Archive Widget

Entries in Midwest Airlines (3)

Thursday
Jun252009

Is Republic Changing the Face of the US Domestic Market?  

On June 22, Reuters reported that Republic Airways Holdings Inc. (RAH) will sponsor Frontier Airlines’ exit from bankruptcy, noting that the “US regional carrier” would pay $108 million for 100 percent of the equity in the reorganized entity. The next day, Republic announced that it will buy the remains of Midwest Airlines for a mere $31 million (only $6 million in cash), from TPG, the private equity group that has had some success in the US airline industry. While the story got some play in the mainstream press, the possibilities are much bigger than many may realize.

Think About It

Prior to these announcements (and keeping in mind that the Frontier deal is subject to Bankruptcy Court approval), Republic Airways Holdings was soley in business as a provider of “regional airline” capacity. The holding company offers potential purchasers three brands: Chautauqua Airlines, Shuttle America, and Republic Airlines. Under this model, Republic Airways Holdings operates under the flags of its contractual partners, including United Express; US Airways Express; Delta Connection; AmericanConnection; and Continental Express. Therefore it has its fingers into each of the five legacy carrier networks

RAH’s CEO, Bryan Bedford has been in this industry a long time. And he is smart, really smart. Bedford makes this move in an environment in which it is increasingly clear that the legacy carriers do not – and cannot – now operate under a cost structure that will support the number of airlines trying to survive in the hypercompetitive domestic US airline business.

Through May of 2009, airlines have cut capacity another 11 percent. At the same time, passenger revenue is down 21 percent versus the first five months of 2008. When compared to the heyday of 2000, mainline capacity is down 28 percent in the domestic market and passenger revenue is down 33 percent. Despite all of the work done by the legacy carriers to reduce costs – whether through the hammer of the bankruptcy court or not – these revenue trends illustrate an industry all but unsustainable in its current form. And while much has been made of the shift of capacity from domestic to international markets, those revenue trends are even worse in recent months.

Back to Republic

So what‘s behind Republic Airway’s maneuver? Consider this. Chautauqua is a carrier with relatively senior workforce and a fleet that offers little in terms of improvement in technology or scale. Shuttle America is much the same. And parts of Republic Airline’s fortunes are tied to United and US Airways where it operates the latest and greatest 70-seat technology. Happily for Republic, no other carrier is better positioned to capture this flying, in part because it owns its fleet rather than leases it from its mainline partner.

RAH’s structure allows it the necessary flexibility to provide a range of services for a range of clients. It has the flexibility to move from one segment of the business to another. The holding company is designed to work around pilot scope agreements. Nobody does it better. As a result, Republic and Bedford have built a business that provides them with a capital base that allows them to “pay to play.”

Indiana Hold 'em

Bedford “played the river” and now, in this observer’s view, has won enough chips to move to the final table. Providing debtor-in-possession financing is among the safest bets in restructuring. It results in little to no loss of capital in return for increased business. The result is a widely diversified portfolio of flying at increasing revenues as aircraft have gotten larger. Based on the cash flows, Republic has a fleet of aircraft well suited for tomorrow’s US domestic market. For Republic, the next move is building fleets in the 90-120 seat range and that will only augment its cost advantage.

The Frontier Card

Now Frontier provides Republic with something it previously lacked: a technology infrastructure that gives it long-term viability in the market. A technology infrastructure not tied to a legacy system. Today’s “regional carriers” are merely a wet lease of capacity to fly to small markets where mainline aircraft and crews cannot operate economically. They don’t sell tickets. Their purchased capacity merely moves people onto a mainline aircraft at a hub. With Frontier, Republic could change the game.

When it comes to changing the way consumers buy airline tickets, few see Air Canada as the bellwether - they were. But Frontier’s CEO, Sean Menke, came from Air Canada and brought with him the concept and a blueprint of giving consumers a choice of the services and amenities they want at a price they were willing to pay. There, he was recently joined by Air Canada’s Daniel Shurz, a marketing/strategy visionary wunderkind who has further strengthened the Frontier management team.

