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Friday
Sep182009

Nibbling on a Little Crow While Watching Eagles Fly

Yep, I was one of those observers not long ago suggesting that the current revenue environment would challenge certain carriers’ liquidity.  While not specific on those carriers I believed to be marginal, the supposition was always US Airways, United and American.  In that order.  Of the three, it was understood that American had more options as it had not yet played the cash for miles card. 

Well, that story played out yesterday when AMR announced that it had secured $2.9 billion in new financing, in part by selling a billion dollars worth of frequent flier miles to Citigroup. Meanwhile United is hinting that more liquidity raising efforts are ahead and Delta is in the market for $500 million.  American’s announcement makes it clear that the credit window remains open for carriers that have quality unencumbered assets to pledge and a reputation for paying their bills. But, I remain unconvinced that the window will stay open for all carriers operating today. 

The same day, American announced network and fleet changes I see as important steps the carrier is taking as a decision nears on its immunized alliance with British Airways. Those changes also can be read as important to the ability of American to forge a closer relationship with JAL. 

The Changing Face of the Domestic Market

While St. Louis has been a hub in name only for American in recent years, yesterday’s announcement that it would stop serving 20 cities out of Lambert and reduce departures to 36 per day pretty much provides the final eulogy for the former TWA.  Now if Delta would only do what it should and pull Cincinnati down to a similar size, much of the necessary work on dismantling unnecessary and redundant secondary, mid-continent hubs will be done. 

Unlike Delta, American has historically owned a strong position in New York; therefore, its announced changes to that critical dot on the airline map were minimal.  And assuming that American’s immunized alliance is granted, New York promises to be one supremely competitive market between STAR, SkyTeam and oneworld carriers in each the domestic and international markets.

Speaking of Alliances

American has absolutely no choice but to counter Delta’s rumored bid for JAL.  The opportunity to make London and Tokyo bookends to a focused domestic network provides the airline the opportunity to finally take advantage of Asia and sell Europe, Africa and the Middle East like their aligned peers. 

It’s no secret that US legacy carriers have their problems. But trust me when I say that the US carriers are productive, nimble and agile when compared to JAL.  At this point, it appears that American would be working in cooperation with, British Airways and Qantas to court the Japanese airline.

JAL needs major surgery.  But assuming that JAL survives the procedure, its recovery requires a presence in all major world regions.  That is why I like the fact that each of the critical players in the oneworld alliance are involved.  As Japan is almost certain to become an open skies country in the coming months, a healthier and allied JAL is critical.

For those concerned about competition in Tokyo, let’s not forget the presence of STAR in the form of ANA.  For those crying about poor little Delta, let’s not forget that Delta remains the largest single carrier in the world in terms of revenue.  For those that may cry foul over competition in the North Pacific, let’s not forget about Delta’s SkyTeam relationship with Korean.  And a case can be made that Seoul has become a more powerful hub than Tokyo largely because of JAL’s weakness and Korea’s aggressiveness. 

Lots of Happenings at American

This latest news is interesting in part because American has been forced to make many changes the hard way as its competitors cut costs through bankruptcy.   American has managed through crisis after crisis all the while toting around a cost and an alliance disadvantage versus most of its legacy peers.  Moving to renew its fleet in the midst of a nasty economic cycle is bold. 

But more impressive to me is the steady, targeted focus on the balance sheet that made yesterday’s liquidity raise possible. It’s not all pretty there. Management continues to struggle to come to agreement with unions on new contracts that won’t exacerbate the company’s competitive disadvantages, and that’s all the harder when union leaders continue to make demands that could not and cannot be met given the competitive environment.

Making this even harder is explaining that the improved liquidity position is only because of borrowing, not that the company has suddenly found the recipe for outsized profits.   

Labor:  This Is a $2.9 Billion DIP Loan……Without the Consequences for You

It is safe to say that no other US carrier could accomplish this type of a capital raise at this time.  Any near-term concerns that analysts or observers might have about American’s ability to meet its obligations should be quelled.  Clearly American management believes in the company’s future or it would not be investing in it.  After all, the quest of any company is to produce a return on that capital.

American just leveraged the future.  And if I am a union leader there I would want to tie my industry-best lot among the US legacy airline world to the carrier that just put its money where its mouth is.  To continue resisting changes critical to the company’s future profitability only leads to the propagation of the status quo. 

Yes, I’d make some demands. When the economy and the industry do recover, I would insist that some of my members’ earnings are tied to company performance.  That is real leverage – not the illusory leverage unions try to create by promoting the false belief that past concessions and 1990’s wages relative to inflation should be restored in an industry vastly changed.

There is ultimately going to be a recovery.  Like American’s decision to order aircraft anticipating the recovery, if I am labor at American I would want to get my negotiations done sooner rather than later.  Just think how little incentive there will be for companies to conclude negotiations during an economic upturn given the losses suffered over the past 8 years.  As I have written before, I am astounded at how much time labor spends negotiating downside protections versus provisions that enable the members they represent to participate financially on the upside – a scenario that promises much more than any negotiated increase in wage rates.

