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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
Jan032012

How the Weeks Ahead Will Shape AMR In The Years To Come

The biggest story in the U.S. airline industry right now is, of course, American Airlines’ parent company seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. After a flurry of initial filings and some alterations at American Eagle, there hasn’t been a lot of movement from AMR.

The lack of news from it or the bankruptcy court probably has a lot of people - union leaders, media, employees, communities – wondering what is taking so long. That’s the first key to understanding this airline bankruptcy is different and why other airlines such as United, Delta and Southwest as well as the federal government and even regional carriers are keenly watching and waiting.

Unlike all the other airlines that have gone through Chapter 11, American doesn’t have a Debtor In Possession (DIP) lender breathing down its neck. That’s because the AMR board of directors made a strategic decision to file for bankruptcy with more than $4 billion in cash in the bank. That’s more cash than any airline that’s ever entered bankruptcy has had on hand and one of the highest totals in U.S. corporate history.

That gives AMR and American some flexibility to run its business during the initial period of exclusivity, protect its interests and, most importantly, time to ensure that its ultimate plan of reorganization (POR) is the very best it can be. While time is still of the essence to put forth a POR, it gives the debtor (AMR), time to look carefully at its network (mainline and regional partner), its labor contracts, its fleet and then make unhurried and potentially dramatic changes.

When United filed in December 2002, the DIP lenders and creditors demanded interim labor deals within 30 days, some even hammered out on Christmas Day. Delta and the Old US Airways faced similar pressures. As much as is possible in the bankruptcy process, American controls its own fate. It needs to use the time it has to get this right and make sure its labor costs and operations are where they need to be when it emerges. If it doesn’t, I don’t believe American in its current form gets a second chance.

A quick aside: This is usually when AA employees harrumph they gave millions in concessions to management in 2003 and that should balance what other airlines gained in bankruptcy court. I have the greatest respect for what American’s unionized employees tried to do back then, but it was apparent by 2006 those concessions weren’t enough. United, US Airways and Delta’s labor cost competitive advantage continues to pound American. The Airline Data Project (ADP) numbers show American’s employees get paid more, work less and have a range of benefits that are distant memories for peers at other airlines. That’s not an accusation; it’s simply the way the industry restructuring unfolded.

It’s also why all the other airlines, including venerated low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines, are nervously waiting to see what American looks like when it emerges from restructuring.  Following AMR’s Chapter 11 filing, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly posted an open letter to employees saying American, and the other major carries that went bankrupt, did so because of “high costs” and that “Great Customer Service cannot overcome high costs.”

I view Kelly’s letter as an important glimpse into what became American’s inevitable bankruptcy filing and what it means for the rest of the industry.

Kelly said he expected American to become leaner and warned, “If they do emerge from bankruptcy, as I believe they will, they will join the New United, New Delta, and New US Airways as giant, lower-cost airlines. They are, collectively, much more formidable competition than their predecessors. The term “Legacy Carrier” no longer will apply.”

In what had to be a stunning admission to most Southwest employees, Kelly also said, “We currently do not have a sufficient cost advantage to stimulate the market because our fares are much closer to our New Airline competitors.”  In effect, this is what I’ve been saying for years: the “Southwest Effect” is dying, if not dead.

If that’s the feeling in the executive suite at the most consistently profitable airline in aviation history, then I can only imagine how raw nerves must be at Delta, United and US Airways.

American’s filing is the airline industry’s version of “Freaky Friday” with role reversals that have long-term implications. Delta’s pilots are next up in negotiations and, like American did for the last several years, management will essentially be negotiating against itself. Remember, it was just within the last year plus that a significant number of Delta’s pilots began earning more than their colleagues at American… and that was with an infinitely more flexible scope clause that permits the higher pay at the mainline. Delta will be left negotiating improvements to the highest cost pilot contract in the industry knowing American will attempt to emerge from Chapter 11 with significantly improved scope and much lower costs. That’s essentially what American faced from Delta in 2007.

The recent NMB rulings upholding election results afford Delta only a temporary reprieve from unionization efforts. I can all but guarantee Delta will face additional organization campaigns, forcing it to, once again, spend millions to counter labor representation drives with no assurance it won’t be saddled with costly union contracts.

At the new United, the world’s largest airline might be facing world-class headaches. Integrating Continental pilots into the system is already shaping up to be a long, contentious fight, especially as many of Continental crew currently enjoy better pay rates than United peers. Continental flight attendants make considerably more per hour than their United counterparts. Those facts should not only make United’s future negotiations lively, but also mean it will likely have higher costs than a correctly restructured American.

It’s not just big brother that will garner all the scrutiny either. Eagle has already shed leases and announced potential layoffs. When AMR exits restructuring, the once-for-sale Eagle could look completely different and potentially pose real competition to SkyWest, Republic and the apparently spiraling-toward-Chapter-11 itself, Pinnacle Airlines. With American’s fleet purchase plans and a revamped Eagle, momentous change is potentially in the offing for regional airlines as well. I’ll have more on that at a later date.

As I outlined in my last post, American’s payroll is proportionately out of whack compared to its major competitors. A quick glance at the ADP numbers shows every carrier that’s gone into bankruptcy since 2002 has seen a double-digit reduction in workforce within one year of filing. That doesn’t include the nearly 25,000 jobs Delta shed in the four years prior to going into bankruptcy. Those statistics are small comfort to the employees at American who will likely lose jobs, but there is no disguising the pain this type of necessary transformation causes.

Layoffs will get the bulk of the media and general public’s attention, obscuring changes – scope, productivity, benefits – that will have more far-reaching effects. An American that comes out of Chapter 11 with significant changes in those areas potentially sends tsunami-sized ripples through the industry – particularly the flying within the U.S. domestic industry.

Yet the federal government, industry observers and, likely, the media, will spend considerably more time and hand-wringing on another hot button issue: pensions.

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) Director Josh Gotbaum has been very vocal about what he thinks AMR should do with its industry-leading pension plans. In short, he doesn’t want them to become PBGC’s problem. Gotbaum is also very quick to point out the additional burden AMR’s pensions could add to the $26 billion deficit the PBGC currently faces.

A couple of things strike me about the pension issue. Gotbaum has questioned American’s commitment to employees, which I find a bit wrongheaded since the airline spent eight years in a good faith effort to keep its pension obligations off the PBGC rolls. 

Gotbaum said American Airlines employees could lose one billion dollars in pension benefits if the airline terminates plans. That’s a bit misleading as all of the carrier’s employee pension plans are not created equally.

Like employees at the other bankrupt airlines, the majority of employees at American will most probably get their pension benefits in full. In 2012, the maximum PBGC payout is going to be more than $55,000 for those who retire at age 65. That’s more currently than the average American ground worker and flight attendant makes. The pensions really at risk will be those of the people who can most afford it – management and pilots. The bottom line is if American terminates its plans, the PBGC will do what it was designed to do: protect the investments of the working class.

AMR’s bankruptcy process will likely dominate the airline industry’s financial and economic headlines in 2012. What happens in the next few weeks and months as the new American (and Eagle) takes shape, though, will be felt by employees, competitors and taxpayers for years to come.

More to come.

 

Monday
Sep272010

Southwest Puts Its Money to Work – Announces Intention to Buy AirTran

In March of this year, I wrote a blog titled:   Dear Southwest: Grab Your Bag of Fiction; It’s On.  This widely-read piece was about Southwest’s role in the proposed US Airways – Delta slot swap transaction. “If Southwest wants to gain entry to the few remaining slot controlled airports,” I wrote at the time, “Then it should make the incumbents an offer – one that provides the slot holder a return on that carrier’s prior investment.”

Well today, Southwest announced an investment – a $1.4 billion investment – in purchasing AirTran Airways, lock, stock and landing slots.  And that is what I was pining for in that post.  That is, I believe Southwest should pay, not get something for free or at some rock bottom price for assets the incumbents paid dearly for over the years. With AirTran come slots at New York’s LaGuardia and Washington’s Reagan National Airports.  Along with slots, Southwest gains meaningful entry into the one remaining legacy carrier hub where it offers no service – Atlanta.  It also gains entry into Charlotte, a US Airways hub.

Should Delta at Atlanta and US Airways at Charlotte be concerned with this transaction?  No, and there are a number of reasons why not.  First and foremost, the network carriers already compete with the low cost sector for nearly 85 percent of their domestic revenues.  Whereas AirTran serves 37 markets that Southwest does not serve, some of them smaller, there will be some new competition for passengers in those markets.  But for the most part, those cities already enjoy the low fares delivered via AirTran’s initial entry.  A second consideration is that while Delta and US Airways depend on local traffic at Atlanta and Charlotte, each are major connecting complexes and are not solely reliant on originating passengers.

