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Friday
Jan102014

A Walk Across the Last Five Business Cycles

On Monday January 13, 2014 I am pleased to be joining two panels at the 93rd meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC.  On one panel, Airline Consolidation: Impacts on Stakeholders and the Industry, I will be joined by my MIT colleague Mike Wittman to speak to a series of MIT white papers on small community air service.  The panel will be moderated by one of the industry’s good guys, Paul Aussendorf of the Government Accountability Office.

The other panel, Economic Deregulation of Airlines: A Promise Realized?, will have as its moderator another industry good guy in Robert Peterson of Boeing.  Some might say deregulation is a tired topic, but there are many critical lessons to learn from the past 35 years as we anticipate what’s ahead for investors and stakeholders in today’s industry.

ACROSS THE BUSINESS CYCLE

With shareholders now demanding profitability across the entire business cycle, I’ve analyzed the industry since deregulation across five distinct economic rounds.  It was interesting to look back on each of the five cycles and what insiders and observers said about the airline business. Consider Alfred Kahn, the so-called Father of Deregulation, who in 1977 admitted he did not know one plane from another.  “To me,” he said, “they are all just marginal costs with wings.”

Based on that over-arching simplification by the man in charge, the industry was being led down the marginal cost path all the while that a fully allocated cost approach should have been adopted.  Ah, hindsight. It was too late, but the story is a great one.  It’s got colorful characters like Marty Shugrue and Frank Lorenzo, smart guys like Michael E. Levine and Warren Buffet, and current wisdom from the guys now running the big airlines, including Jeff Smisek and Richard Anderson.

A hard look at the financial data shows that the industry actually made a few pennies on a pre-tax basis through the fourth quarter of 2001, the end of the third business cycle.   The average cost of fuel was then $0.62, down from $0.84 during the first business cycle.  On a cost per seat mile basis, labor costs were managed with a deft touch during the entire 35-year period, despite that fact that the average cost per employee grew roughly at the rate of inflation.  Average wage growth outpaced productivity growth.  And any financial or economic efficiencies were competed away in the form of low and lower fares.

Warren Buffet said it best:  “The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines.”

All told, the industry lost $36 billion on a pre-tax basis, or 1.2 cents on every dollar of revenue.  But that is changing.  Load factors are up over 14 points across the last two business cycles as capacity growth slows. The current cycle is producing an operating profit margin that is 1.2 points higher than that earned during the best performing cycle – and after 17 quarters, the macroeconomic indicators are starting to be true tailwinds.

I can’t overstate the effect of load factor and ancillary revenue on unit revenue.  In the current cycle, the increase in unit revenue actually outpaces the increase in the consumer price index – an achievement long overdue.  Yet despite what is described by one prominent analyst as a “Goldilocks economy,” margins remain below the targeted level.

The first four cycles were defined by cost cutting and sheer survival.  Given that there is little low hanging expense fruit remaining on many airline income statements, the current cycle is all about the revenue.  As it should be.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Whereas the current cycle shows incredible promise for profits, without some technological breakthrough that allows us to fly faster and longer, where will we find the efficiencies on the expense side of the ledger? Spirit and Allegiant are prospering by carrying passengers that the network carriers cannot afford to carry.  So how much more can airfares rise before an Ultra Low Cost Carrier (ULCC) revolution breaks out in the US domestic market?  As we test the limits of price elasticity, cost creep is a reality in labor and non-labor unit costs. 

Near-term, all things point bullish on the airline sector.  However, we know that growth prospects are limited for the higher cost network carriers in the domestic market.  Internationally, the next logical step (or the only step remaining after joint ventures) is to allow cross-border mergers. Is that the answer? I think not, at least if I am a US carrier looking to buy something outright.  Removing barriers is a good thing, but I can’t see too many U.S. carriers buying a European alliance partner that operates at 21 cents a seat mile - a cost that likely goes higher before it goes lower.

With all going so well, why even bring this up?  Because we need to be thinking from the position of financial strength that has taken so long to reach.  I trembled a couple of weeks ago when a headline in the Washington Post read:  GDP Grows an Adjusted 4.1%.  With indifferent macroeconomic indicators in play during the first phase of this business cycle quickly becoming tailwinds today, one hopes that the lessons learned this decade stick.  The cost creep found in some areas of the income statement gives pause particularly if one believes, as I do, that the industry is approaching a passenger revenue inflection point.

Robust periods of past business cycles have led to some bad management decisions.  I hope the leaders of today’s airlines will not repeat them.

Wednesday
May162012

Musings From the Last Five Weeks

US Airways - American

$130 here - million I mean.  $100 million there.  Couple hundred here and there.  A chunk of the company for you.  A less than desirable chunk for me.  Hey PBGC, what do you need so we can carry a pension liability on our balance sheet going forward? That’s not a problem since the “old” US Airways terminated its plans!  While we are at it, let’s keep 15,000 more employees than a similar-sized United (each carrier would generate approximately $37 billion in revenue) because, after all, the synergy generation will surely cover it.  It’s the new math - circa 2012.

In its quest to acquire American Airlines, US Airways sounds like a teenager with its first credit card, spending money it doesn’t have.  Paper wealth.  What cracks me up about this “plan” is the new math I mentioned. Critics pan AA’s goal of creating $1 billion in new revenue as bogus because, among other issues, it assumes no competitive response.  Does anyone really think United and Delta are going roll over and let US Airways improve its revenue generation at their expense? Not a chance.

UAL CEO Jeff Smisek said last month a US merger "net, net, that would be good for us." Will there be more competition on certain city pairs?  Yes.  But neither United nor Delta are afraid of competition much less the threat posed by the paper tiger US Airways/American combination.   Smisek and Delta’s Richard Anderson are smart. They know the synergy formula US has seduced some media and AA’s unions with is but a calculation at this point.  Even American’s own pilots admitted in bankruptcy court this week its faux “deal” with US doesn’t include cost assumptions or valuations.

In other words, US is spending money it has no idea whether it will actually have. It is one thing to have a term sheet and quite another to have written contractual language.  My bet is United and Delta see that the first mover advantages created by mergers have already been mined.  For AMR’s creditors – including the labor unions – there are a host of other issues with this proposed takeover.  It is my opinion that US’s new math adds up to the likelihood that they may need to visit out-of-court cost cutting exercises within a very short time to finish the job that they are choosing not to finish during the courting stage – particularly if exogenous shocks again plague the industry.

Showdown in Houston

Most readers of www.swelblog.com know I was asked by United to help study the findings of the Houston Airports System (HAS) report about Southwest flying internationally from Houston Hobby Airport.  HAS and its consultants originally claimed that 23 flights by SWA from Hobby would create in excess of 18,000 jobs and generate more than $1.6 billion in new economic activity for the City of Houston. 

