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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. 

 

 

Friday
Dec192008

AA’s Labor Negotiation Scenarios Get Even More Interesting

I am thinking that we should consider changing the name of the NMB, National Mediation Board, to the AAMB or the American Airlines Mediation Board. Or the FWMB, the Fort Worth Mediation Board, because the docket at the Mediation Board is about to be anything but National.

Trebor Banstetter, at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Sky Talk blog, reports that American Airline’s flight attendants represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) have jointly filed with the company to the NMB to take over the talks. This one did catch me by surprise but as I think about it, this is a brilliant strategy.

If the application by American and APFA has indeed been made, it raises some very interesting scenarios. Terry Maxon asked on his AIRLINE BIZ blog the other day: Will TWU be first American Airlines union to impasse? Maxon’s question was spot on given that the company and the TWU, sans the mechanic group, had arguably narrowed their differences in a super negotiation session that concluded one week ago. I do appreciate that the starting point will be something other than the final issues remaining on the table, but the TWU and the company each made clear to one another what is important to each side in their negotiations.

We potentially have the majority of American’s employee groups in mediation. The one group not in mediation, the mechanics, is the one labor group at AA that have a sound platform from which to negotiate "gain-share" improvements given the outside work being conducted. This is not to say that there are not some difficult issues ahead in these negotiations given that AA is planning to park their older – maintenance heavy – MD80 fleet on an accelerated pace beginning in 2009. But the fact is this group has enabled AA to find new revenue sources.

Brilliant, Why?

Often, the NMB is forced to make a decision as to which negotiation on its docket has reached impasse first. Typically a decision is between airlines and not labor groups at the same airline. American now has an entire company in mediation. A release of any one group would certainly result in sympathy strikes from other groups with unresolved contracts.

How quickly would new President Obama agree to ground the nation’s second-largest airline? With nearly $2 trillion in economic stimulus to be injected into the economy during the early days of his administration, I am not sold that “labor’s savior” will be trigger quick to ground a company of American’s size in an industry that is inextricably tied to the health of the economy.

Another benefit is that the NMB will be able to truly gauge progress within each negotiation. This is particularly important when determining the “impasse pecking order”. With regard to the TWU and APFA groups, at least some movement has taken place in the non-economic areas. The APA cannot say the same as it has put itself into such a politically-tenuous position that it cannot move off of an opening proposal. A proposal that could not be afforded on the day it was presented – let alone now.

Mediation in this industry can be a good mechanism to work through issues but only after issues begin to narrow. That is how the process is designed to assist. Not to clear the underbrush from 30+ sections of a collective bargaining agreement.

I still think Maxon is right that the TWU group in mediation is number 1 on the “impasse pecking order” list. For the APA, you just moved to a distant third on that list – unless of course you get to participate in a sympathy strike. Or maybe, the APA will actually read the tea leaves and remove their opener and conduct a negotiation with the real world in mind and not the terms and conditions offered at Air Nirvana.

This really is fun to watch.

Thursday
Apr032008

Fuel Up, Forecasts Down and Labor at American Airlines Drills a Dry Hole

Crude Oil/Jet Fuel 101

There will be a time down the road when we will all stop talking about the high price of oil and thus the high cost of jet fuel and the resultant impact on the US and global airline industry’s ability to sustain profitability. But that time is not now.

I will put the impact of fuel costs in some historical perspective. During the second quarter of 2000, the industry paid 1.25 cents per available seat mile (ASM) for fuel and 3.50 cents per ASM for labor. By the fourth quarter of 2007, the industry was spending 3.50 cents per ASM for fuel and 3.00 cents per ASM for labor. At 1 billion plus available seat miles flown in 2007, you can do the math.

John Heimlich, the Chief Economist of the Air Transport Association, keeps us up to date on ATA’s website, http://www.airlines.org/, on energy/fuel issues facing the US airline industry. For serious industry watchers, if you don’t have a link to John’s work on your list of favorites then I suggest that you add it now.

It Is More than the Price of Crude

On the site, Mr. Heimlich regularly updates the presentation entitled: “Coping With Sky-High Jet Fuel Prices” in which he points out very clearly that the price of crude oil is only part of the cost for the airline industry. Heimlich reminds that the industry pays a premium, known as the “crack spread,” which is the difference between the cost of a barrel of crude oil and what the industry pays for crude oil refined into jet fuel. Until, hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the industry historically paid a crack spread price of $5 per barrel. In his initial forecast for 2008, Mr. Heimlich forecasts a crack spread price of $25 per barrel.

