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Entries in USA Today (3)

Tuesday
Jul282009

Propagating Harm: Senators Boxer and Snowe; and Kate Hanni

The festering issue of whether to enact a Passenger Bill of Rights is on its most aggressive track, both publicly and in Congress. Last week the Senate Commerce Committee approved its version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill. Tucked inside was the Boxer-Snowe amendment, which resurrects the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights nearly two years after it first reared its ugly head on Capitol Hill.

Among other things, the Boxer-Snowe version requires airlines to let passengers off of an aircraft that is delayed on the tarmac for three hours or more.

I ask, is this really a cause for Congress? Is this “issue” worthy of all the angst we see in articles like in the USA Today, which is to my eye drafted to drum up controversy replete with anecdotes and devoid of the relationship to the sheer number of flights consumers enjoy.

It is anecdotal and emotion driven by a populist appeal that seems to be driving this debate. With the airline industry already in fierce competition for customers and revenue, my bet is that the industry is more than capable of addressing this issue on its own as evidenced in the recent focus on operational results. But Congress too often seeks a legislative solution where the private sector should prevail, as we’ve seen before and will unfortunately see again. And in these cases, it is clear that the law of unintended consequences is alive and well.

At MIT, I am fortunate to work with learned academics and industry experts who produce a volume of impressive research on airline operations and performance and schedule recovery. Among it is some interesting data that shows airline schedule planning may actually propagate the kind of air travel delays that has some in Congress pushing bills that very likely will add to, and not ameliorate the problem.

Professor Amy Cohn of the University of Michigan is a Sloan Industry Studies Fellow researching the passenger airline industry. Her research illustrates that plans that look good on paper often do not perform well in practice. Cohn argues that, with the complex nature of airline networks, a little “slack” built into the schedule actually improves performance – but offsets the benefits of system optimization. Much good work has been done to make this capital and labor intensive industry as efficient as it can be, particularly given the many variables that affect performance – from a crew member calling in sick, to a mechanical problem, to a geopolitical event, or to the weather.

Consumer Benefits of Airline Schedules Have Been Significant

Schedule planning has provided a wide range of benefits – primarily for consumers. Over the past 20 years, passengers have seen connecting times fall significantly – which is particularly important to those who do not live in hub cities and face a combination of flights to get to their desired destinations. This opaque airline practice has resulted in more productive time for the airline passenger. It has helped to make airlines significantly more efficient because time saved on the ground translates into money saved for the airline. These cost savings have also been passed along to consumers in the form of lower fares

In addition, schedule optimization has permitted added frequencies to non-stop destinations, providing consumers a wider array of departure times and, in some instances, a wider choice in carriers and hubs.

All Anecdotes, Few Facts and Little Analysis

Federal legislation like the Passenger Bill of Rights proposal could significantly undo the progress the airline industry has made. And the real shame is that the legislation borne of one unfortunate delay and an angry but media darling passenger activist named Kate Hanni is the product of anecdotal, and often unsubstantiated evidence rather than serious analysis. Anecdotes produce sensationalist stories like the one in the USA Today. But real research tells a different story. According to the Air Transport Association and the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, all but one of the airline efficiency metrics are at their best levels since 2000, including flight cancellations as a percent of domestic departures, on- time arrival rates, mishandled bags, customer complaints, and taxi-out times in excess of three hours.

So why the focus on an arbitrary three hour time limit? Why not two hours? Why not three hours and 17 minutes? As it is, the legislation now in Congress is designed to affect no more than .014 (1q’09 according to ATA) percent of domestic passengers. Of that small subset of passengers, who, if anyone will actually benefit from the legislation? Well that depends on how many of those passengers would rather wait a little while more in hopes of getting clearance to take off, and how many would prefer to return to the gate and call it a night and risk the ultimate arrival. Now I will add that in order to wait out a delay, there is a rightful expectation of a fully functioning aircraft and onboard amenities that allow a bearable experience.

Who Wins?

The truth is, you can’t legislate smooth travel conditions. Weather is a reality and weather causes delays. And yes, delays add to the angst of travel and wets the appetites of those in the media that thrive on the travails of travel. In those cases of severe weather and flight irregularities, some fliers may be happy just to wait out the delay if it means getting to their destination. A return to the terminal, after all, just adds to the chaos for later flights as the airline struggles to get crews on planes and passengers on their way. And the issues propagate. Imagine the mood on a plane queued to take off following a weather delay if the pilot suddenly announces that they are headed back to the terminal because Congress says they have to. Whose “rights” does that protect?

What Does This Have to Do With Reauthorization?

Of the .014 percent, or the .01 percent of domestic departures during the first quarter of 2009, of domestic passengers impacted by tarmac delays greater than three hours, shouldn’t we also be asking how many of those delays could possibly be laid at the feet of Congress and the government because they did not keep their promise of upgrading the air traffic control system? That’s a legislative solution that would benefit all airline passengers, every community and the industry itself. Whereas the USA Today article was largely sensationalistic with its statistical story and included vignettes about crying babies and the like, at least the reporter talked to an airline and a knowledgeable consultant about the old and inefficient air traffic control system.

