Earnings season is upon us and we all anxiously await guidance from airline executives on a forward looking basis. On the eve of past earning seasons, cues from industry executives have mostly used words starting with “C.” This time around, I want to hear commentary on topics starting with “L” namely:
I believe that we are nearing the final chapters for one carrier, possibly two. I do not know which they might be, only that there are not enough rabbits left in the hat for every airline to survive in this market.
- Because labor will not be the internal source of capital that it has been in the past;
- Fuel costs are uncontrollable;
- Maintenance repair and overhaul will not offer hundreds of millions of dollars in savings in the future as most airlines already have outsourced as much of that business as they can;
- Distribution costs already have been wrung out of the system at every airline;
- Airport costs ebb and flow with the level of traffic;
- Aircraft rentals and other vendor contracts are largely fixed;
- Commitments made to feed providers are contractual;
- Interest obligations are known.
In other words, there just is not much room on the income statement for airlines to maneuver.
In the U.S. airline industry, we could be fast approaching the tipping point– the critical juncture in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development. With credit tight, would you put money into an industry that has historically destroyed capital? Would you bankroll an industry that has few opportunities to reduce costs in a weak economy? Would you lend money to companies facing labor strife? To get to the bottom line, would you invest in a company in an industry that has never made a dime? In this economy, there may not be many takers.
The airline industry is not special. Like other industries, it needs a plan to earn at least its cost of capital and compete for a limited pool of funding. And those who hold the capital will likely look first toward companies and industries that reward their capital providers more than once or twice every two decades.
I share the belief of some others that the domestic market may be stabilizing, but think this recovery will be an uneven one. The real driver may be the international market and the global economy’s interdependencies that I do not pretend to fully grasp. So I have concerns about American, Continental, Delta and United. Asia has been troubled in certain spots for nearly a decade now. Europe was a strong performer while the US industry faltered, but now shows signs of weakness across the continent. And Latin America’s economy appears to be similarly troubled.
Beginning today, when American leads the first quarter’s earnings parade, I will be all ears. Because what I see for some is troubling. Others will benefit from the weakness.
The recalcitrant unions at American remain the lead story as outlined in Mike Esterl’s piece in an April 14 Wall Street Journal entitled: Labor Negotiations Cloud Outlook for American Airlines Parent. American is being joined by United which opens negotiations with all of its major unions this month. Between the two, there will be plenty to read and write about as union leaders at each airline continue to promise outcomes to their members that could not be met even in the best of times. Real leadership would instead recognize that no airline can long survive overpriced labor contracts that put them at a competitive disadvantage in the industry.
I read somewhere this week that the United Airlines flight attendants union is promising its members a new contract that will give them industry-leading pay rates. The American pilots union is taking an old page out of the Continental pilots’ playbook that “the loan is due” to gain back pay levels the industry no longer supports. The problem is that concessions granted or forced in past years were a necessary correction of market costs that had risen above the industry’s ability to absorb those costs. Those concessions were never a “loan” and there isn’t a labor contract in the industry that includes terms on rates or principal that would make them so.
American has a first – at least in my recollection – in having all of its negotiations in mediation at the same time. United could be in the same place as date certain contractual understandings are in place to file for mediation in the event no agreement is reached. As for US Airways and the labor unions that have not been able to complete an agreement following the airline’s merger with America West, I have given up trying to apply logic to that situation. The damage done to employees is done and that was the work of the unions involved.
OhhhhhhBama – Release Me (And Let Me Love Again)
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American pilots, has been on an ill-conceived, death-march strategy that the leadership somehow believes will get them closer to a release from mediation. Negotiations began in September 2006 -- a long haul by any perspective – but the clock was reset when a new union president, Lloyd Hill, was elected in June 2007. I don’t pretend to know the union’s strategy in these negotiations beyond what plays out publicly, but I do know that the Hill administration has made contract demands that are so far removed from reality that I question whether he is really representing the best interests of AA pilots.
