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Entries in Planebuzz.com (5)

Wednesday
Jul092008

Are We Beginning to Define US Airline Industry Survivors?

All Sectors Present and …. Discounted

As the day ends and I finally get my thoughts away from preparing for tomorrow’s AAAE Energy/Air Service Summit to be held in Washington, D.C., I turned to Holly Hegeman’s blog Planebuzz. As she often does, Holly chronicled the day’s events on Wall Street. The drops in stock prices for AirTran, Continental, Northwest, Delta and Mesa are disturbing. But then again, why is today any different?

This has been a "Death March" that ends with the inevitability of structural attrition. It is unlike the loss of value experienced immediately post-9/11 in that nearly every airline has been punished by Wall Street. Post-9/11 actually saw some carriers be ascribed significantly higher equity values relative to other carriers based on the condition of their balance sheets and the view of their respective cost structures at the time. With exception of Southwest (do they run a trading desk or an airline?), every carrier has been hit very hard by the Street. Yes, airline equities are an option on the price of oil.

In her post referenced above, Holly ponders the Street’s view of AirTran. Yep, there is something going on here, and in hindsight, the bears have been leaving crumbs along the downward trajectory of its stock chart for months. Many question Northwest Airlines viability as a stand-alone entity. Today, Northwest put some specifics to its capacity reductions. And Northwest made that decision to charge for the first bag (that this blogger really dislikes).

Yesterday, we had the announcement that ExpressJet would terminate its branded flying. And today we have Mesa trading at 37 cents.

Renewed Bankruptcy Talk and My Blunt Talk on Private Equity

Over the past month or so, virtually every major airline reporter has written something on bankruptcy. But my fundamental question is: how do you restructure a market-driven commodity cost? Or is another bankruptcy period being created so that private-equity firms can finally buy what they determined they did not want to buy during the last round of Chapter 11 filings? Are we not watching this play out at Midwest where private equity holds a “passive stake” and is asking labor to make untenable concessions. Yep, they will probably file too and nope labor should not play as the outcome would remain fragile at best.

Private equity is smart money – right? Smart in that they did not play in the first round because they recognized that the work was not done. Smart because they knew the subsequent round of labor negotiations would result in dirty fingernails – particularly given the pension terminations and freezes that took place. So now we are down to the final act: removing capacity from the system and trying to educate lawmakers, communities and airports of these unpopular actions. As we make the final push to clear the last ten acres of 30 year-old underbrush, what a perfect time for private equity, right?

The right form of capital during this time is “internal stakeholder capital” and not external “private equity”. This can only be prevented absent a bankruptcy filing I fear, except for American I guess. As difficult as it may be, labor and management had best figure it out in a hurry. Think back to the early days of Southwest Airlines when the carrier was struggling mightily to stay alive. Southwest management put equity in the hands of the small number of employees that existed. History refers to them as the “North Dallas 40”. Millionaires, who would not have become millionaires, were made.

I am not saying that employees will be millionaires, but I can say with conviction that equity in lieu of hourly rate increases at this fragile time holds the promise of appreciation once this storm passes. And the long-term trend line of equity appreciation runs along a higher line parallel to inflation. So if I am labor and management, each of you has interests to protect. This is not about management compensation for god’s sake, it is about employee compensation and preserving as much of the enterprise that the macroeconomic environment allows. If labor believes it has somehow been wronged by management compensation structures of late, just wait until you lose control in bankruptcy the next time, or even for the first time, and the owner is Blackstone, TPG, or Pardus to name a few.

Thinking About Capacity Cuts and Industry Structure

Have you ever stopped to think that this is IT? Will the capacity reductions be an acclamation or an eulogy? There really is not much left to cut. As we raise fares, we will test 30 years of consumer attitudes in the making that air travel is among the greatest bargains ever delivered by a government’s action on an industry. As we cut capacity we will test the resolve of lawmakers to recognize that the airline business is a business and needs to earn a return on capital just like other industries. As we cut capacity, we will ultimately test organized labor’s mindset about pattern bargaining.

So as we march toward the airline graveyard, who will live to eulogize? Delta and Northwest have made their arrangement and it holds promise. Continental and United could prove to be a real powerhouse serving the largest US cities to metro areas around the globe. American will live because it has the “B” card to play where I fear others do not and it has the opportunity presented by an immunized alliance to generate revenue that has been limited because of regualtion. As for US Airways, labor got onboard too late for this one and I fear its ultimate death.

