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Friday
Jan132012

Swelbar: Just Thinking About A Few Things

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal

Susan Carey, Gina Chon and Mike Spector report that Delta Air Lines and TPG Capital are separately evaluating potential bids for American Airlines’ parent, AMR.  This story, along with the myriad of others discussing a US Airways bid for the Fort Worth, TX carrier, is just a warm-up for the main event of AMR’s trip through court-assisted restructuring and the ultimate filing of a plan of reorganization acceptable to creditors.

Delta might seem like an odd suitor.  First, we have to accept the fact Richard Anderson’s Delta is not your father’s Delta.  He and his team are aggressive and understand American holds many assets and relationships that are valuable and thus important to Delta (and SkyTeam) like:  Chicago (where Delta has been adding select domestic flying), a relationship with British Airways, a relationship with JAL, a relationship with LATAM, more of New York (this is where regulators will really struggle along with the absolute size of the combination), a deep South America presence, more of Mexico, Miami (where Delta has been adding select domestic and international flying), and a way to defragment Los Angeles. It could also simply be an attempt to keep a restructured competitor from emerging.

Delta is reported to have performed an antitrust analysis that concluded - with certain carve outs - the massive combination could pass regulatory scrutiny.  While I can see such a combination would bolster Delta’s market positions in many areas including the middle and eastern regions of the U.S., across the Pacific and into burgeoning Latin America, there is also a lot of overlap between hubs.  If Detroit and Cincinnati competed before, imagine the hub competition – and redundant flying – with Chicago thrown into the mix.  Nonetheless, just on sheer size alone, I think an American-Delta combination would  prove hard for U.S. regulators to grasp and approve. Delta would also have a difficult task of selling such a merger to an already skeptical European Union.

Fort Worth-based TPG, on the other hand, likes to work with strategic partners according to the Journal.  TPG has strong ties to the current management team at US Airways.  Richard Schifter, TPG partner, served on US Airways Board of Directors.  Schifter is currently a director at Republic Holdings.  Schifter and another TPG partner, David Bonderman, have extensive ties to the airline industry stretching from Continental to Ryanair.  No one should be surprised a private equity concern like TPG Capital might have an interest in a restructured AMR.  For TPG, the strategic partnership possibilities are many and include US Airways, British Airways or any oneworld partner that fears the loss of its only meaningful access to the traffic rich U.S. market.

This Wall Street Journal story highlights something I think is very important; AMR is attractive to strategic buyers as well as a financial buyer like private equity.  Today, the list of names publicly discussed as interested in AMR is three.  That list will grow over the coming months. 

It is also highly likely that this story was leaked by a party to mask something else.  We will see. It is important to remember potential bidders will likely wait a few months until a lot of difficult decisions regarding network and fleet are largely complete. They’ll wait until contentious negotiations with labor are complete – probably including layoffs -  as any new owner will not want to get their fingernails dirty in that process. Potential bidders will also likely wait to see how creditors are treated in a debtor negotiated exit plan.

A question remains however:  will any bid attempt by a strategic or a financial buyer for AMR be friendly or hostile?  US Airways tried an unsuccessful hostile run for Delta. There are a myriad of possibilities here and all that is guaranteed is the debtor has the exclusive right to file a plan of reorganization until the court says otherwise.  That plan may include an offer from a strategic or a financial interest, but at this point, it is all conjecture providing an opportunity to opine.  That said the news reported yesterday officially begins AMR’s journey through bankruptcy.

LAN/TAM

If there is an airline company built with more innovation and creativity than LAN, then someone give me a call and let me know who it is.  Or was it just being in the right place at the right time?  Either way, LAN Airlines has quietly grown into one of the global elite carriers and has earnings and a market capitalization to match.

LAN is an airline I rarely mention, but have a deep admiration for.   Based in Santiago, Chile, LAN’s strategy of taking equity stakes and, in effect, becoming a surrogate flag carrier for a country in an economically struggling region where other airlines have failed, has been brilliant. The strategy has allowed the former Lan Chile to diversify its traffic base away from Chile-only and grow to become the de facto flag-carrier for other countries on the continent. LAN’s ability to take advantage of non-Chilean country bilaterals has produced growth opportunities where a reliance on Chile-only would have only led to diminishing returns.

The carrier began as Línea Aeropostal Santiago-Arica in 1929 before becoming Línea Aérea Nacional de Chile (Lan Chile) in 1932. The Chilean government privatized Línea Aérea Nacional de Chile in 1989, and the carrier absorbed Chile’s second carrier, Ladeco, in 1995. Today, the LAN umbrella covers LAN Chile; LAN Peru; LAN Dominicana; LAN Ecuador; LAN Argentina; LAN Cargo; and LAN Express, among others. Some said LAN refers to Latin American Network. Any way you cut it, LAN is a brand!

LAN was just given authority to complete its merger with Brazilian-based TAM and the combined entity will be LATAM.  To become a true South American airline powerhouse, LAN absolutely needed a significant stake in Brazil, which it now has.

One of the merger problems is each carrier is currently a member of a competing alliance.  LAN is a member of oneworld and TAM is a member of STAR.  If Brazil was essential for LAN, imagine just how important the emerging market is to each of the global alliances.  This story might take on the characteristics of the fight for JAL between SkyTeam and oneworld.  South America is yet another critical geographic area where oneworld is under attack.

American Eagle

Two months ago, most industry watchers were scratching their heads about the investment reasoning for American Eagle as parent AMR intended to spin it off.  High unit costs largely stemming from a very senior workforce, along with a fleet that was built around an archaic scope clause at mainline American Airlines, defined the carrier.  I am confident virtually every carrier comprising the regional industry had little to no fear that Eagle was going to steal any potential business. 

Now with bankruptcy and the freedoms to cut costs, American Eagle may look very different coming out of court-assisted restructuring.  Fleet alignment is sure to occur, and is happening, with any and all 37 and 44-seat aircraft immediately being taken out of service.  Certainly there are numerous out-of-market leases on aircraft controlled by the parent that can be reduced.  In fact, we may see a new market rate established for a 50-seat aircraft that takes into account a $120 per barrel jet fuel environment.  Labor rates and rules are sure to be reduced.  If the ground handling services Eagle offers were the crown jewel pre-bankruptcy, just imagine how much more attractive Eagle’s rates to other carriers will become after the restructuring.

Don’t let the point regarding a new ownership market rate that takes into account the high cost of jet fuel get lost.  While Eagle might be successful, it is likely that Pinnacle will not.  This factor is potentially significant.  If a new rate can be found through the bankruptcy process along with reduced labor rates, suddenly for American, a number of small markets served could be removed from the chopping block and remain a part of the reorganized American network.   

Whatever the size of Eagle when it emerges, it is going to be much leaner than the majority of its competitors.  My guess is SkyWest, Pinnacle, ExpressJet and others are watching this restructuring with bated breath because a new market rate for 50-seat flying, and other flying for that matter, will present itself in the coming months.  And a new competitor for future regional flying will emerge.