More on this. 

 

 

Thursday
Apr302009

Capital, Labor and Seniority in the News 

We awake this morning to reports that Chrysler will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy . Despite efforts by the Obama administration to force Chrysler stakeholders to find an out-of-court solution, certain debt holders would not agree to the haircut they would have to take in forgiving debt to the auto giant. What they seem to be saying is that, under the terms of the proposed solution, labor would receive a disproportionate share of equity in the restructured company.

Where seniority for airline workers is earned through longevity, capital structure seniority is a bit different. In a bankruptcy, there are different classes of capital. Debt secured by company assets is the most senior on the list of creditors who will be paid. Unsecured debt capital is next in the pecking order, followed by preferred stock and, lastly, common equity.

Nowhere is “sweat equity” reported on a company’s balance sheet. However, worker concessions have been recognized as capital in a restructuring scenario and have been currency accorded a stake in a reorganized enterprise. Moreover, it is the sweat equity at Chrysler held by current and retired workers that might appear to some as being unduly enriched through the deal that gave them a 55 percent ownership stake in a restructured Chrysler.

A very different scenario played out in the airline industry. There, in bankruptcy cases that resulted in either a termination or freezing of pension plans and/or alterations to retiree benefit plans, creditors made it clear that they would not pay the bills from the past by forgoing profits in the future. For airline companies to emerge from Chapter 11, they needed public capital to fund their exit from bankruptcy. For car companies, the government is the source of exit capital.

This morning’s New York Times, quotes a statement from GM’s bondholders that applies to Chrysler’s issue as well: “We believe the offer to be a blatant disregard of fairness for the bondholders who have funded this company and amounts to using taxpayer money to show political favoritism of one creditor over another.”

As the article notes: “The U.A.W. members at both automakers stand to lose some of their pay and benefits, but the cuts are not as deep as those faced by airline and steel workers when their companies went bankrupt. Under proposed deals devised by the Treasury Department, U.A.W. pensions and retiree health care benefits would largely be protected”.

 

Airline Seniority In The News

On Tuesday, Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News wrote about the former TWA flight attendants and their dissatisfaction over their treatment from the flight attendant union when American purchased the assets of the troubled and iconic carrier in 2001. Also Tuesday, the four-year seniority battle between the merged group of pilots at US Airways got underway in US District Court in Phoenix, Arizona. Read Dawn Gilbertson’s reporting in the Arizona Republic and on the paper’s US Airways blog.

Whether it is in the airline industry or in the automobile industry, there clearly is something wrong with the seniority system. My question: should seniority really be sacred? The current seniority system does not work for shrinking industries like airlines and autos.

I am in stark agreement with the actions taken by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union that represents AA flight service crews, which in protecting the seniority rights of its members decided that former TWA flight attendants would be put at the end of the seniority list when they joined AA ranks. The fact is this wasn’t a merger of equals. At the time of the purchase, TWA had sold most strategic assets and had reached its tipping point. There was nothing left to borrow and no hope except American’s offer to buy its assets.

I am in stark agreement with the America West pilots in their disagreement with the former US Airways [East] pilots who had little hope of a career absent the reorganization plan that involved a merger with America West.

Given that the economy will continue to call into question the future viability of any number of US airlines, this seniority issue is far from over. Plain and simple, it is about economics and the viability of individual carriers. US Airways [East] was not going to survive in its 2004 form for long. TWA would likely have died of natural causes as the effects of 9/11 ravaged the industry.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Given that the airline industry will likely get smaller before and if it gets bigger, it is high time that organized labor puts down its swords and constructs a national seniority list. Employees should have the right to move within the industry should their carrier cease to exist. Seniority should not be a shield for some to hide behind. Rather it should promote stability for those experienced workers that choose to offer their services for hire in an open market

The economic crisis and its impact on corporate America highlight the need for thoughtful analysis of labor issues. Seniority is only the first of the “third-rail” topics we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss. Another is the “legacy costs” like pension and retiree benefits and whether they should be the sole responsibility of the employer in today’s world. Best that I can tell, this growing financial burden on employers may serve only to stand in the way of active employees working to maximize their earnings.

Time will tell what ultimately will emerge from Chrysler’s bankruptcy; GM’s prospects for the future and whether the deal at Ford positions that company to compete for the long term. The same day might be coming for airlines which would be wise to learn lessons from the industries that come before them.

I make that final statement after reading through Obama’s statements. The US government is constructing a safety net for Chrysler and its workers. Some will fall through and others will be saved. Airline labor should be thinking about the same.

Thursday
May152008

Pondering the Next Move; But Before I Do…….

Wednesday’s Hearings: “Forgetting About History”

If there is another “something” in the works, surely no one really believed that anything would be announced before yesterday’s House hearings on Delta – Northwest? Jim “Hell NO”berstar was anything but “Hell No” in yesterday’s hearings. To be sure, he was anything but Hell Yes. He seemed to save his “powder” for the testimony of the Departments of Justice and Transportation. But even that was dry and in the end about all we could do was “take heart” that the investigation would be thorough.

