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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?

Sunday
Aug282011

It Shouldn’t Be About Scope This Time – Rather Benefiting More Than One Stakeholder Is Key

It is Friday, August 26, 2011 and I am aboard United flight #701 bound for Albuquerque to participate in the 16th Annual Boyd Group International Aviation Forecast Summit.  Many third rail issues get addressed at this widely attended conference and this year promises to be no exception.  The conference will address what Boyd refers to as futurist issues that will ultimately result in structural change to the architecture of the industry.  And I have been asked to help Mike open the conference along with Captain Michael Baiada.  I cannot wait.

What is significant about United flight #701? Seven years ago, a significant part of my career was assisting communities to attract airlines to begin new service. I was working with a talented air service development team at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and my former firm, Eclat, and at the time there was very little domestic service to relevant markets that Washington Dulles did not have, whether regionally, mid-con or trans-con. 

But there were unserved markets like San Antonio and Albuquerque that were made interesting with regional aircraft service.  We approached United about a regional service from Dulles to the Land of Enchantment starting with a regional jet.  United agreed that the market could support a 50-seat aircraft on that route.  Over time, that route could support a 70-seat plane. Tonight I sit aboard a United mainline A-319 flown by a United mainline crew. 

If not for the ability to initiate a route that had fledgling demand with a right-sized aircraft, there would not be a mainline flight today that would get passengers from Washington Dulles to New Mexico in three hours and nineteen minutes. And this is but one example of many similar stories.

Today's pilot unions might look at this through a different lens.  How can we talk about any positive development stemming from the relationship between a mainline carrier and a regional partner?  In the view of many, any flight flown under the flagship name should be flown by mainline pilots. That's why unions negotiate scope clauses. That's job protection.

Or is it?

Ahh -- the law of unintended consequences rears its head in union halls.  Scope language is negotiated – in the mind of the pilot unions - to protect jobs.  But it does not.  Just note the loss of more than 800 mainline narrowbody shells and nearly 15,000 mainline flight crew members over the past decade and ask how successful the pilot unions have been at protecting jobs. 

More cuts will come if management negotiates the wrong scope language this time – language that limits their ability to remain agile when responding to competitive threats.  Domestic mainline network attrition will occur by 300-400 additional paper cuts per airline if done otherwise.  Nothing can artificially alter market forces.  Airlines have found ways around regulations governing international air transport and they have found ways around the biggest regulator of all – unions and scope language.

All I hear from negotiations at United/Continental, American and a renegade wannabe union challenging ALPA at Delta is that this round is about Scope, Scope and more Scope.  And I smile and wonder where the magic will come this time as lower cost competition remains keen to take full advantage of its labor and other cost advantages to find future growth opportunities.

Jeff Smisek, President and CEO of United Continental Holdings, recently lambasted the federal government - the other regulator - in a presentation at the Global Business Travel Association Convention in Denver.  Where might the U.S. look for a model of more effective air policy? Dubai, Smisek said, according to an article by Fred Gebhart in Travel Market Report.

“Emirates is a good example of an airline with a government that has good aviation policy,” Smisek said.
“Dubai recognizes the importance of air. It has an intelligent policy with a government that cares about the success of the air sector. It doesn’t throw up roadblocks, doesn’t over-tax it, and doesn’t beat it down at every opportunity. The U.S. government does all those things every day.”

 As usual, Smisek is spot on.

He talked of wanting to make United an airline that customers want to fly and investors want to invest in.  But while he spoke, Gebhart reports, nearly three dozen pilots and staffers picketed Smisek outside the conference, claiming that the company was "outsourcing jobs while creating unsafe working and flying conditions for employees and passengers.”

Nothing, and I mean nothing, disgusts me more than the actions of the US Airways and United/Continental pilots playing the safety card to create leverage in negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.  Is it really useful to try to frighten passengers? The vast majority of employees recognize that the best job security is a successful company and successful companies need customers to provide the revenue and shareholders to provide the capital.

Keep in mind that the pilots doing the picketing agreed to the language that allows the outsourcing of certain flying.  If not for the regional partners as a lower cost alternative, United, Continental, Delta and US Airways mainline operations would be but a shadow of the shadow they are today.

The United/Continental and US Airways pilot groups should get out of the court room and the arbitration tribunal business and get back to the bargaining table and negotiate an agreement that takes into account their companies' unique strengths and weaknesses.

Scope is not their problem.  Global competition is the challenge, and no scope language is going to protect them from that.  Any attempt to hamstring the airlines from making decisions that are in the best interests of all employees/stakeholders will only weaken the companies down the line. When it comes to United/Continental and US Airways ability to survive, Smisek and Parker are not the enemy; Emirates and Southwest/AirTran and Air Asia are.

Qantas Compared to the US Network Carriers

Speaking of being hamstrung by labor - the Qantas story playing out has strong parallels to the US network carriers that used the bankruptcy process to remake their operations during the 2002 – 2007 period.  The only real difference is that Qantas is quickly losing its competitive advantages to the emerging international “low cost” network carriers whereas the US network carriers lost their competitive advantage to the emerging domestic low cost carriers.

Last week Qantas outlined for the world the initial phase of an intended restructuring in its international operations designed to get its operating costs down – beginning with a new, high end, narrowbody intra-Asia operation with 11 Airbus aircraft.  Needless to say, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce’s decision to embark on such a strategy only poured more fuel on the fire burning between the kangaroo and its unionized pilots. 