Stratospheric numbers like those don’t pass the sniff test, yet Southwest executives Gary Kelly, Bob Montgomery and Ron Ricks reference the HAS findings as if they were they were gospel.  More on this later.

I believe the HAS study is seriously flawed and is based on what has become known as the “Southwest Effect.”  Problem is, the “Southwest Effect” is a largely a thing of the past.  It got its name from a study completed more than 20 years ago by the U.S. DOT when jet fuel was the equivalent of $30 per barrel.  The fundamental premise is lowering fares will create a disproportionate level of “new” demand in a market. 

Despite the fact Southwest has no experience in flying to international markets, the HAS study assumes traffic will increase 180 percent.  Relevant empirical data shows Southwest’s (135 city pair markets entered since 2006) entry into new markets over the past five years resulted in traffic stimulation of only 10 percent. The latest data shows fares in those markets have actually increased – not decreased.  The HAS study, at a minimum, grossly exaggerates the benefits of a Southwest entry into duplicative markets and is based on a host of unrealistic assumptions. Publicly available cost data shows international flying done by Southwest from HOU would lose more than $76 million per year.  Even Southwest is not flying markets that lose that kind of money despite its self-proclaimed benevolence toward the air travel consumer.

The economic stimulation predicted by the HAS study claims that prices will decrease 55 percent lower than United’s fares.  The truth is, what Southwest calls “stimulation,” is comprised mostly of the cannibalization of IAH traffic which adds nothing to the Houston economy.

The “Southwest Effect” does not drive benefits to local economies as it once did.  Even Gary Kelly agrees.  When pinned down by the Houston City Council on the number of jobs that would be created at Southwest from its limited entry to routes already served, Kelly admitted that total number (nationally) would be 700 and direct Southwest jobs created in Houston would be 50-100. Kelly went on to say that even these 50-100 jobs would be achieved only if Southwest flies the maximum number of flights in its projections several years after entry.  

Even with outrageous multipliers, the number of direct, indirect and induced job creation cannot even begin to approach 10,000 – let alone 18,000.  Not even by relying on the long-obsolete conclusions of a 20 year old study.

The United Pilots

The United pilots are at it again.  While the Delta Air Lines' pilots reached an agreement seven months early, the United pilots are busy building websites whining about outsourced jobs (their term, not mine) and the salaries of United Airlines’ executives. 

Labor leaders in the pilot ranks would have you believe this “outsourcing” (international code sharing and the use of regional flying within the network) is all about management abusing provisions of their collective bargaining agreements to enrich their shareholders. In fact, reducing costs through the relaxation of scope provisions has been labor’s “quid” in return for increases in compensation (or to give less in a concessionary contract) and benefits for 20+ years [the “quo.”]

Among many myths portrayed on the website, United ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association) claims that after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the management of United Airlines launched a strategic plan to offshore and outsource jobs in an effort to cut costs.  Look no further than the unaffordable contract negotiated between United and its pilots in 2000.  The pilots significantly relaxed scope provisions in return for increased wages, work rules and benefits.  I rest my case.

First of all, the fundamental economics underlying the health of the U.S. airline industry began deteriorating during the second half of 2000.  September 11 ensured that there would be no return to prior industry conditions particularly on the revenue line.  The incursion of the low cost carriers and the use of the internet for airline ticket distribution were every bit as powerful forces as 9/11 in compelling the industry to restructure.  The operating models sought by the network carriers were to find cost savings much like the low-cost carriers – a sector that outsourced a significant portion of its maintenance.  The advent of the regional jet in the mid-1990s was the catalyst driving a reduction in pilot and other costs.  Pilots at all network carriers permitted extensive use of the regional jet well before September 11, 2001.

Perpetuating myths to a public that largely doesn’t care (pilots are much better compensated than the average passenger) is probably a disservice to United’s ALPA members.  Put energy into negotiations like the Delta pilots and you might actually get somewhere.  That requires leadership and telling the entitled pilots at the old United that things are not going to return to the days when the company negotiated contracts it couldn’t afford.  It is just not going to happen.

Concluding Thoughts

Delta Air Lines just continues to do things a little differently.  When it merged with Northwest, Delta made the pilots “buy in” to the concept that consolidation was inevitable and that it was in their best interests to participate.  Delta’s financial performance relative to the industry has been very good quarter after quarter.  Then it buys an oil refinery and negotiates a deal with pilots seven months before the amendable date.  Hell, most negotiations have just completed the uniform section at this point in the proceedings – maybe.

It is clear Delta’s largest unionized group understands industry realities.  That’s a rare thing these days when, too often, reality is sacrificed for political expedience.  Simply look at how much has been made in the media about American’s unions joining hands with US Airways.  That was the easy part.  Which union wouldn’t agree to give up less and suffer fewer job losses?  It sounds great to members and union leaders can knowingly smile and say, at the very least, they’re putting pressure on management.  But reality says they’re weakening their own position, opening themselves up to my favorite term – unintended consequences and simply ignoring the truth that US Airways would have to carry 15,000 more heads than United, while generating the same level of revenue.  That’s not reality; that’s fantasy.

There is little doubt industry consolidation has helped catapult financial results beyond what could have been imagined for the industry based on past performance.  In that reality, my guess is Delta just made it more expensive for US Airways - and United - yesterday by negotiating yet another joint collective bargaining agreement.  US Airways needs those lower labor rates because its network produces below industry unit revenues. So now US is in the position of not only promising American’s pilots increased pay, but having to actually pay its own pilots at Delta +.

But hey, what is a couple of hundred million here and a couple of hundred million there?  After all, the margins for the US airline industry are plentiful.  Right?

Tuesday
Jun072011

In The Airline Business We Just Do Not Talk About Balance Sheets Enough

In the Gulf States, we have Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker saying to Gulf Business Nothing Can Stop Us Now.  In the article Al Baker talks about the high cost and inefficient airlines in the west.  In the U.K., a headline in The Independent reads:  More Carriers Could Fold Warns IAG’s Willie Walsh.  Bruce Smith, writing for the Indianapolis Star publishes a story on hometown Republic Holdings titled:  Republic Emphasizes Cost Cuts As It Fights To Compete.  Like a lot of airlines these days, Republic’s branded carriers – otherwise known as Frontier and Midwest  – are not only fighting to compete, they’re fighting to simply stay alive.

It’s easy to forget Republic now flies its own airline flag. Prior to purchasing Frontier and Midwest out of bankruptcy, Republic Holdings’ predominately did fee-for-departure flying for U.S. network carriers.  In October 2008, I asked:  Just Who Will Inherit the U.S. Domestic Market? Don’t Forget Today’s “Regional Carriers”.  Nearly two years ago, after Republic staved off Southwest from sponsoring Frontier’s exit from bankruptcy, I asked,  Is Republic Changing the Face of the US Domestic Market?   