Frontier may well be the next new thing in the market. It’s not the Independence Air model or just another regional carrier. It is tomorrow’s solution for outdated domestic capacity. Bedford could now buy an Airbus fleet for a song. Bedford could now buy Milwaukee at a bargain. Who cares about Milwaukee? Only Southwest and AirTran and each and every legacy carrier that depends on Milwaukee traffic to feed operations at their hubs.

Imagine This Scenario. . .

  1. Republic continues to collect revenue per departure for the feed it provides to each of its five current clients.
  2. Republic maintains a financial interest in cities with three carriers trying to maintain or obtain market dominance. There is little evidence to suggest that many cities can support three aggressive carriers vying for market share. It’s been tried at DEN and it sure as hell cannot work at MKE.
  3. Come Fall, as mainline carriers realize that previously announced capacity cuts are not sufficient, they turn to Republic and attempt to renegotiate their contracts. Republic says “Hell No” and instead makes a move to turn to develop its holding company portfolio into an airline that will compete for the very same traffic.
  4. Maybe it then becomes apparent to one of those competing airlines that flying to DEN– largely reliant on feed traffic –no longer makes sense and it negotiates with Republic to replace its capacity there? Certainly, labor issues abound, but economic realities could prove persuasive.

All of this comes at a time of seachange for the big players in the US market. Ultimately, there is little left for the legacy carriers to restructure. There is no way to restructure zero demand. There is no way to restructure free-falling fares. There is no way to restructure rising fuel costs. And under current labor contracts, there is no way to restructure labor costs other than to get rid of minimum employment requirements.

That given, and with liquidations possible if conditions don't begin to quickly improve, Republic is well positioned to take advantage of vacuums in the domestic market. And we all know that nature abhors vacuums.

We’re entering a new era in the US airline industry. Change likely won’t depend on the kind of calamity or crisis that triggers the “force majeure” clause that allows airlines to suspend or break contracts. Instead, new market economics may force a restructuring of the industry in which the victors are those, like Republic, which simply have a better business model - a flexible and agile model. The top domestic airlines of tomorrow might be Southwest, jetBlue, Republic and maybe two of the five current legacy carriers.

Hubs will remain in the largest metro areas because that is where the population is gravitating. Thus, the focus of air service providers is no different today than it was in the early 1990’s when we lost Eastern and Pan Am. And once again, the industry will discover that presence in all the big markets doesn’t give them pricing power anywhere. Republic’s move demonstrates that the major carrier’s reliance on feed markets to cross subsidize this fact could be over. Air travelers want low fares and, time and again are showing they’ll drive to whatever airport – and airline -- offers them.

In the very near future, it might be a very different set of carriers that dominates the US domestic landscape.

Tuesday
Jul152008

Speculation, Consternation and Regurgitation

First, the regurgitation. In writing this blog, I am often amazed at which posts receive the most attention and the posts that do not. The one post that continues to amaze me in its interest by readers around the world is the piece I wrote in March of this year entitled: Invoking the Force Majeure Clause: Oil Taking Its Toll.

In that post, my primary intent was to challenge the contracts between the mainline carriers and their respective regional partners. Some took it that I was taking a swipe at labor contracts and implied that was the sole reason I wrote the piece. It is the contracts between the mainline and regional partners that are beginning to receive a lot of attention. I will say that I am happy to see significant cuts being undertaken by those carriers that makeup the regional sector of the US industry as they largely received a free ride as the industry restructured post-9/11.

Consternation

Just what to do at Midwest? This is a most difficult decision for labor as well as the private equity in the deal. What is true for Midwest is that it fits the mold of those carriers that have liquidated thus far. Labor is being asked to give amounts similar to what their legacy brethren gave during the bankruptcy period relative to their current payroll. This really does seem to be a tired attempt by restructuring firm, Seabury, to employ the same tactics that it tried at America West, US Airways, Northwest and Air Canada with moderate success. But those carriers possessed some scale before the cuts ultimately won and Midwest does not.

If Midwest does file for Chapter 11 protection, can the company prove that its labor rates are non-competitive and therefore require immediate relief to implement a successful plan of reorganization. I am just not sure that they can as the labor bill at Midwest is just simply not big enough to offset the increase in the price of fuel. Can Midwest cut back to a skeleton of its current self and find a profitable core that can survive oil’s assault on the meek? From what I can tell, it is going to take a hell of lot more than trying to trot out the same old playbook that was used when oil was $30-40 per barrel.