If you ask me, the losers in this announcement are not the network carriers but rather Frontier and Spirit.  jetBlue will survive just fine.  But Frontier is now confined to one [maybe two] traffic base for all intents and purposes.  And that makes them vulnerable.  As for Spirit, which just announced its intentions to launch a $300 million Initial Public Offering, it is one thing to have a highly fragmented market competing inside their network.  It is a totally different animal to have Southwest and AirTran focused on carrying traffic to the Caribbean. The investment thesis necessary to market the IPO just got tougher.

Southwest Needs A New Reference

In its press release Southwest said: “Based on an economic analysis by Campbell-Hill Aviation Group, LLP*, Southwest Airlines’ more expansive low-fare service at Atlanta, alone, has the potential to stimulate over two million new passengers and over $200 million in consumer savings, annually. These savings would be created from the new low-fare competition that Southwest Airlines would be able to provide as a result of the acquisition, expanding the well-known “Southwest Effect’” of reducing fares and stimulating new passenger traffic wherever it flies.”

So where is the “Southwest Effect” in Akron-Canton?  AirTran serves the market and Southwest serves Cleveland up the road.  There should be significant stimulation in that market area? And in Dayton and Columbus, OH?  Perhaps Southwest is looking far back to a 1993 study.  Ding: the “Southwest Effect” as we knew it is dead.  The truth is today’s stimulation is largely diversion from another market or another carrier.  Fares may still be reduced in certain AirTran markets where the network carriers rely mostly on regional jets, but some markets will more than likely just recapture certain traffic from an airport in the catchment area that offered better fares to a unique geography.

Labor Issues

Some have questioned whether the acquisition will lead to labor troubles down the road. But one thing is for sure: If I was an AirTran employee the first words out of my mouth upon hearing the news would be:  “Ding, cha-ching!”  Like employees at United who are looking forward to enjoying the feel of a new culture, one can be sure that the AirTran employees feel much the same.  For them it is an opportunity to join one of the most admired and beloved companies, not just in the airline industry, but in the entire country

There will need to be union representation elections as a result of the merger as pilots and flight attendants are represented by different unions at each airline.  But it’s hard to imagine any vote going the way of the AirTran unions.  The main difficulty then becomes seniority list integration.  Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told investors that “equitable and fair” will rule the integration process.  That sounds like the words in the Allegheny-Mohawk Labor Protective Provisions and should be music to the ears of AirTran employees.  The question is whether each union will have it’s own definition of what is equitable and fair.  That was the case in Southwest’s most recent acquisition attempt, when the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association could not find a formula to integrate Frontier Airlines pilots – and the deal failed.

The integration process has evolved over the years since the Allegheny-Mohawk Labor Protective Provisions were enacted. Over that time, there have been more failures than successes in adopting fairness and equity. But it is incumbent for Southwest labor and management leadership to ensure that career expectations are met for all employees. Simply put, this concept means that the relative seniority in a combined list is not significantly different for any respective employee than it would be in their respective entity today.

Concluding Thoughts

Southwest will celebrate its 40th birthday next year. It is a mature and maturing carrier operating in a mature domestic environment where it is no longer THE innovator. What I find most interesting in Southwest’s potential bid for AirTran is that the carrier is being forced to act just like the network legacy carriers in seeking a consolidation scenario that would lead to an improved revenue line systemwide.

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  Southwest put its money where its route system was weakest and made a very smart acquisition -- one that recognizes that two carriers will accomplish more together than either carrier could on its own.  The two carriers offer a combined network with minimal overlap that ensures that new revenue synergies will be generated.  With the deal there also will be new international opportunities derived for Southwest’s loyal passenger base.  Multiple fleet types are not an issue as the smaller airframe will allow Southwest to serve some smaller communities.

But I can’t wait to hear the arguments Southwest uses in Washington to gain regulatory approval, particularly as it will be hard pressed to make the argument that acquiring AirTran would further lower airfares in the US domestic marketplace.  After all, Southwest is not the only airline offering low fares, no matter what its boosters in Washington may think.

To make its case, the little ol’ Texas carrier that flies only to secondary markets will probably use the very same arguments to gain approval as did Delta/Northwest and United/Continental used.  Interesting indeed.   

Monday
May102010

The NMB Finally Issues Its Representation Rule: What’s Next For The US Airline Industry?

Today, the National Mediation Board issued a new rule governing union organizing that is probably the most controversial thing this government panel has ever done.

So, after sifting through 103 pages of legal citations falsely hoping that the rule as proposed in December would have been changed to address at least some of the opposition’s concerns, I now realize the truth: The NMB has become a political body.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a registered Democrat so this not a rant against all things Obama. But there are places politics shouldn’t figure so heavily and the NMB should be one of them.

The new representation rule comes as Delta and US Airways are suing the government over its proposed solution to the slot swap between the two carriers; and just a week or so since implementation of that visionary tarmac rule.  So yes, I am in a bit of a cynical if not downright snarky mood today.

In the final rule filed in the Federal Register, the National Mediation Board summarized:  “As part of its ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act, the National Mediation Board (NMB or Board) is amending its Railway Labor Act rules to provide that, in representation disputes, a majority of valid ballots cast will determine the craft or class representative. This change to its election procedures will provide a more reliable measure/indicator of employee sentiment in representation disputes and provide employees with clear choices in representation matters.”

In its proposed rule, the NMB is seeking to change the election process by which unions organize workers in the railway and airline industries. The new rule that will change 75 years of practice, would for the first time determine the outcome of union representation elections in the airline and railroad industries based on a majority of those who vote rather than current practice, where a majority of all eligible voters must support joining a union.

It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to read between the lines. The NMB is doing organized labor a big favor with this rule. So it is laughable to me that the Board describes the change as part of its “ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act.”  Funny, because the overarching statutory goal of the RLA is to minimize the disruption on interstate commerce stemming from labor-management disputes.  And this rule would likely do just the opposite, with unintended consequences, by increasing the likelihood of union activities that could yet be another destabilizing force in an industry that needs anything but -- a destabilizer that comes just as the industry tries to consolidate in order to stabilize.

The first 81 pages of the document were a little dry.  But starting on page 81 the dissenting opinion of NMB Chairman (and sole Republican member) Elizabeth Dougherty began: “I dissent from the rule published today for the following reasons: (1) the timing and process surrounding this rule change harm the agency and suggest the issue has been prejudged; (2) the Majority has not articulated a rational basis for its action; (3) the Majority’s failure to amend its decertification and run-off procedures in light of its voting rule change reveals a bias in favor of representation and is fundamentally unfair; and (4) the Majority’s inclusion of a write-in option on the yes/no ballot was not contemplated by the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and violates the notice-and-comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).”

Ouch.  But no matter. The Final Rule will become effective on June 10, 2010, unless opponents use the courts to stop it.

Let the Lawsuit Begin

The industry, speaking from the Air Transport Association platform said:  "It is quite clear to us that the NMB was determined to proceed despite the proposed rule's substantive and procedural flaws, leaving us no choice but to seek judicial review." 

The unions, of course, took a different tack. The AFA-CWA, a big winner here as it seeks for the third time to organize flight attendants at Delta, made clear where it stood on any legal challenge. "We applaud the NMB for taking this historic and courageous step to bring democracy to union elections. By allowing workers to have a voice in these elections, whether it be yes or no [author adds: or by write in], will only bring benefits to all parties. We look to airline management and their third party supporters to respect their employees' voices and the concept that guides our country every day, and not to bog down this significant achievement in legal appeals."

Having now devoted four blog postings to this subject, I may qualify as one of those third party supporters. Not because I’m carrying water for airline management, but because I think this rule stinks just like the tarmac rule and decision by this administration on the slot swap.  The only hope I have with this rule is that the incumbent unions start to be smarter in their negotiation strategies.

Included in a statement by AFA-CWA International President Patricia Friend’s statement lauding the cram down rule is her insistence that job security is a union function.  What is job security in today’s world?  Is it contract language?  Or is it a strong company?  When I think of pilot scope language that is designed and negotiated for the sole purpose of protecting jobs I see 14,000 mainline pilot jobs lost and nearly 800 narrowbody aircraft taken out of service because the economics (largely unproductive labor) could not translate into profitable flying.  But that unproductive labor paid union dues – for awhile.

I have a lot of union experience.  I worked as a local union president.  I have experience as an advisor to labor in distressed negotiations.  I serve in a union-appointed Board of Directors position at Hawaiian Airlines. While I know there is strong flight attendant union leadership at Hawaiian, the same cannot be said around the industry and I note in particular American and United and US Airways.

From what I can see, airline unions are all about yesterday.  Bankruptcy did not fix the labor problems at airlines or the ability of many airlines to manage their costs with still-bloated income statements.  But still the unions want to look back, back when labor costs were even higher and productivity was at an all-time low.  If productivity was given in the restructuring negotiations, union-represented employees would be earning more today.  But I digress.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that unions are all bad.  Good leadership on the union side and a willing management can make deals.  Look at the most unionized carrier in the US industry – Southwest – which thanks in part to a strong relationship with its unions has managed to pay well and do well in the marketplace by building a great corporate culture and making productivity and customer service a priority.