In each of the Swelblog.com articles referenced above, I talked about how smart Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Holdings (RJET) is.   Bedford made the move to acquire Frontier and Midwest in an environment where it was increasingly clear the legacy carriers did not – and cannot over the long-term – operate under a cost structure that will not support the number of airlines trying to survive in the hypercompetitive U.S. domestic airline business.  Since then, consolidation among U.S. carriers has taken off – for network, low cost and regional airlines alike.

Smart or not, the price of jet fuel puts pressure on Bedford’s balance sheet more so than other carriers given Republic’s incipient fragility.  I have written time and again the most important financial statement for any airline today is its balance sheet.  As Republic Holdings trades near a 52 week low, many analysts are jumping off the RJET bandwagon.

Mike Linenberg, equity analyst at Deutsche Bank, wrote following Republic’s first quarter results, “Republic ended the March quarter with $467 million in total cash, $37 million higher than at the end of the December quarter. While the company’s restricted cash balance increased $87 million to $226 million, driven by the seasonality of its Frontier business, unrestricted cash declined $50 million to $241 million, impacted by the company’s relatively high credit card holdback provision of 95%. Regarding additional sources of cash, Republic indicated that it had some collateral-backed debt that could be refinanced to produce an additional $70- $80 million of net cash to the company.”

In the airline business, cash is king and fuel is the wildcard. With its fee-for-departure contracts, Republic left the fuel risk to its mainline partners.   (Of course the price of fuel affects the decision of the mainline carrier as to whether to buy regional capacity).  Now Bedford has to buy fuel for his Frontier and Midwest subsidiaries… that helps to explain why RJET’s unrestricted cash declined by some $50 million.

Why I was bullish on the Republic – Frontier combination in the early days was because the Indianapolis based holding company had bought a brand, one that came with a vibrant flying community – Denver.  With a community comes inherent demand.  With demand comes revenue.  But Last month, Ann Schrader of the Denver Post reported Southwest had jumped over Frontier in terms of market share at DIA.    

Republic announced the acquisition of Frontier on June 22, 2009.  On that date, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil was $64.58 and the price of a gallon of jet fuel was $1.78.  In 2011, WTI has traded in excess of $100 per barrel and one gallon of jet fuel tops $3.  It is one thing to be in the regional business when the cost of fuel doesn’t directly affect you. It’s another when you actually have to pay for the gas.

Southwest

On the flip side, I think that Southwest’s purchase of AirTran is brilliant.  In many catchment areas around the contiguous 48 states most populated and wealthy areas, the combined carrier has at least two beachheads.  While I still don’t believe Southwest, jetBlue, Frontier and Spirit will inherit the domestic U.S. marketplace; I am increasingly convinced the not-so-meek Southwest will inherit more earth than any of the others.  The U.S. domestic market has always been about the survival of the fittest. 

Might we be headed for another round where Southwest captures five points of domestic market share?  Possibly. What’s different this time versus the 2001 – 2006 period when Southwest and the other LCCs captured nearly 20 points of domestic market share is the airlines losing ground won’t be the network carriers.  More will come from weak competitors – like Frontier, Midwest and Spirit. .  There should be little surprise that Spirit sold a fraction of its intended shares at 25 percent less than desired price in its Initial Public Offering (IPO). 

Frontier is quickly losing pricing power in the very place it called home.  Presumably the value in the Frontier franchise was its cult following in the Denver local market. Without a meaningful, and growing, share of the local market, pricing power is compromised.  No pricing power in a high jet fuel cost environment does little to bolster a fragile balance sheet.  Southwest has the time and the financial wherewithal to whittle Frontier's following and, thus, its franchise value.

Southwest isn’t Frontier’s (and Bedford’s) only headache. United has a presence in Denver as well, one that’s not necessarily focused on local traffic. That makes Denver somewhat different than other cities where three carriers have tried to hub.  My guess is something is going to give in Denver because, at some point, the law of diminishing returns is sure to play out for any one of the three competitors.  And I’ll bet on Southwest’s balance sheet winning the war.

Southwest is an opportunistic competitor.  I expect Southwest to fill any voids left by either Frontier or United in Denver.  Where United or Frontier might be vulnerable, Southwest will likely exploit that weakness by adding capacity.  It can be patient because Southwest has a balance sheet that is far stronger than either of its two Denver competitors.  Frontier is, by far, the weakest. The high cost of fuel is its immediate enemy and Frontier has fewer options than either Southwest or United.

Labor - It Really Is About The Balance Sheet

The one thing that the pre-Frontier/Midwest Republic did not have to worry about was earnings as long as it delivered the product promised to the mainline carriers.  Today, the branded operation is suffering losses and is forecast to lose money going forward while most major players are going to make money.  As Linenberg’s analysis suggests, Frontier needs to generate cash internally because it has limited borrowing capability.

The strong get stronger.  The weak get weaker.  Survival of the fittest at its most emblematic. As Bryan Bedford told his shareholders – and the world - he needed to find $100 million in cost savings, his pilots protested outside.  No earnings and a weak balance sheet usually do not equal wage increases. It’s not about whether pilots deserve increases – that’s not what I’m talking about.  Balance sheet repair is not sexy.  Balance sheet repair does not add to earnings.  Balance sheet repair does not produce wage increases and work rule changes that resemble 2001.

What balance sheet repair does is keep airlines flying. If struggling carriers don’t find ways to fix their sheets, they won’t be around. I don’t mean they’ll file Chapter 11 and hope to reorganize or sell themselves off at the last minute. I mean they will cease to exist. Their one-time employees will be out of work, their assets will be auctioned off. No one is going to pump capital into an airline whose balance sheet is out of whack, whether that’s because of fuel, diminished market share or labor costs.  

It really is why pattern bargaining should be a thing of the past.  Every airline is different.  Every airline competes in different geographies, with different goals and has labor needs that other carriers don’t. 

The more I think about it, US Airways pilots – and whichever union/group is currently representing them - are really doing the company a favor by not coming to grips with reality.  US Airways is more exposed in the U.S. domestic market than any other network carrier.  The U.S. domestic market is a low-fare environment and requires lower labor costs than, say, a United or a Delta that have more capacity in international markets.  The same holds true for flight attendants and below-the-wing personnel. More to come on this one.

I see employees picketing and I scratch my head.  This industry lost nearly one in every four jobs during the past decade, yet still has more than 350,000 employees with wage and benefit packages in excess of $85,000.  This is an industry of good paying jobs despite the economic environment it operates in. Yet many labor groups refuse to recognize the need for balance sheet repair… and that labor costs have to be part of the fix. You can’t just tweak revenue or fuel costs or charge more for a ticket. Shoring the balance sheet requires a holistic approach.