American Pilot Scope and Pilot Negotiations at United-Continental

As American and its pilots union attempted to negotiate a new agreement up until the time the company filed for bankruptcy protection, certain aspects of what was being discussed were leaking into the mainstream media.  The game changer being discussed was the new A319 fleet would be flown at rates and rules much lower to reflect the difficult economics of the domestic business and appropriately reflect the market/aircraft size. 

If this is indeed the road American travels down in its Section 1113 negotiations, there are significant and immediate ramifications for the negotiations taking place between United-Continental and its pilots.  As the UA-CO pilots spend more time taking on the company using safety as a hot-button, a new baseline is about to be established as to how pilots work and get paid.  If the UA-CO are hung up on nothing more than 50 seats, then I ask:  what about 115 seats? 

The United-Continental pilots’ strategy to exert a leverage point blew up in their face on November 29, 2011.  Where AA is going is in the right direction as it accomplishes multiple things that will benefit their business:  1) it is better able to match costs with the domestic revenue environment; and 2) it puts an end to the pilot scope discussion.  Regional partners will not be doing any 100 seat flying because, in this seat range, mainline pilots have a better ability to match the cost of flying done by the regionals.

Whether United-Continental pilots either figure it out (or not), the focus then shifts to Delta where scope is already a hot button issue.  In 2013, US Airways pilots are absolutely going to be forced to consider something similar to what the AA pilots are likely to agree to. 

Then you just have to wonder what Gary Kelly is really thinking.  The tables just may be turning.

Wednesday
May042011

Air Canada: Hypocrisy and Competition at the Same Time

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal there was a story titled:  Air Canada Tries New Path.  [Note to self: I will be interested]  But it was the subtitle that truly piqued my interest:  Carrier Is Pushing Toronto, Other Hubs as Transfer Points for U.S. Travelers.  Then I broke into laughter.

Not long ago I was writing about how the Canadian government was in a trade dispute of sorts with the United Arab Emirates and the efforts of Emirates, Ethiad and Qatar to expand services into Canada.  The rhetoric grew louder, with large doses of protectionism for Canada’s flag carrier.

"What Emirates wants to do is flood the Canadian market with capacity,” said Air Canada’s CEO Calin Rovinescu. “Its strategy is to scoop up travelers going elsewhere in the world and funnel them through Dubai, further strengthening Dubai as a global flow hub." 

Rovinescu also said Emirates' strategy will “constrain the growth of Canadian airports by turning them from hubs into stubs at the end of a spoke that leads only to Emirates' hub in Dubai." Just in case he didn’t make his point, Rovinescu added, "Sure, you will still be able to get to anywhere from Vancouver. But you will have to get there through Dubai."

In Tuesday’s WSJ, Caroline Van Hasslet writes:  “Air Canada is relying on the proximity of its domestic hubs to the giant American market, what Mr. Rovinescu calls his ‘international powerhouse’ strategy.  He [Rovinescu] identified Toronto as the carrier’s key hub in the push but also uses Montreal and Vancouver to attract American flyers traveling to Europe or Asia.  He hopes to double Air Canada’s transshipment traffic this year . . .”.

According to Van Hasslet, “Air Canada hopes to capitalize on its recent capacity increases, especially to Asia,” noting that the carrier is also betting that its relatively young planes will be a primary attraction for American business travelers.”

That sounds very much like the strategy playing out in the Middle East, where new planes, a young workforce and geography are the primary structural advantages for carriers calling the region home.

Simply, as networks increase in scope, carriers can justify more and more service into secondary and tertiary markets as the connecting possibilities increase exponentially.  Rovinescu says he wants to move passengers from one country, through a so-called gateway nation, to a third country.  With the exception of Toronto, other Canadian cities would be secondary to Emirates just as Air Canada calls Boston, Pittsburgh and Cleveland secondary.

But those secondary markets are critical in filling airplanes destined for Europe and Asia. The U.S. cities mentioned by the Air Canada CEO are just as important to American Airlines, Delta Air Lines as well as their STAR alliance partners, United-Continental and US Airways.  What to make of this strategy that will certainly transform Air Canada overnight into a global juggernaut?  Don’t buy the line.

As I touched on in the previous blog, Air Canada was trying to negotiate compensation and work rules with it pilots doing domestic flying versus international flying.  This points to the simple fact that network carrier legacy rules will not work long-term in either the Canadian or the U.S. market.  But, unlike the U.S., Canada faces a true structural conundrum.   Nearly two-thirds of the country’s traffic can be found in just eight metropolitan markets.   So Air Canada sees the need to raid U.S. markets to fill those big, new airplanes destined for Asia, all along potentially turning U.S. hubs into stubs on the global map.

But Wait – Let’s Talk Competition Too

Yes I am calling out Air Canada for the duplicity of its words and intended actions.  The question is what it means to all the naysayers who claim that it is global alliances that are driving up cross-Atlantic airfares.

Rarely do they mention the role of rising fuel prices and airlines passing on the cost to the consumer which makes percent changes from recent history even more dramatic.

Rarely do they mention that the architecture of the Middle East carrier’s networks is being designed to mount the ultimate challenge to the Big 3 global alliances. 

To suggest that there is no inter-alliance competition; one has to look no further than Air Canada’s “international powerhouse” strategy.  What I think is going to be interesting is what to make of the intra-alliance competition for the same traffic and revenue.  Yes joint ventures work to address some of the concern.  But …..

Now is the time to think about cross border ownership.  Maybe it is also time for U.S. carriers to act and make the rest of the world react.  Air Canada is the poster child for cross border ownership because the Canadian market cannot support two carriers.  And borrowing traffic and revenue from the U.S. is yet another Band Aid solution to problems that underlie the carrier’s long-term sustainability. 

Air Canada certainly knows this to be the truth as well.

Tuesday
Jan052010

Let’s Make Today’s Unions Tomorrow’s Source for Labor

A Challenge to ALPA Captains Paul Rice and John Prater

On the last day of 2009, Caroline Salas of Bloomberg (edited) wrote an article on the regional airline industry titled:  Pilot Complaints Highlight Hazards of Regional AirlinesIn it were references to Gulfstream International (a training academy and airline) that were first reported by Susan Carey and Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal on December 1, 2009. Salas quotes Captain Paul Rice, First Vice President of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) alleging that the industry contracts flying to regional carriers to circumvent pilot agreements at the mainline carriers. 

Rice says: "The way the industry is structured is that management will go out and find a new airline and start siphoning off the business to whoever will fly for cheaper.  The American public is only just starting to wake up to that. What they are buying is the lowest-cost operation that's available."

This is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. What Rice does not say is that his very own union is a primary reason why the industry is structured the way it is. ALPA and others negotiate contracts with mainline carriers that proscribe the terms on which an airline can outsource flying to its regional partners.  Under the restrictive collective bargaining agreements common in this industry, most airlines can’t even make these important business decisions without the authorization of the pilot unions.

It is high time for ALPA and Captains Prater and Rice to tell the truth and take some responsibility for the current structure of the industry, even when it doesn’t necessarily serve the interests of big labor and its members. 