But unenlightened and parochial thinking pervades the leadership ranks of many other airline unions.  The industry will continue to face change and challenges. Unions that adapt and are able to let go of the past will flourish.  Unions that cannot adapt to the new direction of the global airline industry will struggle to deliver for their members. 

And Why Are We Changing This Rule?

It is pretty simple and transparent.  Neither the AFA-CWA nor the IAMAW believes that they have the votes necessary to win an election in their efforts to organize the combined work forces from the merger of Delta and Northwest.  So labor prompted a friendly administration to change the union representation process to help them pick up these coveted new members – particularly on the Delta side where the flight attendants and maintenance workers have never been union.  Imagine how happy those former Delta employees must/will be?

Or, as the union leaders have clearly calculated, if you fail to win hearts and minds at the ballot box (as they have not once but twice) then change the rules. And despite an outcry and outpouring from the industry about the rule as first proposed by the NMB, the Board made no changes to address the concerns expressed by opponents. Instead the rules were relaxed even more to the advantage of unionization. Decrease the barriers to entry (union representation) and leave the barriers to exit high (no direct union decertification procedure).  So off we go to court.

As I have written before, it is not so much the rule change as the way the "politically neutral" NMB went about it.  With the tarmac rule it is the arbitrary nature of the three hours.  With the slot swap deal it is denying the incumbent carriers the right to sell what they invested in over the years and determine an adequate return on that asset.

I understand that most things governmental are heavily political.  But politics have had too much influence over this industry, and not for the benefit of the airlines or the hundreds of thousands of workers they employ.

More to come.

Wednesday
Mar312010

Pondering American and jetBlue: Most Interesting

Coming on the heels of last week's post about Southwest and being jilted by Delta and US Airways in their reworked slot exchange, this morning we get an announcement that American and jetBlue are entering into a new commercial arrangement at key east coast cities.  I will probably write later on the topic but wanted to jot a few things down before I leave for meetings.

  • Each SkyTeam and STAR have enhanced their positions in the New York metro market in recent months.  Given the importance of New York and the key east coast cities of New York and Boston, American enhances its presence as well as that of oneworld with this announcement. 
  • jetBlue has a relationship with Aer Lingus.  Lufthansa invested in jetBlue.  Now jetBlue enters into a commercial relationship with American whereby customers of each airline can enjoy interline capabilities with the other at each Boston Logan and New York JFK on non-overlapping routes.
  • Is jetBlue becoming the Alaska Airlines of the east coast?  Keeping itself most relevant in its home market by code sharing with many airlines? 
  • American intends to transfer eight slot pairs at Ronald Reagan National Airport and one slot pair at White Plains N.Y. to jetBlue.  Three more than jetBlue would receive in the DL-US proposed transaction.  So for jetBlue, will it be 5, 8 or 13 slot pairs at Ronald Reagan National Airport? 
  • jetBlue intends to transfer 12 slot pairs at JFK to American.
  • This slot transfer business is getting very interesting.
  • It has been a bad week for Southwest.  Between their cry of being "left out" of the US - DL slot swap; talk of being jilted by WestJet; and now American teaming with jetBlue .......

I wonder what Southwest must be thinking?

 

Wednesday
Mar242010

Dear Southwest: Grab Your Bag of Fiction; It’s On

On Tuesday morning a headline in The Washington Post read “Southwest Airlines Feeling Squeezed Out at National Airport”.  Terry Maxon wrote on The Dallas Morning News blog “Delta, US Airways Maneuver Around Southwest Airlines.”  The headline in Business Week read “Delta, US Airways Sweeten NYC-Washington Plan by Boosting Small Rivals.

As I prepared to write this piece, I began by reviewing the various comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) by the air carriers during the comment period set forth following its tentative decision on the proposed Delta Air Lines – US Airways slot swap deal.  When I got to Southwest’s, I thought I was in a time warp.  A time warp whereby many of the same arguments used in Southwest’s fight to repeal the Wright Amendment were being dusted off and employed again.  Another opportune time for poor, little Southwest Airlines to get something on the cheap from the carriers that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their respective infrastructures over the past decades.  But here’s the thing:  Southwest is neither poor nor little.

Background

All of these stories of course pertain to a repackaging of the proposed Delta-US Airways slot swap first announced in August 2009.  In the initial deal made between Delta and US Airways, US Airways would receive 42 slot pairs from Delta Air Lines at Washington’s Reagan National Airport and a route authority to Sao Paulo and Tokyo Narita in exchange for 140 slot pairs at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. 

In February 2010, the DOT tentatively approved the deal between Delta and US Airways. The caveat was each carrier had to sell 14 National and 20 LaGuardia slot pairs to U.S. or Canadian carriers that have less than 5% of the total slot holdings at the respective airports. This stipulation materially impacted the value of the deal, so US Airways and Delta went back to the drawing board.

Late Monday, the two airlines announced a restructured proposal.  Only this time, they included provisions providing slots to competing carriers.  Delta concluded deals with WestJet, AirTran and Spirit to transfer up to five slot pairs each at New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA).  US Airways will transfer up to five slot pairs to JetBlue at Washington Reagan (DCA).  The inclusion of WestJet, AirTran, Spirit and jetBlue certainly satisfies the DOT’s requirement that divested slot pairs be provided to a U.S. or Canadian carrier with less than a 5 percent share.

Let’s Get Some Southwest Non-fiction on the Table

In its submission, Southwest complains that at LGA, "instead of an airport balanced among three airlines of roughly equal size, the slot swap would catapult Delta into a dominant position more than twice the size of the nearest competitor."  But Southwest does not ever mention anything pertaining to its size within the U.S. domestic market. In 2008 there were only 6 airport markets with more domestic origin and destination (O&D) traffic than LGA.  Southwest is the largest carrier in three of those six markets.  At the 48 domestic airports where Southwest is the largest carrier of O&D traffic, it is at least twice the size of the next largest carrier in 27.

At Dallas Love Field, Southwest controls 94.3 percent of O&D traffic and the second largest carrier has 2.2 percent.  At Houston Hobby Airport, Southwest controls 86.2 percent of O&D traffic versus 5.2 for the nearest competitor.  At Chicago Midway, Southwest has 79.1 percent control while the next largest competitor has 8.8 percent.  At Love Field, Houston Hobby and Chicago Midway the average fares rose at those airports 36.2 percent, 21.8 percent and 29.4 percent respectively between 2005 and 2008.  In each of the 48 airport markets where Southwest is the number one competitor, fares on average increased 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2008. 

Southwest would have us all believe that their presence at an airport is the ultimate discipline on fares and they claim it in every regulatory filing and certainly on every advertisement.  Despite what Southwest likes to say, it is not the same Southwest that sprinkled the “Southwest Effect” on markets in 1992. The claims of low fares stimulating new demand just do not hold today - because everyone offers low fares. 

During the period between 2005 and 2008, wasn’t Southwest enjoying the benefits of a fuel hedging program that provided the carrier with a most significant cost advantage relative to an industry that had largely restructured itself?  I assumed that cost advantage benefit garnered from a fortuitous bet on the price of oil was being passed on to the consumer.  Instead Southwest was raising fares.  In their filing they actually go as far as calculate the cost saving their low fares would bring to each the DCA and LGA markets.  The calculation is performed after including a $25 bag fee on top of the fare of the competition. 

Fiction Fatigue

If Southwest wants to gain entry to the few remaining slot controlled airports, then it should make the incumbents an offer – one that provides the slot holder a return on that carrier’s prior investment.  In a 2006 regulatory filing, Delta described how it took 22 years to build its slot portfolio at LGA.  The Buy-Sell Rule is a mechanism in place permitting such purchase.    

The filing states, “In sum, Delta acquired the right to operate most of the 243 LGA slots it currently operates at LGA through market-based transactions.  Delta acquired them through diligent investment in private market transactions, not by regulatory fiat. Delta has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding its service at LGA because Delta valued the right to expand its service at the airport, believing it would be profitable to make such investments.  Delta’s decisions to acquire slots in market-based transactions and develop its landside infrastructure at LaGuardia over three decades have permitted Delta to grow steadily and to offer greatly expanded services there to meet consumer demand.”

Carriers that purchased slots at the controlled airports did so expecting they would earn a commensurate return on their expended capital.  Of course that would mean average fares would more than compensate the cost of operating at those airports.  The average fare at LGA in 1990 was $150; by 2005 the average fare had fallen to $136; and in 2008 that fare was $159.  A similar trend can be found at Washington National, although fares in 2008 were higher.

