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Circular Logic: US Airways and the Economics of Entitlement

Since US Airways’ failure to convince the US Congress, employees and the Delta Unsecured Creditors Committee that their deal provided many stakeholders with a long-term blueprint for success, issues faced by the US Airways’ management team continue to get more and more parochial. The recent news announcing the continued downsizing of Pittsburgh has elicited responses from Congressmen that this writer finds baffling. And the move by unhappy former US Airways’ East pilots - caused by an arbitrator’s ruling regarding the seniority integration with the former America West pilots - to consider an alternative union to the Air Line Pilots Association is troubling.

The Pulldown of Pittsburgh – A Long History of Weak Hub Economics

To start, let me reiterate my views on the market: there are too many network legacy carriers; too many low cost carriers; too many regional carriers as a result of having too many network legacy carriers; and there are too many hubs which keep too many network legacy carriers and regional carriers operating.

Defining Entitlement Economics: all are conferred a lifelong right to employment and/or abundant service despite the fact that the economics of the US airline industry, particularly its domestic operations, have changed significantly since the early 1990’s.

Remember the early 1990’s: It was during this time that the industry emerged from a recession that was triggered by the Gulf War. American exited Nashville and Raleigh-Durham. Continental was emerging from Bankruptcy #? and exited Denver. Delta’s presence in the Western US, purchased from Western Airlines, was being pulled down. Other carrier’s were also reducing west coast capacity as the market was being impacted by the growth of Southwest and question marks about how successful United would be following its ESOP agreement reached in 1994. And I am confident that I have missed other significant events during this period. What I do sense, is that we are about to embark on a similar period.

The period also marked the beginning of the end for US Airways as accidents, increased competition and the hangover of management decisions to “give away the store” in collective bargaining agreements to all employees from each of the companies it acquired during the late 1980’s were being fully realized. It was at this time, that the management team was changed significantly to see just how many tricks could be pulled out of the hat of an airline with a bloated cost structure and a revenue base under attack from all directions.

Last week there were two articles that caught my eye. The first story, by Dan Fitzpatrick of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette click here defines the unfortunate position Doug Parker, US Airways’ CEO, finds himself in as his management decisions are being challenged by an uninformed Senator Arlen Specter. An enlightened David Grossman of the USA Today click here does a wonderful job of describing the declining economics of the Pittsburgh hub while at the same time capturing the consumer friendliness of the facility. The facts outlined by Mr. Grossman were intact before US Airways’ merger with America West and should have been a signal of things to come for each the employees, customers and city fathers in Pittsburgh along with the Pennsylvania congressional delegation.

So Senator Specter:

- When you say you might not help US Airways with political issues in Washington DC - that is truly unfortunate. I thought you represented all of Pennsylvania and not just Pittsburgh. I thought that the Senate was interested in the success of companies and industries, particularly those that are inextricably linked to the health of the US economy and assuring that US industry can be as competitive as it can be in the global economy.

- US Airways has reciprocated, and has shown the Pittsburgh area consideration in return for Congress’ support in building a new airport. Quite honestly, the reciprocation has come in spades as Pittsburgh has been among the most overserved cities in the US when considering the fact that only 20% of the airport’s traffic was local Pittsburgh traffic (pointed out in Mr. Grossman’s article). Simply stated, this is just bad economics for an airline hub and all Mr. Parker is doing is making a prudent management decision that should contribute to his company’s financial health.

- Finally, your decision to fly Southwest is certainly yours and I agree that they are a very good competitor in the markets they serve. Government policy in the US aviation market has led to significant market fragmentation and as a result the consumer has benefited from lower ticket prices. But I urge you to look in the mirror and ask yourself who is serving Allentown, Harrisburg, Wilkes Barre-Scranton and Erie. It sure is not the low cost carriers that have been the darlings of Capitol Hill. It is the network legacy carriers that invest in the right sized airplanes to serve those markets when the low cost sector tries to lure those travelers to the big markets they only serve.

So US Airways East Pilots:

- When you say you are unhappy with the Air Line Pilots Association over an arbitrator’s decision and you want to leave ALPA - for the historical success of non-national unions? - be careful for what you ask for. How do you really think things will be better for you and your followers under a new union with little clout?

- It is time to simply recognize that the merger deal with America West was the most important component of the Plan of Reorganization that permitted you and the remaining work force to emerge from bankruptcy #2. Your problems began a long time ago and are not the result of this agreement. Without it, my guess is the US Airways logo (whichever one it is) rests somewhere with Pan Am, Eastern, and TWA.

So Senator Specter, you are not entitled to service in this economic environment just because you have had it in the past; and US Airways’ employees are not entitled to employment. What is troubling to this writer is to have Senators not looking around their own state and recognizing that it is the network legacy carriers that are serving “your” cities of all sizes – not just the largest markets despite the difficult economics facing the industry. If you think that the low cost carriers are the answer to your service dilemmas, then keep making statements about not wanting to help a carrier that has invested, and generated, billions in “your” economy when they visit your office in Washington DC. If you think about it carefully, your logic is circular.

To the US Airways’ pilots, your circular logic is more like the virtuous circle of failure that began long ago. You finally have a CEO that is committed to the operation, committed to finding success comprised of a network with limited short term upside and committed to avoiding a walk down the plank that promises no return. But if the world begins to change along the lines suggested by the last two posts in this blog, then it will be nothing different than the parochial interests that stood in the way of commercial opportunities at the “Old US Airways”.