In a recent post, Sacred Cows and Fatigue, I referenced a thought-provoking column by Michael E. Levine in Aviation Daily that took on some of the debate over regional flying today.  In it, Levine noted that the February 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo raised issues about pilot experience, fatigue and performance that “underscore the need to revisit negotiated seniority rules and pay scales that pay pilots more to fly bigger aircraft, leaving some of the least experienced pilots to do some of the most demanding flying.”

Earlier, in US Pilot Unions’ Dirty Little Secrets, I discussed the complex structure of airline networks that have developed over time through mergers; acquisitions; regulation and, importantly, union influence. And one place that labor influence plays out is in pilot contract “scope” clauses that too often hamstring an airline’s operations in the name of job protection for pilots.  The question we in the industry should be asking is whether those scope clauses really serve that purpose or, rather, whether some union leaders use scope in a way that is both misguided and ultimately harmful to the pilots they represent.

My Challenge to Captains Rice and Prater

Based on the testimony of ALPA since the Colgan accident, there has been nothing said that makes me think that the nation’s largest pilot union is ready to take responsibility and become part of the solution. Yes, regulatory barriers play a role in many airlines’ ability to serve certain markets profitably.  But at the same time scope clauses also contribute to a situation in which airlines are forced to outsource flying to their regional partners when mainline economics cannot support that flying. This fact is as true today as in the late 1980’s when the architecture of the network carrier's relationship with the regional airline industry was being drawn.

How about this resolution: Beginning in 2011, ALPA and other unions that hold collective bargaining rights for airline workers actually employ the members they now represent. Let’s use pilots as the example:

Let’s say Airline X needs pilots for 1.7 million block hours of mainline flying.  Of that, the airline needs .6 million hours of 777 flying; .2 million hours of 767 flying; .5 million hours of 737 flying; and .4 million hours of 757 flying.  Based on its projections of the revenue it can earn to fly these routes, Airline X is willing to pay $1.2 billion for pilot labor. In addition, and a result of the current industry structure, Airline X will require .5 million hours of CRJ flying and .5 million hours of EMB70 flying for which it can pay $500 million.  So, in total, Airline X needs pilots to perform 2.7 million hours of flying and is willing to pay $1.7 billion for those services.

Based on calculations compiled in MIT’s Airline Data Project and an assumed split for captains and first officers, on average, the industry pays a captain cost per block hour of $325 and a first officer cost per block hour of $225 for small narrowbody flying.  For 757 flying, the cost per captain block hour is $350 and $250 per first officer hour.  And for widebody flying, captains cost $563 per block hour and first officers earn $400 per block hour.

So, in our example, simple math produces a mainline cost that is $85 million more than what Airline X can pay based on projected revenue for that flying.  As an employer, ALPA would either have to agree to reduce the rate charged for each pilot or find another way to get the flying done at that cost.  That might mean increasing pilot productivity beyond the average 40-50 hours per month most network pilots now fly.  Or expanding the arbitrary and artificially low limit most unions put on pilot duty time. Or rethinking the level of benefits provided.  But the exercise itself – one not dissimilar to what most airlines are trying to do through labor negotiations to correct for bloat and inefficiency in current contracts – would be an eye-opener for labor leaders who don’t now have to trouble themselves with the hard work of making the airline’s budget actually balance.

The Math Is the Math

Now ALPA has to decide if it is in their best interest to maintain a greater number of pilots (today’s practice in which younger pilots ultimately subsidize the generous pay provided more experienced flyers) or fewer pilots who would earn more based on what the market is willing to pay. 

That decision must include many considerations, including:

  • Is there really a difference in the cost of a life flying on a 50-seat regional jet versus a 250 -seat B777?;
  • As market economics have made mainline narrowbody flying uneconomic in a large number of markets, is it good practice for a union to negotiate lower rates and different work rules for pilots at one carrier in order to support higher wages and more time off for pilots at another carrier?;
  • Is it the case, as Prater testified before Congress, that “a safety benefit is derived from all flying being done from a single pilot-seniority list because it requires that first officers fly with many captains and learn from their experience and wisdom before becoming captains themselves”?; 
  • If ALPA actually employed all pilots, then wouldn’t the creation of a single pilot seniority list facilitate the implementation of a system to address the experience problem at the regionals where, as Levine suggests,  a  30-year 737 captain might actually be assigned by ALPA to fly the demanding flying that today is performed by 50 seat CRJ pilots?; and
  • Does a system of pilot promotion from right seat to left seat; from regional to mainline in a market that promises only a growth rate roughly equal to the rate of attrition at best, really work anymore?

As employers, the unions might be forced to make decisions like management must – based on what is in the long-term best interests of the airline and all of its employees.  From that position, it is much harder to throw stones or seek job protections and wages that don’t recognize market realities. ALPA and the unions would have to answer some really tough questions.  

Given that the market offers little promise for growth like that experienced between 1978 and 2001, it is time for a new compensation and work rule model.  Perhaps it is time to put the most experienced pilots on trips that include the most demanding flying. 

And it is time that organized labor, particularly ALPA, to step up to the plate and become part of the solution rather than continue to contribute to a troubled industry’s troubles by not accepting any responsibility for today's structural predicament.  ALPA can put its dues money where its mouth is and truly promote safety.  But that might just mean a total overhaul of the way pilots are compensated.  

Wednesday
Sep022009

“Go Ahead, Bite the Big Apple; Don’t Mind the Maggots”

Yesterday, as I was awaiting a report from the Institute of Supply Management on August manufacturing activity, I was working on a piece I titled:  “Government Buys Junk; Consumer in Funk; Airline Recovery No Slam Dunk.”  But after reading Ann Keaton’s piece in the Wall Street Journal on how jetBlue and Lufthansa are looking for a code share deal, I started thinking about all the pieces in play in the New York market and, as it happens, of the 1977 Rolling Stones tune “Shattered.”

Was it US Airways’ that said “my brain’s been battered, splattered all over Manhattan?”  Or AirTran talking about “rats on the west side, bed bugs uptown?”  Was that Continental murmuring something about “all this chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter ‘bout shmatta, shmatta, shmatta -- I can’t give it away on 7th Avenue?”  [But I can in Newark]  I do think I heard Delta saying, “to live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!”  And I am sure I will hear from American “don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up” if it is not granted an immunized alliance with its transatlantic partners.

A Long and Overdue Reshaping of the Competitive Environment Gets Underway

It began on August 11, when AirTran Airways announced a deal with Continental to vacate Newark and give its slots and one gate there to Continental in return for slots at New York’s Laguardia and Washington Reagan.  A day later, Delta and US Airways announced a monster deal in which US Airways will give up 125 pairs of Express slots at Laguardia in exchange for 42 pairs of slots at Washington Reagan and rights to fly to Tokyo and Sao Paulo.  Both swaps involve no cash and have no impact on the Northeast Shuttle operations run by each US Airways and Delta.

