a fair one for a company that appears more plodding in its strategy than what we’ve seen elsewhere in the industry during recent years of bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions. I think American is looking at anything that flies and assessing whether the benefits of the combination outweigh the costs of combining.  And there’s no doubt that American is taking stock of how Delta’s merger with Northwest and the proposed merger between Continental and United will hurt AA sales in key US and global markets.  It is the ability to sell to corporate customers that may be the ultimate arbiter of whether to merge or not.

In its investor presentation, AMR rightfully focuses on its network and the expected approval of both its transatlantic and transpacific joint ventures..  It talks about its focus on the largest population centers in the US – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas/Ft Worth and Miami.  It talks about AA and oneworld’s focus on the largest population centers around the globe – New York, London, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Hong Kong.  The AA/oneworld strategy clearly targets the STAR Alliance with United and Continental and its focus on the largest population centers in the US, but pays less heed to the SkyTeam network with more small cities in its route portfolio. I am not saying that oneworld is ignoring SkyTeam at all and New York is but one example.

Let’s Talk Network

My review of the latest available origin and destination data offers some surprises about where AA is strong relative to other carriers.  The markets are listed in descending order of American origin and destination passengers for the first quarter of 2010.

  1.           Dallas (DFW, DAL):                          AA, 52.7; WN, 21.4%; US, 5.8%; DL, 5.6%
  2.           Miami (MIA, FLL, PBI):                      AA, 24.1%; DL, 13.4%; B6, 9.7; WN, 9.0%
  3.           Chicago (ORD, MDW):                      AA, 25.3%; UA, 24.6%; WN, 22.6%; DL, 6.2%
  4.           New York (EWR, JFK, LGA):              CO, 19.4%; DL, 16.4%; AA, 14.2%, B6, 13.6%
  5.           LA Basin (BUR, LGB, LAX, ONT, SNA): WN, 26.3%; AA, 12.2%; UA, 11.3%; DL, 8.5%
  6.           Washington (BWI, DCA, IAD):          WN, 21.6%; UA, 16.8%; US, 13.7%, AA, 9.8%
  7.           Boston (BOS):                                  B6, 19.1%; AA, 15.1%; DL, 14.2%; US, 13.8%
  8.           SF Bay (OAK, SFO, SJC):                   WN, 31.7%; UA, 18.4%; AA, 7.8%; DL, 6.2%
  9.           St Louis (STL):                                  WN, 38.1%; AA, 25.2%; DL, 11.0%; US, 6.8%
  10.           Transcon:                                         UA, 21.7%; AA, 18.2%; B6, 15.1%, VX, 12.0%
  11.           Raleigh (RDU):                                  WN, 23.6%; AA, 20.9%; DL, 18.4%; US, 15.4%

So AA enjoys a position of strength relative to other network carriers in 4 out of 5 of the markets in its “cornerstone strategy” ­ -- Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Miami.  In New York, AA is currently third, But coming in fourth is jetBlue, AA’s most recent partner feeding 12 international markets from 18 of the low cost carrier’s markets.  If one of the tenets of Flight Plan 2020 is to strengthen and defend its network, then AA is beginning to address its relative weakness in New York with the jetBlue relationship.  Among AA’s largest  ”origin and destination” markets, it is neither #1 or #2 in New York, Washington or the San Francisco Bay Area. 

American’s strength in the domestic markets will translate into added benefits if, as expected, anti-trust exemptions are approved to allow joint ventures with British Airways/Iberia/Finnair/Royal Jordanian and JAL.  Whereas American receives significant traffic from its partners today, there will be significant new benefits that will accrue to American as a result of being able to coordinate schedules and prices as well as jointly market the combined services – a benefit the other two global alliances already enjoy.  So alliance competition is about to take off as we transition to a three carrier contest for travelers rather than the global market that today favors STAR and SkyTeam.

Cost Advantages/Disadvantages

I’m no fan of American’s answer to its labor cost disadvantage, in which the company has said that labor costs will inevitably rise at the other airlines to even the playing field among carriers where now AA labor costs are markedly higher than its competitions’. Sadly this suggests that pattern bargaining is alive and well and that the industry will simply recycle profits among stakeholders as it has done for decades rather than focus on producing some return on capital. 