Without that type of approach, as Willie Walsh recently said, more airlines will fold.  I’ll even venture more could merge. Frontier is a classic example of why this industry is not out of the woods.  And why even the network carriers are not done.  And why the regional carriers are not done.  Isn’t it interesting that Sean Menke, the former head of Frontier just joined Pinnacle Airlines – a truly regional carrier at this point in the industry lifecycle?  What does he know that the rest of us do not?  Me thinks that the domestic market will also be made up of today’s regional carriers; today’s low cost carriers and of course; today’s network carriers as Jeff Smisek, CEO at the new United said, "A domestic operation sized solely to feed our international traffic".  It will be different no matter what pilot scope clauses suggest.

Monday
Mar242008

Not Time For “Hush Money”

The Status Quo Is the Issue; Not Firing CEOs

Today I received a comment from Carmen on my latest blog post. Carmen is a frequent reader here, student of the industry and a person that is not afraid to say and write what he believes. Even if it means that he is not the first person other pilots seek out in the crew room when he checks in for his trip. He suggests that invoking force majeure might incite a revolution – and I paraphrase.

Carmen is not a current member of his union and his philosophical differences with his union have been written here and on multiple blog sites that cover the industry. Carmen, like others, point to the lack of a people element in the US airline business today is what stands in the way of a successful and sustainable industry when contrasted to the industry we know that perpetually teeters on the edge.

I Said I Would Not Acknowledge

Regarding Carmen’s comments, I responded in a pretty matter of fact tone. After responding, I started thinking back to Bob Reed's piece in Business week last week entitled: It's Time for United's CEO to Go; UAL should keep United Airlines in Chicago—but send Glenn Tilton, its deal-hungry CEO, packing. OK, for those that know me, you know that I have an affinity for Tilton. Do I agree with everything that has been done at United under his watch? No, I do not. Where I absolutely agree with Mr. Tilton is that the status quo does not work for any stakeholder group. Period.

So Mr. Reed, my question to you: are you singling out Tilton or are you joining hands with certain industry stakeholders that are looking for any leverage to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the self-imposed gridlock toward change which afflicts the US industry? It seems to me that any question you asked in your article could have been asked of Richard Anderson at Delta, Doug Steenland at Northwest, Doug Parker at US Airways and yes, even Larry Kellner at Continental. And I am going to include Gerard Arpey of American and I will discuss that later.

And Mr. Reed, I am sure glad you mentioned Continental and its transformation. From my read, about the only thing in your article that comes close to even describing the competitive reality that faces this industry each and every day is the fact that Continental survived the “controversial and oft-despised” Frank Lorenzo era. And I quote further: “the airline survived his tenure (along with two bankruptcies) and eventually morphed into one of the country's most successful large carriers. Now Continental is enjoying solid financial returns, improved customer satisfaction, and stronger employee relations. What's more, its CEO doesn't want to merge and is even ordering new planes”.

Pretty bold statement on the intentions of Continental’s current CEO who has done anything but rule out merger efforts should other carriers in the industry decide to join hands. Then again, it is hard to talk about joining hands when you are encumbered by a golden share that also serves as golden handcuffs. And even bolder to insinuate that other airline CEOs would not want to achieve the same thing that took Continental 10 years to begin fully realizing. And for that matter, that type of success is what CEOs want to be paid for. But the type of transformation that continues at Continental is more akin to a marathon than a sprint.

Where This Whole Post Started

Like today, the industry then was engaged in a shakeout and survival of the fittest when Continental began its transformation. For any Continental, PEOPLExpress, Frontier, New York Air, Texas International (see comment section) and Eastern (did I leave any carrier out?) employee of the time there are plenty of horror stories. But 20+ years later, we continue to witness the legacy carrier that first underwent necessary quadruple bypass surgery to transform itself to a US industry leader.

The only thing different today is that the transformation is more difficult. In the 1980s it was important to build a network, with a cost structure, that gave a carrier some form of presence/dominance within a particular US geographic region. Today it is about building an entity that maintains is preeminence in the US domestic market while spreading its reach to all world regions with a cost structure that allows it to compete where external forces are increasingly complex. Mr. Reed, airline labor, airline consumer activists and Rep. Oberstar would all have us believe that today’s airline world should remain focused on Altoona rather than Auckland; Duluth rather than Dubai.

Carmen in his comment to me mentions pandering and appeasement against a backdrop of a leadership void. Where I am stuck, is that I think there is finally leadership within the industry and there is a vision as to where this industry needs to morph to. When there is leadership and vision, there will be reasons to say no. And today’s CEOs are saying no to a return to the way things have been. They are saying very clearly and in their own way, no to the various issues that led each of their respective entities into bankruptcy or restructuring.

Definitely Not the Time for Hush Money

I asked Carmen in my response: “but isn't what labor wants is an historical return to pandering and appeasement? Throwing good money at the age old problems only makes people happy in the short term. Then the industry has to return and ask for concessions because they can no longer afford the hush money that was negotiated. I am all for saying no and trying to find a way to break this age old pattern. And I think finally this industry has a group of CEOs that can and will say no rather than push off the tough decisions that have been deferred over the past 3-4 negotiating cycles. Popularity contest -- NO. Necessary action – YES”.

It seems that the Northwest employees were more than willing to vote Steenland out in the event of a Northwest – Delta deal. And apparently he was willing to drop his “ego” and step aside in the event of a transaction that he and his board deemed in the best interests of all stakeholders.

My bet is Mr. Tilton and others would/will do the same in return for a deal that satisfies a vision. United has been out front in the consolidation view to be sure. But, United has been out in front suggesting they would put down capacity in the event of high oil prices also. And that simply sounds like managing the business to me. Mr. Reed pleads with United’s Board to “give Tilton his due, provide him fair compensation for time served—and begin the hunt for an executive who can build on his accomplishments and take an independent airline to greater heights”.

But Tilton’s work at United is not yet done and therefore the United Board should no more pay Tilton his hush money to walk today anymore than the prior United administration should have paid the United pilots the hush money to end the dreaded “Summer of 2000” that ultimately landed the carrier in bankruptcy. And certainly Mr. Arpey should not be paying his pilots, flight attendants or any other employees the amounts of hush money they are seeking over an executive compensation plan designed by American's Board. A compensation plan that could have been altered by the Board, not by Mr. Arpey and his management team.

Breaking the boom-bust cycle is much more important than perpetuating the status quo. Maybe we should invoke the force majeure clause on the self-imposed gridlock toward change which afflicts our industry …

To call for one CEO's head when an entire group of industry CEOs recognize that the status quo just does not work is well.......unfortunate.