The USA Today article rightly makes this case. "Because of the antiquated air-traffic-control system in which we — and every airline — operate, we're restricted as to the operational improvements we can make," Bryan Baldwin, spokesman for JetBlue Airways, told the newspaper

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd said airline CEOs "should form a conga line" to the FAA and demand the country's air-traffic system be modernized. That could increase airspace capacity and reduce the number of waiting planes.

That alone would do far more to reduce congestion and delay than would a phony and likely counterproductive passenger “bill of rights.”

Don’t get me wrong. The airlines deserve some blame here. We would not be facing the prospect of such a ludicrous proposal if the airlines did not fail their passengers and fail them more than once. But remember, they do operate nearly seven million flights per year - significantly more than when competition was born. Their failures pale in comparison. Passengers could, and have, experience serious repercussions from a prolonged wait on the tarmac – whether from lack of food, water, medicine or simply the need to get off the plane and attend to personal matters. But that is an issue that can be solved with a directive, a renewed focus on customer service and basic human comforts, not a piece of legislation that certainly will result in unintended consequences. Airlines and airports are making progress on that front and addressing delays that they can control. But last I checked, weather was not among them.

This issue needs study – a very detailed study – and it sure as hell is not the 2008 ARC study - on the issues . There is a solid foundation of scholarly work to build on and adapt that work to this particular issue. Those that perform the study need to understand how airline operations work and then determine how an airline can best address the anecdotes (outlier events) given the unique constraints placed on airlines, airports and the air traffic system each and every day as there is no one size fits all solution that seems to be called for in the ill advised Boxer-Snowe legislation.

The real issue is in the root cause of airline delays, and the answer will be found to incubate in the air traffic control system. The FAA reauthorization bill comes around only once every so many years. Is Congress going to use this opportunity to pass a meaningless “protection” for a few passengers, or take a bold step and do what it takes to build a better air traffic control system for the good of all?

I thought the administration was going to take parochial interests out of legislation. This legislation should be about funding the FAA in order to modernize the air traffic system and increase its safety – not tarmac delays; not propping up a non-essential Essential Air Service program; and certainly not about anti-trust immunity.

More to come on these issues.

 

The next post will examine the baseline of pay and productivity issues the airlines face as labor seeks to return compensation lost from past negotiations.

Sunday
Oct212007

Circular Logic: US Airways and the Economics of Entitlement

Since US Airways’ failure to convince the US Congress, employees and the Delta Unsecured Creditors Committee that their deal provided many stakeholders with a long-term blueprint for success, issues faced by the US Airways’ management team continue to get more and more parochial. The recent news announcing the continued downsizing of Pittsburgh has elicited responses from Congressmen that this writer finds baffling. And the move by unhappy former US Airways’ East pilots - caused by an arbitrator’s ruling regarding the seniority integration with the former America West pilots - to consider an alternative union to the Air Line Pilots Association is troubling.

The Pulldown of Pittsburgh – A Long History of Weak Hub Economics

To start, let me reiterate my views on the market: there are too many network legacy carriers; too many low cost carriers; too many regional carriers as a result of having too many network legacy carriers; and there are too many hubs which keep too many network legacy carriers and regional carriers operating.

Defining Entitlement Economics: all are conferred a lifelong right to employment and/or abundant service despite the fact that the economics of the US airline industry, particularly its domestic operations, have changed significantly since the early 1990’s.

Remember the early 1990’s: It was during this time that the industry emerged from a recession that was triggered by the Gulf War. American exited Nashville and Raleigh-Durham. Continental was emerging from Bankruptcy #? and exited Denver. Delta’s presence in the Western US, purchased from Western Airlines, was being pulled down. Other carrier’s were also reducing west coast capacity as the market was being impacted by the growth of Southwest and question marks about how successful United would be following its ESOP agreement reached in 1994. And I am confident that I have missed other significant events during this period. What I do sense, is that we are about to embark on a similar period.

The period also marked the beginning of the end for US Airways as accidents, increased competition and the hangover of management decisions to “give away the store” in collective bargaining agreements to all employees from each of the companies it acquired during the late 1980’s were being fully realized. It was at this time, that the management team was changed significantly to see just how many tricks could be pulled out of the hat of an airline with a bloated cost structure and a revenue base under attack from all directions.

Last week there were two articles that caught my eye. The first story, by Dan Fitzpatrick of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette click here defines the unfortunate position Doug Parker, US Airways’ CEO, finds himself in as his management decisions are being challenged by an uninformed Senator Arlen Specter. An enlightened David Grossman of the USA Today click here does a wonderful job of describing the declining economics of the Pittsburgh hub while at the same time capturing the consumer friendliness of the facility. The facts outlined by Mr. Grossman were intact before US Airways’ merger with America West and should have been a signal of things to come for each the employees, customers and city fathers in Pittsburgh along with the Pennsylvania congressional delegation.