That $25 of crack spread forecast for 2008 is roughly equivalent to the cost of a barrel of crude in each 2001 and 2002. Simply stated, at a cost of $110 per barrel crude oil, the industry would pay an all in, or “in the wing,” cost per barrel of as much as $135. According to Heimlich, just last week the New York Harbor price of jet fuel topped $145 per barrel, including a crack spread nearing $35 per barrel.

So the pain the average driver feels at the pump is even worse for the airline industry. Heimlich points out the difference in his analysis comparing gasoline to jet fuel. Whereas the difference between the two was $2 per barrel in July 2007, today jet fuel is $29 per barrel more expensive than gasoline. Even with the many industry efforts to improve fuel efficiency, Heimlich forecasts that airlines will pay in excess of $55 billion for fuel in 2008 -- more than $14 billion more than the industry paid in 2007, without consuming so much as a single gallon more.

Many believe that raising fares will fix all. Yes, fares have increased some. But Heimlich shows that, all told, fares for the first two months of 2008 are 2.4 percent less than the average fares for the same two months in 2000. Over the same period, fuel costs have risen 198 percent.

Revised Forecast

As Heimlich was updating his fuel analysis, Brian Pearce, Chief Economist for the International Air Transport Association, was revising his 2008 global forecast – for the second or third time. Mr. Pearce’s initial outlook, issued early last year, predicted that the global airline industry would see a profit of nearly $10 billion in 2008. In September 2007, Pearce revised his profit forecast downward from $9.6 billion to $7.8 billion, citing both fuel costs and the beginnings of the credit crisis.

Only a few months later, in December of 2007, IATA revised its global forecast down yet again. But that revision caught many by surprise based on its sheer magnitude: in less than a year’s time, the IATA forecast a global airline profit of $5.0 billion – a 36 percent reduction from the previous forecast. Now, only yesterday, Pearce again revised his outlook downward by another 10 percent to $4.5 billion in his report “Stagflation Threatens The Outlook.” It is worth a complete read, but his first three points are powerful:

Our previous forecast in December projected a downturn in traffic and profitability for the airline industry this year. Since then the situation in the US economy has deteriorated and jet fuel prices have risen sharply. Stagflation has returned, a damaging combination of forces to which the airline industry is highly exposed over the year ahead.

The uncertainties facing us are far greater than usual. If central banks fail to reverse the credit crunch the outlook, particularly for the US industry, could be far worse. Our next forecast in June will be able to take a clearer view on the extent of the economic difficulties. In this forecast we have taken a conservative approach to cutting our profits forecast. We now project net profits of just $4.5 billion this year.

US consumer confidence slumped in March to levels consistent with a serious recession. The bursting of the housing market bubble leading to falling house prices and sub-prime mortgage defaults has led to a deepening crisis in the financial sector. The resulting credit crunch is now damaging the wider economy.

Now Let’s Turn to American Airlines’ Labor Issues . . . Yet Again

At this point, AA is in negotiations with all three of its unions, so it’s no longer only the Allied Pilots Association attracting news coverage. This week, it was Transport Workers Union, which represents maintenance, ramp and other workers. Yesterday, Trebor Banstetter of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reports on his blog that the union placed John Conley, Air Transport Division Director, on administrative leave. This questionable decision apparently stems from a comment Mr. Conley made at an aviation conference in which he suggested that the meteoric rise in the cost of fuel might impact the negotiating outcome in contract talks between the TWU and American.

I have met Mr. Conley and have listened to him in other public forums. I have always been struck by his thoughtful approach, his knowledge of the industry, and the care he shows for the people he represents. In this case, he simply stated the obvious. The reaction by TWU International President Jim Little is unfortunate, but it is likely one we will see more of.

Tracking the news and managing the expectations of the workers they represent is what union leaders do, or should do. But that has not been the case of late in the airline industry, where zealots and ideologues have set completely unrealistic expectations in their rhetoric surrounding contract talks. The TWU’s overheated reaction to Conley’s comments may have more to do with an ongoing campaign by a rival union, AMFA, to organize AA’s M&E shop. But if that’s the case, workers will face the unappealing choice between one union that attempts to silence one of its key officers for speaking the facts, or another that did a less-than-respectable job in representing its members at Northwest and United.

It has been said in the comment section on this blog a couple of times that I have a disdain for airline employees. As a former airline employee (and union steward) myself, nothing could be further from the truth. But I don’t have much patience for union leadership that overpromises and thus sets unrealistic expectations for members when the industry is under enormous financial and competitive pressure. Actions like this are precisely why I believe that this will be the toughest period in labor history since deregulation.

Since posting this piece this morning, I note that Holly Hegeman of Planebuzz.com wrote on the subject of John Conley’s demotion last evening. It is well worth a read.

Watch Alitalia as it is a precursor. In the US, we are witnessing happenings at Aloha and ATA. And we are still on the A’s.