Joyce is one tough leader.  Last week, Qantas announced that its profits doubled.  You know if you are making money why would you need to possibly embark on a radical, non-Australia based operation?  Because the international operation is under fire from Emirates and Air Asia and Virgin Australia and . . . Qantas announced that the mainline domestic and international – not subsidiary JetStar - made AUD 228 million, an improvement of 240 percent over the prior year period.  So what’s the problem?  The international operation lost AUD 200 million, meaning a very small domestic operation made a staggering AUD 428 million.  Therein lays the problem.  A money losing international operation, given the large fixed investment made, could quickly land a smallish carrier like Qantas in the memory bank.

Not only does Qantas suffer a structural geographic disadvantage of being at the end of a network system easily making its markets captive by the competition, it also suffers from a labor cost disadvantage, particularly in its international operations.  With successful competitors springing up in all sectors of Asian commercial aviation, the Qantas brand is potentially isolated and damned for extinction unless the network procreates outside of Australia.

This is why Joyce is making his move and doing so before it is too late.  And that is what the unions do not understand.  Scope is only as valuable as a met condition makes it.  Scope is negotiated before the future landscape is fully known and understood.  Airlines overpay for scope because the opportunity costs to shareholders are disregarded.  And this must come to an end because it only hurts the bottom line and job protection in the future.

Smisek, Anderson, Parker and Arpey (and maybe even Kelly as his airline gets more complicated) should take a long hard look at the history of scope.  Has it produced the desired consequences for employees, shareholders and the company?  Has it produced the kind of goodwill a company might expect from negotiating job protection measures in collective bargaining agreements?  Has it stopped unions from using the "safety card" to attack their own airlines by making customers leery of flying?

I challenge each of the US CEOs to resist caving into union demands for scope language in negotiations with the unions. There is no job security for any employee if the company is made weaker because management tried to buy labor peace with short-sided, limiting "job protection" clauses designed to make one employee group feel better.  In today's airline industry, the root of job security is the ability to fly profitably and with the flexibility to fly the right aircraft with the right costs on the right routes for the network.

More to come later this week.

Tuesday
Jun072011

In The Airline Business We Just Do Not Talk About Balance Sheets Enough

In the Gulf States, we have Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker saying to Gulf Business Nothing Can Stop Us Now.  In the article Al Baker talks about the high cost and inefficient airlines in the west.  In the U.K., a headline in The Independent reads:  More Carriers Could Fold Warns IAG’s Willie Walsh.  Bruce Smith, writing for the Indianapolis Star publishes a story on hometown Republic Holdings titled:  Republic Emphasizes Cost Cuts As It Fights To Compete.  Like a lot of airlines these days, Republic’s branded carriers – otherwise known as Frontier and Midwest  – are not only fighting to compete, they’re fighting to simply stay alive.

It’s easy to forget Republic now flies its own airline flag. Prior to purchasing Frontier and Midwest out of bankruptcy, Republic Holdings’ predominately did fee-for-departure flying for U.S. network carriers.  In October 2008, I asked:  Just Who Will Inherit the U.S. Domestic Market? Don’t Forget Today’s “Regional Carriers”.  Nearly two years ago, after Republic staved off Southwest from sponsoring Frontier’s exit from bankruptcy, I asked,  Is Republic Changing the Face of the US Domestic Market?   

In each of the Swelblog.com articles referenced above, I talked about how smart Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Holdings (RJET) is.   Bedford made the move to acquire Frontier and Midwest in an environment where it was increasingly clear the legacy carriers did not – and cannot over the long-term – operate under a cost structure that will not support the number of airlines trying to survive in the hypercompetitive U.S. domestic airline business.  Since then, consolidation among U.S. carriers has taken off – for network, low cost and regional airlines alike.

Smart or not, the price of jet fuel puts pressure on Bedford’s balance sheet more so than other carriers given Republic’s incipient fragility.  I have written time and again the most important financial statement for any airline today is its balance sheet.  As Republic Holdings trades near a 52 week low, many analysts are jumping off the RJET bandwagon.

Mike Linenberg, equity analyst at Deutsche Bank, wrote following Republic’s first quarter results, “Republic ended the March quarter with $467 million in total cash, $37 million higher than at the end of the December quarter. While the company’s restricted cash balance increased $87 million to $226 million, driven by the seasonality of its Frontier business, unrestricted cash declined $50 million to $241 million, impacted by the company’s relatively high credit card holdback provision of 95%. Regarding additional sources of cash, Republic indicated that it had some collateral-backed debt that could be refinanced to produce an additional $70- $80 million of net cash to the company.”

In the airline business, cash is king and fuel is the wildcard. With its fee-for-departure contracts, Republic left the fuel risk to its mainline partners.   (Of course the price of fuel affects the decision of the mainline carrier as to whether to buy regional capacity).  Now Bedford has to buy fuel for his Frontier and Midwest subsidiaries… that helps to explain why RJET’s unrestricted cash declined by some $50 million.

Why I was bullish on the Republic – Frontier combination in the early days was because the Indianapolis based holding company had bought a brand, one that came with a vibrant flying community – Denver.  With a community comes inherent demand.  With demand comes revenue.  But Last month, Ann Schrader of the Denver Post reported Southwest had jumped over Frontier in terms of market share at DIA.    

