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Tuesday
Apr212009

1st Quarter Earnings Calls: Unbungling; Unbundling But Not Unshackled

Three legacy carrier earnings calls down, two to go. Southwest and Allegiant have reported. So has SkyWest. But the clear takeaways are difficult to discern. Everyone wants to know if the industry has reached a bottom. But there are no clear answers while we are still in the middle of an economic tsunami. For all those who have said the domestic market is stabilizing (me among them) the only hard evidence on our side right now is that the environment is not getting worse.

Every carrier is supremely focused on unbungling their operations. Yes, unbungling. Because we all know that operations at many carriers have been a mess, with many factors to blame. And, as painful as the process has been, many carriers are making progress getting their operations and costs in order. US Airways led an amazing turnaround focused on its once-troubled Philadelphia hub. Many very good reforms are underway at United. And all things operational are improving at American, albeit at a slower pace than at some of their legacy peers.

Moreover, virtually every carrier – except for Southwest – remains committed to continuing the unbundling process and to maximizing secondary revenue sources. Today, Delta went so far as to announce a fee for the second checked bag on international flights -- becoming the first in the industry to do so. The industry is unequivocal that the fees will stay and that where opportunities are present to do more, they will. Further, a heartening storyline has emerged regarding distribution, where carriers increasingly see opportunities to move away from paying intermediaries to sell their tickets and to turn that model on its head so that airlines get a fee from the middle man for the right to sell their product.

The United Call

I do not have the transcript of this call in front of me, but this was a most interesting listen. My favorite part was when Morgan Stanley’s Bill Greene posed a very fundamental question that went something like this: With planned capital expenditures less than depreciation, how are we supposed to think about United, or the industry, on a going forward basis from an investment point of view?

Or, as Helane Becker of Jessup and Lamont put it: Should UAL have public equity at all, or instead raise only debt capital from the public markets? Then there was Ted Reed of TheStreet.com, who was blunt in asking whether, just maybe, United had “shrunk too much.”

Good questions. Unfortunately, they are ones that the current environment makes very difficult to answer with conviction.

In my last post, I questioned the airline industry’s access to capital given fragile economic fundamentals in an industry that, over its long history, has failed to produce so much as a dime in retained earnings. In my view, the industry is at a tipping point in which smart investors should question the structural integrity of some carriers and networks during what amounts to a market stress test . . . one that just might reveal which airlines have few moves left to shed uneconomic capacity.

This is the “new and irreversible development” I referred to, a trajectory that might change only through serious effort to remove the many regulatory shackles around this industry. Some necessary changes might not be politically popular -- increased foreign ownership of US airlines comes to mind – but the industry’s options are narrowing when you consider that revenue trends do not hold out much immediate promise.

Looking ahead, with credit tight, where will capital – affordable capital – be found unless it is from another participant in the same industry? If companies are struggling to realize any return on invested capital today, then what happens as interest rates continue to increase in lockstep with capital scarcity? As standalone companies, there is just not enough room for individual carriers to maneuver around an income statement that holds little promise of further significant reductions in the short-term. Based on Greene’s point, even United seems reluctant to reinvest much of its own, and limited, capital into a business that does not hold promise of a reasonable return.

This is not just about United. This is an industry issue. And not just a US industry issue . . . it is fast becoming a global industry issue.

In North America, Air Canada has long been the poster child of an airline that needs an influx of foreign capital necessary to keep the company relevant in the global market place. Air Canada faces some unique challenges: namely that nearly two-thirds of Canada’s air travel demand is found in just eight markets.

Meanwhile, the Delta/Northwest merger is fast proving that the combined entity is far less vulnerable than either of the two carriers would have been had they not merged. Just think about the vulnerability of each Delta’s and Northwest’s respective hubs to the economies in the interior of the US footprint.

With US Airways the exception among the legacy carriers as to international market exposure, we as a nation should at very least acknowledge the reality that globally-oriented airlines need to be just that. I’m not talking about domestic airlines with global extensions -- we tried that, in a way, with TWA, Eastern and Pan Am . But absent any real alliances that left each of them dependent only on US-origin traffic, those carriers suffered a common fate -- shut down in sagging economies as capital became tight.

Concluding Thoughts

Following an industry life cycle of value destruction, US legacy carriers now face a dilemma: whether to invest in their core businesses or not?

As the US airline industry is now six full years into a major restructuring, the tendency to legislative and regulatory gridlock did not get restructured. An inflexible labor construct did not get restructured. Policies promoting the fragmentation of the US domestic market did not get restructured – until the airlines themselves took on this task through capacity reductions in redundant markets out of necessity. The infrastructure, whether it be ATC or the airport system, did not get restructured. And the historic mindset that capital will be forever recycled among manufacturers, vendors, labor and government imposed actions did not get restructured.

In truth, the US market should not fear individual carrier failures or consolidation. Indeed, this market has demonstrated time and time again that where competition is vulnerable, a new entrant will exploit that vulnerability. Where there are market opportunities, there will be a carrier to leverage that opportunity. Where there is insufficient capacity, capacity will be sure to find the insufficiency.

At a minimum, government should take a very serious look at where this industry sits. The US airline industry is not asking for government handouts. Rather it is my view that this industry seeks nothing more than the same rights to operate as virtually every other successful US industry selling to the global marketplace is permitted.

Few shackles unless consumer harm can be proven. Going backward will result in significantly more dislocation for virtually every stakeholder remaining in the industry today as it begins with an industry even smaller than today’s.  It would be a shame to waste six years of some very good work.