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Entries in US Airways - America West merger (4)

Thursday
Oct112012

Is The Union Leadership at American Really Representing the Membership’s Best Interests?

Delta is cutting international capacity by 3-4 percent in the face of economic weakness.  In an effort to improve profitability, United has announced capacity cuts for 2013.  Federal Express just announced a 3-year plan to cut $1.7 billion in costs mainly in its Express unit as revenue suffers from high oil prices and the fact that customers have found cheaper alternatives.  The cost cuts will largely be accomplished through headcount reductions which work to eliminate fixed costs.

If FedEx is seriously evaluating headcount at a perpetually profitable business unit, then so should those who believe that American and US Airways together would not need to trim costs any more than has been done at each airline in restructuring.

This is why it is so puzzling to me that Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants at American, continues to beat the drum for a merger between American and US Airways.

My guess is that Glading negotiated some concessions for flight attendants in talks with American because she is convinced, or has been promised, that a deal with US Airways will come with some sort of snapbacks or other icing that benefit her members and, perhaps, her position in what would be a larger, more powerful union.

That theory, however, ignores the economic reality of consolidation in today’s domestic market which has proven time and again that airlines with the highest costs have a distinct competitve disadvantage. So Glading continues to view her world through rose-colored glasses, preaching the purported labor benefits of a merger that can’t hope to succeed without the strict cost discipline neither she nor Parker are willing to acknowledge.

Recently, Glading asked flight attendants at both airlines to petition AMR’s Board of Directors to pursue a merger. The petition reads:

Dear AMR Board of Directors,

American Airlines is no longer the brand it used to be. Instead, this once great airline is now at the mercy of a dwindling network and an inferior product. 

Fortunately, not all hope is lost. There is a way to right this ship. If American Airlines could merge with US Airways before this bankruptcy has run its course and the AA brand completely destroyed, we can all work together to get American Airlines back on top.

The US Airways merger plan is the best option to correct the problems AA faces. I encourage you to pursue the only path available that will lead American Airlines out of bankruptcy stronger than the day it entered: a merger with US Airways.

American Airlines + US Airways: Our Future Depends On It

One has to wonder exactly what Glading was promised to press so hard for a plan with such limited economic foundation.  If US Airways brings so much to the table, then why did the Delta employees band together to block Parker’s ardent overtures?  Why did United leave US Airways at the altar at the eleventh hour when a better partner emerged?  Yet at American, the unions’ leadership seems to believe that a marriage with US Airways is some sort of panacea that represents no pain/all gain for employees. 

Do investors see the proposed merger as American’s path to better labor relations?  Not if they’re looking at what’s going down at US Airways, where the union representing flight attendants called for a strike vote after flight attendants failed to ratify the second tentative agreement in six months. Clearly the expectations of the US flight attendants exceed the company’s ability to pay. And this comes after years of acrimonious relations between the airline and its two rival pilot groups which, 77 months after the fact, still prevent a smoothly merged operation between US Airways and first spouse American West.  If Parker’s team needs to promise more and more just to get ratified agreements with his own employees, imagine how expensive those labor deals become when you need a fast path toward a joint collective bargaining agreement and a single seniority list? 

What might the creditors at American think of the high price tag on labor peace likely necessary to get joint contracts between the two carriers?  And what toll will that price take on the combined company going forward?  Parker and Glading talk synergies, but both conveniently overlook the expensive path they’d need to travel to get there if, as I suspect is true, labor groups are being told they’ll be made whole – or better – as the reward for their support of a merger.

Flight attendants should think twice before they buy the line that synergies alone obviate the need for real-world cost reductions, particularly with one partner still operating in bankruptcy. A merger for the sake of a merger inside of bankruptcy is not going to make the creditors want less.

Union leaders must accept responsibility for helping to position the company to succeed before they can promise payoffs to employees, particularly in this competitive market. It is not up to management alone to promote fiscal discipline and constructive labor relations when success demands genuine efforts on both sides.

