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The United and Continental Pilots Engage In MISInformational Picketing

Today in Newark; tomorrow in Houston; and on December 1 in front of UAL Headquarters in downtown Chicago the United and Continental pilots have announced they will engage in “informational picketing” regarding the new company’s decision to redeploy certain United 70-seat regional jet flying into former Continental hubs Newark, Cleveland and Houston.  In return for that redeployment, certain Continental 50-seat jets will replace the United 70-seat jets flying out of certain former United hubs.  Note the tradeoff:  no one loses flying; no one loses a job; no mainline flying is impacted; and everyone benefits from a network made stronger by matching the right-sized aircraft to routes that either need a larger or smaller aircraft.

Yet the message from the "informational picketing" will deflect what has been going on between the United and Continental pilots of late and make the company the villain.

Seems so simple.  Just like the combined Delta and Northwest networks moved quickly to best match aircraft size to markets with commensurate demand, Continental and United are moving to do the same. 

Part of the Continental and United pilots message to the public will be that the combined company is violating their respective collective bargaining agreements, in particular the section called scope that swelblog has covered so extensively..    In a November 12, 2010 Continental pilot communiqué, the call to arms read as follows:  “It’s time to get serious and stand united against outsourcing. In response to management’s attack on our current scope provisions, and their clear leveraging of it in negotiations for a new JCBA, the CAL SPSC, in cooperation with the UAL SPSC, will jointly organize informational picketing at both Newark and Houston airports as well as United world headquarters in downtown Chicago. It is time to show the new United management and the public that ideas and plans to violate our contract and outsource our jobs to the lowest bidder will NOT be tolerated by pilots.”


The pilots first fallacy is ‘outsourcing”.  The fact is that the pilots’ union, ALPA, has played a major role in creating the labor Ponzi scheme that survives at the legacy airlines. Over the past 15 years, how did ALPA find a way to pay mainline pilots more?  By agreeing to allow another group of pilots to fly where mainline flying is no longer economic and to be paid less to do so in order to buy “better” contracts for the mainline pilots they represent. 

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

Look at any significant relaxation of the scope clause at the mainline carrier that allows the airline to increase its use of jets 70 seats or less. In just about every case the mainline pilots received a significant pay boost – or were able reduce the level of concession - in return for that “concession” as they were given economic credit for allowing the deployment of regional jet flying by regional partners.

Stop calling it outsourcing.  It is not.  It is a convenient word to use given the disdain for the practice by the now lame duck Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  The practice of relaxing scope to permit regional partners to perform uneconomic flying has kept more mainline pilots on the payrolls than it has cost jobs as the network has been kept largely intact when routes would have needed to have been cut because it was not economic for 100+ seat aircraft to perform the flying.


This redeployment, or better said a swap of one-sized regional jet for another, has gone so far that an expedited grievance has been filed by the joint Continental and United pilots.  On November 15, 2010 the union filed grievance:  File 11.10.041CG.  “Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between Continental Airlines, Inc. and the airline pilots in its service, as represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, International, (ALPA) the undersigned hereby files this grievance, on behalf of all affected pilots, protesting the Company’s violation of Section 1 (Scope) and all related sections of the CBA by placing and planning to place the CO code on United Express flights using jet aircraft with an FAA certification of fifty-one or greater seats to and from CLE, EWR and IAH.  As a remedy, ALPA requests that the Company cease and desist advertising and placing the CO code on such flights, and all other relief that may be appropriate.”

The union’s position “is that Section 1, Part 3-A of the CBA clearly prohibits the Company action, unless it is authorized by some other Part of Section 1. No other Part of Section 1 authorizes the Company course of action, as none of the express carriers performing the work is a Company affiliate; only 50-seat and turboprop flying, not 70-seat jet flying, is permitted by Part 4; and flying to a Company hub (if not to or from a hub of the other carrier) is not permitted by Part 5.”