But I understand why American cannot talk any other way about its labor cost disadvantage.  Why? Because it is smack dab in the middle of negotiations with its unions – in some cases in mediated contract talks or in the process of awaiting union member votes on tentative agreements.  That makes any talk of labor costs particularly delicate, even considering the reality that the company’s current labor costs – in all cases at or near the top of the industry, means that AA doesn’t have much to give at the bargaining table.  Based on the tentative agreements reached so far, American is clearly willing to trade higher wages for the promise of higher productivity.  Beyond that, it remains to be seen – and the devil is in the details -- whether better productivity can mitigate the costs of the agreements.  If not, American’s labor costs are only going to increase further.

One thing the company can and should be talking about is what’s known as “non-labor” costs – all those costs outside of wages and benefits that are not driven by collective bargaining agreements. In this area AA has led the industry in lower costs over the past five years. In fact, non-labor costs at American should only keep coming down as the company takes a new aircraft every 10 days to replace the outdated and inefficient MD80 fleet, American should be touting this other side of its cost equation – the fact that its success in trimming non-labor costs mitigate some of its labor cost disadvantage, rather than bank on the hope that labor cost convergence at the other carriers will ease some of its labor pain.

So what should American say to the Jamie Bakers of Wall Street?

American says that between its cornerstone strategy and its expected immunized alliances, once fully implemented, could mean an additional $500 million on the books.  I believe that it could be even higher, particularly given American’s current position in which it lacks the legal ability to coordinate schedules, set prices and jointly market services with its partner airlines.

Some say that bankruptcy is the only option for American to strip out costs and strengthen the balance sheet against strong competition.  But this is not the post-9/11 era when it was a geopolitical catalyst that allowed several airlines to leverage bankruptcy to rewrite contracts and jettison debt and pensions.

I’ve read many stories that attempt to write American Airlines’ obituary. But the rumors of the airline’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  In theory, the unmerged US Airways and American and other carriers should benefit, albeit indirectly, from industry consolidation.  Moreover, most of these stories missed the fact that consolidation is taking place at the bottom of a recovery cycle, not at the top.  Assuming that the health of the US airline industry is inextricably tied to the health of the US macroeconomy, then a rising tide should benefit the entire industry.

On May 3, Vaughn Cordle of Airline Forecasts Inc. published a white paper titled:  “United + Continental is Good News for all Stakeholders:  More Mergers are Needed.  Is American and US Airways next?” Cordle writes: “If the industry is not allowed to consolidate in the most rational manner, the result will be a continuation of the slow liquidation and the inevitable failure of US and AA, the two remaining network airlines in need of restructuring.  The most likely outcome would be an AA bankruptcy and outright liquidation of US.”

The analysts may want a more compelling story, but sometimes slow and steady wins the race. After all, past acquisitions at American have not produced much for the airline’s bottom line. I believe American would benefit more by getting its labor house in order before making a big play.  There is enough work to be done in the interim to coordinate schedules with its immunized alliance partners.  There is enough work to be done to get the tentative agreements ratified and complete negotiations with its pilots and flight attendants.  And there is enough work to be done to improve the operational integrity of the system -- a renewed fleet will help but it is not the complete answer.  I am willing to believe that bankruptcy may be an answer for American only if its employees push it there . . . and they may be the ones hurt most by the experience. 

Mirror mirror on the wall:  the tortoise may beat the hare after all. 


“Go Ahead, Bite the Big Apple; Don’t Mind the Maggots”

Yesterday, as I was awaiting a report from the Institute of Supply Management on August manufacturing activity, I was working on a piece I titled:  “Government Buys Junk; Consumer in Funk; Airline Recovery No Slam Dunk.”  But after reading Ann Keaton’s piece in the Wall Street Journal on how jetBlue and Lufthansa are looking for a code share deal, I started thinking about all the pieces in play in the New York market and, as it happens, of the 1977 Rolling Stones tune “Shattered.”