Southwest Is Not Special

Southwest’s growth has caused/forced the industry to reduce costs in order to match the fare offerings from it and the so-called low-cost carriers it helped spawn.  Today, however, Legacy carriers with iconic names like American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways are also offering low fares to passengers.  Low fares to air travel consumers in smaller communities that the Southwest operating model ignores.  It is these legacy carriers that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars at slot controlled airports. 

If Southwest wants to play, it should have to write the same type of check.  They won’t because the low fare structure at either of these airports will not produce adequate revenue streams to justify the investment.  Instead Southwest somehow believes it is “entitled” to the slots being divested by US Airways and Delta.

Southwest is no longer the only game in town.  It talks about all the money consumers will save as a result of Southwest’s entry into DCA and LGA, subtracting its entry level fares from average fares plus bag fees for the incumbents. Once Southwest is imbedded, there’s a new “Southwest Effect.” As mentioned above, in markets where Southwest is the largest carrier, fares increase the fastest.

Ted Reed at TheStreet.com wrote “Southwest Blasts Revised Slot Deal.”  In his story, Reed quotes Southwest, "Allowing two of the country's largest airlines to collude on trading assets in a way to reduce competition while dramatically increasing their market dominance at two of the United States' most important airports is, on its face, an alarming prospect that should not be permitted."

Who is the largest US domestic airline?  Southwest.

To me the more alarming prospect is allowing Southwest to get something for free – yet again.  Think Wright Amendment and the undoing of a deal because the market had changed and they needed to find a new way to grow.  Simply you have to pay to play, Southwest.  You have the cash.  Make someone an offer they cannot refuse.  The rules to do so are in place.  I have every confidence that neither LGA nor DCA absolutely needs Southwest.  I am confident that JetBlue, AirTran, Spirit and WestJet can do just fine.

It’s On. 

Tuesday
Nov102009

Is the Proposed NMB Rule Change Wright or Wrong?

I had made up my mind that I was not going to write anything more on National Mediation Board activities, at least until after the scheduled public hearing on December 7 in Washington. Isn’t it interesting that the date for the hearing is synonymous with Pearl Harbor Day?  I digress.

I have heard from many people regarding the two recent NMB pieces I posted on this blog.  Most of the comments have been private and along the lines of:  “How can you oppose something so fundamentally akin to our democracy? “And “How can you possibly be against anything that is so aligned with the Constitution of the United States? “

Negotiation and Compromise Were Wright

As I think about my feelings, I reflect back on the reasons I helped American Airlines a few years back in its campaign against Southwest’s push to repeal the “Wright Amendment.”  After all, Southwest’s CEO Herb Kelleher had made a deal in 1979 (or maybe 1978, or maybe 1977, or maybe earlier)when he agreed to the Wright Amendment’s limitations on Southwest’s flying from Dallas Love Field.  Then, in 2004, for reasons unstated but not hard to figure out, Kelleher wanted to undo that deal and expand his airline’s ability to fly nonstop on new routes from Love to points beyond the eight state limit that had been legislatively imposed. 

The Wright Amendment was negotiated with a purpose and a commercial issue at its core.  The law was largely designed to promote stability in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airline market as a then-fledgling DFW Airport came online.  In my work on the campaign, I was often asked how I could oppose unfettered competition in the Dallas marketplace. My reasoning was simple: I believed repeal would lead to dangerous instability in the airline marketplace, particularly for American at a time when all legacy carriers were on life support.  Southwest's motives were largely intended to take advantage of commercial weakness.   

When I assessed the Dallas market and the potential impact on American if the Wright Amendment was immediately repealed, the tenets of a compromise played themselves out in the analytics. That analysis supported a phased-in repeal that immediately allowed through ticketing for Southwest at Love Field.  It certainly was not my place to suggest that compromise.  That compromise came only after a lot of hand wringing among politicians and senior airline executives alike.  But it assured more stability in the market and will ultimately lead to what Southwest sought:  Come 2014, it will be "free" to fly to any and all domestic points from its home base in Dallas.

A Cram-Down Would be Wrong

Based on what we know today, the National Mediation Board through its Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) seems to leave very little room for negotiation or even compromise as to how representation elections should take place.  This, despite concerns raised from not only management interests but from other unions with interests as well.  Interesting, and disturbing, behavior for a quasi-government agency with the mandate to reach agreements with parties rather than provoke, and perpetuate, actions that lead to disruption and delay, don’t you think?  

As I wrote in my last blog, as drafted the NPRM smacks of politics, disregard for prior practice and arrogance in its refusal to address key subjects in the labor arena, including the ability of employees to decertify a union and a union’s right to demand the personal contact information of employees they hope to organize known as an Excelsior list.

Let me be clear here:  I have no issue with the rule change per se.   But I have major problems with how it is being done.  In a real world application of NMB mediation cases, doesn’t the Board provide one or both parties “political cover” in reaching an agreement that might otherwise be politically unpalatable? That sure as hell is not the case here. 

The Wright Amendment was a politically and commercially-charged issue between two airlines and two cities that also had national implications because airline activities so often do. Changing the union organizing process under the Railway Labor Act has implications beyond airlines and airline unions as well. I believe that by changing the rule, the NMB will be creating more instability on top of an already unstable airline marketplace.  And that has national implications. How many industries have interdependencies on the airline and railroad industries?  A stimulus question indeed.

The truth is that some at the NMB are looking to do nothing more than change a rule that would initially make it easier for unions to organize a largely non-union airline (Delta) and add/retain thousands of dues-paying workers to union ranks. But the ramifications have much longer-term implications that very clearly favor one side (union supporters) over the other (those who oppose unionization).  That’s one upshot of a draft rule that ignores rail and airline employees’ right to decertify a union or provide their personal contact information to union organizers.

It sounds to me like either the NMB and its proposed rulemaking should be put on ice, or a Presidential Emergency Board be convened in order to make sure that all input be considered.  At least in a PEB, history suggests that neither party will be totally happy. Inside baseball tells us that means a good deal has been reached.

In this case, like Wright, compromise would be right but only after all sides have had their say and issues heard and considered. Because otherwise, something tells me that the outcome will be wrong.

More to come, for sure.

Tuesday
Oct272009

Swelbar on Airlines: Just Thinkin’; Just Sayin’

Southwest Airlines’ Media Day – All “Green”, All of the Time

I attended Southwest Airlines’ Media Day last week.  Prior to this, I had not witnessed a “Southwest Show” personally, other than occasional Congressional testimony.  My takeaways are many, but the main one was the pride the management and the employees have in their company.  That point resonated with me in a big way. 

The theme of the day was INNOVATION.   The morning was painted “green” and focused on the investments Southwest is making in aircraft interiors, engine washing, blended winglets and other programs that have an environmentally friendly end game.  Then the program moved on to describe how Southwest is investing in new air traffic technologies as they come available - putting their own money where their mouth is.  Of course, savings in flying time saves fuel, which contributes to helping the environment.  Southwest presented itself as an industry leader in promoting this agenda.   

The afternoon began with Southwest announcing its 68th destination, a “green” field airport serving Panama City, FL.  The innovation here was a unique financial arrangement made with St. Joe, a company that owns hundreds of thousands of acres in Northwest Florida, to backstop any losses up to agreed amounts.  Under the terms of the deal Southwest is assured of at least breaking even during the first three years of the service.   There is an environmental angle to this story as well as the new airport is among the very first LEED rated, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, terminal buildings in existence.

While it was grey outside, the Southwest message was innovating with green technologies.  I could only think how other airlines would be green with envy that Southwest is planning and investing in tomorrow while so many carriers are busy simply try to stay alive so that there is a tomorrow.

 

Another Thought on That Agreement between Southwest and St. Joe

One of the unique aspects of the deal between Southwest and St. Joe is an agreement that Southwest will not start air service within 80 miles of the new airport during the term of the agreement.  Should Southwest launch service at an airport that is between 80 miles and 120 miles away from Panama City, the terms of the agreement can be renegotiated.

I think the 80/120 mile bands accurately define the primary and secondary catchment areas around individual airports.  Service at one location impacts service at another when airports are located within a reasonable driving distance.  If one airport in a catchment area has lower fares, then it may prove to be the airport of choice for more air travelers. If a passenger chooses the lower fare rather than the closer airport, then that passenger is diversion within a region.  New demand is not created; rather a region’s demand is being accommodated by another airport with attributes the customer finds more appealing.

Herein lies the rub:  How many airports do we really need?  By my count, there are 451 airports receiving commercial air service.  100 of these accounts for 81 percent of all commercial air service seats.  200 of these (44 percent of the total) comprise 97 percent of all domestic origin and destination traffic.

Stated another way, should 56 percent of the airports – those that account for only 3 percent of US domestic traffic -- really be competing for funds that are needed at more congested airports?  The more congested airports lie in the nation’s population centers.  This is where air service providers need to be, not in Hays, KS or Joplin, MO or other points on Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar’s map.