Turning to government’s beloved and answer to all industry ills: the LCCs. Isn’t it interesting that this sector has been rocked like no other sector. The price of oil has mitigated its previously inherent cost advantages. Yes, Southwest lives but it was really the only LCC to grow and prosper under deregulation anyway. jetBlue is taking on more characteristics of a network carrier recognizing the importance of local traffic in large metropolitan areas. ATA and SkyBus are gone. Spirit holds many of the attributes that characterize those carriers that have liquidated thus far: small footprint; private capital; market strength nowhere.

AirTran is the enigma. But there is something fundamentally wrong here despite a very strong management team. Maybe it comes down to that simple diversification thing that I like to write about. It has a presence in Atlanta. And Orlando I guess – and that market will prove to be a friend of a few that live to see another tomorrow. Oh, and Frontier. It too suffers from that diversification thing and my guess is the aircraft are much more valuable than the carrier’s value to the US air transportation system.

From this blogger’s perspective, what is missed on the regional sector is that there are legacy-regionals and LCC-regionals - for lack of a better descriptive term. It has much to do with labor rates as they are the only cost centers that allow this sector to differentiate their delivery of flying - at least under the current capacity purchase agreement construct. Republic and SkyWest are safe as each has been able to grow their jet-flying subsidiaries faster than their subsidiaries laden with employees that were in place when turboprops were the only game in town.

When it comes to rest of the regional sector, I just do not believe that the remaining carriers have been able to effect a business plan that transforms their structural beginnings.

So in the end, are we left with: United/Continental; Delta/Northwest; American/British Airways; Southwest; jetBlue; Virgin America (because of capital and branding); Allegiant; SkyWest; and Republic? I just do not know, but I am thinking that we are closing in on it.

Friday
Jan252008

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,

Tuesday
Nov132007

Wondering Thoughts From 5 Time Zones Away

The underpinning of this blog is that change in the US airline industry is underway -- whether some like it or not. Over the past week there were some stories that grabbed my eye and are listed in order of importance from my point of view. There were many stories that warranted discussion like the orders coming from the Dubai Air Show, another meeting between US Airways CEO Doug Parker and Senator Arlen Specter, oil prices testing $100 per barrel, airline stocks getting beaten down, schedules at JFK, United suggesting it might, and could, put up to 100 airplanes on the ground given the changing economics and the list goes on that further underscore change.

Speaking of the Dubai Air Show and the aircraft orders being placed there – doesn’t it bother US readers that the orders are not from US carriers but rather from previously obscure points on the map that have every plan to change the shape of global aviation? It sure does me. Is the US being relegated to a supporting role in tomorrow’s global aviation market? I sure hope not.

These Are Not “Competitively Virgin” Markets

Holly Hegeman in Planebuzz ran a great piece last week where she summarized a research note from Gary Chase at Lehman Brothers click here. In his note, Gary finds that Virgin America is pulling down capacity in its transcon markets without any noticeable shift of that capacity to other markets.

The markets where the low cost sector has chosen to operate have generally been the densest US domestic markets. You would have thought that Virgin would have learned something from jetBlue and others that the competitive profile of the network carriers is vastly different today than just 4 years ago. The days where the legacy carriers that are most dependent on transcon revenue, whether from nonstop or connecting flights, are going to stand idly by and see further market share and revenue degradation take place are over.

In a Spring 2003 MIT forum, I did a piece on the Low Cost Carriers, subtitled “Thou Shalt Not Inherit the Earth” click here. LCC growth was the talk of the time. This piece was shared with mainstream press but largely ignored. Now it is mainstream, and even “futurist” by some, to talk about the revenue generating difficulties faced by the LCC sector. Whereas, Virgin America is well capitalized and arguably has a brand, it further underscores the point that the opportunities are limited for this sector to grow at previous rates.

We talk about consolidation with respect to the legacy sector of the industry when in reality the more interesting plays may be in the LCC sector – a sector that is highly dependent on revenue in the largest US markets. A capacity shift here, a capacity pulldown there and ………

Say It Ain’t So Joe

AirTran Chairman, Joe Leonard, sells his remaining stock holdings a week after stepping down as CEO click here. As for AirTran, it is unfortunate that their bid for Midwest fell apart. This company has performed admirably, but remains badly in need of diversification of its route portfolio and Milwaukee, along with Minneapolis, remain two of the largest markets without meaningful LCC presence.