Republic announced the acquisition of Frontier on June 22, 2009.  On that date, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil was $64.58 and the price of a gallon of jet fuel was $1.78.  In 2011, WTI has traded in excess of $100 per barrel and one gallon of jet fuel tops $3.  It is one thing to be in the regional business when the cost of fuel doesn’t directly affect you. It’s another when you actually have to pay for the gas.

Southwest

On the flip side, I think that Southwest’s purchase of AirTran is brilliant.  In many catchment areas around the contiguous 48 states most populated and wealthy areas, the combined carrier has at least two beachheads.  While I still don’t believe Southwest, jetBlue, Frontier and Spirit will inherit the domestic U.S. marketplace; I am increasingly convinced the not-so-meek Southwest will inherit more earth than any of the others.  The U.S. domestic market has always been about the survival of the fittest. 

Might we be headed for another round where Southwest captures five points of domestic market share?  Possibly. What’s different this time versus the 2001 – 2006 period when Southwest and the other LCCs captured nearly 20 points of domestic market share is the airlines losing ground won’t be the network carriers.  More will come from weak competitors – like Frontier, Midwest and Spirit. .  There should be little surprise that Spirit sold a fraction of its intended shares at 25 percent less than desired price in its Initial Public Offering (IPO). 

Frontier is quickly losing pricing power in the very place it called home.  Presumably the value in the Frontier franchise was its cult following in the Denver local market. Without a meaningful, and growing, share of the local market, pricing power is compromised.  No pricing power in a high jet fuel cost environment does little to bolster a fragile balance sheet.  Southwest has the time and the financial wherewithal to whittle Frontier's following and, thus, its franchise value.

Southwest isn’t Frontier’s (and Bedford’s) only headache. United has a presence in Denver as well, one that’s not necessarily focused on local traffic. That makes Denver somewhat different than other cities where three carriers have tried to hub.  My guess is something is going to give in Denver because, at some point, the law of diminishing returns is sure to play out for any one of the three competitors.  And I’ll bet on Southwest’s balance sheet winning the war.

Southwest is an opportunistic competitor.  I expect Southwest to fill any voids left by either Frontier or United in Denver.  Where United or Frontier might be vulnerable, Southwest will likely exploit that weakness by adding capacity.  It can be patient because Southwest has a balance sheet that is far stronger than either of its two Denver competitors.  Frontier is, by far, the weakest. The high cost of fuel is its immediate enemy and Frontier has fewer options than either Southwest or United.

Labor - It Really Is About The Balance Sheet

The one thing that the pre-Frontier/Midwest Republic did not have to worry about was earnings as long as it delivered the product promised to the mainline carriers.  Today, the branded operation is suffering losses and is forecast to lose money going forward while most major players are going to make money.  As Linenberg’s analysis suggests, Frontier needs to generate cash internally because it has limited borrowing capability.

The strong get stronger.  The weak get weaker.  Survival of the fittest at its most emblematic. As Bryan Bedford told his shareholders – and the world - he needed to find $100 million in cost savings, his pilots protested outside.  No earnings and a weak balance sheet usually do not equal wage increases. It’s not about whether pilots deserve increases – that’s not what I’m talking about.  Balance sheet repair is not sexy.  Balance sheet repair does not add to earnings.  Balance sheet repair does not produce wage increases and work rule changes that resemble 2001.

What balance sheet repair does is keep airlines flying. If struggling carriers don’t find ways to fix their sheets, they won’t be around. I don’t mean they’ll file Chapter 11 and hope to reorganize or sell themselves off at the last minute. I mean they will cease to exist. Their one-time employees will be out of work, their assets will be auctioned off. No one is going to pump capital into an airline whose balance sheet is out of whack, whether that’s because of fuel, diminished market share or labor costs.  

It really is why pattern bargaining should be a thing of the past.  Every airline is different.  Every airline competes in different geographies, with different goals and has labor needs that other carriers don’t. 

The more I think about it, US Airways pilots – and whichever union/group is currently representing them - are really doing the company a favor by not coming to grips with reality.  US Airways is more exposed in the U.S. domestic market than any other network carrier.  The U.S. domestic market is a low-fare environment and requires lower labor costs than, say, a United or a Delta that have more capacity in international markets.  The same holds true for flight attendants and below-the-wing personnel. More to come on this one.

I see employees picketing and I scratch my head.  This industry lost nearly one in every four jobs during the past decade, yet still has more than 350,000 employees with wage and benefit packages in excess of $85,000.  This is an industry of good paying jobs despite the economic environment it operates in. Yet many labor groups refuse to recognize the need for balance sheet repair… and that labor costs have to be part of the fix. You can’t just tweak revenue or fuel costs or charge more for a ticket. Shoring the balance sheet requires a holistic approach.

Without that type of approach, as Willie Walsh recently said, more airlines will fold.  I’ll even venture more could merge. Frontier is a classic example of why this industry is not out of the woods.  And why even the network carriers are not done.  And why the regional carriers are not done.  Isn’t it interesting that Sean Menke, the former head of Frontier just joined Pinnacle Airlines – a truly regional carrier at this point in the industry lifecycle?  What does he know that the rest of us do not?  Me thinks that the domestic market will also be made up of today’s regional carriers; today’s low cost carriers and of course; today’s network carriers as Jeff Smisek, CEO at the new United said, "A domestic operation sized solely to feed our international traffic".  It will be different no matter what pilot scope clauses suggest.