 

oneWorld and Immunity

Where to start?  I just love it when regulatory authorities point to individual nonstop routes when evaluating commercial combinations ignoring the network architecture that describes the airline industry in 2009 versus 1969.  They cite fears about consumers being gouged.  But when exactly in the past 30+years has the airline consumer really been gouged?  

For the first nine months of 2009, passenger revenue on transatlantic routes for US carriers is down nearly 24 percent.  On those routes, passenger yield, or the amount of revenue the air travel customer pays per mile, is down 20.5 percent.  According to the Air Transport Association, to date, US carriers are earning 10.77 cents per mile -- only modestly more than the 10.50 cents the US carriers earned per mile in 1997.  And that’s not adjusting for inflation.  No competition?

Now Brussels is apparently stating concerns that American Airlines and British Airways, with their market power at London Heathrow, would raise first and business class fares if granted immunity to operate a Joint Business Agreement.  Well, I sure as hell hope that is the case because, without some increases in the price of premium travel, many of the iconic names in the sky today will land in the airline graveyard.  A monopoly in an Open Skies regime?  Sounds to me like Virgin Air Chief Branson and the Fear Mongers are trying to take a page out of the old playbook to take away slots from the incumbents.  Because that, after all, is the way it has always been done.  Money for nothin', slots for free. 

My bet is if first and business class fares were to get too high on BA/AA, the big winner would be Branson and his Virgin Atlantic as he is positioned in every major US gateway offering service to London Heathrow.  No one else has the same ability to impose discipline on the fares charged by two carriers than he does.  Or maybe he would be just as happy to raise Virgin’s fares too.  But, no, instead he will have us all believe that his sole concern is the customer and there is nothing mercenary in his opposition.  Just sayin’.

And before I leave this one, let us not forget that it was these first and business class fares and full Y fares that drove revenues (and helped keep wage rates high) in the past.  Now no meaningful yield premium exists in the US domestic market.  And we all know that the rapid deflation in first and business class revenue has been a major contributor to the global industry’s loss of $80 billion in revenue.  Yet certain US airline labor unions oppose the transaction-based on consumer issues?   

 

Third Quarter Earnings Calls

Given my travel schedule, I  did not get to listen to as many earnings calls as I normally do - that is why they have transcripts.  That said, was there a major theme?  We have said ad nausea that any recovery will be uneven – for carriers and geographies.  I did not read/hear much about a specific recovery, just that the worst may be behind us.  And I am encouraged by the good signal in the freight sector.  But if that’s a leading indicator, is the passenger sector recovery still 6-9 months away?  After all, it was nearly 9 months prior to the recession that plummeting traffic and revenues in the freight sector served as a warning.

By now,and unless you have not read a thing on the airline industry the past few years, there is little need to talk about revenue or rehash the direction of the price of oil or try to predict when a macroeconomic recovery might begin.  But what did catch my attention during the earnings season was the reference to items “below the line,” namely interest income and interest expense.  Think of all of the borrowing that has taken place at relatively high interest rates.  Net interest expense is going to take on a more important meaning.

With that said, it is time to perform a calculation that we should have been making for some time:  CASM including net interest expense and excluding fuel and transport related expenses. Just thinkin’. 

 

Concluding Thoughts

I am thinking I am ready to put 2009 in the books if for no other reason that the industry would lose less if the year were only 10 months.  What is there to say about the various happenings in the industry that hasn’t been said before?  So many recent events (labor squabbles, immunized alliances, failure to pass a FAA reauthorization bill, a passenger bill of rights, and how much liquidity is sufficient, to name a few) are cyclical reruns.  These are not long-term changes but rather predictable events based on history and the direction of the wind.

I am thinking it will be fun to see this industry finally recover from this economic malaise.  I am thinking that 2010 will be a lens through which we will be able to begin to evaluate which airlines have made the right moves in remaking themselves and which carriers have not.  Finally, I am thinking that nothing has really changed other than that a new administration is in place and some surface transactions transpired that hold promise only in theory.

If we are going to charge fees, when are we going to charge for the convenience of carry on?  Just sayin’.

After all, there are still two months before I can close out 2009.

Boo! And Happy Halloween. 

Tuesday
Oct132009

US Pilot Unions’ Dirty Little Secrets

I keep waiting for real leadership to emerge from labor unions in the US airline industry, particularly from pilot unions.  During past down cycles, pilot unions could be found taking the lead in creating a nuanced solution that addressed a company’s competitive needs and the concerns of pilots they represent.  The template crafted by pilot union leaders in the past often formed the framework for companies seeking help from the non-pilot workforce.

Today, more often than not, I see the work of pilot unions doing more to pose a barrier to an airline’s success than to promote it.  To be fair, the unions at Delta, Alaska and Southwest get credit for smart leadership. But the same can’t be said at other airlines, and here’s one reason why.

The legacy carriers all operate as part of networks that have formed over time, through mergers; asset buys; regulatory frameworks; and, importantly, union influence.  By this I refer in part to the dirty little secret in pilot union contracts: “scope” clauses that too often hamstring an airline’s operations in the name of job protection for pilots.

The question we in the industry should be asking is whether those scope clauses are really serving that purpose or, rather, whether some union leaders are using them in a way that is both misguided and harmful to the pilots they represent.

Evolve, Adapt, Reinvent – Or Risk Irrelevance

The ability of mainline carriers to employ regional jets is not new to the industry.  Neither is the ability of mainline carriers to engage in international code sharing arrangements with foreign airlines.   Both activities are governed by scope clauses in each carrier’s collective bargaining agreements with pilot unions. And before we go any further, let’s remember that the language in these collective bargaining agreements is just that – collectively bargained between the management and the unions. 

Much of what I have written at swelblog.com over the past two years has probably earned my picture a place on the dartboard at most pilot union offices. And this column is not intended to resurrect my image with certain pilot leaders in any way.  It’s just that union presidents are really the CEOs of their organizations and they deserve the same scrutiny as do airline CEOs.

And yes, I’ll name names. One is Captain Lloyd Hill who is president of the Allied Pilots Association – which represents only the pilots of American Airlines.  Another is John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots across the industry. After watching Captain Hill’s misguided attempts to garner leverage for AA pilots during contract negotiations and Captain Prater’s recent embarrassing diatribes before the House Aviation Subcommittee’s hearings on aviation safety, even I feel sympathy for the pilots they attempt to represent.

Captain Lloyd Hill

In the early days of the blog, I wrote a lot about American Airlines and its strained relations with the APA’s Hill administration.  The union was antagonistic toward the company from the very start and began negotiations with an outrageous opening proposal that demanded, among other things, a pay increase of more than 50 percent. I suggested then that it would be a long time before a deal will be reached with these players at the table. 

Two full years later, there is not only no deal, but not even the scent of a deal in the air.  And from my read of the contract cases now before the National Mediation Board, I could make a case that it will be at least two more years before American and the APA reach agreement or a NMB-declared impasse is declared.  But I will leave it to the APA membership and the Las Vegas odds makers to analyze what needs to change in order to improve the odds of a new working agreement.

Never before in my experience have I seen a more misdirected, miscalculated and mismanaged mess of a negotiation by a union.  And because we can all read Hill’s playbook and it’s clear he’s not moving the ball down the field, he keeps going back to his current whipping boy -- the “immunized alliance” the company is trying to achieve through a joint business agreement with British Airways and Iberia.  After calling the same play on second and third down, I am thinking that this fourth down attempt will result in a loss as well. 

Last week the APA issued yet another press release urging the DOT to dismiss American’s application. But this time, the APA was joined in its hollow and transparent opposition by ALPA.   In this case, ALPA was less strident, choosing not to oppose alliances generally but instead to urge DOT to ensure that jobs at US airlines are not eroded as a result of international partnerships.

“As a result of two significant developments during the past several days, we urge the DOT to decline American Airlines’ application for worldwide antitrust immunity,” Hill said in the APA release. “The first of those developments was the EC’s announcement earlier this month that American Airlines’ plans may violate rules governing restrictive business practices. Given those stated concerns, we question the advisability of granting approval to a deal that may fail to pass muster with the DOT’s European counterparts.

“Closer to home, American Airlines management has refused to provide industry-standard job protections for our pilots, despite APA’s concerted efforts,” Hill added. “We can only conclude that our worst fears would be realized in the event American Airlines is permitted to proceed with what amounts to a virtual merger with British Airways and Iberia.

No Captain Hill, your worst fears should not be this alliance.  You see, your contract permits this arrangement and if this type of commercial activity were to be prohibited, your actions in fighting the alliance will all but ensure fewer US jobs – they may be primarily narrowbody jobs but US jobs nonetheless.  Maybe you should begin negotiating with the company with realistic and market-sensitive proposals rather than filing petty grievance after grievance that has resulted in a further weakening of your negotiating position.  Maybe you should stop putting up billboards openly criticizing your employer on product reliability and safety issues because trying to hurt the company that employs your members is no good path to trying to improve their contract.  