The union says that the Company’s position relies on Part 7, arguing that it is flying by another air carrier while participating in a Complete Transaction in accordance with Part 7. The union suggests, however, that while Part 7 specifies rules for separation and merger of mainline operations, Part 7 does not change the rules in Parts 4 or 5 for operation of Express carriers or Complementary Carriers. Nor does Part 7 license Continental to permit United Express carriers SkyWest or Shuttle America to carry the CO code without observing the limits in Parts 4 or 5, because neither of them is a "participant" in a Complete Transaction. Neither express carrier is acquiring any part of Continental, nor is it becoming a Parent of the Company. Nor is Continental acquiring Control of assets of either carrier. Further, if either of these air carriers were participating in a Complete Transaction with the Company, that participation would trigger a series of obligations that the Company has not applied.

Note to self:  Then what comprised the United network at the time the combination was contemplated?  and the transaction closed?  Mainline flying only?  I think not.

The union says the Company also argues that following the merger closing, United and Continental will each continue to operate as an air carrier, but they are not prohibited from integrating their marketing, reservations systems and livery, ultimately marketing and operating their service under a blend of the United name and Continental livery. But this argument relies on general actions associated with a merger to dissolve specific protections at the heart of the CBA, as well as mixing those actions which the Company can undertake now with those that must wait until after a JCBA (and integrated seniority list) are reached.

Note to self:  Why should the company wait to maximize revenue when it can do so today?

The union concludes, their [the company’s] actions are not an effort to transition Continental and Continental Express operations to the single UA code, but to replace 50-seat jets in Continental hubs with 70-seat jets and to connect them with Continental flights, branded as Continental flights under the CO code, strictly as a way of carrying more passengers and thus making more money.

A Paper Tiger

A paper tiger is seemingly dangerous and powerful but is in fact timid, or as Frederick Forsyth put it: "They are paper tigers, weak and indecisive."

Sometimes the actions of pilots and scope are like that of a paper tiger – a mighty roar but no real threat. I thought the pilots of the combined carrier were looking to share in the synergies of the combined carrier.  In this instance, they talk about the company redeploying regional lift – remember no loss of jobs – as a way of carrying more passengers and thus making more money.  If the carrier makes more money, then don’t the UA and CO pilots potentially make more money?

The pilots claim that this is about the company trying to gain leverage in negotiations.  Let’s not forget that on August 27, 2010, the United and Continental pilots made a proposal to management to end outsourcing to regional airlines.  This is the issue pure and simple.  The joint UA and CO pilots are fishing for ways to block the carrier from finding the most economic way to serve cities of all sizes all the while somehow making the case that the same network economics can be achieved at the mainline level for performing tomorrow the regional flying of today.  It cannot be done absent significant concessions at the mainline level.

Finally, the joint bargaining teams have been publicly lobbing grenades at one another over compensation proposals that might favor one group over another during the seniority list integration process.  This is a group that has said publicly that they will first negotiate a joint collective bargaining agreement before engaging in the seniority list integration process, just like the Northwest and Delta pilots did so successfully.  If memory serves me, the Delta – Northwest negotiation was not without its disagreements and wrinkles.  That said, the Delta – Northwest agreement ultimately paved the way for sufficient numbers of 70+ seat flying to be performed by a number of regional partners. 

At least in Delta’s case, the union recognized that the regional flying being performed today was critical to supporting mainline jobs.  Regional carriers were contracted to perform domestic flying in markets where the poor underlying domestic economics remain.  The Continental and United pilots should be looking at the very same thing.  The unintended consequence of undoing the regional relationships today will be a smaller mainline tomorrow.  Smaller network architecture does not produce the synergies promised by a combined United and Continental.

Less in generated synergies means less to be shared among the pilots of the combined company.  Less in generated synergies means that the collective bargaining agreement ultimately reached will have less upside and will look more like the agreements that would have been ultimately reached if the companies remained as standalone entities. Less in generated synergies means that the combined entity will likely not attain its status as the world’s best airline.

There is a financial concept lost on union leaders today:  Net Present Value or NPV.   It means simply that cash flows realized in the short term have more value to the firm (or individual) than cash flows generated years down the road.  Captain Jay Pierce, the head of the Continental ALPA unit, argues rightly that the company’s action of swapping five 70 seat jets in Continental’s hubs for five 50 seat jets is strictly a way of carrying more passengers and thus making more money.  It is what companies should be doing - maximizing the revenue earning power of the network.