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.

Thursday
Apr082010

United and US Airways: Third Time a Charm? I Say “Do No Harm”

We went to bed last night with the news United and US Airways were in negotiations to merge for a third time.  We awake this morning to the news British Airways and Iberia have finally signed their long awaited merger agreement.  British Airways will change its name to International Airlines after completing the deal with Iberia, expected in December of 2010.  If United and US Airways were to merge, what would they change their name to?  US Domestic Mess?  Ground Hog Air? 

United and US Airways broke off marriage discussion #2 in June of 2008 as oil was on its historic march to  $147+ per barrel.  Ultimately, United settled on a virtual STAR alliance partnership with Houston-based Continental.  The UA/CO relationship makes sense as both companies have an international focus with hubs in the largest U.S. cities where large pools of business travelers avail themselves to airline service across all continents.  A  United – US Airways combination ensures regulatory scrutiny of slot holdings at key east coast airports in New York and Washington, DC.  I don’t get the benefit of United – US Airways today anymore than when I wrote that I did not like the deal on June 2, 2008.

To my eyes, the real United news yesterday was the company reporting its preliminary March traffic results.  “Total consolidated revenue passenger miles (RPMs) increased in March by 3.2% on a decrease of 2.7% in available seat miles (ASMs) compared with the same period in 2009. This resulted in a reported March consolidated passenger load factor of 83.5%, an increase of 4.8 points compared to 2009. For March 2010, consolidated passenger revenue per available seat mile (PRASM) is estimated to have increased 21.5% to 23.5% year over year. Consolidated PRASM is estimated to have increased 3.2% to 5.2% for March 2010 compared to March 2008, approximately 3.0 percentage points of which were due to growth in ancillary revenues.”  Those are not words from a company seeking to do a deal for the sake of a deal – right?

The Delta – Northwest Merger Template

United CEO Glenn Tilton and Continental CEO Jeff Smisek have pointed to the success of the Delta – Northwest merger, citing that combined company’s market capitalization of $11+ billion.  Today, pre-market, United’s market capitalization is $3.2 billion, or nearly 5 times greater than it was a year ago.  US Airways market capitalization is $1.1 billion or nearly 2.5 times greater than it was a year ago. 

Today, Delta’s market capitalization is roughly equal to 40 cents per dollar of its trailing twelve month revenue; United’s market capitalization is equal to 19 cents per dollar of trailing twelve month revenue and US Airways is 11 cents.  If United and US Airways were to be accorded the same relationship of market capitalization to revenue that Delta is today, the market would need to multiply the pro forma market capitalization today by nearly 2.5 times.  An unlikely scenario.

Three of the Reasons Why I Do Not Like the Rumor

  1. The Delta and Northwest networks were largely complementary when the two carriers combined.  The size of Northwest and Delta’s network is larger than a combined United and US Airways.  However, the fit of the network is more important than size.  The ability to leverage one network against the other in order to create new city pairs to sell is critical to any network’s success.  Delta and Northwest made for a true “end to end” combination whereas United and US Airways possess some meaningful overlap that would likely require DOJ mandated carve outs.  Any carve-outs would immediately erase some of the perceived benefit of a combined United and US Airways in the eyes of the market.  Simply why do I want DOJ interference in the first place?
  2. Today, United has several immunized joint venture applications pending before the regulatory bodies with partners across each the Atlantic and the Pacific.  These relationships are valuable and likely have been recognized by the financial markets as such.  Why would United possibly jeopardize the international potential to merge with a U.S. domestic-oriented carrier?
  3. Finally, and possibly most importantly, the Delta – Northwest combination was blessed to have a pilot leader in place that understood consolidation and globalization are not only inevitable but are important to the success of his company and therefore the pilots he represents.  We have talked about Capt. Lee Moak here many times.  The Delta – Northwest combination had a merged seniority list and negotiated collective bargaining agreement in place before the deal was consummated.  This seemingly simple fact allowed the newly merged company to enjoy the ability to reconfigure the combined network from the outset.  The benefits were/are many and could be the subject of another blog post or a master’s thesis or a doctorate.

Whereas Moak and his Northwest counterparts put into place the unthinkable in only five months, the pilots at US Airways and America West continue to emulate the Hatfields and the McCoys five years after their two companies merged.  What has transpired at that company since 2005 is mind-numbing and underscores the broken model of labor language that pervades the U.S. industry today.  Sadly, the professional aviators at that combined company have suffered due to the leadership vacuum that persists on both sides of the argument. 

Combine the dysfunctional relationship between the US Airways and America West pilots with the entitlement mindset of the United pilots (and all United employees for that matter) and you have a mess.  A mess that in no way promises the revenue synergies Delta and Northwest mined almost immediately that facilitated an outsized market capitalization relative to other legacy carriers. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am for any type of commercial relationship benefitting the industry generally and individual companies specifically.  I was a fan of United – US Airways #1 in 2000.  I was not a fan of United – US Airways #2 in 2008.  And I am not a fan of United – US Airways #3 today.  Each company’s fundamentals are improving so I don’t understand the rush – assuming there is one. . 