With each union that files for mediation, my guess is the American pilots move yet another group down the pecking order for a release and thus the ability to engage in Self Help. The APA should be taking a clue from the Obama administration and its dealings with the UAW. The UAW’s Gettelfinger demonstrated a real understanding of that industry in balancing the interests of his members with the economic reality, in part by working to preserve wages and benefits of current employees by negotiating lower rates for new employees. But even that didn’t change the reality that, as the economy continues to collapse; the UAW is still not close to having moved far enough from work rules and wage rates that put the Big Three at a huge cost disadvantage in the global auto industry.
Finally, to the pilot leadership, I can’t imagine what possible benefit you would gain through strikes or other work actions that few airlines could survive. First, there is little chance the White House would allow a union at a carrier the size of American or United or Continental to actually go on strike and potentially threaten the economy’s ability to recover. No matter how labor friendly the new administration is, I believe that any union will need to make a pretty powerful case to the White House as to why a strike is more important than the recovery of the United States economy. Any union that can make a case that restoration of inflation-adjusted wages can be easily paid for by the airlines may have a chance, but that’s going to be a tough case to make.
I refer to the American pilots union in this example, but it applies to any large airline. Too much stimulus is potentially threatened by a strike in an industry as crucial to commerce as the airline industry.
Here’s my bet on where pilot contract negotiations will end up at the legacy airlines: With the Delta deal done under the leadership of ALPA’s Captain Lee Moak, the remaining negotiations will be completed in the following order: 2) Continental; 3) United (following the lead taken in the CO negotiations); 4) US Airways (assuming a final resolution to the seniority issues scheduled for the end of April); and 5) American (and perhaps only after a “leadership” change takes place.)
Congrats to Southwest for having put to bed their negotiation with multiple groups at reasonable rate increases. With little management distraction, the airline can focus on finding needed revenue.
Finally, there are legislative issues important to this industry that deserves color in the upcoming earnings calls. First and foremost is a reauthorization bill that will fund the FAA’s activities. A committed industry must find a way to fund enhancements to the air traffic control system. Everyone in the industry recognizes the need to make changes. Now we’re just fighting over who will pay for them. It’s time to move forward and for the various factions to present a united front on "who will pay what".
Second on the legislative front is Oberstar’s bill to evaluate airline alliances every three years -- a clear attempt to make the formation of these alliances increasingly difficult. Never did I think I would write that former AMR Chairman Bob Crandall and Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar are on the same page regarding a controversial commercial issue, but I am - and I am even writing it in the same sentence.
In an interview with the National Journal’s Lisa Caruso, Crandall actually says: “In my view, an objective observer would have to look very hard to find a way in which alliances have benefited consumers.” His remarks point to the “dominance” of slots at Frankfurt and Paris by the aligned carriers. Is this any different than the structure "Crandall built" in the US domestic market where carriers were reluctant to offer service between the hubs of a competitor? Absolutely not. Instead, the competition offered a menu of one-stop competing services that presented the consumer a choice.
Are we not to acknowledge that the air travel consumer in Toledo benefited significantly from the Northwest – KLM alliance that offered seamless connecting service to Amsterdam and points beyond? Wasn’t it Crandall that coveted a partner in Brussels to partake in these very same traffic flows? Does Crandall really believe that Detroit and Minneapolis would have multiple non-stop services to Amsterdam if not for the alliance? Does Oberstar really believe that Minneapolis would have the international service to Europe it does without the network of KLM and now Air France on the other end?
Crandall even makes the point that the foreign carriers have been the beneficiaries at the expense of US carrier interests. Crandall is the one that brought the concept of time-of-day departures to the networks of the nation’s carriers. This alone has contributed to a significant amount of the uneconomic capacity that pervades the industry today. Do we really think that all of the departures that “Bob built” were good for anyone? If we did not have alliances to begin filling all of the ill-conceived capacity deployed in Crandall’s domestic network, then we would have even fewer US carrier domestic departures than we do today – even after all of the cuts.
For a guy I admired, Crandall’s comments leave me perplexed, confused and confounded. Some of his fixes are on point, like a changed labor structure. But Crandall should accept some of the blame for an industry struggling today as his pit bull instinct toward competition became a blueprint to build an industry too big. Or maybe he should explain to airline employees that his blueprint caused an industry to hire too many people that now believe they are entitled to wages higher than the industry can pay.
More to come on this one.