Ignoring the fact that creditors will want to maximize their claim in bankruptcy is a sure-fire way to ensure that the best interests of employees are not represented because there is nothing that can be negotiated that will improve the well-being of members.  Ignoring the reality of deteriorating revenue trends and the fact that other carriers are cutting capacity is to knowingly accept an overpromise on the synergies.

Thursday
Apr052012

US Airways at the Masters: Trying to Win on Thursday?

For those readers who know me well, today marks the beginning of the end of the finest 30 days in sports television.  It starts with the NCAA tournament and culminates with what can often be the best two hours in sports – the back nine at the Master’s Tournament on Sunday. 

Even with the history and the azaleas to occupy my attention, on this tournament Thursday, my mind still wanders to the airline industry and I see similarities in golf, aviation and the games people play.

As is tradition at the Masters, past champions Nicklaus, Palmer and, this year, Gary Player (a.k.a  Delta, United and Southwest) ceremoniously hit the first tee shots to open the playing of 76th tournament at the venerable Augusta National Golf Club. Past champions (multiple winners) at the Masters Tournament enjoy notoriety and historical significance long past their years of playing.

A popular past champion still participating in the Masters Tournament is Ben Crenshaw (American Airlines).  Crenshaw is given little to no chance in this year’s tournament, but the sweet putting stroke possessed by the Texas gentleman keeps Crenshaw a fan (AAdvantage members) favorite. 

Some very good golfers have never attended the Champion’s Dinner. Greg Norman (er US Airways) for example.  Nobody in Masters’ history lost in more heartbreaking fashion than Norman in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in on the second playoff hole to beat him; or when Norman beat himself in the final round that handed the green jacket to Nick Faldo in 1996.  Norman’s misery is akin to US Airways missing out on consolidation opportunities in 2001(United), 2008 (Delta) and then again in 2010 (United).  US Airways’ strategy to attempt a hostile takeover of Delta while in bankruptcy in 2008 reminds this golf fan of Norman’s collapse in ‘96.

Playing in this year’s field and given a real chance to win are world #1 Luke Donald (Alaska Airlines) and world #2 Rory McIlroy (jetBlue Airways).  The Europeans are also making a strong showing these days, like defending champion Charl Schwartzel and perennial contender Lee Westwood (British Airways and Iberia).

Bunkers, Birdies and Bogeys

Pressure tournaments like the Masters tend to spawn meltdowns even among the very best players. The young McIlroy, in fact, suffered through a sad Sunday in Augusta last year.  Just like airlines have their good years, bad years and critical moments. And just like golfers, the difference between success and spectacular failure in the airline industry depends on how you read the lie. It’s how you think your way around the course, avoiding bunkers like bad decisions, taking advantage of business opportunities (birdies) and minimizing the negatives (bogeys and others) like fuel spikes and bad strategic decisions.

That brings me to US Airways.  

US Airways pursuit of Flight Attendant Hearts and Minds

The Masters is an invitational tournament; you have to be invited by the “committee” [UCC] in order to play.  US Airways is trying to play to the court of public opinion to get an invite to this year’s event.  US Airways had one good round it hoped would help it win an invitation to play in the year’s first major. That was reaching a tentative agreement with its flight attendants.  Unfortunately for US Airways, it couldn’t finish. The flight attendants at the company overwhelmingly rejected that agreement despite the fact it offered significant pay increases.

The flight attendants said in a press release:  "Since the onset of negotiations, Flight Attendants have been steadfast and determined that an agreement must address the needs identified by the membership. Flight Attendants have subsidized the cost of the merger and rising fuel costs for the 'New US Airways.' Management must recognize that our sacrifices have directly contributed to the success of US Airways," said Deborah Volpe, AFA pre-merger America West President and Mark Gentile, AFA pre-merger US Airways acting President.”

It has been nearly seven years since the “Old US Airways” merged with America West and there is still no done deal with either its flight attendants or its internally troubled pilot group. 