More to come.

Monday
Mar172008

Invoking the Force Majeure Clause: Oil Taking Its Toll

...and Thinking About Northwest - Delta

As I prepared to write this week, I had outlined a piece around the NCAA basketball tournament generally and Selection Sunday specifically. I was going to talk about how the Delta-Northwest deal, destined for a #1 seed a month ago had become a “bubble” deal over the past month because of a less than stellar end to the conference schedule and “one and done” in the conference tournament. And then I was prepared to place them in the last 4 teams out group.

But rather than just isolate Delta-Northwest, I think it is time for the industry to think about consolidation in yet another way. Typically we think about consolidation as two entities combining through merger activity. But there is financial consolidation as well. It is similar to what we experienced during the 2002-2006 period where an industry contracts on its own volition. It is probably time to begin another round of contraction as the price of oil makes it very difficult for the industry to maintain its current service offerings.

Introduction to Force Majeur for Those on Capitol Hill
and a Refresher for US Airline Labor

From where I sit, the NCAA tournament will make great theater as always but will pale in news as to what I see coming for the US airline industry. In my last blog post, I purposefully left the piece hanging on an issue for labor and the politicians to seriously consider: “Politicians and labor should think real hard about the fallout that could stem from the current economic environment [read to include high oil prices] versus what the perceived fallout could be in a consolidation scenario”.

As the market opened this morning, oil traded near $112 per barrel. Whereas the price has pulled back from those highs, it is becoming clearer that oil is going higher as the highs get higher and the lows get higher. Heeding warnings from the industry that capacity will be closely examined at these prices, I began to write this piece.

Then as I was writing, I did my usual check of the headlines as the day wore on. In one check of the day’s news, I read, as everyone should when you are not reading here to steal a Maxon line, a blog post by David Field of Airline Business on his blog named appropriately Left Field. Mr. Field cites quotes directly from Delta’s Anderson, Northwest’s Steenland and Continental’s Kellner each questioning the size of their respective networks in the face of $105 per barrel oil.

Defining Force Majeure

Typically we do not like to talk about force majeure issues in the industry, but I am thinking it is time. Wikpedia defines force majeure as:

Force majeure (French for "greater force") is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as war, strike, riot, crime, act of nature (e.g., flooding, earthquake, volcano), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. However, force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance of a party, as where non-performance is caused by the usual and natural consequences of external forces (e.g., predicted rain stops an outdoor event), or where the intervening circumstances are specifically contemplated.

Time-critical and other sensitive contracts may be drafted to limit the shield of this clause where a party does not take reasonable steps (or specific precautions) to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference, either when they become likely or when they actually occur. A force majeure may work to excuse all or part of the obligations of one or both parties. For example, a strike might prevent timely delivery of goods, but not timely payment for the portion delivered. Similarly, a widespread power outage would not be a force majeure excuse if the contract requires the provision of backup power or other contingency plans for continuity.

A force majeure may also be the overpowering force itself, which prevents the fulfillment of a contract. In that instance, it is actually the Impossibility defense.

The understanding of force majeure in French law is similar to that of international law and vis major as defined above. For a defendant to invoke force majeure in French law, the event proposed as force majeure must pass three tests:

Externality

The defendant must have nothing to do with the event's happening.

Unpredictability

If the event could be foreseen, the defendant is obligated to have prepared for it. Being unprepared for a foreseeable event leaves the defendant culpable. This standard is very strictly applied.

Irresistibility

The consequences of the event must have been unpreventable.

A Non-Lawyer Discussion of Force Majeure

Force majeure (French for "greater force") is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as war, strike, riot, crime, act of nature (e.g., flooding, earthquake, volcano), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

Name any airline that spent time in bankruptcy and was required to file a plan of reorganization that correctly estimated the price of oil in that plan. United assumed $55 per barrel and that was $50+ per barrel ago. Northwest just recently emerged and it assumed oil $40+ per barrel ago.

Based on the assumed price per barrel of oil, contracts were entered into with the regional affiliates of the major carriers. The price of oil has long been described an uncontrollable expense for the airline industry. Is this an act of nature, I do not know. What I do know, is that this rise in the price of oil is beyond the control of the industry. Moreover, this recent price push makes oil more expensive than it was on an inflation adjusted basis in the early 1980’s and we know that the period will always be defined as an oil crisis.

However, force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance of a party, as where non-performance is caused by the usual and natural consequences of external forces (e.g., predicted rain stops an outdoor event), or where the intervening circumstances are specifically contemplated.

There is no negligence here by the industry or malfeasance by anyone. This is the market at work. The causes for the oil price increases are many but cannot be isolated to any one catalyst. And none of this is as predictable as rain on a hot summer night.

Time-critical and other sensitive contracts may be drafted to limit the shield of this clause where a party does not take reasonable steps (or specific precautions) to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference, either when they become likely or when they actually occur.

To say that the industry has not taken reasonable steps to prevent or limit the effects of the outside interference would ignore the painful attempts to address cost structures that were simply not sustainable. As Jamie Baker pointed out last week in his research note, since 2002, the price of oil will have increased some $25 billion for the US industry while savings from labor over the same period amounts to $7 billion.

Through the restructuring period and practices that continue today, the industry cut costs to combat a declining revenue environment and to address the rising cost of oil. The industry has used hedges; pared domestic capacity as a way to reduce exposure to an unhealthy domestic market; increased international capacity as a way to increase revenue; cut back on amenities; cut distribution costs to a minimal level; reduced ownership costs; cut employee wages; improved employee productivity; improved asset utilization; terminated pensions; outsourced flying; outsourced maintenance; outsourced administrative activities; and experimented with hub structures to name a few of the hundred of cost cutting activities that have been employed.

Most, if not all, reasonable steps have been taken to prevent or limit the continued losses for the US industry – except for that outside interference called oil.

Included in the definition: A force majeure may also be the overpowering force itself, which prevents the fulfillment of a contract. In that instance, it is actually the Impossibility defense. As for the externality, the industry has nothing to do with the event’s happening. As for unpredictability, this industry has done everything it can do to counteract its influences. As for irresistibility, the consequences of the oil price rise were not preventable.

Delta and Northwest

About one month ago, I remember Bob Fornaro, CEO of AirTran Airways, referring to proposals made to his pilots in an oil-denominated way. Like Fornaro, Messrs. Anderson and Steenland I only hope that you tell your pilots and all other employees that the terms of the agreement you made in order to have a single collective bargaining agreement in place are now off of the table. You made an agreement where some of your pilots would receive 30% pay increases at $85-90 oil, surely those agreements should not be made at $105 oil. Invoke force majeur.