The third time is not a charm.  I say do no harm to the improving fundamentals at each company.  I do believe the risk of irrelevance in the marketplace is higher for US Airways than it is for United.  There was a time – albeit a short period – when the fundamentals of the U.S. domestic market were outperforming international operations.  That is not the case today and is but one US Airways’ attribute that  will not prove to be a winning scenario over the long term given the cost structures of the legacy carriers.

The one mantra that always lived with me at the negotiating table – you can always do a bad deal.

More to come.

 

[Note:  the author holds shares in United Airlines]

Thursday
Feb182010

Patience and Perseverance: Tilton Walks It Like He Talks It

There is no way to describe United Airline leader Glenn Tilton other than resilient.  He is disliked internally by organized labor and questioned externally by nearly everyone who has an eye on this industry.  He has taken his role as the industry spokesperson seriously, perhaps more seriously than anyone before him.  We listen intently to Giovanni Bisignani, the CEO of IATA.  But we do not listen enough to Tilton. Why? Because Tilton’s is a message of change not cluttered by this industry’s history, and some people don’t like the message.

Tilton was quoted shortly after United ended a three year stay in bankruptcy: “If I were able to draw a visual image of the beginning (of bankruptcy) to today, it would be one continuous experience of knocking down internal and external barriers.”  In his role as chief spokesperson for the US airline industry as Chairman of the Board of the Air Transport Association, Tilton waxes philosophical about the barriers that impede the industry’s natural evolution.

I have a long history at United and knew the “old company” well.  United epitomized all that was wrong with the US airline industry prior to its bankruptcy in December of 2002.  One of Tilton’s predecessors as CEO, Stephen Wolf, did some very good things along the way that provided United with its global roots.  But even Wolf did little to address the company’s bloated cost structure and a management bureaucracy that often resulted in paralysis.  For every cubicle in Elk Grove Village, one could find at least one silo. 

Tilton cares less about the history of United than its future.  His history lesson was a short one – whatever structure in place when he arrived in 2002 did not work and therefore needed to be changed.  If Tilton was wed to preserving United’s legacy, then he likely would not have taken the same course in fundamentally reshaping the company. He would not have taken on the pilot union, ALPA, over its actions to disrupt United’s operations – winning an airtight legal victory for management that ranks among the most significant victories in decades.  Rather he would have permitted bad behavior – or paid the pilots to stop behaving badly - just as prior administrations had done. 

Today United is a lot smaller, with a mainline operation 30 percent smaller than it was 10 years ago.  For this, Tilton takes a lot of heat.  As the pilots union watches its ranks diminish, ALPA constantly reminds Tilton that an airline cannot shrink its way to profitability.  This may have been true in United’s past, but on Tilton’s watch growth will only occur if it is profitable growth.  It is hard to envision a day when United will again have 12,000 pilot equivalents on the payroll.

Tilton and others recognize that the industry is still too big.  In the most read Swelblog article to date, Montie Brewer makes a clear case that the industry’s capacity-lead business model is the number one reason why the airline industry will never be profitable over a sustainable period.  Also weighing in on the subject is Professor Rigas Doganis who writes about over capacity in Airline Business.  According to Doganis, the airline industry is inherently unstable and airlines have only themselves to blame for the constant state of oversupply and the downward pressure on fares that result.

Doganis goes on to discuss how airlines are “spasmodically” profitable, quoting Tilton on the fact that the industry has "systematically failed to earn its cost of capital."  This is a fact that has long bothered the former oilman.  In a recent speech to the Wings Club in New York, Tilton raised the industry’s continuing and daunting challenge: “How to navigate to sustainable profitability in light of our financial instability.”

In London he made the point again and differently:  “Volatility and losses have been the norm for this industry, as has our systemic failure to earn our cost of capital and achieve any level of consistent financial resilience. The industry has lost nearly $50 billion worldwide since 2000 and a staggering $11 billion last year alone.”

Tilton at United – From Hands On to Chief Strategist

One can be sure that when Tilton arrived at United in September 2002, he had little idea just how bad things were.  But he would soon find out.  Three months after his arrival in Elk Grove Village, United landed in a downtown Chicago courtroom for more than three years as the company restructured itself.  There were mistakes along the way.  There was some bad luck along the way particularly as it pertained to rising values in the aircraft market.  There was the decision to terminate employee defined benefit plans, which among other things permanently damaged Tilton’s reputation in the labor ranks, but enabled the airline to get the exit capital it needed to start anew.

As United exited bankruptcy protection in February 2006, oil prices were on the rise.  The company restructured itself around $55 per barrel oil – a price that was fast becoming a memory and a bad assumption in the company’s plan of reorganization.  Company performance – operational, financial or otherwise – was nowhere near expectations set based on an entity that had spent three years fixing itself.  For either right or wrong reasons, Tilton kept many of United’s legacy management team around to complete the bankruptcy process.  What he belatedly came to appreciate is that leadership at the company had to change – and change it did.

United mainline is much smaller today than it was the day it emerged from bankruptcy.  Tilton oversaw its downsizing in bankruptcy and continued the work as oil prices climbed.  But he also recognized that he was not the guy to handle the day to day operations. Like any good restructuring guy, Tilton knew to hand over the operation of the company to others on the executive team, particularly  John Tague, Kathryn Mikells and Pete McDonald.