And yet before round one has been completed in Augusta, US Airways has allegedly been courting the president of American Airlines flight attendant union, Laura Glading, who is also a member of the Unsecured Creditors Committee (UCC) in order to get that invitation to the year’s first major… a merger with American?

While it’s hard to know exactly who is chasing who in all of the US Airways merging/consolidating with American talk, Glading and the APFA have been anything but shy in their pursuit of an offer from Doug Parker and company. The APFA has boldly stated it thinks there is a better business plan than the one American is offering… mainly because AA’s will freeze pensions and trigger approximately 13,000 layoffs. (Notice no mention of the finer points; that AA’s plan might finally unshackle the company’s ability to compete with other network carriers who rehabilitated under bankruptcy.)

Someone – probably the APFA - has “leaked” stories to specific media about “suitors” talking to the UCC – even though as far as anyone knows the only UCC members actually listening are the unions themselves.

While both the APA and TWU (who are also part of the UCC) have reportedly had serious discussions with AA – and apparently those negotiations might have saved some TWU jobs – Glading has been stomping her feet and pouting about the unfairness of it all.  She’s on record as stating the UCC (or, at least, one particular UCC member) is open to seeing a “better” business plan, thus leading to the flirtation with US Airways.

“Better” to Glading apparently means giving up nothing and gaining everything. But what “better” will she glean from this dalliance with US Airways?  Not to change sports, but Vince Lombardi, the iconic former coach of the world champion Green Bay Packers said:  “the only place you will find success before work is in the dictionary”.  Do Glading and other leaders of American’s unions honestly think US Airways will not seek to make major changes to American’s archaic work rules and collective bargaining agreements? 

In the tentative agreement, the former America West flight attendants were granted a 22 percent increase and the former “Old US Airways” flight attendants were given an 11 percent increase to even out pay rates – finally, after seven years. What then would US Airways have to do in order to put three groups on par with one another? Would APFA members be willing to work more for less? And if so, why wouldn’t they just stay with their own company? Or entertain commercial opportunities that might not involve a seniority integration process?

Maintaining a Cost Advantage Is Critical for US Airways

US Airways suffers from a stage length adjusted unit revenue disadvantage versus its legacy carrier peers – even more than American. But it also enjoys a stage length adjusted unit cost advantage versus these rivals – much more than American. Despite the revenue generating deficiency of US Airways’ network, the Tempe-based airline is producing very good revenue results relative to the industry.

US Airways’ revenue disadvantage is offset by maintaining its cost advantage – and most of that advantage is very low labor costs relative to the industry. As a result, US Airways’ pre-tax margins are impressive given its structural deficiencies. The cost advantage the carrier enjoys cannot be overstated nor can the company hide behind the fact a significant portion of its profit performance 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. US Airways has not explored what labor peace would cost, probably because maintaining the status quo is more cost effective.  Or did the flight attendants say in their vote that what US Airways could afford was not sufficient to buy labor peace?

US Airways Touting Merger Synergies Before an Invitation is Granted

The most recent version of the US Airways – American merger story leaked to the press suggests the “synergies” of a combination would produce $1 billion in revenue and $500 million in cost savings.  The revenue synergy number stems from the idea other mergers have realized a three margin point improvement in revenue resulting from the combination.  JP Morgan’s Jamie Baker point to the fact American is weak in Albany, Buffalo, Greesnboro, and Richmond to name a few.  What a yawn. In today’s world why are Baker and US Airways not talking about Auckland, Buenos Aires (oh American is positioned there), Guangzhou or Rome?

The strongest example of American’s domestic weakness is that AA is the #4 carrier in the Eastern U.S. in terms of market share and #4 in the highly fragmented Western U.S.  So, the question remains, can AA truly address these structural weaknesses organically or does it need a merger partner?