The Delta – US Airways swap all but ensures that Delta will surpass American as the largest carrier at Laguardia.  By any measure of market concentration, LGA will continue to have ample competition.  For Delta and US Airways, the deal gives each carrier the tools to build out markets they believe are market strongholds.  Some say that a split operation (Laguardia and JFK) for Delta is a mistake.  But I disagree.  Winning passenger loyalty from offering expanded domestic services at LGA should translate into making Delta a clearer choice for passengers to choose the carrier when traveling to international destinations from its operation at JFK.

Absent this kind of deal, there is not much that can be done to increase domestic flying at any of New York’s three major airports.  Applying US Department of Justice standards to determine market concentration, Laguardia, JFK and Newark would be considered concentrated or moderately concentrated per the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index.  And JFK has limited space to for an airline to run a large domestic operation because of the extensive international operations that occupy the critical late afternoon/early evening hours.

Given all of the constraints of the New York aviation infrastructure, the airlines involved in the slot swaps have taken a proactive approach to advance their competitive strategies.  By recognizing their individual strengths and weaknesses, the airlines involved will be better positioned when a recovery gets underway.  If the government says you cannot merge, then engage in binge and purge. 

Today’s environment does not afford any carrier the luxury of presence everywhere and pricing power nowhere.

Congress and the Regulators

Because these transactions require regulatory approval, I fear that critics will claim that the deals would give the carriers excessive pricing power in those markets. 

But look at the data. According to the Airline Transport Association, system passenger revenue is down 21 percent, or $12.5 billion when comparing the first seven months of 2009 to 2008.  Add in the $3.1 billion the industry has brought in from those damn fees that everyone likes to write about, and that means revenue is down $9.4 billion. 

Where is the pricing power?  Where is the gouging?  And when will the politicians and regulators take airlines at their word when they say they need change?

“People dressed in plastic bags.  Directing Traffic.”

 

Monday
Aug172009

US Airline Labor Says Cyclical; Reality Says Secular

Last week, the Labor Department reported preliminary unit labor cost and productivity numbers for the second quarter. It reported that non-farm productivity increased at an annual rate last quarter of 6.4 percent and unit labor costs decreased 5.8 percent. The increase in productivity was the highest since the third quarter of 2003 and the decrease in unit labor costs was the most since the second quarter of 2001.

In theory and in practice, highly productive work forces give companies flexibility in economic upcycles as well as downcycles. That means flexibility that helps companies meet demand – including flexibility to increase wages in return for greater productivity as higher product output can be achieved with less labor input. During this difficult economic period, second quarter corporate earnings results generally exceeded expectations.  Some amount of corporate success in the quarter can be attributed to increased workforce productivity, as many jobs left unfilled meant more work for those on the payroll.

But this is not, sadly, the case in the airline industry.

The Reality of Today’s Airline Revenue Environment

This morning, The Wall Street Journal carried a piece by Susan Carey entitled: “Airline Industry Sees Pain Extending Beyond the Recession.” In this critically insightful piece, Carey examines the relationship of airline revenue to US Gross Domestic Product. “For decades,” she writes, “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.”

In the article, Carey cites US Airways President Scott Kirby and his view that the rapid growth of discount airlines is the primary culprit behind what he called "a long-term secular decline" in the revenue-to-GDP relationship.

“Since [before] Sept. 11, low-cost airlines have grown rapidly, putting downward pressure on fares, while travelers increasingly shop for the cheapest tickets on the Internet.” Carey writes. “The Transportation Department estimates that budget airlines now account for 40% of the domestic market, up from 22% in 2001. While lower fares stimulate demand, Mr. Kirby said, airlines still wind up losing revenue overall.”

Carey also offers props to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Airline Data Project, citing data there that “if the revenue-to-GDP ratio had stayed where it was pre-2001, the airlines would have raked in an additional $27 billion in revenue in the year ended in March.”

She continues,”if thrifty consumers and cost-cutting businesses are this recession's legacies, airlines will be forced to shrink even more. Growing smaller means parking planes, laying off workers and dropping destinations, meaning potential customers have fewer reasons to book. Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines Inc. cited a gloomy revenue outlook for the rest of the year in its plans to cut more management jobs. If passengers don't return to the skies and fares don't rise, some airlines could run low on cash, raising the specter of additional bankruptcies.”

The US Airline Industry is Neither Flexible Nor Agile

An industry governed by a seniority system is virtually assured of decreased productivity as capacity (productive output) is reduced. We’ve recently posted our analysis of 2008 US airline employee compensation and productivity on the Airline Data Project. And that data paints a very clear picture: by the end of last year, US airlines showed neither increased productivity nor decreasing wages, despite an industry beset with very sick revenue generation.

What the data does demonstrate is the industry’s difficulty in its efforts to shrink and realize immediate labor cost benefits. To get smaller, legacy airlines lay off employees – those, of course, with less seniority -- and end up retaining those employees that have accrued more time off. Therefore, more labor is necessary to do the that reduced level of flying. Compounding the problem, the employees that remain are paid at higher hourly rates, trending the average wage for employees upward.

Using Pilot Labor as an Example

Overall, the industry has made tremendous progress in increasing the average number of flight hours per month per pilot – a necessary increase over the artificially low “monthly maximums” that pilot unions protected through collective bargaining agreements since the early years of this decade. [This trend was generally the case across all airline employee groups as well.] But what I find most interesting is this: after years of sequential progress, each of the network carriers nonetheless experienced a decline in pilot productivity in 2008.

I think it important to mention the Delta and Northwest pilot productivity data appears to be affected negatively by their merger completed in 2008’s fourth quarter. But the declines in United’s pilot labor productivity appear to me to highlight the conundrum a unionized airline industry faces – the inability to reduce workforce in concert with capacity.

With productivity in decline, average salaries per pilot equivalent generally increased in 2008 versus the prior year. On the other hand, average salary and benefit costs per pilot equivalent show mixed results. But there are a lot of factors in that calculation, including the costs driven by defined contribution pension plans as companies made historically high contributions; modest increases in compensation negotiated during the restructuring periods; and uneven financial results as many airlines attempt to reduce health care costs and other efforts related to restructuring.

Most disturbing are the trends in output per dollar of total pilot labor cost. The most important metric to me is the marginal cost of a unit of output. Consider the trends in Available Seat Miles per dollar of pilot cost, where labor costs are increasing faster than capacity is being produced. The same downward trend is evident when looking at output per dollar to all employee compensation – which amounts to a steady and stubborn increase in labor costs to productivity that could have a particularly negative impact on Southwest and American over the long term absent a significant new source of revenue.

You Cannot Look at Labor Costs without Understanding Productivity and Revenue

The Journal piece could not have come at a more important time as it provides the revenue backdrop against which all labor negotiations are set. The economy may not continue to shrink, but reality for the airline industry is that its piece of the economic pie is shrinking. While it’s hard to know if the continued sequential relationship of revenue as a percent of GDP will continue, it is increasingly evident that the relationship is not returning to that of the 1980s and 1990s heyday upon which historic labor negotiations patterns were built.