Was it US Airways’ that said “my brain’s been battered, splattered all over Manhattan?”  Or AirTran talking about “rats on the west side, bed bugs uptown?”  Was that Continental murmuring something about “all this chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter ‘bout shmatta, shmatta, shmatta -- I can’t give it away on 7th Avenue?”  [But I can in Newark]  I do think I heard Delta saying, “to live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!”  And I am sure I will hear from American “don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up” if it is not granted an immunized alliance with its transatlantic partners.

A Long and Overdue Reshaping of the Competitive Environment Gets Underway

It began on August 11, when AirTran Airways announced a deal with Continental to vacate Newark and give its slots and one gate there to Continental in return for slots at New York’s Laguardia and Washington Reagan.  A day later, Delta and US Airways announced a monster deal in which US Airways will give up 125 pairs of Express slots at Laguardia in exchange for 42 pairs of slots at Washington Reagan and rights to fly to Tokyo and Sao Paulo.  Both swaps involve no cash and have no impact on the Northeast Shuttle operations run by each US Airways and Delta.

The Delta – US Airways swap all but ensures that Delta will surpass American as the largest carrier at Laguardia.  By any measure of market concentration, LGA will continue to have ample competition.  For Delta and US Airways, the deal gives each carrier the tools to build out markets they believe are market strongholds.  Some say that a split operation (Laguardia and JFK) for Delta is a mistake.  But I disagree.  Winning passenger loyalty from offering expanded domestic services at LGA should translate into making Delta a clearer choice for passengers to choose the carrier when traveling to international destinations from its operation at JFK.

Absent this kind of deal, there is not much that can be done to increase domestic flying at any of New York’s three major airports.  Applying US Department of Justice standards to determine market concentration, Laguardia, JFK and Newark would be considered concentrated or moderately concentrated per the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index.  And JFK has limited space to for an airline to run a large domestic operation because of the extensive international operations that occupy the critical late afternoon/early evening hours.

Given all of the constraints of the New York aviation infrastructure, the airlines involved in the slot swaps have taken a proactive approach to advance their competitive strategies.  By recognizing their individual strengths and weaknesses, the airlines involved will be better positioned when a recovery gets underway.  If the government says you cannot merge, then engage in binge and purge. 

Today’s environment does not afford any carrier the luxury of presence everywhere and pricing power nowhere.

Congress and the Regulators

Because these transactions require regulatory approval, I fear that critics will claim that the deals would give the carriers excessive pricing power in those markets. 

But look at the data. According to the Airline Transport Association, system passenger revenue is down 21 percent, or $12.5 billion when comparing the first seven months of 2009 to 2008.  Add in the $3.1 billion the industry has brought in from those damn fees that everyone likes to write about, and that means revenue is down $9.4 billion. 

Where is the pricing power?  Where is the gouging?  And when will the politicians and regulators take airlines at their word when they say they need change?

“People dressed in plastic bags.  Directing Traffic.”



Dear US Government: I hope you are reading the newspaper

Thinking About Three Headlines from January 24, 2008

So much of the current discussion surrounding US airline industry consolidation scenarios involves only the Network Legacy Carrier (NLC) sector. In an earlier post this week, I wrote about the catalysts for consolidation. In that post the importance of economies of scope, scale and density is discussed and how they are a most important ingredient to a healthy industry structure. These economies are critical to all players – even the LCCs.

Three headlines in yesterday’s news underscore the negative effects of a highly fragmented and hypercompetitive US domestic industry structure – and those negative effects are not limited to the sector of the industry that is forever blamed for the industry’s woes – the NLCs. Yes, there is even bad news emanating from the Low Cost Carrier (LCC) sector. The very sector that many policymakers believe is solely responsible for the consumer benefits that the entire industry delivers each and every day - NOT.

First off, Holly Hegeman writing in her blog Planebuzz reports the first credit downgrade of the period. No it is not one of the NLCs, it is Southwest Airlines. Not that this is anywhere near the end of the world for the carrier with the industry’s best credit rating – even after the downgrade – but noteworthy in my view.