And the plan seems to be finally working.  United is starting to produce some good results.  There might be a lesson here for others in the industry, including the consideration of whether CEOs should delegate the day-to-day functions and concentrate on their role as the company’s chief strategist.  Just as pivotal, in United’s case at least, was Tilton’s decision to focus on tearing down the barriers to change – something all industry CEOs should consider in improving the financial prospects for a once proud industry relegated to underperformance, in part by the stakeholders who benefit from its inefficiency.

Tilton and Government

In one way or another, Tilton delivers the message that “no matter how well United or any U.S. carrier transforms its business, none of us will be as strong as we should be - much less in a position to compete in the emerging global aviation industry - if there's no change to the regulatory environment in which we operate.” Without a coherent U.S. aviation policy that “reverses the bias against airline size and removes the barriers that prevent us from constructive consolidation, U.S. carriers will be unable to compete on a global scale and we risk being marginalized,” Tilton said.

Among the questions for the industry, as Tilton outlined in a talk to the UK Aviation club, is what motivates the protectionists’ view of the industry.  “What is it that they are “protecting? A chronically underperforming industry?” he asked.

Concluding Thoughts

For what it’s worth, I focus on Tilton not because of his work at United but because of the message he delivers and its relevance to the rest of the industry.

As I predicted in my last post, February 2010 has been a significant month for airline news – some of it good and some of it bad like government’s call for slot divestitures in the USAirways – Delta slot swap.  It appears likely that oneworld will get permission to compete on an equal footing with the STAR and SkyTeam alliances.  This is the necessary next step to ensure inter-alliance competition as we think and talk about the industry’s structure going forward.   Tilton is a huge proponent of alliances who quickly recognized that one airline cannot be everything to everybody and that network scope and scale can be economically garnered through partnerships that leverage each member airline’s strengths.

Tilton also remains a proponent of consolidation.  His voice is growing increasingly louder on the subject of cross-border mergers and the flow of capital based his belief that the US and the European Union should move forward on Phase II of a transatlantic agreement and pave the way to permitting cross border commercial activity in the airline industry.  As Tilton noted in his UK speech, “capital is global and doesn't have sovereign inhibitions."

Like him or not, Tilton rarely shies away from stating his views, even at the risk of ruffling some stakeholder’s feathers.  For Tilton, too many people focus on the past rather than the future and what needs removed in order that the industry can continue to evolve. That evolution may continue to prove painful for some in the industry as Open Skies and re-shaped alliances bring new competition all the while presenting new opportunities for agile and nimble operators.

Tilton’s role, like that of the Anderson, Arpey, Smisek , Parker and other airline CEOs, is to serve as agents of that change and find a way to balance the demands and interests of labor, shareholders and other stakeholders that depend on a robust, profitable industry.

 

Note:  I hold stock and options in Hawaiian Holdings, Inc. as a result of my Board position.  I also hold stock in United Airlines accumulated at various points in time since the company emerged from bankruptcy.

Friday
Jan222010

Pondering Washington Politics and Dilemmas over Airline Strikes

Things just happen when things move too far too fast.

Wow.  All I could say after Tuesday night’s victory for Scott Brown in Massachusetts was wow.  I am still in a head shaking wow mode as is much of the country.  Then again, this has been one amazing 40 days for the country when it comes to politics.  Much of the political power grabs have been occurring within the health care reform debate arena where the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the unions wringing a “Cadillac Plan” tax exemption out of the White House emerged.   

During these amazing 40 days, the airline industry was not immune from political meddling and arrogance that somehow manage to turn politicians into CEOs and airline route planners either.  Nevada Senator Harry Reid went so far as to write a letter to US Airways CEO Doug Parker expressing concerns about the airline’s decision to significantly downsize operations at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.   Reid’s letter provides a lot of fodder for comment, but there are a few I want to highlight.

Reid writes, “As I am sure you are aware, Nevada has been particularly hard hit by the recession affecting our nation.”  Hey Harry, have you noticed the U.S. airline industry lost nearly $60 billion during the 2K decade.  Or that airlines shed 150,000 jobs because of economic conditions that plague the country and, thus, this industry which is inextricably tied to the health of the economy?  Or that taxes and fees on airlines increased while the revenue environment deteriorated?  Or that you chose to pursue, and fund, a railroad serving a few rather than funding an air traffic control system and equipping an industry now serving the masses?  I suppose not.

Then Reid has the audacity to write, “Because of the commitment you have shown to Nevada, I have been a longtime supporter of your airline.  From the merger with USAir to accessing additional slots on the East Coast, we have worked together to build the airline into one of the premier national carriers.”  Wow, how arrogant is that?  Does that mean if US Airways pulls down Las Vegas, Reid will stand in the way of a commercial arrangement that would make US Airways stronger?  Then again, that line of thinking is more typical than atypical of this Congress and its view of an industry that facilitates commerce.

Politics are the rule of the day even with quasi-government agencies charged with minimizing instability within those very industries. The way the National Mediation Board is going about changing a 75-year rule that worked until organizing possibilities presented themselves at Delta Air Lines is another example of politics run amuck.

Speaking of the National Mediation Board

There is a lot of talk in the mainstream and industry press about airline strikes.  The process by which airline and railroad unions can strike is quite different than other industries – and it all runs through the National Mediation Board.  It is explained better by some reporters than others. 