Labor needs to grasp that revenue premiums generated by the legacy carriers are largely gone. When all pricing is transparent and any Internet user can compare any airlines’ fare on any route, there is little room to cross-subsidize, or any grounds for expectations that the industry can repay concessions granted in the past. The revenue environment absolutely underscores that this is the right time in the industry’s maturation cycle to rethink how employees are compensated.

The National Mediation Board is not the answer. There is little logic to the notion that the company and the unions can come in with wide disparities in their respective positions and the Board will merely split the difference. Not unless either party is willing to accept the inevitable result: that this type of decision in today’s world would likely force another carrier into, or back into, bankruptcy court.

Historically, “pattern bargaining” has created an inflationary cycle in which labor groups chase best contracts among other labor groups in the industry. This practice, however, ignores the competitive mix and thus the revenue environment in which any carrier operates.. The only relationship that matters is an airline’s unit cost relationship to its unit revenue. And that is different for every airline.

Simply, Changes Are Secular and Not Cyclic

This is a subtle point. Cyclical and seasonal changes in a longer-term trend line are generally easy to identify and explain and are supported by historic patterns. However, when the changes in a trend line cannot be easily explained in line with historic patterns, then the pattern is broken. We know that the US airline industry’s revenue relationship since the fourth quarter of 2000 has been in decline. We know that the trend cannot be fully attributed to either seasonal patterns or cyclic economic variations. So, those variances that we can’t explain usually point to a permanent or secular change in the industry – and in the airline industry the change has been underway for some time. A return to the past is, quite simply, unlikely.

Therefore airlines will be forced to either adapt their operations to the new environment or to accept their fate in the airline graveyard. A revenue environment that has atrophied to this level can only support so much cost. Therefore as labor negotiations continue into the fall and winter months and become a bigger airline industry story, it is important to acknowledge this change. If I am a union leader, I would bet on smaller fixed wage increases and include a bet on an improving revenue environment as the economy improves in return for flexibility in order that companies can quickly adjust their respective operations.

This is one reason I like what Republic Airlines has accomplished with multiple brands under one umbrella that can succeed in an industry where one size no longer fits all. In some ways, it is not dissimilar to what the successful mega carriers in Europe have been doing all the while the US wallows in the unsustainable cost structure of its past. In this industry, wallowing is a secular trend to be sure.

Is US airline labor ever going to get that featherbedding their own membership roles is actually hurting a smaller number of employees necessary to support a struggling industry?

 

Wednesday
Apr152009

Liquidity, Labor and Legislation

Earnings season is upon us and we all anxiously await guidance from airline executives on a forward looking basis. On the eve of past earning seasons, cues from industry executives have mostly used words starting with “C.” This time around, I want to hear commentary on topics starting with “L” namely:

Liquidity

I believe that we are nearing the final chapters for one carrier, possibly two. I do not know which they might be, only that there are not enough rabbits left in the hat for every airline to survive in this market.

Why?

- Because labor will not be the internal source of capital that it has been in the past;
- Fuel costs are uncontrollable;
- Maintenance repair and overhaul will not offer hundreds of millions of dollars in savings in the future as most airlines already have outsourced as much of that business as they can;
- Distribution costs already have been wrung out of the system at every airline;
- Airport costs ebb and flow with the level of traffic;
- Aircraft rentals and other vendor contracts are largely fixed;
- Commitments made to feed providers are contractual;
- Interest obligations are known.

In other words, there just is not much room on the income statement for airlines to maneuver.

In the U.S. airline industry, we could be fast approaching the tipping point– the critical juncture in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development. With credit tight, would you put money into an industry that has historically destroyed capital? Would you bankroll an industry that has few opportunities to reduce costs in a weak economy? Would you lend money to companies facing labor strife? To get to the bottom line, would you invest in a company in an industry that has never made a dime? In this economy, there may not be many takers.

The airline industry is not special. Like other industries, it needs a plan to earn at least its cost of capital and compete for a limited pool of funding. And those who hold the capital will likely look first toward companies and industries that reward their capital providers more than once or twice every two decades.

I share the belief of some others that the domestic market may be stabilizing, but think this recovery will be an uneven one. The real driver may be the international market and the global economy’s interdependencies that I do not pretend to fully grasp. So I have concerns about American, Continental, Delta and United. Asia has been troubled in certain spots for nearly a decade now. Europe was a strong performer while the US industry faltered, but now shows signs of weakness across the continent. And Latin America’s economy appears to be similarly troubled.

Beginning today, when American leads the first quarter’s earnings parade, I will be all ears. Because what I see for some is troubling. Others will benefit from the weakness.

 

Labor

The recalcitrant unions at American remain the lead story as outlined in Mike Esterl’s piece in an April 14 Wall Street Journal entitled: Labor Negotiations Cloud Outlook for American Airlines Parent. American is being joined by United which opens negotiations with all of its major unions this month. Between the two, there will be plenty to read and write about as union leaders at each airline continue to promise outcomes to their members that could not be met even in the best of times. Real leadership would instead recognize that no airline can long survive overpriced labor contracts that put them at a competitive disadvantage in the industry.

I read somewhere this week that the United Airlines flight attendants union is promising its members a new contract that will give them industry-leading pay rates. The American pilots union is taking an old page out of the Continental pilots’ playbook that “the loan is due” to gain back pay levels the industry no longer supports. The problem is that concessions granted or forced in past years were a necessary correction of market costs that had risen above the industry’s ability to absorb those costs. Those concessions were never a “loan” and there isn’t a labor contract in the industry that includes terms on rates or principal that would make them so.

American has a first – at least in my recollection – in having all of its negotiations in mediation at the same time. United could be in the same place as date certain contractual understandings are in place to file for mediation in the event no agreement is reached. As for US Airways and the labor unions that have not been able to complete an agreement following the airline’s merger with America West, I have given up trying to apply logic to that situation. The damage done to employees is done and that was the work of the unions involved.

OhhhhhhBama – Release Me (And Let Me Love Again)

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American pilots, has been on an ill-conceived, death-march strategy that the leadership somehow believes will get them closer to a release from mediation. Negotiations began in September 2006 -- a long haul by any perspective – but the clock was reset when a new union president, Lloyd Hill, was elected in June 2007. I don’t pretend to know the union’s strategy in these negotiations beyond what plays out publicly, but I do know that the Hill administration has made contract demands that are so far removed from reality that I question whether he is really representing the best interests of AA pilots.

With each union that files for mediation, my guess is the American pilots move yet another group down the pecking order for a release and thus the ability to engage in Self Help. The APA should be taking a clue from the Obama administration and its dealings with the UAW. The UAW’s Gettelfinger demonstrated a real understanding of that industry in balancing the interests of his members with the economic reality, in part by working to preserve wages and benefits of current employees by negotiating lower rates for new employees. But even that didn’t change the reality that, as the economy continues to collapse; the UAW is still not close to having moved far enough from work rules and wage rates that put the Big Three at a huge cost disadvantage in the global auto industry.