Second, Terry Maxon in his Airline Biz blog writes about additional stock sales by David Neeleman, founder and non-executive Chairman of jetBlue. Whereas there are always multiple reasons for stock sales, Neeleman has sold nearly 30% of his holdings since May of 2007. This particular announcement comes just days after jetBlue finalized a stock sale to Lufthansa that was designed primarily to address some near term liquidity concerns.

Third, last night Reuters reported out on Frontier’s earnings. The short article was entitled: Frontier reports wider loss, to sell four jets. Enough said.

For government regulators generally: the bad news regarding the industry’s financial performance is not limited to one sector. If you were right, and I was wrong, that the LCCs were/are the sector that will keep the US industry in a global leadership position, then it is time to step back and recognize that even this sector is beginning to show signs of troubled economics. And given that this sector is largely confined to the 48 contiguous states, that would be a good place to start your analysis of the industry’s structure.

For government officials in smaller US communities: the bad news is that the LCC sector of the industry is not your answer. The bad news is that industry economics do not support all of the service currently being provided. The good news is there is an opportunity to look at the current industry structure and allow it to make necessary commercial changes. Scrutinize the proposed changes for sure. But, changes that keep your airport market connected to the US air transportation system is much better than being the subject of attrition from the airline map.

For government officials in cities that serve as corporate headquarters: keeping your city as a critical dot on the global airline and trading map is much more important than housing a few thousand workers. It is simple economic impact math.

Much more to come,


01-02-08: Manufacturing Sector Disappoints + $100 Oil = Continued Airline Stock Carnage

Just thought I would memorialize a few facts from the first trading day of 2008. Crude oil trades at over $100 per barrel for the first time. [Crude oil actually traded at less than $11 per barrel in December of 1998.] Gold trades at a 27 year high. 1 Euro can buy 1 US Dollar and 47 cents. A report issued by the Institute of Supply Management suggested a contraction in the manufacturing sector which is an important barometer of US economic activity.

Airline stocks continued their downward drift in the face of more and more signs pointing to a weakening US economy. Most experts I heard interviewed today suggested that they see little in the way of oil price relief unless there is a significant global economic slowdown.

Now some stock facts on select US airlines…….

Of the 9 US publicly traded US stocks I consider significant, 8 set new 52-week lows: American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, US Airways, Southwest, jetBlue and AirTran.

United closed 37 cents above its 52-week low.

For these stocks setting new 52-week lows; American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, US Airways and Southwest all traded at least 3 times their average daily volume.

jetBlue’s market capitalization closed the day at less than $1 billion. The carrier’s stock still trades at 61 times its forward earnings suggesting there still may be more stock price damage ahead.

Of the 9 airline equities analyzed, the three largest in terms of market capitalization are: Southwest, $8.7 billion; United and Delta, $3.7 billion each.

Southwest trades at 20 times its forward earnings and United trades at 14.5 times. American, Continental and US Airways all trade at, or below, 7.5 times forward earnings.

The market capitalization of the 6 US network carriers combined ($17.3 billion) is the equivalent of 17.5 cents per dollar of revenue ($98.9 billion).

The LCC carriers: Southwest, jetBlue and AirTran would cost considerably more as their combined market capitalization ($10.3 billion) is the equivalent of 70.9 cents per dollar of revenue ($14.5 billion). Southwest comprises nearly 85 percent of the three carrier's market capitalization. Southwest’s market capitalization is the equivalent of 90 cents per dollar of its revenue.


Putting a Few Packages (of Airline Industry Issues) Under the Tree for Readers to Unwrap


In an industry that is associated with 3-letter identifier codes and with labor’s expectations that “concession recovery” is right around the corner, we should start to think about replacing NMB with PEB. Oh I know that a PEB requires time with the NMB, but …… I never remember a time where neither labor nor management has any meaningful leverage entering a negotiating cycle. I open with this one because trains and Christmas trees are synonymous.

Along those same lines, and with labor’s “one trick pony” leverage point being executive compensation, maybe we should be questioning whether the seniority system really works for airline labor and management. Imagine a real free market where individual airlines actually bid for individual labor's services? Would this type of a "free market" cause airlines to rethink their individual approach to invest in product similar to that provided by the global elite carriers? Free agency has generally been good for compensation levels – average and otherwise.