Problem with adapting previous margin calculation to a US-AA merger is they don’t necessarily apply. Other mergers involved carriers with stronger domestic and – and more important – international networks. US Airways flies to mainly second-tier markets and has little international presence. That might seem like a good thing – each partner filling a need – but there is little synching between the two – but for this observer there is nothing that gets me excited from a network perspective. Domestic calculations are one thing – international are another.  If I were Delta or United, I would be applauding this possible combination because it adds little to what other combinations might add.  And what about the cost savings?  We don’t even know what American will look like once it goes through the full bankruptcy process.  Therefore how can we know what the cost savings will be?

It is just too early to tell because no one knows what AA will be when it gets through the restructuring process.  Stated differently, what if AA wins the ability to have unlimited code sharing in the U.S. domestic market as a result of a changed pilot scope agreement?  Then is US Airways the only choice?  After all, American’s CEO, Tom Horton, has stated publicly he is not averse to a merger, but will only consider such a strategy once the company completes the restructuring process.

US Airways is absolutely not the only option for American.  What about a fully integrated relationship with each Alaska and jetBlue?  These would certainly better address the weaknesses on the west coast and in New York, particularly at JFK – two aspects of American’s not-successful-to-date “cornerstone strategy”. 

The point is, there are options for American beyond US Airways and I might suggest there are better options than the Tempe-based airline – and they do not require a seniority integration process and potentially do not add seats to the capacity fragile U.S. domestic market.  Then again the restructuring needs to be completed in full before we can begin to evaluate options – something that US Airways wants to avoid.  For a company that constantly claims it does not need to merge, it seems to this observer to be incredibly desperate and fearful of not merging with its bigger counterpart.

Concluding Thoughts

As they say at the Masters, and any golf tournament for that matter, you can lose the tournament on Thursday but you cannot win it. It seems to me that US Airways is trying very hard to win the tournament on Thursday.  There is a lot of golf to play in the American Airlines’ bankruptcy case. And until the back nine begins on Sunday, the leaderboard promises to be crowded as American is an important asset to many – most notably employees, British Airways, JAL, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and Tulsa to name a few. 

If employee members of the Unsecured Creditors Committee are going to believe there is a free lunch (egg salad and pimento cheese sandwiches) with US Airways they are surely mistaken. Simply, if US Airways doesn’t fix many of the structural things wrong with American, then in a few years maybe the “New New US Airways” will have to file for bankruptcy and fix some of the obvious problems their desperate overpromise and sure to under-deliver approach to American’s unions will avoid in order to win the hearts and minds of employees to get a deal done.

Most of the naysayers regarding American’s stated stand-alone business plan have vested interests in the outcome of the game.  Wall Street has made the case that consolidation and strict capacity discipline absolutely need  to be adhered to if the industry is to be stable.  They cite American’s 20 percent stated growth as something to fear.  And it might be.  But what is the 20 percent American has mentioned?  Nobody knows.  What if it is the ability to generate 20 percent more city pairs to sell through code sharing alliances with Alaska and jetBlue that add no new capacity to the system?  Net effect equals zero.  Period. 

Then we have US Airways.  Too big to be small and too small to be big.  Like American, there is a case to be made that their route structure is being marginalized each and every day; therefore a merger is more important to its very success.  For US Airways it’s only shot at a green jacket is to buy one (remember Crenshaw has two and Norman has none) because over a career opportunities to win one have been missed. 

Angst breeds strange bed fellows.  Angst does not win an invite to the Masters Toonament.  And angst does not win an invite to membership.  Yesterday Dustin Johnson had to withdraw from the Masters because of health reasons.  For US Airways this sucks because the Masters does not have an alternate list.  It must earn its way into the 2013 event because angst will not get it into this year’s Masters Tournament.

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
Nov202008

Delta's Singular Focus: Executing Its Singular Vision

Labor issues at many US airlines are emerging that underscore this blogger’s call that these upcoming negotiations will be the most important since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978. And we are not really talking about economics yet...

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