The benefits to the new United’s actions in this limited case are obvious.  The risks are, well,  timid and weak as no jobs are being lost.  Energy spent during one of the most traveled weeks of the year should be spent negotiating a joint collective bargaining agreement and not preparing for an arbitration that in reality is nothing more than a desperate grab of leverage that - if the pilots prevail - will result in fewer jobs, less mainline flying, fewer synergies to be shared among pilots and a degradation of the combined carrier’s status within the STAR Alliance.


my testimony on the continental - united merger before the house judiciary committee

Good afternoon Chairman Conyers, Ranking Member Smith and members of the committee.

My name is William Swelbar.  I am a Research Engineer with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Center for Air Transportation.  Our program is focused on the economic, financial, operational and competitive aspects of the global airline industry.  I appreciate the opportunity to speak today in support of the merger of United and Continental Airlines.  Whereas I have worked with each United and Continental in a consulting capacity in the past, I appear today as an independent expert on the U.S. and global airline industry.

Many see the global airline industry as somehow U.S.-centric.  It is not.  In aviation, the U.S. is but one piece of a big puzzle that is influenced by global economic interdependencies, just as the U.S. economic recovery could be affected by events in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Hungary.

United and Continental presented in their testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation an exhibit showing where U.S. airlines have fallen in their ranking among the globe’s largest airlines.  I am bothered by the fact that the U.S. carriers have been surpassed by Lufthansa/Swiss and Air France/KLM.  This fact is but one reason that helps to explain why United and Continental are pursuing this merger.

For the network carriers like United and Continental, this round of consolidation is as much about preparing to compete with the world’s other big carriers for international traffic as it is about competing with low cost carriers (LCCs) like Southwest, AirTran, jetBlue or Frontier in the domestic market. After all, it is the network carriers and not the low cost carriers that serve communities of all sizes. Despite the footprint established by the low fare carriers that is now national in scope, with their share of domestic traffic approaching 40 percent, it is the network carriers that connect the smallest U.S. markets to the globe’s air transportation grid.

I would like to debunk some of the myths I have heard said about the merger of United and Continental.

  • OVERLAPPING ROUTES/HIGHER PRICES:  There are just 15 nonstop, overlapping routes flown by each United and Continental.  None of the 15 would be a monopoly United route after the proposed merger.  Eleven of the 15 overlapping city pairs would have at least two competitors.  Of the four routes that would have but one other nonstop competitor (Houston – Washington, Houston – Los Angeles, Houston – San Francisco and Cleveland – Denver), that other competitor is Southwest Airlines in three of the four and Frontier on the other.  In each of the four routes, the LCC competitor has at least a 25 percent share of traffic. 

In addition to a nonstop competitor, two of the routes have four other carriers providing connecting service; one has three other carriers providing connecting service; and one has two other carriers providing connecting service.  The airline industry is a network industry and connecting options for passengers must be taken into account when considering competitive impacts as they also work to discipline prices.

The U.S. market should not fear the “end to end” network consolidation like Delta – Northwest and the proposed United – Continental merger. The low cost carrier segment of the US airline industry would regale in the fact that network carriers would price well above the market as was the case in the late 1990s and early 2000s as it would serve as the catalyst for growth at the expense of the network carriers again.  The market has demonstrated time and again that where competition is vulnerable, a new entrant will exploit that vulnerability. Where there are market opportunities, there will be a carrier to leverage that opportunity. And where there is insufficient capacity, capacity will find the insufficiency.


  • START OF ANOTHER BIG MERGER WAVE:  Some predicted that the Northwest-Delta merger in 2008 would be the catalyst to a big merger wave.   Two years later, we have a second merger announcement.  That hardly seems to be a wave.  Nonetheless, each merger case should be considered on its own merits, not based upon what someone speculates might happen.  Moreover, the concerns are most relevant in highly concentrated industries.  The U.S. domestic airline industry will remain fragmented should the proposed merger be approved as seven airlines will have at least a 5 percent market share. 