$20 per barrel ago, you said that your networks would be largely kept intact. Now today you seem to be hinting that the size of your networks may need to be reconsidered. Let’s just face the fact that there are too many regional carriers and too many hubs and as a result too much money being spent on serving communities that cannot economically support the frequency of access to the air transportation system today. Cutbacks like those Doug Parker of US Airways suggested were probably unavoidable at some point and at $105 oil, well……invoke force majeur.

In each case, these suggested actions seem prudent and can easily be explained by an unpredictable externality whose consequences could not have been predicted by you. Invoke force majeur.

Consolidation is still right. But as everyone has said it has to be the right deal for all stakeholders and given the externalities facing the industry, much harder choices will now have to be made.

More to come.

Tuesday
Jan222008

Converging Catalysts Making a Case for Consolidation?

Don’t look now…….

…..but there is something that feels different to me. In the vial, mix:

1. a lot of anxiety with commensurate posturing
2. non-traditional capital sources with skeptical labor
3. parochial tendencies against global economic forces
4. a weak dollar relative to foreign currencies
5. a weakening US economy and record high oil prices that appear to be the new standard

What do you get? Consolidation chatter that has the feel that it is real. Not talk; not speculation . . ..the real deal.

The US Home Market

The last meaningful airline consolidation period that involved multiple players began in the mid-1980s. Piedmont bought Empire; American bought AirCal; Northwest bought Republic; TWA bought Ozark; United bought Pan Am’s Pacific Division; Delta bought Western; USAir bought PSA; USAir and PSA bought Piedmont; United bought Pan Am’s London Heathrow authority; and American bought TWA’s London Heathrow authority. And that’s only the larger transactions of the period.

It is these transactions that formed the commercial backbone of the industry today. Nearly 20 years have passed since the industry recognized that economies of scope, scale and density would prove important to survival in a deregulated network industry. And it brought a significant regional concentration of services. Two Minneapolis hub carriers merged; two St. Louis hub carriers merged; and two predominantly East Coast carriers merged. Arguably, only Delta and Western represented an “end to end” merger of carriers.

In the years since, there have been periods of mainline capacity cuts, mainline capacity growth and regional carrier growth – explosive at times and largely facilitated by technological change and a disparity in labor rates. And by the late 1990s, we also had the explosion in new capacity by low-cost carriers, and not just Southwest. The growth by the LCC sector was largely driven by the gap in the cost structures between the upstarts and the legacy carriers.

That Was Then, This Is Now

We have talked on Swelblog.com about how the barriers to exit are greater for this industry than are the barriers to entry. We learned the latest lesson on this topic during the bankruptcy era when more-than-sufficient capital was available to fund each of the respective plans of reorganization.

I would be surprised if one serious analyst did not question the virtues of the reorganization plans. Costs were cut and network changes were made, to be sure. But now, compounding the price of fuel is a weakening economy. Airline share prices plummeted throughout the month of December. Thus far in 2008, virtually every market is off to one of the worst starts of any year on record. The markets know something. The only time I want to see the highs getting lower, and the lows getting lower, is in my golf score.

At some point, the current credit crisis, increasing food prices and the impact of rising fuel on the consumer pocketbook will begin to put real pressure on consumer disposable income. And this will impact airline travel. Consumers will simply be less inclined to travel, even if the ticket price is right. From everything I read, it is clear that planned capacity for 2008 has not factored in any meaningful loss of consumer disposable income, nor should it as the macro economic indicators continue to provide us with mixed signals at every turn.

The Catalysts for Consolidation

1. The price of fuel: Consolidate this time will mean consolidate, or risk getting smaller. Consolidate means eliminating any and all duplication of service and costs associated with providing that service. And no, it does not have to harm the consumer as I believe that the leadership of the US airline industry may actually be more concerned about further erosion of consumer confidence in the industry than the health of the economy and oil threats.

2. The US domestic economy: A weakening economy will only shine a harsher light on service to communities that can’t be operated at a profit. The US airline industry made a good bet on 50 seat capacity during the latter half of the 1990s. That bet helped the industry to remain connected during the dark days of 2001 – 2004. But if that capacity was not economic at $50 oil, then it certainly is not economic at $90 oil. I do not think the industry has any overt intentions to disenfranchise entire communities from access to the US air transportation system. Rather, the industry will rightly ask if the same revenue can be generated with six frequencies instead of nine or three frequencies instead of five.

3. Hyper domestic competition: If anyone on Capitol Hill ignores the simple fact that US airline industry growth has slowed at home because few profitable opportunities remain, then we will just keep having the circular conversation – mostly driven by parochial concerns – that rejects consolidation out of an irrational fear that it will limit competition.

4. Increased international competition: If not a catalyst today, incursions into our market from foreign carriers promise to become a pressure point in the near term. The immediate impact of the US-EU deal is not much more than a change of the three letter airport code from LGW to LHR. But LHR, like JFK, is important airline real estate. Given this fact, what will bmi do? It has significant slot holdings that are sure to be bid on by any number of carriers like BA, Virgin, Lufthansa (with rights to exercise), Singapore, Emirates or any one of the Indian carriers. Any one of these carriers can force a changed transAtlantic environment overnight if LHR slots land in their portfolio. And we will sit and watch just how BA will compete with its Open Skies subsidiary from non-LHR points on the continent. Game on.

5. Foreign Capital: Just as plenty of money was available from many sources to fund bankruptcy exits in the US, foreign capital will prove to be plentiful as the US considers merger partners and deal structures. I am not convinced that all alliance structures are set in concrete. This being said, the alliances are sure to be most interested parties in how the network structures might evolve. In fact, some of the competition among the alliances to secure their place at a preferred table may be the catalyst to satisfy the many currently unsatisfied shareholders in US airlines today.

6. Labor: In a recent post here (no, not the one where the Terrapins beat the Tar Heels), I wrote about the emerging leadership of Lee Moak, ALPA MEC Chairman at Delta. Since that posting, the leadership of the pilots at United and Northwest have also spoken. Why the rising volume in the union leadership ranks? Because I am increasingly convinced that the industry is moving beyond recognition that structural change is about to occur -- and with that recognition comes preparation. Unions representing pilots and the flight attendants signal that preparations are underway to address respective issues in any consolidation scenario. They are seeming to believe, as do I, that with a seat at the table comes opportunity.

7. Management: In their public statements, the leadership at each of the airlines is increasingly more resolute in their comments regarding consolidation. United’s Tilton and US Airways’ Parker have been joined in recent weeks by Delta’s Anderson and Northwest’s Steenland speaking out in support of consolidation. Keep watching – it appears that Continental’s Kellner and Southwest’s Kelly may not be far behind.