While Northwest suggests it is only passive in its partnership with TPG, you have to look at that partnership and wonder what TPG sees other than to know an exit strategy is there for them at any time. Midwest’s recent performance does not warrant that kind of interest from a TPG and its business plan is circa 1999.

Do these changes at AirTran signal something?

This Is Not Bill Nyrop’s Airline: At Least Today?

Following a wrenching summer of customer and labor strife after emerging from bankruptcy, the external messaging we hear from Northwest is quite different from what we have ever heard in Minneapolis? In an article by Liz Fedor in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: NWA Puts An Emphasis on Service click here highlights comments from the Board’s new Chairman, Roy Bostock, citing his desire “to create a better environment for Northwest's employees and customers and develop more sophisticated techniques for measuring customer experiences”.

Is this real or will Northwest realize the same fate that is playing out in Ft. Worth between labor and management after an attempt to find a new way? Given the contentious nature of the labor-management relationship that has historically been the norm at Northwest, this would at least appear to be a good start. It is always easier to begin these programs when amendable dates are years away. However, with Northwest in the center of consolidation talk (click here and click here) we will be watchers of the airline’s progress on service and employee relations.

Maybe This Time, “Delta” Really Does Mean Change

In an AP story covering Delta’s President and Chief Financial Officer, Ed Bastian called consolidation a “front burner” issue for the carrier click here. And as the company discusses consolidation, its message to all stakeholders has been consistent. But while the company suggested it would like to answer the consolidation question before it makes any decisions regarding spin offs, it made an agreement last week that would grow its internal maintenance operation click here.

This on top of its transatlantic deal with Air France and KLM and a decision pending on whether to sell Comair suggest that this company is doing anything but managing its enterprise for the future. I could not have been more wrong on my views of this company. I have spoken publicly about an airline with presence everywhere, pricing power nowhere and generally lacking a plan and direction. We will not know for sometime whether or not their international strategy is the right one, but the results since emerging are impressive.

Business Week made a case that the logical acquisition target for Delta should be Northwest click here. This story is a good read, not so much for the combination case it makes but more to the references made about an industry badly in need of continued restructuring ….

American and the TWU: Talk of gAAin v. pAAin

Trebor Banstetter of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram did a nice summary of the TWU’s remarks as it presented its Section 6 opener to the company last week click here. If there is a union at AA with a substantial opportunity, and a competitive platform, to discuss “gain sharing” with the company it is the TWU. But I would argue it is not the entire TWU membership that is in the same position. It is the mechanics, the skilled workforce, that have this substantial subject matter to discuss.

One does not have to read too many articles to realize that American has chosen to invest in its maintenance organization – obviously a profit center that warrants the use of internal capital to fund an operation that has been successful in bringing in new work – and new revenue. The TWU suggests that they would like to return to 2003 levels of pay and work rules (not likely given the industry’s profit position). The company seems open to linking earnings to performance and productivity goals click here (an opportunity to make at-risk compensation a reality).

Whereas the AP story suggests a union “less friendly” – that may be true. But at least on its face, there is an understanding that preventing an environment that has caused significant pain for their co-workers at other carriers that filed for bankruptcy is a better path to follow. My hope is that the TWU and AA find some inventive ways to proceed that can reward the skilled workforce that is making Tulsa a new revenue source.

I further hope that the TWU does not use the skilled workforce to cross-subsidize the other members it represents as the sub-labor markets are quite different. There are too many lessons to be learned from the IAM on this subject ….

Wednesday
Oct312007

Swelblog.com: The First 31 Days

Whereas it has only been one month since I ventured into this unknown world of blogdom, suffice it to say that this labor of love has been among the most gratifying endeavors I have ever experienced. As I said in my very first post entitled Swelblog.com Taxiing Into Position: click here “I did not start this blog to win friends or influence anyone. I’m a data guy, and I’ve been studying the industry long enough to come up with some strong opinions . . . many of which aren’t popular in either boardrooms or union halls. My approach is analytical because, in my view, the numbers don’t lie.”

I have been moved by the comments made in other blogs and the press about this site and the use of some of the comments expressed here. To Holly Hegeman Planebuzz, Terry Maxon Airline Biz, Trebor Banstetter Sky Talk, and Loren Steffy Houston Chronicle I am grateful. To these, and all other, enlightened influential watchers of the industry and the many other readers who have commented to me via other mediums, I very much appreciate your welcome.