When thinking about airlines in a global context, no one airline has a 5 percent share of the global market.  The top 10 firms producing mobile handsets comprise 85 percent of their industry; the top 10 automotive manufacturers make up 76 percent of their industry; and the top 10 container shipping firms equal 63 percent of their industry.  Yet the world’s 10 largest airlines make up only 36 percent of the global airline industry.  These define a fragmented industry prohibited from operating as other global industries, not a concentrated one.


  • HUB CLOSURES AND FLIGHT REDUCTIONS:  The fear mongers would have us believe unequivocally that there will be reductions in flying, the dislocation of small communities from the global airline map and even hub closures because of consolidation.  Many use TWA and its St. Louis hub as an example.  American Airlines did not merge with a failing TWA.  Rather it acquired certain assets of a failed TWA.  As a result it is a very poor example of what could happen to a hub. 

But was it consolidation of the industry that ultimately caused American to downsize St. Louis or was it the events of 9/11 and the changed economics of the industry that followed that ultimately rendered St. Louis uneconomic?  Might the local economy in St. Louis have contributed to the city no longer being an attractive hub city that produces significant local traffic to support the hub carrier?  St. Louis is but one example of hub closures since September 2001 as US Airways/America West has in effect closed it Las Vegas hub and its Pittsburgh hub.  Neither of the closures can be laid at the feet at the carrier’s merger with US Airways.  In fact if America West had not agreed to merge with US Airways it is highly likely that the old US Airways would have been liquidated.

In the case of this merger, there has been much speculation about the future of Continental’s Cleveland hub.  There is nothing that I can see from this merger that would make Cleveland redundant.  Without knowing what the internal data might say but being knowledgeable about airline planning models, I would guess that the modeling would suggest that Cleveland would be made stronger as a result of the merger and not weaker.  The answer to Cleveland remaining a critical point on the combined carrier map will have everything to do with the condition of the local Cleveland economy as well as the price of oil and little to nothing to do with the decision to merge.


  • EMPLOYEE/EMPLOYMENT DISRUPTIONS:   Since 2001, the industry has shed nearly 140,000 airline jobs.  But 400,000+ good jobs where wages and benefits average over $81,000 per year per full time equivalent remain.   In fact, the average wage for airline employment reached its high point for the decade during the third quarter of 2009.  This average employee cost comes after the significant concessions granted at each of the five remaining network carriers between 2002 and 2007.  Headcount reductions were significant during the period as well as companies were forced to reduce their size in response to a changed revenue environment and increasing fuel prices.  The reductions continued into 2008 as oil climbed to $147 per barrel and jet fuel to the equivalent of $172 per barrel.  2009 marked the second largest decrease in industry capacity since 1942.

Susan Carey of The Wall Street Journal wrote an article titled: “Airline Industry Sees Pain Extending Beyond the Recession.”  In this critically insightful piece Carey examines the relationship of airline industry revenue to U.S. Gross Domestic Product.  “For decades U.S. airlines could rely on a remarkably stable relationship between their revenue and gross domestic product. Year after year, domestic revenue came in at 0.73% of GDP on average, and total passenger revenue was equal to 0.95% of GDP. For the year ended March 31, domestic revenue was 0.54% of GDP, while total passenger revenue was 0.76% of GDP”.  What this means is that based on the historic norm of the revenue to GDP relationship, there is $27 billion less in revenue today to be shared among the industry’s competitors than there was just 10 years ago.

Consolidation is not the culprit of lost airline jobs or declining airline wages.  Airlines were left with little choice but to restructure given the changed revenue environment precipitated by the growth of the low cost carriers and the transparency in fares facilitated by the internet as a distribution vehicle.

What is clear to me is that no individual airline except possibly Southwest and Delta would have the financial wherewithal to withstand another geopolitical event similar to what occurred on September 11, 2001. Unlike other rounds of consolidation that focused primarily on network scope, scale, revenue and cost synergies, this round is different.  Now the industry is looking at the balance sheet.  Consolidated carriers promise more stability to employees and communities that benefit from the combined strength of the respective balance sheets.