This round of negotiations is the first since the restructuring negotiations of 2002 that resulted in significant salary and work rule provisions being stripped from many collective bargaining agreements.  Some of those negotiations were done under Sections 1113 and 1114 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and others were not.  The current round of talks will involve the National Mediation Board in many, if not most, instances.  Complicating matters is the sheer number of cases already being negotiated under the auspice of the NMB.   And there are more cases on the way. 

As I write, all organized groups at both American and United Airlines (per a reader: except the IBT, PAFCA and IFPTE) are in mediation.  At some point, certain of those negotiations will have gone as far as they can before the NMB determines the two sides are at an "impasse".  Once an impasse is declared, then the parties are put into what is known as a “30 day cooling off period.”  If no agreement is reached inside that 30 day period, then either side is free to engage in “self help.”  Self help permits management to either “lock out” employees or to "impose its last offer" on the work force. The union can choose to withdraw its services – otherwise known as a strike - - or utilize other “work actions.”   The parties can mutually agree to continue talks until such point that further discussions are deemed fruitless by either side.

Dilemmas for Obama As He Considers a Request from Airline Workers to Strike

Going into this negotiating period and suspecting difficult, if not impossible, negotiations, I wondered aloud about how decisions would be made to release parties into a cooling off period.  I wondered aloud if strikes would be more prevalent than they have been in the past.  I have wondered aloud about who might be this decade’s Eastern Air Lines.  I have wondered just how the NMB is possibly going to manage this work load all the while promising a more speedy negotiating process as part of its new charge.  And recently I have been wondering how politics might affect NMB thinking when it comes to releasing parties from mediation. 

In my prior thinking I believed that this round would result in more Presidential Emergency Board proceedings to ultimately decide the terms of a contract.  A Presidential Emergency Board?  Yes, as the 30 day cooling off period expires and, more often than not, the union decides to engage in self help, there is a parallel decision that must be reached by the White House. 

The White House must determine how commerce might be disrupted if a certain airline were to go on strike.  That calculus involves, at a minimum, the level of unaccomodated demand in certain markets if one carrier were to strike.  Or said another way, can the remaining service in the market accommodate the passengers that cannot travel on the carrier they booked on due to the strike? 

In the era where 80+ percent load factors are the norm, the case for suggesting that demand can be accommodated by the remaining service is increasingly difficult.  It was already starting to get difficult when the Northwest pilots decided to strike in August of 1998.

So if Obama, in this case, determines that a strike would provide too much harm to certain air travel markets, he could stop the strike and order a Presidential Emergency Board to be convened… just like President Clinton did in 1997 when the American pilots chose to strike.  In the case of a PEB, a panel of neutrals, usually arbitrators, is formed to hear the economic case presented by each side.  If the parties cannot agree, then the panel will suggest a "non-binding" settlement.  There is still the possibility of a strike and also the possibility that Congress could legislate a settlement to avert such strike – more than likely the settlement offered by the PEB.

But that is a long way down the road.  I only raise the issues in this piece because politics prior to Massachusetts at least would seem to be nothing more than promises made to special interests (unions) in a dark room in order to garner their support for Obama.  And it worked and has worked.  But might things change?

Compunding the complexity of White House decisions in this round is the possibility of interstate commerce disruption when government stimulus money is in play.

Dilemmas for Airline Labor As They Decide to Strike

About the only thing that you can predict is that a strike at a major, legacy airline will more than likely result in yet another tombstone in the airline graveyard.  Said another way, if a union wants to strike one of today’s legacy carriers, I can see a lock out, use of replacement workers or the sale of assets to another airline that does not include employees.  Ultimately, the majority of the flying done by the striking airline will be replaced. Should a strike result in the liquidation of an airline, the flying will be done by companies that can do it more efficiently – which means fewer jobs.  And that cuts against this administration’s agenda too – doesn’t it?

As hard as it might be for unions to understand, not enough was done on the productivity side of the equation during the restructuring negotiations.  Yes, a judge presided over most of the restructuring negotiations.  But the unions were largely permitted to “pick their poison” when it came to making contractual changes with pensions being the exception.  The poison chosen was to reduce pay more than it needed to be reduced in order to preserve work rules. The tenet that rules the day in any union caucus room is that you can never get work rules back.

In order to get more money in the pockets of workers, more efficiencies need to be found in this industry.  For unions, that will mean fewer dues paying members.  But, this smaller work force would be earning more cash compensation.

One can only hope that a Presidential Emergency Board fully understands the tradeoff between pay, benefits and productivity.

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. 

 

 

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.

Thursday
May282009

Aboard UA #2: Reading Captain Wallach’s Latest Half Truths

I have a long institutional history at United, primarily working on behalf of the Association of Flight Attendants. In this role, I worked with the flight attendants through every concessionary period, the ESOP attempts, and Phase One of bankruptcy -- a long association that ended when I spoke my mind in a media interview on the vulnerability of defined benefit pension plans and, in doing so, angered some in the union leadership with my candor. .

All by way of saying that there is very little in United’s recent history, at least between 1985 and 2003, that I did not witness up front and personal.

 

The Recent Spat

The latest static at UAL involves a war of words surrounding United, Continental, Air Canada and Lufthansa in their application for anti-trust immunity to operate an international alliance. This debate is creating much more noise in Chicago than it is in either Washington or Brussels and that’s for one reason: the noise comes from a desperate union leader who waited ten months to voice concern about any potential impact on United workers.