While I may not need to reiterate this point, I am going to as I want to make sure the readership fully understands that this blog and the MIT Airline Data Project are separate. I use the MIT site’s data to analyze issues because I know how the various metrics have been calculated, vetted and presented.

It was the second post, “All Eyes on Texas” that certainly seemed to launch this blog. Some agreed with my ordering of the difficulty of the pilot negotiations and others questioned my ordering. That is the sort of healthy debate that I hope happens here as the blog matures. As a result of my immediate previous post where I addressed a sensitive issue regarding the cost of the APA pilot opener, there were a number of comments made. I have always wanted this site to show both the “positive” and the “negative” comments regarding what I have written and, until Monday, I have made each of the comments available for public review.

But as the days following that piece unfolded, Monday morning I posted a comment that I should not have posted and ultimately deleted it. While it had some valid points, this blog was starting to become a venue supporting the views of one employee at AA challenging another. Then after I authorized the post to be published, a follow on comment was made which I deemed was exacerbating the situation versus having a meaningful exchange of views. I rejected this post. It is one thing to attack me -- and trust me you are in a long line of those that have had the opportunity long before I started this blog.

I welcome, no, I want comments on the issues discussed here -- but check the emotion at the door. From this point on, this site will not be used for personal attacks on another person commenting – period. There are many other venues for that. This is my blog and my rules. And they are changing as I learn.

There was a comment from flyby519 posted to Swelblog that I did not acknowledge and should have as it was precisely the type of thoughtful comment that I want to address in this blog click here. We will pick up here over the next couple of days.

Happy Halloween

Friday
Oct262007

Just Put It On Ice: American’s Ability to Pay ≠ APA’s Expectations

As I read this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the headline on page 2 is “Economy’s Weak Signals Persist” and the headline on page 3 is “Oil Tops $90 on Range of Worries.” What this means for the airline industry is well documented in Planebuzz click here.

We said the eyes would be on Texas airline labor negotiations, and we got a good glimpse of that this week. The Allied Pilots Association presented its Section 6 opener to American Airlines on Tuesday. This writer’s take on what American is seeking is a cost-neutral contract (which in effect preserves APA’s industry leading position) where productivity gains could cross subsidize increases in other sections of the agreement. By contrast, APA asked for pay increases in the 50% percent range.

This is one rich deal. Add the productivity gains and the multiplier effect of wage increases on pension and benefit costs (and well before any opportunity costs or opportunities lost are analyzed), my back of the envelope calculation suggests the price tag on this proposal is comfortably a three comma number. Yes, the number starts with a B and not an M. And this is before negotiations start with the other unions representing the vast majority of AA employees.

Let’s put this in perspective: Today, American has a pilot cost per block hour disadvantage versus every single one of its major competitors in the US market click here. If American had a pilot contract along the lines of the Continental agreement, that is at or above the industry in terms of compensation and productivity, American would need to reduce its annual total pilot costs by as much as $500 million click here. But American is not seeking concessions; it is seeking a competitive contract recognizing the “gives” by labor outside of bankruptcy.

I argue that the APA proposal fails to serve its members. Not just because of the costly demands, including the proposal that pilots receive holiday pay if they fly Super Bowl Sunday, but because the union’s demands insist upon a return to 1992 wages adjusted for inflation. That sets completely unrealistic expectations when put in context of the massive change in the landscape for network carriers, and the US airline industry for that matter, since the mid-1990s. American’s average “nominal” domestic fares were actually lower in 2006 than they were in 1995 click here.

In the media coverage, the APA suggested that its opening proposal would lead to a quick settlement. I beg to differ.

When two sides are so far apart on an agreement that there is no basis for movement, it is said that negotiations are “put on ice.” For many reasons, this round of labor negotiations is the most important since deregulation. For the major airlines to have any hope of succeeding for the long term, this upcoming round of contract talks must produce agreements that are durable and sustainable and make strides toward eliminating the cyclicality that has plagued discussions between labor and management for the deregulation generation.

There remains a real opportunity for these negotiations to be “industry interesting” in a good way and think about ways for employees to share in any upside while still realizing some protection in the downturns. That’s what the unions should be aiming for in getting their members a deal.