  • RE-REGULATION:  Some suggest that re-regulation of the industry will improve the economic well being of certain stakeholders.  Isn’t a goal of policy makers to maximize the number of good paying jobs?  The airline business sells what is best characterized as a highly price elastic product.  Only a segment of the buyers of airline services is less sensitive to price.  Over the past 30 years, the industry has competed away the savings/benefits of nearly every innovation (ex. reduced commission expense) in the name of low and lower fares for consumers.  Some think that reverting back to the days of a regulated industry will benefit certain segments of the industry.  I firmly believe it would harm the industry by causing it to contract further as prices rise as inefficient costs are passed through to the consumer.  A smaller industry would employ fewer workers.

Many government officials and certain industry watchers have instilled fear into the marketplace regarding the impact of current and prospective industry consolidation.  Fears of higher prices, reduced service, more monopoly routes, and labor strife are not well founded.  Their analysis of the industry today parallels an analysis appropriate in a regulated period.

Simply put, the network carrier model of the 1980’s and 1990’s does not work in today’s environment. Consolidation is a logical step to position airlines in a highly fragmented domestic and global industry to better weather the financial challenges that have caused years of economic pain for many stakeholders and a rising tide of red ink.

Thank You.


Consolidation Is the Logical Next Step in the Industry’s Evolution

Over at the National Journal's Transportation blog site, the question of the week is:  “Should Continental and United Be Allowed to Merge?  Lisa Caruso, the blog’s editor asks:  “What do you think of the proposed merger? Will it benefit the two airlines? What about customers and the airline industry as a whole? Should the Justice Department approve it? 

To date there have been responses to the question from Robert L. Crandall, former Chairman and CEO of American Airlines; Carol J. Carmody, formerly the Acting Chairman and Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; Kevin Mitchell, Chairman of the Business Travel Coalition; and yours truly, William S. Swelbar, the author of www.swelblog.com

I urge you to read the comments as they are diverse and even “agnostic” toward the proposed merger of United and Continental.  Swelblog readers can comment directly to the National Journal Transportation blog.

Below are my comments to the question posed by the National Journal’s Ms. Caruso.

After decades of destructive competition, consolidation is the logical next phase of evolution in the U.S. airline industry.  This, after all, is an industry that lost $60 billion over the past decade – making folly of the goal of the 1944 Chicago Convention in charging the International Civil Aviation Organization to “prevent economic waste caused by unreasonable competition.” 

Instead, the U.S. domestic passenger market produced plenty of economic waste over the past 32 years, affecting shareholders, lenders, employees and most other stakeholders.  The only clear winner from the industry’s singular strategy of adding uneconomic capacity was the consumer.

Today, the legacy network carriers are focusing away from the bloodletting in the domestic market with an eye toward international flying. Too often, regulators and legislators and even some analysts see the global airline industry as somehow U.S.-centric.  It is not.  In aviation, the U.S. is one piece of a big puzzle that is influenced by global economic interdependencies, just as the U.S. economic recovery could be affected by events in Greece and possibly Portugal and Spain.

For the legacy carriers, this round of consolidation is more about preparing to compete with the world’s other big carriers as much as it is about competing with Southwest or AirTran or jetBlue.  That’s why so many are shaping their networks and alliances to attract domestic and international bound passengers.   The footprint established by the low fare carriers is now national in scope, while the fares they charge should be considered as much of a  contributor to that fact that many smaller communities are losing air service as is the economy and the price of oil.

The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act clearly accomplished the goal of delivering safe and affordable air service to the masses.  Today, airplanes are packed with flyers paying, on average, 55 percent less for a ticket when adjusted for inflation than they paid in 1978.  Why?  Because most U.S. airlines responded to deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s with a capacity-led business model that made cost control imperative.  Some of today’s cost controls can be found in the outsourcing of maintenance or downguaging the size of airplanes to adapt to the realities of the marketplace.  

For decades, the only way the industry knew how to grow revenue was to grow capacity.  Airlines used the tools and methods that had their roots in regulation and were focused on estimating market share.  Fundamental to that analysis was the belief that growing revenue meant the need to grow capacity – and most airlines did, even before demand warranted it.