With jetBlue partnering with Lufthansa; Frontier under increasing competitive pressure in Denver; and AirTran certain to be challenged by a growing and more vibrant Delta footprint, this discussion is not confined to a single sector of the industry.

A Few Concluding Thoughts

There is just something different this time. If after taking billions of dollars of cost out of the industry’s operations, all we get is a two-year profit cycle, then there will have to be something different this time. Yes, we might get three years of profitability, but that’s not where the smart money is now. Already profit estimates for 2008 are being reduced by 40 percent versus what the industry earned in 2007.

The fact is, the industry already has used most of the rabbits in its hat. In 1985 the industry was in its infancy and the focus was on the domestic market as network size could not be built organically in the face of deregulated pricing. The same is true in 2008, but now we’re talking about network size in the global marketplace. Like in 1985, the networks that are necessary to survive cannot be built organically, not when airlines lack critical pricing power that stems from a fragmented and hypercompetitive home market.

Some very good things came out of that merger period in the 1980s. Some very good things will come out of this merger period as well. Yes, there will be dislocations and the loss of an icon or two. But we should embrace the change. It may be the last shot for many airlines. And it is a risk worth taking because the current model will only produce the same deaths by a thousand paper cuts.

Sunday
Jan132008

Consolidation, Mediation and an Explanation

CONSOLIDATION

On Thursday, January 10, the Wall Street Journal breaks the news that Delta Air Lines will ask its Board of Directors for permission to explore a merger with either Northwest Airlines or United Airlines click here. The article is entitled: Delta’s Merger Buzz May Stir the Industry. And stir, and buzz, it did. After a month of sustained stock price declines, the airline sector rallied by more than 15% following the story finding its way onto the newswires.

While news regarding the Board’s deliberations is quiet at this writing click here, the news of a deal involving Delta should come of little surprise to airline industry watchers and readers of swelblog.com. Further, at this point, we do not even know how, or if the story will play out. But……

In a November AP story covering a New York investor conference, Delta’s President and Chief Financial Officer, Ed Bastian, called consolidation a “front burner” issue for the carrier. As the company discusses consolidation, its message to all stakeholders has been consistent – a deal that is good for shareholders, employees and communities will be explored.

It has been reported that Delta would like to answer the consolidation question before it makes any decisions regarding asset or subsidiary spin offs. Delta's public statements on this subject have held true and the carrier announced that it will delay a decision to spin off its Comair unit click here. Delta has not denied these reports.

In either merger scenario suggested by the Journal, Comair and Cincinnati will be a source of discussion. Beginning the process of paring 50 seat capacity and secondary hubs are certainly synergies in my analysis supporting any good, and viable, merger proposal. If it is a Delta/Northwest combination, what about Pinnacle and Memphis?

There Is Something Different In Atlanta

And it is labor. It is pilot labor. It is pilot labor leadership. His name is Lee Moak click here.

History has taught us that simply negotiating a term sheet does not a successful merger make. The two speed bumps to a successful culmination of negotiated terms are: the regulators; and labor.

For serious industry watchers, Captain Moak has been on the scene for some time. His presence was felt during Delta’s bankruptcy reorganization. But his real persona emerged following Pardus Capital’s announced intention to facilitate a combination of Delta and United in mid November 2007 click here. Moak then wrote in a letter to his pilots: "Pardus' demand for a merger between Delta and United is a poisonous vision built upon an artificial timeline and focused primarily on a financial transaction…"

Moak has publicly opined that he sees structural change ahead in the industry. And to the extent that it impacts his carrier and therefore his pilots, he will play a role. Just a day before the Wall Street Journal wrote its story, Moak wrote a letter to his pilots suggesting that consolidation was at the door click here. In my opinion, Pardus’ big mistake was that it proposed a deal that could easily be perceived by labor as a “cram down”. And suffice it to say that after bankruptcy/restructuring, labor’s appetite for a "cram down anything" is nil.

It is refreshing to see a real leader emerge in the labor space. Right now the labor space is generally devoid of good leadership -- with a few exceptions to be sure. Whether this story plays out or not, what is different is that you have a union leader who has made it clear that he will represent his constituents and a CEO who will do the same. More importantly, Moak is not saying no for the sake of saying no. Rather he must see an opportunity to better position his pilots in a changing world. How refreshing.

Parallel paths that may ultimately converge to create something better than today’s fragmented and fragile platform?

Concluding Thoughts

What is sure is that US Airways’ CEO Doug Parker’s idea to be a first mover in the consolidation arena was a good one. What is also sure is that Parker provided a blueprint for the industry to merge networks, ensure access to the air transportation system for communities of all sizes while at the same time reducing fixed costs. Now Parker is hamstrung by pilot leadership blinded by the prospect of an unlikely outcome – a better arbitration decision. For Parker, bringing labor along would certainly have proven expensive – and maybe just too expensive.

At Northwest, CEO Doug Steenland is mirroring statements made by Delta’s CEO Richard Anderson that the right transaction – one that benefits employees, shareholders and communities will be considered click here. Steenland and his pilots had to work through a very difficult, and adversarial, operational situation shortly following its emergence from bankruptcy. An outcome was reached that seemed to quiet the rhetoric emanating from the Twin Cities. A platform to build on?

As for United, a new pilot leadership is settling into office. They are presented with a potential opportunity to find a meeting of the minds with a management team that has been most vocal, and visionary, on industry change. Is there a sufficient blueprint out there for the two sides to work as a single mind so as to ensure that United will not just sit on the sidelines and watch others implement Tilton’s strategic vision? Maybe the holiday operational breakdown can be used as a platform -- like at Northwest?

Network and labor blueprints are emerging. Maybe the historic speed bumps to successful structural change are being reduced as a result?


MEDIATION

The Allied Pilots Association announced this past week that they will apply for mediation, with or without American management joining them in the formal request, to the National Mediation Board after the close of business on January 14, 2008. I guess we are now getting a window into a strategy designed for a quick resolution?? My guess is it will still ensure a very long and protracted negotiation that ultimately lands in front of a Presidential Emergency Board.

Is the APA making a bet early in the Presidential and Congressional election cycle that somehow a PEB will fall short of Congressional action? Sounds risky to me. From my viewpoint and based on APA's current table position, there is no "splitting the baby".

In a widely read blog post here click here I borrowed a term often used among the professional negotiators at the Board: put it on ice. The term of art describes a situation where the gulf between two sides is too wide and as a result progress is difficult to measure. In that circumstance, a case is put on ice. Mediation is suspended and the parties are sent home to reevaluate their respective positions.

In this case, I do not see newly elected APA officers moving off of an uneconomic, unpalatable and untenable position anymore than I see American management remotely willing to entertain many, if any, of the economic proposals put forth by the union.