Finally, to the pilot leadership, I can’t imagine what possible benefit you would gain through strikes or other work actions that few airlines could survive. First, there is little chance the White House would allow a union at a carrier the size of American or United or Continental to actually go on strike and potentially threaten the economy’s ability to recover. No matter how labor friendly the new administration is, I believe that any union will need to make a pretty powerful case to the White House as to why a strike is more important than the recovery of the United States economy. Any union that can make a case that restoration of inflation-adjusted wages can be easily paid for by the airlines may have a chance, but that’s going to be a tough case to make.

I refer to the American pilots union in this example, but it applies to any large airline. Too much stimulus is potentially threatened by a strike in an industry as crucial to commerce as the airline industry.

Here’s my bet on where pilot contract negotiations will end up at the legacy airlines: With the Delta deal done under the leadership of ALPA’s Captain Lee Moak, the remaining negotiations will be completed in the following order: 2) Continental; 3) United (following the lead taken in the CO negotiations); 4) US Airways (assuming a final resolution to the seniority issues scheduled for the end of April); and 5) American (and perhaps only after a “leadership” change takes place.)

Congrats to Southwest for having put to bed their negotiation with multiple groups at reasonable rate increases.  With little management distraction, the airline can focus on finding needed revenue.

 

Legislation

Finally, there are legislative issues important to this industry that deserves color in the upcoming earnings calls. First and foremost is a reauthorization bill that will fund the FAA’s activities. A committed industry must find a way to fund enhancements to the air traffic control system. Everyone in the industry recognizes the need to make changes. Now we’re just fighting over who will pay for them. It’s time to move forward and for the various factions to present a united front on "who will pay what".

Second on the legislative front is Oberstar’s bill to evaluate airline alliances every three years -- a clear attempt to make the formation of these alliances increasingly difficult. Never did I think I would write that former AMR Chairman Bob Crandall and Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar are on the same page regarding a controversial commercial issue, but I am - and I am even writing it in the same sentence.

In an interview with the National Journal’s Lisa Caruso, Crandall actually says: “In my view, an objective observer would have to look very hard to find a way in which alliances have benefited consumers.” His remarks point to the “dominance” of slots at Frankfurt and Paris by the aligned carriers. Is this any different than the structure "Crandall built" in the US domestic market where carriers were reluctant to offer service between the hubs of a competitor? Absolutely not. Instead, the competition offered a menu of one-stop competing services that presented the consumer a choice.

Are we not to acknowledge that the air travel consumer in Toledo benefited significantly from the Northwest – KLM alliance that offered seamless connecting service to Amsterdam and points beyond? Wasn’t it Crandall that coveted a partner in Brussels to partake in these very same traffic flows? Does Crandall really believe that Detroit and Minneapolis would have multiple non-stop services to Amsterdam if not for the alliance? Does Oberstar really believe that Minneapolis would have the international service to Europe it does without the network of KLM and now Air France on the other end?

Crandall even makes the point that the foreign carriers have been the beneficiaries at the expense of US carrier interests. Crandall is the one that brought the concept of time-of-day departures to the networks of the nation’s carriers. This alone has contributed to a significant amount of the uneconomic capacity that pervades the industry today. Do we really think that all of the departures that “Bob built” were good for anyone? If we did not have alliances to begin filling all of the ill-conceived capacity deployed in Crandall’s domestic network, then we would have even fewer US carrier domestic departures than we do today – even after all of the cuts.

For a guy I admired, Crandall’s comments leave me perplexed, confused and confounded. Some of his fixes are on point, like a changed labor structure. But Crandall should accept some of the blame for an industry struggling today as his pit bull instinct toward competition became a blueprint to build an industry too big. Or maybe he should explain to airline employees that his blueprint caused an industry to hire too many people that now believe they are entitled to wages higher than the industry can pay.

More to come on this one.

Thursday
Dec042008

Planes and Automobiles:  Why?

Those that say that there are few similarities between the cultures and structures of the US airline and auto industries either have their head in the sand or refuse to accept the reflection in the mirror

Click to read more ...

Monday
Nov172008

Autos & Airlines: Similarities are Frightening

The auto industry faces many of the very same issues that the airline industry faces, and faced, albeit the inherent inefficiencies were exposed by different exogenous events. Today’s credit crisis has exposed decades of leveraged inefficiencies...

Click to read more ...

Monday
Sep082008

STEEEEEE….rike 1

It is September and pennant races are in full stride. The “wild cards” are up for grabs too as Major League Baseball works its way toward the playoffs.

In what is starting to be a rather ho-hum event in the aerospace/defense world: the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) have decided to strike the Boeing Company for the second time in three years. Is this a “yawn moment” or a precursor of things to come as the airline industry begins in earnest the renegotiation of concessionary contracts?

I am thinking this a precursor of things to come. Not quite sure if it is a yawn just yet. Whereas the aerospace/defense industry is quite different than the airline industry, there are similarities. The similarities begin with the simple fact that the manufacturers are a most important stakeholder in the virtuous circle of airline industry success; or failure as they represent an important cost element to the industry. For certain airline class and crafts of employees, a Boeing contract represents a trend.

Boeing is outsourcing. The airline industry is outsourcing. The world is outsourcing.

As J. Lynn Lunsford reports in this morning’s Wall Street Journal: “Resentment over outsourcing has been festering since the mid-1990s, when Boeing began a sweeping campaign to modernize its factories. The company has relied increasingly on contractors across the world to build larger and larger sections of its airplanes. By adopting many of the methods pioneered by the automobile industry, Boeing has been able to reduce the time it takes to build some of its jets by 50%.”

Resentment over Outsourcing - Airlines Too

Beginning in the mid 1990s, US airline industry labor has been festering over outsourcing too. First it was pilots and scope clause restrictions (1995 – 2001) that govern who could fly the first regional jets (50 seats and under for the most part). Those airlines with the fewest limitations placed large numbers of the small jets into service and garnered a “first-mover” advantage to be sure. There should be no mistake as to why US Airways was among the first to file for bankruptcy protection as the carrier had the most restrictive scope clause language and their network was attacked by those with freedom to overfly it. Finally, by 2001, relaxation of the scope limitations, allowing this size jet to fly, had largely been won in return for unaffordable fixed price contracts. Some mainline pilot agreements permitted the flying of 70-seat jets; others did not.

During the restructuring round of negotiations, scope clause limitations on the flying of 70-seat jets by regional partners were significantly relaxed. During that same period, the industry turned to outsourcing more of its heavy maintenance work as carriers looked to find ways to trim costs ala Southwest Airlines that has historically outsourced its heavy maintenance. Well here we go again. I see a pattern. And I do not like what I see because it just simply ignores fundamental issues.

Whereas the Boeing business/economic climate has been quite good and has produced significant profits of late, let’s not forget that the order book is full. Some say until 2017 and some say 2020. Whatever it is, profits can be forecast as the revenue stream can be calculated with some measure of certainty. Adjustments will need to be made to account for pre-strike delivery problems. And there may be some adjustments to be made for strike-related delays. But if the supply chain has been the issue, doesn’t a strike possibly allow certain suppliers to “catch up”? No matter, with the revenue stream reasonably certain it becomes a cost issue just like it did for the airline industry beginning in 2001.