But if, in the APA’s view, the upside means in a 50+% increase in base rates then there really is no starting point. Openers are supposed to be starting points, not the point of no return.

Executive Compensation

We cannot discuss industry economics and labor without also discussing executive compensation. For as long as I have been in this industry, airlines have been run for pilots, by pilots and in fear of what pilots might or might not do. As a former flight attendant – that is how I put myself through school - I constantly questioned it and still do. For virtually any carrier, in a list of the top 100, 200 or 500 most highly-compensated employees, the majority would be pilots.

This industry has never had a deep bench of management talent . . . in part because airline executive contracts have historically not been as rich as executive contracts in other industries. The executive management team in the airline industry is usually there because they have jet fuel running through their veins, not because the financial upside is so great.

Many say that there is no justification for the executive payouts in recent years across industry – not just the airline industry, but throughout corporate America. But the simple fact is that markets are at work. Not all markets are rational, but given that markets by definition operate on perfect information, ultimately they return to the trend line.

For CEO’s, CFO’s and CIO’s the market rates are set in New York, Des Moines, Singapore, London and Los Angeles as companies in the US and around the globe are seeking the same talent to do the job for them just as American seeks to find the best people to fill these positions as well.

The reality is, however, that a new market rate has been set for pilots and it is not 1992 times inflation to the sixteenth. It is $120,000 and not $180,000 click here.

For awhile, “pattern bargaining” fueled an unrealistic – and unsustainable – growth in average pilot wages. It began with Delta’s lucrative pilot contract in 1999, followed by United’s topper in 2000 as it followed the "Delta Dot" along the road to bankruptcy.

Now there’s a new pattern, and a new market reality, and that is the contracts reached in bankruptcy and ratified at United and US Airways in 2002 and 2003. That’s how the market works, and airlines – like companies in any other competitive industry – generally compensate management and employees at the going market rate and as necessary to retain its best people – period.

Don’t assume that I support executive compensation packages that have benefited senior leaders while workers have seen their lives negatively impacted. I do not. But, I am a believer in markets. The convergence of what is paid to pilots, flight attendants, ramp workers has found an equilibrium and that is what markets with perfect information do. Will the market rethink executive compensation as well? I think so.

So......

We can spend a lot of time thinking about the APA proposal or just recognize that negotiations in this round will take some time. During restructuring, the market realities dictated quick negotiations and resolution. This time it is different. Neither labor nor management has significant leverage. Labor is trying to create leverage using the executive compensation issue because there is little else that resonates as well with a broad base of employees and the public. Meanwhile, management teams are doing their job and actually posting profits at a time when pricing power continues to decline - with no adjustments for inflation. The only structural change now permitting increases in revenue is in reduced capacity and in the lofty levels where oil is trading and, finally, an industry willing to pass on a portion of those increases to the consumer.

There are many who say the industry’s recent profitability comes on the backs of labor. That argument ignores the fact that the recovery is the result of tactical and strategic decisions, combined with other management actions, to achieve profits in an environment that has been structurally changed.

Keep in mind: $4-5 billion in profits in an industry earning $130 billion in revenue does not signal a healthy recovery.

I’ve titled this post “On Ice” for more than one reason.

The first page I read in the newspaper is the sports page. In an interview in the October 25 USA Today, Paul Kelly, the new Executive Director of the National Hockey League’s Players Association had some profound thoughts to share click here.

1. "Do we need to understand where we should cooperate and where we should draw the line? Absolutely," Kelly said. "But anyone who thinks I'm going to fire the first shot across the bow of the NHL, they've got it all wrong."
2. "My view of the world is that unless you have a personal relationship, a real human relationship with someone, it's difficult to transact real difficult business," Kelly said. "I want to get to know Gary, and I want him to get to know me. And I understand that there is a line there — that we represent different interests."

Perhaps hockey and airlines have little in common. But negotiations are negotiations, and they are not done on an island.

At American, as well as across the industry, pilot negotiations are going to result in "transacting difficult business". Captain Hill, reach out to Gerard Arpey and begin a real negotiating process. Mr. Arpey, reach for Captain Hill and reiterate the commitment you have made, and kept, to maintain pension benefits and retaining the components of the pilot’s agreement that ensure that AA employees will have dignity in retirement and in their day to day living to the best of your ability to pay – something that cannot be said of all carriers in this industry. Otherwise it could be a long, cold winter in Ft. Worth.