This is the very same union leader who sits on United’s Board of Directors. His administration was subject to a federal court injunction to end what Judge Joan H. Lefkow ruled was a job action in clear violation of federal law. This, in fact, is a union leader who fancies himself as the second coming of ALPA boss Rick Dubinsky – the legendary golden goose hunter that worked more than 15 years to create many of the problems that still plague United. But, Mr. Wallach, you are no Rick Dubinisky.

Sometime after Wallach’s anti-trust immunity concerns were made known via the press, United COO John Tague, sent a letter to employees explaining United’s successful alliances with ten airlines over the course of the past ten years – none of which had led to problems or complaints with the carrier’s unions. A day later, Wallach responded with an open letter to Tague and copied all United employees – a tirade he then shared with the media as demonstrated by this submission to Forbes.com.

 

Wallach’s Letter

Wallach opens citing what he calls blatant mischaracterizations and outright falsehoods contained in Tague’s letter. But after reading Wallach’s letter, I am of the mind that it is he who is guilty of blatant mischaracterizations and outright falsehoods.

In building his case, Wallach attempts to blame United’s role in the STAR Alliance for the airline’s trouble today . . . a dubious case he makes by comparing the size of United in 1997 when it first joined STAR to the carrier’s size today. That argument conveniently fails to note that 1997 marked the middle of the greatest up cycle in US airline history, and then neglects to account for all the industry trouble that has transpired since. But that’s what the industry has come to expect from unions that spend more time and capital attacking companies through half truths and blatant misinterpretations rather than working to address the economic and competitive realities at the root of the industry’s struggles.

A more honest analysis would take into account the full breadth of events that have had a profound impact on the airline industry since 1997, including but not limited to SARS

  1. SARS
  2. The growth of the US low cost carriers
  3. The rapid deflation of the IPO bubble
  4. The puncture of the stock market bubble
  5. The advent of internet distribution and pricing (transparency that contributes to lower ticket prices
  6. The Summer of 2000 (where actions by UA pilots to “work to rule” impacted service)
  7. Ratification of a new pilot contract with rates far higher than the rest of the industry
  8. September 11, 2001
  9. US Airways bankruptcy filing that led to significant reductions in labor rates
  10. United bankruptcy filing
  11. Oil prices begin increase to historic levels; crack spreads depart from historic norms
  12. Delta and Northwest bankruptcy filings
  13. Oil reaches $147 per barrel, driving run up of other commodity prices
  14. New rash of airline industry oil hedges in anticipation of further price spikes,
  15. Followed by plummeting prices that put many hedge contracts underwater
  16. Credit crisis takes hold
  17. Consumer confidence falls
  18. Economy enters recession in late 2007
  19. Recession deepens to become worst on record since 1930’s with global reach into Asia and Europe
  20. Pandemic flu outbreak with hardest initial impact in Mexico.
  21. United pilots in negotiations over new contract for first time since bankruptcy agreement.

The real lesson is in the extent to which the entire industry has changed over the past 12 years with a permanent impact on the legacy carriers. Wallach weakens his own case by suggesting that alliances have hurt US airline employment without identifying the many factors in the equation.

In fact, I would argue that without the alliance partners United works with today, the airline would be even smaller.

Has the management at United made some mistakes along the way? Of course. The current UAL leadership has no compunction about forgetting the past other than to recognize that the carrier’s past was largely a dysfunctional disaster. But that recognition led to many of the changes to United’s structure and operations in place today. As CEO Glenn Tilton often makes the case, the industry has to earn its cost of capital – something the global industry has rarely achieved over its long history.

 

Corporate Campaigns and Organized Pilot Labor

The airline unions – particularly those now in contract negotiations, have not shied away from full-barrel attacks on the carriers as one method of soliciting support during labor talks. Ginning up opposition to airline alliances seems to have become the latest tactic in this long-running campaign. But it should not be lost on any industry watcher that the loudest rhetoric comes from the union halls of the pilots at United and American. Ironically, the least noise is coming from the most successful US legacy carriers – Continental and Delta. I’ll leave it to the readers to weigh in as to whether there’s a connection.

But outside the rhetoric there’s a pretty clear case for the benefits of these alliances, particularly for an industry that needs desperately to hold on to its customer base. Maintaining and expanding the current alliance structure is one sure way to do so.

 

Concluding Thoughts

It is important to filter the daily missives fired from the labor bunker with the understanding that many in the industry are understandably frustrated by the changes and challenges in the airline industry. At some level, the best labor leaders recognize that the industry will not return to the unsustainable bargaining patterns and demands of yesteryear. Captain Wallach should take a very careful look at his union’s history at United and role in contributing to the precarious position the airline now finds itself in.  In other words, make yourself relevant in shaping United's tomorrow.

That history lesson should begin with the pilot-led majority purchase of the company in 1994, a process that began following a strike in 1985. With that purchase, the unions had unprecedented power in the governance structure and influence so strong it included hiring and firing power. But as the ESOP sunset, there was no transformation – no new culture or structure that prepared the airline to weather the trials to come. Instead, the transformation has come as the result of seismic economic factors that are redrawing the global airline industry map. And that map includes alliances – a necessary partnership in an industry in which US airlines aren’t permitted to act like other global businesses and merge.

There is not one legacy carrier in the US today that could stand alone and compete on a global scale. To stand in the way of market evolution is to stand on a dangerous path.

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