I am not one that is going to give a protectionist much slack. But I kind of felt sorry for him when it became clear that he had not quite grasped that Phase I of the US-EU liberalization deal was in effect and that all six US legacy carriers could fly to Heathrow. But where I really struggled was with the continued pointing to American Airlines and their purchase of TWA’s assets. Remember, not a merger but rather, an acquisition of assets. There was much discussion about how St. Louis was reduced from 500 flights per day to 250 flights per day.

When American made the decision to purchase TWA’s assets, congestion was the rule/industry fear of the day. The “Summer from Hell”, or the Summer of 2000, was in the books. Chicago O’Hare was in the headlines most days during that summer. Delays in Chicago were either based on thunderstorms or Rick Dubinsky choking the golden goose. From American’s strategic perspective, St. Louis could potentially be that reliever of congestion in Chicago as connecting traffic is well connecting traffic and can be accomplished in either city.

But “NOberstar and the Fear Mongers” sang the tune that American sat in the very same hearing room and vowed to keep St. Louis whole. We heard it over and over. If we forgot about Phase I being in place; surely we did not forget about September 11, 2001 and the effects it had on the US domestic airline industry in general and the network legacy carriers specifically. Yes, St. Louis was downsized and most non-hub flying was eliminated. Pittsburgh was carefully eliminated. Atlantic Coast died under its own lack of weight. And an over-exhuberant industry replaced mainline flying with regional flying.

St. Louis was a dying hub. McDonnell Douglas was gone. Its local economy was built on reputation and not on strong underlying economic attributes. American made the only decision that was in its best corporate interest. Remove capacity from a weak point and focus on a strong one – Chicago. Nuff’ said.

Pondering the Next Move

My guess is Jim “Hell NO”berstar is keeping his powder dry until the next move is announced. The next move will face more intense scrutiny based on the “I told you so” line that was most prevalent yesterday. Honestly, I do not know of another deal scenario that is interesting – let alone transformational – and provides the kind of investment thesis that helps this period come alive.

We have United and US Airways merger discussions being tossed around by “those close to the situation”. Now we have a United and Continental alliance in the news. Readers know I like what Tilton says as he talks about the industry from 40,000 feet – and I am in fundamental agreement that the current construct is good for no stakeholder group.

If I lean to one of the two scenarios being painted in today’s mainstream press, I lean to a United - Continental alliance. Gravity takes me there because it differentiates the combination from Delta and Northwest. Delta and Northwest individually, and collectively, are/will be highly reliant on connecting traffic as their hubs are located in smaller population centers. [And this is why their commitment to maintaining the most extensive network possible is absolutely factual] United and Continental would be building around hubs/gateways where core onboard traffic would be largely local.

Now, I understand that the transatlantic onboard traffic mix can be different based on other competitors in the market. We do not have to look much further than Washington Dulles and the fact that Lufthansa carries more Washington local traffic to Germany and beyond than United. United’s airplanes are filled with more behind and bridge traffic based on the connection to its US domestic network at Washington Dulles.

But doesn’t this also suggest intra-alliance competition for traffic that is being bastardized by comments from the fear mongers that the transatlantic will soon face a scenario where barriers to entry are much too high?

LIQUIDITY AND SOUTHWEST AND UNITED

Over the last couple of months, this blogger has written about how liquidity will be back in the headlines just as it was following the events of September 11, 2001. American has looked to relax fixed charge covenants. Delta and Northwest are looking to a combined balance sheet. United has worked to relax covenants in its loan agreements. US Airways balance sheet is actually in pretty good shape for the moment. Southwest recently borrowed $600 million against owned aircraft to bolster an already strong liquidity position. jetBlue has sold aircraft and sold equity to Lufthansa to bolster liquidity. AirTran has sold delivery positions and just completed a convertible to bolster its liquidity. And the market yawns.

Holly Hegeman of Planebuzz.com asks the question: PlaneBuzz: Follow up on Southwest Nuts: Why Do They Need More? If she had not written before I had a chance, I would have asked the same question but probably not as eloquently. Me thinks, Southwest plays a meaningful role in the next move. These guys – and sorry Laura – are smart. Based on their model, there are just simply not many markets left in the US.

Now, I have no clue as to what the plans are – or if there are any - as I am not a source close to the situation. But I am willing to bet that the next move involves Southwest purchasing assets. Whether they are Washington National assets; Laguardia assets; or something else they are the only name that can assure “NOberstar and the Fear Mongers” that competition will remain robust. If Southwest is involved, the strategy is brilliant. And I am not one that will discount Tilton.

I am the guy that has lived a life liking and rooting for: Illie Nastase; Jimmy Connors; Derek Sanderson; Craig Stadler; well you get the picture.

As I have said, this time is cruel but it will lead to something better. Simply because the current construct just does not work for anyone. So for the consumer groups: you will pay more and it is not because of a changing industry structure, rather it is an industry that must simply charge at least as much as it costs to produce the product. And for labor, the best bet to recapture what you think is entitled is to bet on the future. It just might be good.