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© 2007-11, William Swelbar.

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Meanderings on US Open Golf and the US Airline Industry

I started writing this on Thursday as the 109th US Open golf championship got underway on the vaunted Black Course at Bethpage State Park on New York’s Long Island. At 10:17am on Day 1, play was suspended due to heavy rains that added to the overnight rain resulting in standing water on numerous parts of the course.

As the tournament played out, the weather - and what side of the draw you were on - was as much the story as the winner. For golf fans, the US Open annually represents a most stern test designed by the United States Golf Association to identify the world’s best player.

The US Open is as much a test of mental strength as it is physical skill. There is not one player that would enjoy being subjected to US Open conditions week in and week out. Well, maybe one, and I am not sure he enjoyed this year’s version either.

It seems as if the US airline industry has been playing under this year’s US Open conditions every week since October 2000. But the airline industry does not get play suspended when conditions are less than ideal. Rather, the industry has been forced to adapt to one economic and geopolitical event after another. And there is no end in sight.

There have been a number of good stories over the past few weeks that have looked at individual carrier’s fates. During that time, I have been on a speaking tour where it is clear that, whatever the audience, the question of airlines’ survival is top of mind.

And congratulations to Lucas Glover on winning his first golf major.

Meanwhile, I have just completed updating the 2008 analysis in the MIT Airline Data Project that puts a klieg light into the cost side of the US airline world. At the same time, I got a glimpse of the new revenue report from the Air Transport Association and together, the picture for the industry is pretty ugly.

The ATA report reminds me of the impossible lie David Duval encountered Monday morning on his first shot after Sunday’s suspension due to darkness that led to an undeserved triple bogey.

While the US airline industry has endured much bad luck over the past eight years, it, like Duval, has continued to persevere and take advantage of what the course offers. But in an Open, it is next to impossible to win after making such a score on an individual hole. Fight as he did, Duval ultimately finished two shots out of what would have been a most unlikely – and welcome - win. The same just may be true for some carriers out there that may be near the point where one more misstep – or one more bad bounce - will eliminate any chance of competing as well.

For long-time readers, you know I love the game of golf because of what it exemplifies and what it represents. You can find me glued to a television during any of the season’s four majors. The sadistic side of me appreciates the course set up of US Open’s as it challenges the world’s best players in ways that weekly tour stops rarely inflict.

But you always know that it is only a few days each year that golfers face this brutal test. The US airline industry has endured the unthinkable since late 2000. With rare exception, there is not one year that can be described as a whole, but rather a tale of two halves. Even the year 2000 was that way when the first half had all stars aligned and the second half was the beginning of a revenue decline that still continues.

As fuel marched from $90 per barrel in early 2008 to $147 on July 11, unit revenues were on the rise. Ancillary fees became a part the industry vernacular. Then in late summer of that year, as fuel prices dropped nearly as fast as they rose, unit revenues began to freefall. And they continue.

The Airline Data Project demonstrates that passenger revenue for the airlines covered increased $3.8 billion in 2008 while fuel expenses increased some $11 billion. Year-to-date passenger revenue in 2009 is down some 20 percent thus far, while capacity has dropped 8 percent.

Generally, I care a hell of a lot less about the relationship of traffic to capacity as I do about the relationship of revenue to capacity. The trends defy the usual rule of thumb that a drop in capacity leads to pricing traction. That simply is not happening. And that tells me that this industry should be even smaller than it now is.

The Airline Data Project also shows that legacy carrier capacity is now roughly equivalent to what it was in 1997. But the combined capacity of legacy carriers and “low cost” carriers is 15 percent larger than it was in 1997, and that excludes the affiliated regional carriers like Republic, SkyWest, Pinnacle et al and includes Alaska, Hawaiian and Midwest Airlines. So the industry is not smaller – it is bigger. The legacy carriers simply have a smaller slice of the pie.

The MIT data will show that the legacy carriers spent more than $20 billion in 2008 on their contracts with regional partners – an expense largely contained in transport-related expenses. American spends the least on regional flying, while Delta/Northwest spends double plus 20 percent more than number two on the list -- United. What does this tell me? We have to cut back. We have to cut back!

At least the US Open sets strict boundaries on how many players qualify for a national championship. The same is not true for the US airline industry. As I say often, if you have a dollar, have an aircraft, and find an airport with security, you too can have an airline. There’s a lesson in that data. It’s time for limits on entry unless and until there is real change to the industry’s business model and structure. I am no protectionist, but anyone who challenges – or even suggests– that a lack of completion exists in the US airline industry fails to acknowledge the bottom line.

Unlike the US Open, the open market in the US airline industry does not identify the best. Rather it just keeps expanding the field until someone less than the best is crowned the best because they are younger - if only on a quarterly basis based on our fixation with results. Labor leaders should look at seniority as the only real weapon the upstarts have to whipsaw you. Management must make the best business case it can to stop the madness of continually having to average down labor costs as the only controllable means to manage overall costs.

The US airline industry, like the US Open, should be an examination of competition between the best. Instead it is about luck – and timing. It is about playing the “river.” I don’t know which airlines will survive. But I do care about the integrity of the field – something that is fundamental to the rules of golf. Like in the US Open, the field should be the best. Many are fit but few can deliver the full range of consumer service that established airlines offer.

Lucas Glover, David Duval, Ross Fisher and Soren Hansen earned finishes that may get them named to a Ryder Cup team. In that event, they’ll be required to play team events like 4-ball and Foursomes.

Too bad that, in the US, too many politicians view team events like consolidation and alliances as a threat to competition and the sure path to domination. Who has won the majority of the last two decades Ryder Cup matches? Not the US. And the same will be true of survivors in the global airline industry if we do not change our thinking about global competition.