Everybody focused on “screen display.”  Statistics showed that if an airline’s flight did not appear on the first few CRS screens of available flights in a market, that airline didn’t get as many bookings. The more sophisticated the global distribution system (GDS), the more important electronic “shelf space” became.

Only recently has the industry worked to rid itself of too much capacity brought about by this market share mentality – one result of the role of CRS/GDS bookings that made an airline seat a commodity.

Today’s consolidation is working to undo the capacity-added wrongs of the past. Consider labor.  For too long, airlines carried uneconomic capacity, employed too many people and signed on to labor contracts that created unreasonable expectations for airline employees.  That steady growth also created expectations that airlines were somehow required to serve smaller communities, even when demand did not warrant service and those routes could not be flown at a profit.

Much of this is still true. U.S. airlines have used bankruptcies and other restructuring efforts to cut capacity and increase productivity, but many did not go far enough.  The real catalyst to capacity discipline was $147 oil.  And that capacity discipline needs to continue if the industry is ever to get to a period where it earns at least its weighted average cost of capital. 

Unlike other rounds of consolidation that focused primarily on network scope, scale, revenue and cost synergies, this round is different.  Now the industry is looking at the balance sheet. The market rewarded Delta following its acquisition of Northwest with a market capitalization that exceeds that of United, Continental, American and US Airways combined.  Consolidated carriers promise more stability to employees, shareholders and communities that benefit from the combined strength of the respective balance sheets.

Capital has smartened up.  We do not see as much creative financing or unsecured lending as was common in the past.  Assuming successful mergers, combined airlines will be able to raise capital more easily, carry their labor costs and offer passengers more choice of routes and destinations. 

The U.S. market should not fear the “end to end” network consolidation like Delta – Northwest and the proposed United – Continental merger.  The market has demonstrated time and again that where competition is vulnerable, a new entrant will exploit that vulnerability.  Where there are market opportunities, there will be a carrier to leverage that opportunity.  And where there is insufficient capacity, capacity will find the insufficiency.

Simply put, the legacy carrier model of the 1980’s and 1990’s does not work in today’s environment. Consolidation is a logical step to position airlines in a highly fragmented industry to better weather the financial challenges that have caused years of economic pain and a rising tide of red ink.

More to come.


Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: What About US Airways After All?

One fascinating story resulting from the news that Continental and United intend to merge is what might happen to those on the sidelines, namely US Airways and American. 

Let’s begin with US Airways.  I have written before that US Airways’ route portfolio is inferior relative to other US legacy network carriers. I also have written before that US Airways is hamstrung because of its precarious labor position – a constraint primarily caused by the dysfunction in its pilot corps.

Immediately following Delta’s January 2008 rejection of US Airways’ overture, it was clear to me that US Airways CEO Doug Parker was right in his efforts to be a first mover in the consolidation arena. In making a run at Delta, Parker provided a blueprint for the industry to merge networks, and ensure air service to communities of all sizes, while at the same time reducing fixed costs. But something stood in the way then:  Parker’s pilots. He was hamstrung by pilot leadership blinded by the prospect of an unlikely outcome – a better seniority arbitration decision. [See note below:  Delta attempt came before seniority list decision was issued]  As I wrote then:  “For Parker, bringing labor along would certainly have proven expensive – and maybe just too expensive.”

Today the US Airways pilots await a decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stemming from a lawsuit initially won by the former America West pilots after USAPA, the union that represents the US Airways pilots, refused to honor a binding arbitration decision on seniority integration.

Because of that circumstance—and the consistent objection by USAPA to every strategic initiative generated by US Airways management—last month I challenged speculation that United and US Airways could put together a merger where they twice failed before.

To be fair, as discussions proceeded between US Airways and United, it was becoming clearer to this observer that USAPA was beginning to understand and even embrace the idea that consolidation may not be a bad thing for employees.  The math is easy.  A $30 billion corporation is in better shape to provide for raises and long term employment stability than is a $13 billion company susceptible to geopolitical, oil and economic shocks.  But it remains to be seen if this was just USAPA being opportunistic or a sign that the union is changing its stripes.  As I will discuss below, a change in approach by USAPA will be necessary to secure an improvement in pay for the US Airways pilots in the short term and the benefits of consolidation for all US Airways employees in the longer term.   