Labor Arbitrage

This is what is at play for each Boeing and the US airline industry, isn’t it? As I turned to the financial dictionary online for a definition of labor arbitrage, this is what I found. Outsourcing: A practice used by different companies to reduce costs by transferring portions of work to outside suppliers rather than completing it internally.

Notes:
Outsourcing is an effective cost-saving strategy when used properly. It is sometimes more affordable to purchase a good from companies with comparative advantages than it is to produce the good internally. An example of a manufacturing company outsourcing would be Dell buying some of its computer components from another manufacturer in order to save on production costs. Alternatively, businesses may decide to outsource book-keeping duties to independent accounting firms, as it may be cheaper than retaining an in-house accountant.

Damn, that outsourcing word again.

Where is the Crux of the Problem? Or Begin to Really Think About It

This is what few want to explore it seems. This round of negotiations simply needs to be a continuation of the transition/transformation period for the US airline industry and the contractual relationships with its labor force. I am not going to perfume the pig here. This is about a different set of wages and rules for the new workers that will comprise tomorrow’s industry that will be increasingly impacted by the ebbs and flows of global trade. The airline and aerospace industries can do better than the automobile and steel industries who acted much too late to protect the many good-paying jobs that remain.

And yes, there does need to be something in it for those that make up the industry today as well. The crux of the problem for labor as I see it is a lack of appreciation of the delicate balance between pay and productivity. Boeing is looking to balance an economic offer with flexibility if the business cycle requires it. Without recognition that balancing the formula is critical, the industry, and individual carriers, will continue what has become known as the "September Swoon" and miss the playoffs altogether. The “spiral down” - read job loss - will continue, strike or no strike. Markets will continue to be successful in finding the most efficient provider - they always are.

The simple question: why are job losses among the legacy US carriers approaching 200,000?

Or maybe the real crux of the problem is the seniority system. Ever wonder if tomorrow’s workers will really want such a system because it stands in the way an individual’s right to participate in the free market?

So I do think we will see strike 2. And probably a high, hard one that produces a swing and a miss that will cost someone the opportunity to continue on in the chase for the title of World Champion.

We are going to be bringing up many issues over the next couple of months.

More to come.

Thursday
May222008

Unbundling Our Way On The Search To Find The Inelastic Demand

I am beginning to believe that there is a silver lining in the high price of oil.

Last month, I wrote a piece entitled The Elastic Induced Ride to Inelasticity. With seat belts on, seat backs and tray tables up, we are ready for takeoff. Yesterday, while American and Southwest were holding their Annual Meetings of Shareholders, I was on an airplane back from Honolulu. So I missed the news flying out of those meetings that found its way onto the wires as rapidly as it could be transcribed. I missed the latest $4 per barrel rise in the cost of crude oil that now equates to $4+ per gallon of jet fuel. I missed …….. or, did I really miss anything?

Oh, I missed something all right. Whereas I believed the industry would transform itself more through merger and acquisition activity, I am now a believer that the price of oil, and the market, is truly what is needed to fully address the many structural ills that have plagued this industry for years. I would like to return to a few paragraphs I wrote in an Airline Business piece earlier this year: Are US carriers really ready for competition?

Despite claims to the contrary, nothing is new in the US. The same old ways of doing business remain intact, which calls into question whether the industry’s fabled “restructuring” has made any meaningful changes in the competitive profile of the US airline business. Despite deep cuts, many outmoded, and troubling, business practices remain.

Following an industry life cycle of value destruction, US legacy carriers now face a dilemma: whether to invest in their core businesses or not? Certainly the tendency to legislative and regulatory gridlock did not get restructured. An inflexible labor construct did not get restructured. The fragmentation of the US domestic market did not get restructured. The infrastructure, whether it be ATC or the airport system, did not get restructured. And the historic mindset that capital will be forever recycled among manufacturers, vendors, labor and government imposed actions did not get restructured.

Little has changed when it comes to labor and regulator views on consolidation. The mindset among the 535 decision makers on Capitol Hill still assumes that any congressional district with a runway, a terminal building and security is entitled to air service. Compounding this sense of entitlement is labor’s sense that the industry will return to its previous “pattern bargaining” – a supposition that fails to recognize the structural change in markets, labor and city pair.

Gerard Arpey’s Words

The full text of Mr. Arpey’s comments to his shareholders can be found here: Remarks Of Gerard Arpey At American Airlines Shareholders Meeting. As we approach the 30th birthday of US Airline Deregulation, it is the price of oil that is demonstrating its power to force the industry to address the many legacy mindsets that did not get restructured during the post 9/11 period. Among many, it includes the customer’s assumption that they actually pay the “all-in” price of the service and are therefore entitled to multiple access points to the air transportation system. NOT.

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal front page, column six, story by Susan Carey and Paulo Prada, they wrote: “If oil prices keep climbing, rising fares could start to push a significant percentage of travelers away from flying entirely. That could reverse one of the most dramatic effects of the industry’s deregulation in 1978, which led to a huge increase in flights, and brought intense fare competition, opening the world of air travel to millions of people”.

Ms. Carey and Mr. Prada are right. And the industry is right to evaluate the cost of providing the product at every juncture. And the industry is absolutely right to charge what it costs to produce the product. From the time the customer logs onto the internet to consider purchasing the ticket; to the actual purchase of the ticket; to the airport experience including check-in; the trip through security; down the jetway; taxi out; inflight service; taxi in; deplane; and collect luggage. Everything has a cost. And the management teams of each and every airline are being forced to “drill down” as never before in order to fully calculate those costs. And after calculating the costs of provision, many, many difficult decisions are being made.

Now this does not make any CEO popular. But being a CEO today is not a popularity contest during these difficult times. [And the most popular CEO of all time, stepped down from a 40+ year career BOD position yesterday] Being a CEO today means having the fortitude to say no. Being a CEO today means questioning anything and everything just because that is the way it has always been done. Being a CEO today means making the tough decisions even though dislocations of certain stakeholders might occur. And being a CEO today means having the guts to say out loud what CEOs knew before them but failed to act.

Mr. Arpey said and the WSJ highlighted: “The airline industry will not and cannot continue in its current state”.

Concluding Thoughts

With all of the actions being taken by the industry to charge for things that were never charged for before, what is interesting is how each carrier is sure to ensure that their most important customers will not pay those fees. Loyalty programs have just become a/the most important asset to an airline – not that they were not before – but rather it is this “inelastic” air traveler that the industry needs to rediscover. And cater to. And build for. And so on. And maybe this is why Mr. Arpey suggested that it was just not a good idea to sell its AAdvantage program. And maybe the market will begin to rethink how it values these currently undervalued assets.

This industry is now recognizing that it cannot be everything to everybody. Yes the industry has met its match – and it is not labor, government, or the macro economy. It is the high price of fuel that is causing the industry to continue the process of fully transforming the way business is done. My guess is that if we had not faced this potentially murderous economic period, then the industry would not have been forced to fully examine itself. The current industry architecture is a picture of what the deregulators envisioned – and the industry delivered. But the architecture produced does not work.