So Senator Specter:

- When you say you might not help US Airways with political issues in Washington DC - that is truly unfortunate. I thought you represented all of Pennsylvania and not just Pittsburgh. I thought that the Senate was interested in the success of companies and industries, particularly those that are inextricably linked to the health of the US economy and assuring that US industry can be as competitive as it can be in the global economy.

- US Airways has reciprocated, and has shown the Pittsburgh area consideration in return for Congress’ support in building a new airport. Quite honestly, the reciprocation has come in spades as Pittsburgh has been among the most overserved cities in the US when considering the fact that only 20% of the airport’s traffic was local Pittsburgh traffic (pointed out in Mr. Grossman’s article). Simply stated, this is just bad economics for an airline hub and all Mr. Parker is doing is making a prudent management decision that should contribute to his company’s financial health.

- Finally, your decision to fly Southwest is certainly yours and I agree that they are a very good competitor in the markets they serve. Government policy in the US aviation market has led to significant market fragmentation and as a result the consumer has benefited from lower ticket prices. But I urge you to look in the mirror and ask yourself who is serving Allentown, Harrisburg, Wilkes Barre-Scranton and Erie. It sure is not the low cost carriers that have been the darlings of Capitol Hill. It is the network legacy carriers that invest in the right sized airplanes to serve those markets when the low cost sector tries to lure those travelers to the big markets they only serve.

So US Airways East Pilots:

- When you say you are unhappy with the Air Line Pilots Association over an arbitrator’s decision and you want to leave ALPA - for the historical success of non-national unions? - be careful for what you ask for. How do you really think things will be better for you and your followers under a new union with little clout?

- It is time to simply recognize that the merger deal with America West was the most important component of the Plan of Reorganization that permitted you and the remaining work force to emerge from bankruptcy #2. Your problems began a long time ago and are not the result of this agreement. Without it, my guess is the US Airways logo (whichever one it is) rests somewhere with Pan Am, Eastern, and TWA.

So Senator Specter, you are not entitled to service in this economic environment just because you have had it in the past; and US Airways’ employees are not entitled to employment. What is troubling to this writer is to have Senators not looking around their own state and recognizing that it is the network legacy carriers that are serving “your” cities of all sizes – not just the largest markets despite the difficult economics facing the industry. If you think that the low cost carriers are the answer to your service dilemmas, then keep making statements about not wanting to help a carrier that has invested, and generated, billions in “your” economy when they visit your office in Washington DC. If you think about it carefully, your logic is circular.

To the US Airways’ pilots, your circular logic is more like the virtuous circle of failure that began long ago. You finally have a CEO that is committed to the operation, committed to finding success comprised of a network with limited short term upside and committed to avoiding a walk down the plank that promises no return. But if the world begins to change along the lines suggested by the last two posts in this blog, then it will be nothing different than the parochial interests that stood in the way of commercial opportunities at the “Old US Airways”.

Tuesday
Oct162007

“I hear the train a "C"omin'”

As earnings season kicks off for the third quarter, Delta announces great results click here and its CEO talks about consolidation click here This, is what the major newswires and bloggers picked up -- not that Delta’s earnings exceeded the Street’s expectations. The exception to these stories is Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News writing in his blog about the cleansing of bankruptcy which puts a different, but fair, perspective on the company’s performance click here.

One – no the best question of the day -- came from a significant trader in the airline debt world was: Will the news of Delta being part of consolidation considerations be bad for Delta CEO Richard Anderson? My immediate response was no, Anderson’s public comments have never shut the door on anything other than to make Delta the best it can be in his view and his board’s view.

So now that earnings season is underway, I just wonder how many times the “C” word will be used? We know that UAL has painted a target on its back but will others discuss the “C” word in their comments to the analysts? This, on top of an expected Delta announcement with alliance partners Air France and KLM click here, and today’s announcement click here, makes clear that the management team in Atlanta is not sitting still as it undertakes its transatlantic strategy.

Lots has been written about “unlocking value” by spinning off subsidiaries that are perceived by the market as to not being reflected in the current equity prices of US carriers. $86 oil points to a potentially mean and long cold winter for this industry. Therefore, expect the discussion of the “C” word to be included in this quarter's earnings’ overview. Moreover-- and this is true for each management and labor --remember tomorrow for this industry is about “capital creation” and not “capital recycling” or as some of my smart friends might say “capital destruction”. Or die.

The unfortunate visionary that is being left out of today’s (10/16/07) talk of consolidation is the CEO of US Airways, Doug Parker – but the earnings announcement is days away. He gave us a blueprint of how consolidation is good for the industry and individual companies in his bid for Delta. He openly talked – as to this writer’s take – on the benefits of reducing fixed costs while still maintaining access to the US air transportation system for air travel consumers in markets large and small. [I sure hope the US government reads and thinks about this statement]

What is unfortunate for Mr. Parker click here is the parochial interest of labor in the “C” word discussion. Certainly there is more to come on the US Airways situation in this blog -- but to stand in the way of market development for labor is a major mistake. It is global, it is real, it is now. So if labor thinks they are sitting in Folsom Prison and hoping that they’d moved it on a little farther down the line—stand ready.

“It's rolling round the bend"