Let’s Put Some Things into Perspective

In recent days, I’ve read many stories that attempt to etch US Airways’ livery on the next gravestone in the airline cemetery. But the rumors of the airline’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  In theory, US Airways, American and other carriers should benefit, albeit indirectly, from industry consolidation.  Moreover, most of these stories missed the fact that this consolidation is taking place at the bottom of a recovery cycle, not at the top.  Assuming that the health of the US airline industry is inextricably tied to the health of the US macroeconomy, then a rising tide should float all boats.  Right? 

On May 3, Vaughn Cordle of Airline Forecasts Inc. published a white paper titled:  “United + Continental is Good News for all Stakeholders:  More Mergers are Needed.  Is American and US Airways next?” Cordle writes: “If the industry is not allowed to consolidate in the most rational manner, the result will be a continuation of the slow liquidation and the inevitable failure of US and AA, the two remaining network airlines in need of restructuring.  The most likely outcome would be an AA bankruptcy and outright liquidation of US.”

Cordle makes a case for consolidating US Airways and American citing expected future increases in fuel prices, airport charges, security and labor costs against the backdrop of less than credit worthy industry.  And these come before the industry begins paying to conform to inevitably new environmental regulations.  Don’t misunderstand, I agree that participating in consolidation is the best outcome for US Airways.   But I don’t buy the gravestone argument.  Let’s take a look at the fundamentals.

Everybody remembers America West Airlines.  A legacy-like model—that we all knew ultimately would be combined with another airline—around the turn of the century America West "flirted" several times before tying the knot.  Before its 2005 merger, America West survived and produced competitive margins through focused management, the support of labor unions that recognized the company’s place in the industry, and by offsetting a revenue generating disadvantage by maintaining a cost structure advantage.  Oh yeah, and the airline was based in Tempe, AZ and run by a guy named Doug Parker.  Sound familiar?

Today US Airways does suffer from about a 12 percent stage length adjusted unit revenue disadvantage versus its legacy carrier peers.  But it also enjoys about a 12 percent stage length adjusted unit cost advantage versus these rivals.  Despite the revenue generating deficiency, for the first quarter of 2010 only United among the legacy carriers saw a bigger increase in total unit revenue than the Tempe-based airline.  Like the rest of the industry, US Airways continues to see its corporate revenue and booked yield (passenger revenue per revenue passenger mile) improve.

Maintaining a Cost Advantage Is Critical for US Airways

And this revenue disadvantage is offset by US Airways continuing to maintain a cost advantage.  For the first quarter of 2010, only Delta saw its unit cost (operating expenses per available seat mile) increase less than US Airways when compared with all legacy network carriers. As a result, US Airways’ pre-tax margins show little to no difference when compared to other legacy carriers.  In fact, during the first quarter, US Airways saw a pre-tax margin improvement of 7.2 points, which compared favorably to its peers. The cost advantage the carrier enjoys cannot be overstated nor can the company hide behind the fact that the vast majority of that difference can be found in lower labor costs.  By contrast, United and Continental are only now beginning to navigate what it might cost to buy labor peace, particularly among the pilot groups. 

One imperative for US Airways will be to educate employees about the difference between US Airways when compared to Delta and the new United.  If US Airways’ unions push the company to match rates paid by other carriers with significantly bigger networks, more profitable hubs and less capacity dedicated to the US domestic market, then Cordle just may be right in predicting the potential for liquidation.

But what if the unions recognize US Airways position in the industry and adopt a longer term approach?  What if US Airways can maintain its current cost advantage?  Or enough cost advantage to offset the company’s structural revenue deficiency?  What if the airline get its internal labor house in order so that old US Airways and old America West contracts are one with matching seniority lists and affordable economics?  Is that really any different than America West at the beginning of the last decade?  Is this any different than United going back to Chicago in 2008 after being snubbed by Continental and getting its house in order?  I think not.