So Mr. Arpey, as your unions marched, I for one am glad you spoke. And you spoke clearly as to how American is moving forward. Your message was not popular. Your message pushed the envelope a little further and added to the debate significantly. No one knows how all of this will really play out. There has to be recognition before there is action. The industry is taking action and one can only hope that labor and government begin to recognize that we are not going back to the same old, same old.

Except for the fact that each airline will "return their attention" to those core, “inelastic”, customers that are willing and able to pay for the service being provided. And those customers will complain less over time. As for the rest of the traveling public and lawmakers that believe they are entitled to air service - well you are not.

More to come.

Monday
May052008

Yawn

This post represents the longest period between pieces for me since I started swelblog.com in October of 2007. Change has been the theme to date. Change will continue to be a theme. Bloggers typically are not sources for news. Instead we rely on reports from the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Bloomberg and other trusted sources for the news and views.

Last Monday, Susan Carey and Melanie Trottman wrote: Continental Rejects Merger Overtures. The subtitle read: Move Marks Rebuke to Rival United; Shifting Alliances? OK. That story ran on A1. Today Susan Carey writes a piece entitled: UAL Merger Discussions With US Airways Intensify. The subtitle reads: Companies See $1.5 Billion In Savings, Synergies; Decision Within 10 Days. Yawn. This story ran on B1. And of course the story comes replete with the now familiar disclaimer: “according to people familiar with the matter”.

In the past, news of airline mergers and potential structural changes in the industry had an air of intrigue and suggested something new in the age old debate was about to emerge. Not this time. Throughout this current period of M&A discussion, I have hoped for something that suggests a path toward transforming of the industry. Something different. Something that tests the current shackles that tie the industry to the same old, same old.

Something like British Airways testing the ownership limits and investing in American and/or Continental. Deal is intended to highlight the importance of the subject as the US and EU negotiate Phase II. Or, labor agrees to a single collective bargaining agreement that makes changes to scope that opens up the globe to new revenue sources all the while protecting US jobs and ensuring that growth will largely remain with the US carriers involved. In return, labor wins meaningful equity in the deal and ties compensation to the same metrics as management. The changed compensation structure begins the process of aligning interests in the company's success.

But I think the market will be the ultimate driver of change. Not the carriers themselves. But maybe that is the good news in all of this and honestly, the only way it can get done.

Transition v. Transformation (Labor Actions Hold A Key)

No matter what direction the industry was going to fly following the emergence of Delta and Northwest from Bankruptcy in early 2007, the subsequent five years or so was going to be a period of transition. The era was sure to be marked by increased competition from non-US carriers; higher oil prices; an economy that was tiring; and more than likely a recognition that no carrier that filed for protection probably had done enough, or tried to preserve too much, given the trajectory of the oil curve.

Then we were going to be faced by the demands of labor to return what was conceded during the restructuring period. Because that is the way it has always been. Right? So maybe it is labor, and their ultimate actions, that is the transition. The transition to transformation? And this transition holds a high probability of the death of an icon.

We already schooled on the many labor issues surrounding Delta and Northwest. But United and US Airways provide their own interesting twists. And those twists begin with the pilots.

No group of pilots has even approached the unrealistic and "head shaking" behaviors of the American Airlines’ pilots except for the former US Airways pilots (US Airways East). These are the pilots that chose to form an independent union by selling an unachievable (from this writer’s opinion, anyway) overturn of an arbitrator’s decision regarding seniority integration of the former America West and US Airways pilots.

But if United and US Airways do decide to join hands, some very interesting possibilities come to the fore. With 5,000 United pilots represented by ALPA; 2,200 former America West pilots that largely voted for ALPA I would guess; and the 2,700 or so former US Airways East pilots that bought the pipe dream sold by the USAPA upstart – an election for representation is all but ensured. And ALPA would likely win. The integration would more than likely get done - yet again. This is the best hope for the former US Airways' East pilots who should recognize that they were fortunate to have found a way out of Chapter 22.

As for the concept of rent sharing discussed in the previous post, a combination of United and US Airways would result in less transfer of capital from the deal and into hush money paid to labor given the relative proximity of average salaries and productivity levels of the two groups.

A United – US Airways combination would also prove most interesting for the flight attendant group as the AFA-CWA represents not only the United class and craft but each the former US Airways and former America West flight attendants as well. From my perspective, this could very well become a “game changer” in the AFA’s attempt to organize the current Delta flight attendants. AFA will be put under the spotlight as to how the union will deal with the integration of its own members that are sure to have varied interests.

As for the other represented groups in the United – US Airways combination, labor stories exist but they are less headline making than what could go on with each the pilots and flight attendants in this scenario.

Over The Weekend, A Comment From a Reader

In my most recent post, Swelblog.com: Let’s Just Continue the War of Attrition, cp5000 commented: “Bottom line is that in a free market, management and labor are free to do whatever they please and capital should be able to make its way to those companies that make arrangements with their work groups that make sense to the providers of capital. Letting the market place sort this all out is difficult for a politician, particularly for a politician from an area that will lose jobs due to the workings of the market. However, our political leaders should be able to see that the pain experienced by some in the past has led to many benefits today”.

cp was speaking to events like the loss of TWA that arguably provided for the opportunity for jetBlue to be granted the slots necessary at JFK that were instrumental to its successful start. The demise of Pan Am was critical to United building Asia and gaining early access to London Heathrow. It could be said that the loss of Eastern ultimately created the vacuum for AirTran today as it has morphed from its prior incarnation as ValuJet. And Southwest has just “triangulated” its way through it all and now has its footprint in all four corners of the US domestic market..

Charlie Bryan’s Tombstone Would Probably Like Some Company

Whether it be the integration of seniority, the overreach for corporate rents by various stakeholder groups, or the failure to recognize that the historic patterns of bargaining and capital recycling are over – labor will definitely play a role in this transition period.

In a post on October 21, 2007, I wrote a piece where I was addressing employee and community entitlement to employment and air service. “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”. Nobody is entitled to a lifelong right of anything.

Why this period is not viewed as an opportunity by labor and policymakers, I just do not know. Instead opponents will point to executive compensation; service problems; loss of service; a menu of potential dislocations; and just plain ignore the economic reality that this industry needs to figure out how to make money. Period. That is the only thing that will benefit everyone.

Yawning at United – US Airways and the drumbeat in anticipation of it. Not sure if I am just weary of the tired refrain of executive compensation and entitlement of economics and seniority; or if bored because the arguments and scare tactics remain the same all the while the world around the arguments continues to change; or if oil is just sucking the oxygen out of the industry and limiting the interesting things that could be done proactively. But I will be patient as some great stories and perspective will emerge.

Or maybe it is simply because I celebrate five decades of life on Thursday. I probably should have written this piece on Mayday. But it is Cinco de Mayo.

Friday
Mar282008

Northwest – Delta Back On?

Susan Carey and Paulo Prada report: Northwest Reworks Plan For Merger With Delta - WSJ.com.

Clearly, more to come.