Isn’t it interesting to see AMFA being challenged on multiple fronts? Most observers expect them to lose their challenge from the Teamsters at United. It seems to me that this is nothing more than a story coming full circle. Just as AMFA challenged the IAM and won at each United and Northwest, by making promises it could not keep while exploiting situations where concessions could not be avoided. It is most interesting to note that by early 2008 AMFA could be gone from its two largest properties. OverPromise and UnderDeliver will be a term discussed more and more over the coming 3 years.

US Economy

With nearly $1 trillion in mortgage resets coming in 2008, doesn’t consumer spending have to be affected at some point?

It has been a long time since I remember reading so many stories and analysis which offer the mixed signals du jour on the direction of the US economy. From recession to inflation, the gamut is covered. The job market and manufacturing have each cooled which suggest a slowdown. Yet the consumer continues to lead the way as retail sales remain strong. But profit margins are less suggesting costs are exceeding the ability to price. Go figure. There is always demand at some price – the US airline business sure captures that concept.

US Government

With New York JFK and Newark operations capped by the US government, and the industry applauding the actions, which major US market will be affected next? What exactly does “new and real” capacity mean when considering a leasing of capacity program?

Remember when jetBlue was lauded as the best capitalized startup in US history? If something were to result in jetBlue failing, what would happen to those JFK slots “given” to the carrier?

Was Virgin America late to the party, or is their timing right? I am intrigued by their recent city pair market choices.

Is it really possible that Singapore Airlines will be serving the New York – London market and the Houston – Moscow – Singapore market in addition to New York – Frankfurt, Los Angeles – Taipei, Los Angeles – Tokyo, San Francisco – Hong Kong and San Francisco – Seoul by the end of 2008? Yes -- the signs of what lies ahead. Where is the home country?


Wouldn’t it have been ironic if the New England Patriots went 19-0 and won the Super Bowl, when in the same year the Miami Dolphins went 0-16? Well we know half of the story.

Aren’t you just tired of the same voices making statements that it just cannot be done because it hasn’t worked in the past?

Happy Holidays,



It Is True: Lufthansa to Buy 19% Stake in jetBlue

jetBlue announced that Lufthansa will purchase up to a 19% stake in the carrier click here. William Greene, the equity analyst at Morgan Stanley, said the deal will bolster liquidity for jetBlue at a time when near term debt obligations exceed expected cash flow from operations and cash on hand.

For Lufthansa, this would seem to be a smart investment in a quality US carrier with a product focus that recognizes that a one size fits all network does not appeal to all customers. Further, this transaction for Lufthansa would appear to be a very shrewd option play for a US carrier when equity values are low and the relationship of the euro to the dollar is high.

In this writer’s opinion, as well as Greene’s, jetBlue’s slot portfolio at JFK has strategic value. Down the road, connectivity to the many Star Alliance partners serving New York could be of value. But the first stage is a pure financial play and no commercial relationship is anticipated. The announcement comes just a day after a talk by Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the chief executive of German airline Lufthansa AG in China where he suggested that global consolidation is a necessary and logical development of the global market click here.

In that Reuter’s article, mention is made of Lufthansa moving away from the possibility of investing in Alitalia. In a previous blog post, we wrote about British Airways’ possibility of reconsidering the use of its capital to consolidate “at home” versus using that capital to invest in other countries, namely the US click here. Well it just happened – or at least the first step was taken. And BA has walked away from its interest in Iberia.

Yes, on the surface this deal may raise questions as to why would Lufthansa make such a deal. Is United, US Airways and/or Air Canada hurt by this transaction? Will this precipitate other similar types of transactions leveraging the current currency relationship to low equity values? WestJet and Air France are considering a closer relationship.

Change is coming. What would Yogi say?


Is It True, Lufthansa to Buy Stake in jetBlue?

From the New York Times Deal Book, blog: click here. Before we write or say anything, let’s wait and see if there is something to this story. But based on our writing here for the past month, these are precisely the type of transactions that we should expect.

And Reuters offers this story click here.