In the US Airways route structure, Philadelphia and Charlotte are gems.  I will concede that Phoenix is confounding given the extent of direct competition from Southwest Airlines.  And while US Airways does enjoy a 23 percent unit revenue advantage versus its low-cost competition, it also carries a 29 percent cost disadvantage when adjusted for stage length.  No legacy carrier has more direct exposure to Southwest.  But this is not new and it is not a death knell.  Parker and his colleagues have been successfully managing this challenge for 15 years.  Rather an important part of the education of US Airways employees and unions need to fully understand the importance of keeping costs low.

It’s Hard to Kill an Airline

In my view, an airline today is like a cockroach.  You can beat it, burn it, kick it and starve it, but it doesn’t die easily.  And over the last ten years Doug Parker has defied even a cockroach’s odds on numerous occasions. Remember, we are at the bottom of a recovery cycle – a fragile recovery cycle to be sure.  US Airways cash as a percent of twelve month trailing revenue is comparable to its legacy peers and relative to its size (revenue), comfortable.  Compared to its peers, the company also has fewer debt obligations to be repaid as a percent of revenue over the next two years.

This is not to say that US Airways does not have its issues – some that are easier absorbed by consolidated balance sheets that produce a higher cash cushion.  And there are plenty of sensitivities that can disrupt the company’s vulnerable cost advantage:  1) a 1 percent change in mainline unit cost ex-fuel cost the company an additional $60 million per year; and 2) a $1 change in price of a barrel of crude cost the company $34 million assuming that crack spreads stay at today’s levels resembling historic norms.  On the other side, as little as a 1 percent change in unit passenger revenue bolsters the company’s top line by $93 million.

Also US Airways’ labor unions need to recognize the value of cooperation and moderation in the near term.  Those unions also need to consider that “moderation” could mean significantly improved pay—if they are prepared to eliminate anachronistic scope restrictions and improve productivity.  And they need to see that there is a big pay day if US Airways is involved in industry consolidation, and that their behavior—and the terms of their collective bargaining agreements—will play an important role in determining whether that pay day occurs.

Message to US Airways’ Labor Generally; USAPA and AFA-CWA Specifically

Git’r’done. Enough already.  The pundits who suggest that US Airways is dead do so partly in recognition of the dysfunction of union leadership at your company.  They are not all together wrong.  But most are not aware that there may be recognition by US Airways’ labor leadership that their members may actually benefit by participating in consolidation.  To participate in a strategy designed to promote industry stability requires labor stability as well – and this is an area that needs improvement at US Airways particularly among the two unions representing flight crews, USAPA and AFA-CWA. 

Some suggest in comments to this blog that management is keeping the groups apart to save a few bucks.  If that is what they are doing, then shame on them.  But no one can make me believe that this is the case.  What's in it for Parker to do that?  Also it is in everyone’s best interest to negotiate joint collective bargaining agreements with competitive productivity and scope language that permits a company to navigate the complex competitive landscape and to have a single seniority list for the various class and crafts of employees.   And it is critical to both shareholders and employees that impediments to mergers be eliminated from collective bargaining agreements.

What makes this round so damn difficult is that every carrier is now a little different and it stems from an individual carrier’s portfolio of flying.  For this reason it is increasingly difficult to compare costs at one carrier to another and, as such, pattern bargaining should be a practice of the past.  If airlines engage in union efforts to chase the best contract – even when their networks don’t pay the tab -- then they deserve their place in the airline graveyard.  The price of buying “labor peace” is too high if it means an airline can’t ultimately support or survive its own labor cost structure.

These negotiations, whether at United, Continental, American or US Airways, are about the future of the airline industry as we know it.  As such, the negotiations are about more productivity and flexibility in return for higher wages.  Fixed costs must be removed.  And a union’s demand that a company carry more employees to do the same level of flying as a competitor simply creates a structural disadvantage any rival can exploit.  For a standalone US Airways, the company is in a position to survive given the up cycle ahead.  But come next the down cycle, or geopolitical event, or oil at $100 . . . then all bets are off.  So at US Airways, the negotiations need to be about ensuring the company's relevance while supporting industry consolidation.

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: In a couple of years give US Airways a call. 

More to come.