Another widely used term of art by a negotiator is underbrush. Underbrush refers primarily to negotiations on non-economic issues that should largely be concluded before the NMB is engaged. Well, suffice it to say there is plenty of underbrush.

Yes -- the Board will probably take the case but not before encouraging the parties to engage in more direct negotiations. Once the Board accepts the case, the parties will/can meet with and without a mediator.

As Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News asked on his blog (and I paraphrase): who will the lucky mediator be to get assigned this case?

So -- while the airline world surrounding “today’s” largest US carrier is certain to be engaging in commercial transactions that strengthen their respective companies, American and the APA will be spending time discussing: a secondary revenue source like cargo and its relevance to commercial passenger pilot rates of pay; executive compensation; inflationary adjustments to 1992 rates of pay; Super Bowl Sunday -- and probably not at the water cooler; and hourly rates of pay that when used in isolation make a nice story but fail to address the productivity side of the equation just to name a few of the issues. Oh, and computer allowances so that everyone can log on and read how American lost its leadership position.

Pretty sad story. No, a really sad story.

EXPLANATION

Chitragupta, in a comment to my most recent post, suggests I return to my heritage and find some sympathy toward the executive compensation issue. As I wrote in click here my beginnings in this industry as a flight attendant, union leader, ESOP Steering Committee member and numerous consulting assignments have their roots in distressed negotiations. Variable compensation for employees, executive pay packages and labor advisor fee negotiations have been a part of my professional world for as long as I have participated.

Whether the amounts paid to Stephen Wolf on multiple occasions (Republic, United and US Airways) were excessive or not, labor was aware. Amounts paid to ALPA advisors in the 1990s for a failed deal and ultimately a successful deal exceeded $30 million. Whether excessive or not, labor was aware and made the decision to write those checks. Amounts paid to the ALPA and IAM chosen CEO to lead United in the post ESOP era, Gerry Greenwald, were significant at the time and labor was aware. The ALPA and IAM labor directors were present and engaged in the hiring of Glenn Tilton at United. At the time it was certainly not easy to find a qualified CEO for that troubled airline and under Tilton's leadership it has emerged from a bloody period with eyes on being part of a new airline industry structure.

So as I am asked to return to my heritage, I am constantly reminded of other points in history where executives and labor advisors were paid significant amounts of money and, in most instances, labor was at the center of the conversation. This is not different at AA today or any other carrier where executive compensation has been, and will be, paid. In every negotiation I am aware of, labor had access to all information in the distressed discussions that have transpired during the 2002 – 2007 period. Underscoring this fact is that each the IAM, AFA and ALPA were members of the Unsecured Creditors Committee at United – the very committee that approved the plan of reorganization.

I recognize the issue is an emotional one. I was concerned about the timing of the most recent payouts, but my history/heritage - or whatever it may be - is dotted with points in time where significant money was paid to certain individuals. My lack of "sympathy" regarding the issue is that labor knew about most of the payment schemes. Further, in each case, labor was armed with a battery of advisors.

The terms of the current executive compensation plans are documented in the public domain and should be considered a part of history. The future can be shaped, history cannot. It is over. It is time to move on. This issue is not confined to the airline industry. The last 8 years have been an ugly period in American business. There have been many casualties. My assumption is that the next time around, labor will be more aware and thus will be smarter on the issue. So will management.

I grow weary of emotional rhetoric. I have referred to the exec comp issue as a “one trick pony”. My words on the issue are in the public domain. I am more concerned about the competitive positioning of the US industry and its place in the global sphere, not what a CEO makes in Ft. Worth, Atlanta, Chicago or Minneapolis. If the same amount of energy was spent putting forth new ideas to replace the outdated and outmoded ways of doing business in the labor negotiations arena, I might have a different view.

Labor is not a victim. What I am hearing is that management cannot lead, cannot innovate, cannot implement. Labor has a seat. Where there is a seat, there is an opportunity. Just like the Democrats steal a page out of the Republican playbook from time to time, and vice versa, why doesn’t labor take a page out of management’s playbook and negotiate at risk compensation that has the possibility of providing income when the business cycle and the negotiating cycle do not line up. And this happens in most cases.

There has to be a better way. Ask Lee Moak. To others, stop bitchin’ and start doin’. And if that means burn the furniture, then burn the furniture as employees at other carriers in the industry will benefit from your arson. Otherwise, plenty of opportunity exists to make the world better and more secure for your members.

Tuesday
Oct162007

“I hear the train a "C"omin'”

As earnings season kicks off for the third quarter, Delta announces great results click here and its CEO talks about consolidation click here This, is what the major newswires and bloggers picked up -- not that Delta’s earnings exceeded the Street’s expectations. The exception to these stories is Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News writing in his blog about the cleansing of bankruptcy which puts a different, but fair, perspective on the company’s performance click here.

One – no the best question of the day -- came from a significant trader in the airline debt world was: Will the news of Delta being part of consolidation considerations be bad for Delta CEO Richard Anderson? My immediate response was no, Anderson’s public comments have never shut the door on anything other than to make Delta the best it can be in his view and his board’s view.

So now that earnings season is underway, I just wonder how many times the “C” word will be used? We know that UAL has painted a target on its back but will others discuss the “C” word in their comments to the analysts? This, on top of an expected Delta announcement with alliance partners Air France and KLM click here, and today’s announcement click here, makes clear that the management team in Atlanta is not sitting still as it undertakes its transatlantic strategy.

Lots has been written about “unlocking value” by spinning off subsidiaries that are perceived by the market as to not being reflected in the current equity prices of US carriers. $86 oil points to a potentially mean and long cold winter for this industry. Therefore, expect the discussion of the “C” word to be included in this quarter's earnings’ overview. Moreover-- and this is true for each management and labor --remember tomorrow for this industry is about “capital creation” and not “capital recycling” or as some of my smart friends might say “capital destruction”. Or die.

The unfortunate visionary that is being left out of today’s (10/16/07) talk of consolidation is the CEO of US Airways, Doug Parker – but the earnings announcement is days away. He gave us a blueprint of how consolidation is good for the industry and individual companies in his bid for Delta. He openly talked – as to this writer’s take – on the benefits of reducing fixed costs while still maintaining access to the US air transportation system for air travel consumers in markets large and small. [I sure hope the US government reads and thinks about this statement]

What is unfortunate for Mr. Parker click here is the parochial interest of labor in the “C” word discussion. Certainly there is more to come on the US Airways situation in this blog -- but to stand in the way of market development for labor is a major mistake. It is global, it is real, it is now. So if labor thinks they are sitting in Folsom Prison and hoping that they’d moved it on a little farther down the line—stand ready.

“It's rolling round the bend"