Seabury’s tactics lack for creativity in an environment that is entirely different. Unlike the prior restructuring period, labor is not the only issue at Midwest. In fact labor may be only a very small issue, if an issue at all. I will let you draw your own conclusions based on the analysis of US carriers just completed by MIT’s Airline Data Project by assessing stage length adjusted labor unit costs and stage length adjusted non-labor unit costs.

Can Spirit be far behind?

I am of the view that this period’s force majeure will be liquidation.

Speculation

It has been interesting to see how various organizations, writers, bloggers and keen observers have come down on ATA’s campaign to rid the markets of possible rampant speculation when it comes to oil prices. For one who firmly believes in markets over the long term, there is some trepidation regarding which side is right as both sides make very compelling arguments regarding their views.

But I do not believe that ATA and the industry is suggesting that speculation is the sole cause of the rise in the price of oil. I do not believe that ATA and the industry discount the enabling issues surrounding demand; I do not believe that ATA and industry discount supply issues or infrastructure issues; nor do I believe that ATA and the industry discount that certain world economies and organizations that produce oil have every incentive to do very little as it is simply not in their best interest.

A friend, Frank Gretz of Shields and Company in New York writes a weekly letter to his clients entitled: Equities Perspective. I am fortunate to get to read Frank each week and I found his comments this week on commodity stocks and oil most interesting.

“When it comes to the Commodity stocks, and Oil especially, even the likes of Warren Buffett tell us that prices are being driven by demand, not speculation. Certainly, the demand is there, but so too it would seem the speculation. From a demand standpoint, China has accounted for roughly 80% of the world’s incremental oil consumption over the past couple of years, a time during which the commodity climbed from $50 a barrel. Clearly there is something to the idea of “China-driven commodity demand.” But similarly, back in 2000 there was a real demand for Cisco’s routers and, more recently, a real demand for housing – the poor immigrants and all. But we all know that there was plenty of speculation in Cisco at $84 and no money down housing, and the same seems true now of commodities. An environment of negative real interest rates is particularly conducive to the speculation we have seen in different sectors of the economy and asset markets – NASDAQ in 2000, housing in 2006 and commodities now. Of course no one complained when speculation was driving up the NASDAQ stocks or the price of their house, but when the price of food and gas goes up, we’ll have none of that speculation.”

Just like consolidation activity was never going to be the only answer to the airline industry’s ills, defusing speculation is not the only answer to the steep, upward trajectory of the price of oil. But it just may be a part of the problem that leads to focused action on other aspects of the energy issue as well, like: alternative sources of energy; increasing supply by considering actions previously thought as taboo; better understanding the demand for oil; make a priority of addressing infrastructure needs in order that supply might better match demand.

I do not even pretend to know of the necessary solutions here. But I am confident that there are many forces at work and if highlighting one might lead to progress on other fronts, then it is an approach worth taking. But I sure wish we did not have to ask Congress for their help as I fear that the ask might bring into play a less than desired outcome. On that note ………

Wednesday
Jan232008

Pondering A Northwest – Delta Combination

A Thought for Today

How does the Northwest/TPG bid for Midwest factor into the various consolidation scenario considerations being explored?

On January 7, 2008, Liz Fedor, airline reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote a story suggesting that the Department of Justice would complete its review of the proposed transaction by January 31, 2008. In the article, Northwest suggests that the transaction is being reviewed by the DOJ much like a merger would be reviewed.

If approved, a Delta – Northwest combination just might receive more intense scrutiny than originally thought. Geographic concentration? I am not going to get too excited given the confluence of hub competition within this region. Or is this yet another reason why a decision regarding Comair – read Cincinnati – is being postponed?

Maybe an AirTran acquisition of Midwest might resurface? In today’s TheStreet.com, Ted Reed reports that PAR Capital has made a passive investment in AirTran. An AirTran/Midwest combination could be the low cost competition lacking in Minneapolis and Milwaukee? Just a thought and yet another example of the myriad of complex network issues that are sure to be scrutinized and considered as this consolidation round gets kicked off.