What Is Wrong With US Regional Industry Attrition?
It is increasingly clear that, in addition to fuel, regional airline industry overcapacity – a “bubble” in this writer’s opinion - may be the second most important catalyst to consolidation in the US airline industry.
Today, USA Today wrote about the capacity issue in an article about cuts in airline schedules across the industry, even in the face of strong demand click here. Maybe this is a precursor of things to come.
When domestic market overlap is evaluated, it is the respective regional network webs that will give pause to regulators and legislators, particularly considering the extent to which consumers may be disadvantaged as the result of consolidation. This is where network overlap occurs, not on the densest routes replete with competition from all sectors of the industry.
At last week’s ACI-NA International Aviation Issues Seminar in Washington DC, I tried to come up with a politically astute answer when asked a question on consolidation. But given my inclination to tell it how it is, I ultimately acknowledged that, on this subject, there is no “politic” answer.
I think Doug Parker had it right. I’m in no position to make that call, but looking at Parker’s blueprint for US Airways, he was suggesting some smart decisions. Why does Jacksonville, NC need nine flights a day to connect its airport to the US air transportation system when six are sufficient? Why does Greenville-Spartanburg need 25 choices for 100 or so passengers a day to and from Los Angeles?
The US industry is now struggling to shed fixed costs in an era when many airlines already have achieved significant cost savings from labor; fuel costs are outside anyone’s control and therefore not an option; and most of the cost reductions already have been wrung out of the distribution area
Since 2002, transport related expenses as reported by the mainline carriers – the vast majority representing the purchase of capacity from regional partners - increased more than fourfold to more than $17 billion in 2006 click here. If there is a cost area that deserves, and needs, reevaluation it is regional capacity deployment.
To put it in perspective, the $17 billion in expense spent by the mainline carriers on regional capacity exceeds the market capitalizations of United, American, Northwest and US Airways combined.
A Contrarian View of American’s Decision to Shed Eagle
Since American announced its intention to spin out its wholly owned American Eagle unit, I am troubled by some of the analysis. This is not about American or even about the FL Group, an activist AMR shareholder that has pushed the company to divest assets. This is about a sector of the industry with failing economics – the regional sector. And this surely is not about mainline pilot scope clauses. This is about economics: pure and simple. This is about American continually persuing the cleanup of its balance sheet.
If Southwest is continually revising downward planned capacity, then this relatively expensive capacity is surely difficult to maintain, yet alone grow.
As I have written here before: there are too many network carriers; too many low cost carriers; too many hubs and too many regional carriers. Already, we are seeing some signs of a pilot shortage. And the growth of the regionals – much of it built on labor arbitrage and an over-reliance on regional jets over mainline narrowbodies – is now slowing to a crawl. So why shouldn’t we begin to shrink the regional sector? Delta has Comair up for sale or some other transaction, which has been public knowledge for some time.
Financial engineering the AA deal is not. Pinnacle was the last financial engineering attempt using a regional platform and in the end the market correctly valued the expected revenue streams based on activity in the industry at the time. Mainline carriers began paying lower margins based on reduced revenue flows as the bankruptcy parade commenced. If AA were looking to enhance shareholder value, they have two or three other options that surely would have been announced before this one.
Prior to its Chapter 11 filing, Delta sold ASA to Skywest for a fraction of the price it paid for the regional carrier. Skywest negotiated certain terms in the event of a bankruptcy filing by the parent. More importantly, the broken carrier Skywest bought at a deep discount also came with a 15-year Air Service Agreement with Delta on pay out terms that are believed to be significantly better than newcomers to Delta’s regional stable receive.
This is the type of deal I would expect in the case of AA and Eagle. American has signaled to the market that it plans to maintain the current lift being purchased from Eagle. Yes, a new Air Service Agreement would have to be negotiated along with the transaction. What will be different with this deal is that aircraft will begin to come “off lease” over the term so the “buyer” may be purchasing reduced cash flow streams going forward. This is not financial engineering but economic reality. But they will be buying cash flow streams nonetheless – and that revenue is what matters to the analysis, not scope clause limitations.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Maybe this deal could be a catalyst to begin a long and overdue attrition of the regional industry as we know it. If there is a pilot shortage, then you are buying pilots. If you are looking to build a capital base that could be leveraged in other areas, this could be an economical means to buy what you could not build organically – particularly in this environment.
Growth is not occurring with 50 seat flying; that has been a well- documented fact for the past two years. But it takes the same number of crews to fly a 70 or a 76 seat plane as it does to fly a 37, 44 or 50 seater. Carriers participating in new flying with mainline partners are now purchasing their own aircraft. The purchase of new aircraft requires both cash flow and a sufficient capital base. The inclusion of Eagle assets and cash flow will surely provide a regional provider with more long-term staying power to withstand the necessary changes within this sector.
Just as we have talked about a domestic airline industry that could ultimately shrink to three or four legacy carriers, then it also is safe to say that three or four regional carriers are more than sufficient to meet demand. Skywest and arguably Republic will be there in the end. The question is who will join them in supplying capacity to the mainline carriers. The regional carrier space needs multiple providers, not only to ensure the competition for feed that the buyers want in the marketplace, but also to avoid the labor disruptions possible when a carrier is dependent on feed from just one provider.
Concluding Thoughts For Government
This is not a time to be “knee jerk” in a federal response to U.S. carriers that are struggling to be profitable at home while quickly being relegated to secondary status in the global arena. Just because there is an airport in a congressman’s district does not necessarily mean it makes economic and financial sense for airlines to offer service.
Yes, the government should ensure access to the US and global air transportation systems for as many communities as possible. But it is not commercially viable to offer each of those airports around-the-clock service. This bubble has raised unrealistic expectations for air service. Now we need to relieve pressure on an industry before it breaks.