Maybe the goal of “restoring the profession” should be to recognize a changed environment and figure out how best the members you represent can prosper under the new economic reality.  

Maybe your dirty little secret is that you do not know how to tell your members that your strategy to “restore the profession” has failed.  But the real sad part is the real losers are the professional aviators who deserve better from their union leaders.

Captain John Prater

Over at ALPA, the world’s largest pilot union, we have John Prater at the helm. Prater won the election to head ALPA by beating out his predecessor, the very skilled and seasoned Duane Woerth, on a platform that overpromised and is sure to under-deliver. Over the years some of the very best union leaders in the airline business have come from ALPA:  J.J. O’Donnell; Hank Duffy; Randy Babbitt and Woerth to name a few, and that doesn’t include a line of great leaders during the union’s formative years.

Now we have ALPA testifying before Congress in ways that are not becoming of past ALPA leaders.  Prater testified at the September 23 hearing on the crash of Colgan Air 3407 about a number of safety initiatives ALPA is promoting across the regional spectrum. But he also spoke about the relationship between mainline carriers and their regional partners in a way I find troubling.

Prater attributed what he called the “low-experience pilot problem” to the mainline airlines’ business model. 

“Mainline airlines are frequently faced with pressures on their marketing plans that result in the use of the regional feed code-share partners, whether they be economic, passenger demand or essential air service,” he said. “These code-share or fee-for-departure (FFD) contracts with smaller or regional airlines provide this service and feed the mainline carriers through their hub cities.”

Before mainline airlines had regional partners, Prater said, all flying was done by the pilots of an airline on a single pilot-seniority list, where pilots were trained to and met the same higher-than-minimum regulatory standards."

“A safety benefit is derived from all flying being done from a single pilot-seniority list because it requires that first officers fly with many captains and learn from their experience and wisdom before becoming captains themselves,” Prater said.

Now, he argued, major airlines use multiple, regional “vendor” carriers to drive down their costs, a practice he said “harms safety”  because first officers on regional airlines can become captains within a year and “fail to gain the experience and judgment needed to safely act in that capacity.”

Prater goes on:  “When a regional airline operates a route for a mainline carrier and offers subpar wages and benefits, only low-experience pilots, who cannot qualify for a job with a better paying airline, are typically willing to accept such employment. It is not uncommon that training at such carriers is conducted only to FAA-required minimums. However, these low-experience pilots obviously need more training than more experienced airline pilots to gain equivalent knowledge of the operating environment, aircraft, and procedures before flying the line.”

Later, in questioning by members of the committee, Prater insinuated that airlines involved in the crash, as well as other carriers that ALPA is in contract negotiations with, are continuing work practices that may compromise safety.

"The managements at Pinnacle and Colgan have not changed their ways. The management at Trans States Airlines haven't changed their ways. Do I need to go further? I have a big book," Prater told the subcommittee. He then suggested that carriers were actually punishing Captains that report maintenance issues with their aircraft, concluding: "Some managements are still insisting that they are going to beat their pilots into submission."

What Prater fails to share is ALPA’s dirty little secret: that the wage rates, working conditions, training provisions and other particulars he criticizes were negotiated by his union. ALPA represents the majority of regional pilots flying in the US today.  So maybe ALPA needs to step up and take some responsibility for its contribution to building this sector of the industry.  Only by agreeing to lower rates of pay and more flying time at the regional carriers can ALPA justify and sustain the generous pay, benefits and work rules that benefit pilots at the mainline airlines. 

Look at any significant relaxation of the scope clause at the mainline carrier that allows the airline to increase its use of jets 70 seats or less. In just about every case the mainline pilots received a significant pay boost in return for that “concession.”

The fact is that ALPA has played a major role in creating the labor Ponzi scheme that survives at the legacy airlines. How does ALPA find a way to pay another group of new pilots less in order to buy “better” contracts for the regional pilots it now represents? It can’t. And you can bet that ALPA would not ask its mainline pilots to take a pay cut to help increase the wages for pilots flying at their regional counterparts.  A conundrum indeed.

Concluding Thoughts

Labor leaders in the pilot ranks would have you believe that this (international code sharing and the use of regional flying) is all about management abusing provisions of their collective bargaining agreements to enrich their shareholders.  In fact, the creation of B-Scale constructs and the relaxation of scope provisions has been labor’s “quid” in return for increases in compensation and benefits for 20+ years [the “quo].”  Even when the industry economics suggested the quo was too much.  As I have said here before, labor likes to “eat their young.”  This is an issue that is fundamental to the difficulty of today’s negotiating environment.

Hill and Prater are resorting to 1920’s tactics rather than trying to lead pilots in a new world of airline economics. Labor’s “Old New Deal” cannot be supported by today’s competitive environment.  What is needed is a “New New Deal”. It will not look anything like the “Old New Deal” to be sure.  Just as airline executives have been forced to adapt to new economics shaping the industry, labor, too, must adapt because it has no more young to consume to keep senior pilots fat and happy.

It is hard to be at the top - whether looking for necessary capital or creatively searching to support the expectations of pilots.    

Monday
Aug032009

Pondering Southwest’s Potential Play on Frontier

By a multiple, the most widely read swelblog.com post ever read was the piece entitled: Is Republic Changing the Face of the US Domestic Market? I wrote the piece thinking about the regional carrier holding company’s play for each Midwest and Frontier. In that piece, I suggested that technology was a, if not the, most important attribute supporting Republic’s decision to make the play for Frontier: “Now Frontier provides Republic with something it previously lacked: a technology infrastructure that gives it long-term viability in the market. A technology infrastructure not tied to a legacy system.”

Most importantly, the technology would give Republic the opportunity to begin selling tickets directly to air travel consumers, something it does not and cannot do today.

Last week as I was walking off of the eighteenth green at the storied Butler National Golf Club in Chicago with dear friends Jack Ginsburg, Pete Robison and Ro Dhanda, I turned on my iPhone and noted dozens of messages. The news had just broken that Southwest Airlines was considering upping the ante over Republic and will prepare its own bid for Frontier.

For Southwest, the Best Offense Is a Good Defense

History is not clear whether someone actually said that the best offense is a good defense. It is believed to be a misstatement of a quote attributed to Carl van Clausewitz, military strategist and the author of On War, a book, published in 1832, that was required reading for me in a graduate school marketing class. Clausewitz was quoted as saying the best defense is a good offense. Either way, Southwest’s motives for this deal had me thinking.

If Republic is successful in gaining control of Frontier, it would produce, overnight, a new and potentially threatening competitor to Southwest’s domestic dominance. This past April, I made a presentation to the 34th Annual FAA Forecast Conference entitled: Cost Differences Suggesting a New Mid-Term Structure. There, I warned of the difficulty of analyzing cost differences between carriers, particularly in light of Southwest’s unique influence on the market. I believe it is now wrong to include Southwest among the group traditionally known as “low cost carriers” because its sheer size distorts the results. It was clear to me then, as it is more so now, that Southwest is losing the significant cost advantages that have historically been its primary competitive weapon and driver of its organic growth.

My analysis relied on MIT's Airline Data Project. When I prepared the analysis for the FAA Conference, final fourth quarter 2008 data had not been filed but has now been updated. The story remains the same. In order to make an apples-to-apples comparison of cost per available seat mile, adjustments must be made.

First, transport-related expenses (largely the fees paid to regional carriers for capacity) must be removed as there is an offsetting revenue account. Second, fuel cost per available seat mile should be removed as varying hedging strategies make for distorted comparisons. This is particularly true of Southwest where I estimate that its fuel hedging strategy accounted for 53 percent of its cost advantage versus the network carriers for the first nine months of 2008.

I also compared unit costs of the network carriers (American, Continental, Delta/Northwest, United and US Airways) to Southwest and a group of carriers I refer to as Midscales (AirTran, Frontier and jetBlue). Absent removing transport-related and fuel expenses, Southwest has a cost advantage versus both groups of carriers –in the case of the network carriers, a 6.4 cent advantage. When transport-related expenses are removed, then Southwest’s cost advantage is nearly halved. When fuel expenses are removed, the advantage versus the network carriers shrinks to 1.6 cents.

Now consider this: When transport related and fuel expenses are removed Southwest has a cost disadvantage versus the Midscale group. Just imagine what Southwest’s cost disadvantage could be if Republic were to get its hands on Frontier? Southwest non-labor costs are the envy of any carrier, and it still has an advantage versus the network and Midscale carriers. But Southwest now has a labor cost disadvantage against those carriers. In fact, the unit labor costs of the Frontier, AirTran and jetBlue sub grouping are nearly a full penny per seat mile lower than the unit labor costs at Southwest. Pennies in this instance can quickly add up to tens of millions of dollars in cost to Southwest when competing directly.

Adding To the Speculation

Many observers already question whether Southwest would be adding to its burdens and its costs in acquiring Frontier’s airplanes and thereby introducing different aircraft to its famously one-sized-fits all fleet. That can be addressed.

Can the labor issues also be managed? In my view yes, even if that means Southwest buying labor’s favor. Independent unions represent the pilots at each airline, so the always-difficult task of integration would be made easier by the fact there is no national union constitution and bylaws to deal with. Frontier, through its bankruptcy, has moved toward more maintenance outsourcing and that fits Southwest’s current model. And because the Frontier flight attendants are not unionized, there are minimal labor hurdles there.

No doubt, the financial transaction would be accretive to whichever airline ends up making the play. I believe, though, that the most value from Frontier would be garnered only by another airline that could leverage its assets - a local market following and its IT platform – not by financial players that won’t see the same advantages.

Frontier would provide Republic a tremendous opportunity to transform not only itself but the US domestic market. For Southwest, the Frontier play is not so much transformative as it is defensive, by:

  1. Removing a local market competitor for a company struggling to find new markets (and there are no profitable 3-carrier markets in today’s revenue environment)
  2. Providing a solid technology foundation and expertise in value-added pricing
  3. Thwarting future competition by ensuring that Republic remains a capacity provider to the nations’ legacy carriers – at least in the near term.

Ding: The “Southwest Effect” is Dead

The Denver market is unique in that there are few alternative modes of transportation that can compete with air travel because of sheer distances in the western US. Boulder, Colorado Springs and other surrounding cities’ traffic already access the air transportation system through Denver. The truth is today’s stimulation is largely diversion from another market or another carrier.

Many point to the pain a Southwest takeover would impose on United. But there are two sources of traffic: local and connecting. United runs a large connecting operation in Denver. Onboard United airplanes is a traffic mix of 1/3 local passengers and 2/3 connecting passengers.  On the other hand, each Frontier and Southwest are highly reliant on local passengers.  Before we count United dead in Denver as a result of this combination, this fact needs to be examined. 

Fares for local traffic in the Denver market are largely dictated by the competition between Southwest and Frontier. Publicly available data would show that nearly half of Frontier's traffic at Denver is local and Southwest's is near 70 percent. Therefore which direction do you think fares will go if Southwest is successful in taking out an important competitor for Denver local traffic? And after reducing certain duplicative Frontier capacity?  Southwest’s fares will prevail, even though Southwest is not always the low fare provider in each market.

Southwest Showing Its Age

Southwest built its Denver operations quickly at a time when Frontier’s future was in doubt and United was struggling. As Southwest’s organic growth slows because of the anemic revenue environment in the US domestic market, then buying the carrier that competes largely for the same local traffic makes good sense. With a cost structure that no longer sets them apart from the crowd, it is clear why Southwest continually talks of the need to augment its revenue streams.

To be fair, some will say that analysis of Southwest’s cost advantage shrinkage is flawed because it does not account for stage length -- the length of the average flight. But in comparing one airline’s performance and costs to another, adjusting for stage length is somewhat arbitrary.

Rather, what is most important is the relationship of [system] cost per available seat mile to [system] revenue per available seat mile. It is this relationship that finds Southwest struggling at Denver where load factors have been in modest decline as the airline has grown and has been increasing fares from the carrier’s initial offerings. The net effect has been a modest decline in RASM - as CASM has been increasing.

The network carriers are challenged in this regard because of the black revenue hole created by the downturn in first and business class travel on international routes. Just as the network carriers have to adapt for shrinking revenue relative to costs, so does Southwest – without the magic of stimulating a mature market replete with competition from low cost and network carriers alike.

Southwest just celebrated its 38th birthday. It is a mature and maturing carrier operating in a mature domestic environment where it is no longer an innovator. What I find most interesting in Southwest’s potential bid for Frontier is that the carrier is being forced to act just as the network legacy carriers. Southwest is seeking a consolidation scenario that could and should lead to an improved revenue line in Denver where it has significant capacity deployed and where Frontier, a beloved (not LUVed) carrier in the region is all but assured of emerging from bankruptcy protection with its loyal local following in tow.

Keep tuned. I can’t wait to hear the arguments Southwest uses in Washington to gain regulatory approval, particularly as it will be hard pressed to make the argument that acquiring Frontier would lower airfares in the Denver region.

Funny how things change.

Thursday
Jul092009

Are Some US Airlines Too Big to Fail? Hell No!

Holman W. Jenkins Jr., writing in the July 8 Wall Street Journal gets it right: "The new administration seemingly won't let companies fail, and won't let them succeed either," Jenkins wrote of Justice Department opposition to antitrust immunity for Continental Airlines and the Star Alliance. Such alliances, he argues, are the industry's "self-help solution" for companies looking "to share losses and preserve capacity in a downturn." By denying that option to struggling carriers, Obama may soon be forced to "add the airlines to the collection of failed industries being run out of the White House."

 

Sadly, What is Good for One is Not Good for the Other Two

Congress, of course, has a long-held penchant for meddling in the affairs of industries and organizations. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights spent taxpayer money to hold hearings on college football’s selection process for placing teams in its Bowl Championship Series. So we should not be surprised to see a growing government role in an industry that has managed to lose more than $30 billion over the past nine years.

If government oversight of the airline industry is going to stand in the way of corporate success, then there is no airline too big to fail. So why not let them fail? Airlines are criticized for not being innovative. True - and for the most part their innovations over the past 10 years amount to little more than finding ways to maximize revenue within a system of constraints.

Delta/Northwest is the largest carrier in the world, and even it commands less than a 5 percent share of the global airline market. No other U.S. airline claims more than a 3 percent share. Yet the government continues to treat the U.S. airline industry as if it is a threat to competition and slap the hands of airlines that attempt to improve/augment their business models through partnerships and alliances with foreign carriers.

Antitrust laws are designed to protect consumers from corporate power. Does a well-established trend line of fares falling at rates greater than inflation for three decades demonstrate corporate or industry pricing power? A passenger traveling from Greenville/Spartanburg to Los Angeles has a choice between more than 20 flight combinations to get from California and back.  Does that demonstrate corporate or industry power? Does an industry that makes the price of its product fully transparent to the buyer sound like an abuse of the consumer?

The fact is that most U.S. air travelers still have plenty of choices when it comes to flying – albeit in an industry that still carries more capacity than it needs.

 

Southwest: The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Let the record show that I have not joined the chorus of analysts and observers who predict rising fares by Fall. The recession holds. Many consumers are tapped out. Enter: Southwest Airlines.

Southwest has a long history of leveraging difficult financial times -- profiting at the expense of competing airlines because it could. It profited because of the chasm in its CASM versus it competitors; it profited because of the chasm in the RASM charged by competitors; it profited because it smartly used its balance sheet to make a wildly successful bet on the future of fuel prices . . . Southwest profited because it could. So this week’s fare sale in which the airline is selling tickets at $30, $60 and $90 says one of two things: either Southwest is struggling mightily with the forward booking curve, or the airline smells blood. I think the answer is both, but more the latter.

Southwest is now the big dog in the US domestic market and a player that must be reckoned with in any discussion of domestic market competition. If the nation’s lawmakers and policymakers continue to equate low fares with sufficient competition and consumer benefit, then deregulation has clearly come full circle.

Southwest is not now the big dog to those in Greenville/Spartanburg, Knoxville or Duluth. But most travelers can get in a car and drive less than a few hours to fly Southwest from these markets or more than 280 others not now served by LUV.

If this is what the regulators and policymakers really want, then that’s what they’ll get. Therefore, there is no reason to think that any airline flying today is too big to fail.

With Southwest adding the dots of the largest population centers where it did not previously fly to its route map, the industry could be at a tipping point. These markets also represent large sources of feed revenue to many legacy carrier hubs, and with Southwest offering fares too low for some legacies to match, this fall and winter may be a long, cold one for the traditional carriers.

Will the government continue to stand in the way of airlines that are desperately seeking new revenues? If so, no bailout will save an airline – not until U.S. airlines are allowed to act like other multinational industries serving a global economy. There already is enough taxpayer money bailing out other industries with similarly troubled attributes – adding airline rescues to the mix would only throw more good money after bad.

 

Union Rhetoric

What’s behind Congressional opposition to these common-sense alliances? The loudest voice in the room is labor. Even at this financially treacherous time, the industry is split from within, the result in part of union leaders that refuse to recognize economic trends and realities when they don’t serve the union’s objectives. When are the unions going to recognize that the transfer of domestic market wealth from the incumbent carriers at the time of deregulation to the new wave of carriers that followed is largely complete? And that tomorrow’s opportunities do not reside inside the 48 contiguous states?

Now, in the years since airlines sought and won aggressive cuts in labor costs during restructuring, it is increasingly clear to me that continual change/modification to outdated collective bargaining agreements cannot overcome the structural seniority chasms that exist between the legacy carriers and their lower-cost, younger competitors – at least in the domestic market. For decades, as the network carriers have been forced to compete for ways to average down labor costs through protracted bargaining, the low-cost carriers simply use seniority arbitrage to facilitate their growth. And I think we are about to see another run of growth by the LCC sector.

When it comes to the airlines seeking immunity to maximize revenue and, in the case of United/Continental/Air Canada, address certain cost efficiencies as well, the strategy is to maintain as much of the current operation as is financially feasible. Unlike the US steel industry that lost nearly 400,000 jobs because producers in other countries could do it significantly cheaper, blame for the next round of airline job cuts most go in part to the airline unions that have been busy trying to convince the dinosaurs at the Department of Justice and on Capitol Hill that alliances will result in job loss and a further deterioration of wages and working conditions.

Between the time Eastern Airlines and Pan Am died and 2000, the industry’s high-water mark for employment, U.S. airlines added nearly 100,000 jobs. Since 2000, the industry has lost nearly 140,000 jobs - and it should have been more -  mostly because nearly all the airlines and virtually all the existing hubs have been protected in one way or another by patrons on Washington. Indeed, many of the jobs lost from a failure of one or two of today’s carriers likely will be replaced as market positions in the largest cities are filled by new and more efficient carriers.

 

Let Some Airlines Die – And Then Let DOJ and Congress Rethink

At this point no one US airline is too big to die. Competition remains plentiful whether that competition comes from another ticket counter at the same airport or cheap fares at a nearby airport. Either way, the industry is still too big – with too many network carriers, too many regional carriers and too many hubs.

And, except for a few “up cycles” along the way, revenue has not supported the industry’s growth or size. The time is right for lawmakers to hear the new reality in the industry – one focused not on a false threat of monopolies and price gouging, but the very real threat in an industry so bloated, burdened and inefficient that it fails to provide the very thing a business must: a reliable return for investors and real job security for employees.

Tuesday
Jun302009

Neither Ponzi nor Pyramid, but an End Game Nonetheless?

Liquidations and/or Use of the Failing Carrier Doctrine?

On the day when Bernie Madoff gets sentenced to 150 years for orchestrating the financial fleecing scheme that put its namesake, Charles Ponzi, to shame, I am pondering the balance sheets of airlines. And it comes down to this: some carriers have little room to maneuver. Investors (read: credit) are not lining up to provide new capital without demanding ransom in terms of collateral or sky-high coupon rates well above those paid in other industries.

Ponzi and pyramid schemes work by gathering proceeds from one group of investors to pay off earlier investors. It is no small irony, then, that much the same has been happening in the airline industry for years. The financial scams fall apart when they run out of money to pay new investors. In airlines, the end result is pretty much the same. Airlines continue to seek new capital even as previous investors fail to earn a respectable return on their investment. It’s not illegal, but neither is it sustainable. Indeed, it is fast becoming apparent that capital is quickly tiring of this industry and its inability to sustain profits, return its cost of capital and thus reinvest in itself at market rates.

In an industry that has succeeded mainly in destroying decades of capital, the end game for some airlines may be near. To inject new funds into its operation, United Airlines’ required collateral was reportedly three times the $175 million in cash it raised. More troubling yet -- the coupon rate on the new debt was 12.75 percent. Even with exorbitant collateral demands and above-market interest rates, new investors were willing to pay only 90 cents on the dollar for the security, which equates to an effective return to the investor closer to 17 percent.

At the same time, American announced it will sell $520.1 million in debt . American’s collateral requirements will be hefty, but slightly less than twice the amount it plans to raise. According to the Associated Press, American’s debt is investment grade based in part on the assets pledged as collateral. Therefore, American will pay significantly less for its capital than will United, even if the investor interest level is on par. But with corporations of this size, and of this importance to the US economy, “investment grade” ought to be the baseline, not the high bar. That’s not the case today. Earlier in the year, Southwest -- the industry’s only capital-worthy airline -- was forced to pay in excess of 10 percent on its loans. Wow. In other circumstances, that might be considered usury.

 

Data Points

Market perceptions, and cold, hard cash, demonstrate a new industry pecking order is emerging. Allegiant, AirTran, Alaska and SkyWest – airlines many Americans have never flown -- each today have a market capitalization greater than that of either United or US Airways.

In Spring 2009, Fitch’s Airline Credit Navigator outlined current liquidity and expected debt maturities for airlines over the next three years. It found “most of the biggest U.S. airlines ended the first quarter in "unfavorable liquidity positions.”

For three of the top seven carriers (US Airways, American and United), this liquidity ratio fell below 15 percent of trailing twelve month revenues - a benchmark commonly used to target an optimal amount of cash to be held on the balance sheet.

According to Fitch’s data, American, Continental, Delta, United, US Airways, Southwest and jetBlue held nearly $17 billion in liquidity at the end of the first quarter of 2009 (and with a market capitalization of $13.7 billion for the same group of carriers, the market says that a dollar today is not a dollar tomorrow). Southwest and Delta constitute two-thirds of the group’s market capitalization.

Assets are only one part of the disturbing picture the Fitch data paints. The other half is liabilities. Together, the carriers have debt obligations of nearly $12 billion due by the end of 2010. And these obligations come at a time where negative free cash flows are anticipated for the foreseeable future.

Take as one example Delta, which claimed title as the world’s largest airline following its merger with Northwest. While in the first quarter of this year Delta did not fall below Fitch’s relatively arbitrary liquidity rating. Fitch nonetheless downgraded the debt ratings of Delta and Northwest on June 25 to reflect “intense revenue pressure” and expected negative cash flows. As a result of its combined balance sheet with Northwest, Delta has a stronger absolute cash balance relative to the industry, but still faces nearly $5 billion of fixed debt obligations through 2011.

The shift of capacity by the U.S .legacy carriers to international markets has suffered from poor timing. For United, its exposure to once lucrative trans-Pacific markets is even more painful as the geographic region is closest to intensive care. By comparison, American and US Airways are fortunate to have little relative exposure in the Pacific. But the winner is likely the new Delta which, with lots of eggs in all international baskets. This diversification will certainly produce better results than either Northwest or Delta would have achieved individually.

 

Renewed Consolidation Focus Based on an Old Tool?

In prior eras, the airline industry has relied on the “failing carrier doctrine” to combine companies on the verge of collapse or unable to meet debt obligations. That doctrine might be dusted off and used again during the next 12 months. Precedent shows mergers and acquisitions are viewed more favorably – with fewer concerns about competition – when the economy is in a swoon and airlines are at greater risk of going under.

US Airways chief Doug Parker is not alone in making a case for consolidation. United’s Glenn Tilton is also in the chorus. Both carriers are on Fitch’s list of those in the “liquidity danger zone.” United and US Airways still have some room to maneuver, but recent attempts to raise capital have proven, in the airline industry particularly, money is getting increasingly expensive.

We may be entering a new era in which the “failing carrier doctrine” no longer applies. Instead, we are now facing the “failing industry doctrine.”

On Second Thought

One of the big issues related to mergers not discussed enough is the preservation of the tax loss carry forwards that each airline has accrued (accrued losses can be used to offset profits in future years). So in the short to medium term, the industry may resist the urge to merge because a change of control could or would have significant tax ramifications. If this is the case, why not apply the failing carrier doctrine to anti-trust immunity?

First, there is no doubt we will see additional capacity cuts, with the next round showing up in the schedules for fall of 2009. This industry is not shrinking because it wants to, but rather because it has to. By the time airlines cut further at the end of the summer travel season, the industry’s two decades of economics-be-damned growth may be nothing but a memory of bad decisions gone by. Then the U.S. airline industry can finally get down to the business of being a business. Or be resigned to failure.

As I have written time and again, in this economy, capital will determine the survivors. Access to capital is the lifeline airlines need now. Those who control that capital are sending a message to legacy carriers, and that is they will pay dearly for funding until they can demonstrate a sufficient return for investors.

 

Republic Airways Holdings, Inc.

Recognizing the importance of that lifeline might shape the airline industry of the future. Republic Airways CEO Bryan Bedford seems to already be moving that way. As a result of his purchase of Midwest, Bedford now has investment firm TPG on his board - - basically, capital now in is the role of decision maker.

Whether other carriers can accept that kind of change might very well decide the future of the industry and whether some airlines even survive. Right now, that future for many airlines and the hundreds of thousands of people they employ is anything but bright.

Keep in mind, the next industry shakeout is not reserved for the big players alone. Look for entities other than the five legacy carriers (American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways) to have input into any new architectural renderings of network structure. And input will not only come from Alaska and from the so-called low cost carriers, (Southwest, jetBlue and AirTran) but also some regional carriers like SkyWest.

And I keep coming back to Republic.

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