Archive Widget

Entries in William Greene (4)

Tuesday
Apr212009

1st Quarter Earnings Calls: Unbungling; Unbundling But Not Unshackled

Three legacy carrier earnings calls down, two to go. Southwest and Allegiant have reported. So has SkyWest. But the clear takeaways are difficult to discern. Everyone wants to know if the industry has reached a bottom. But there are no clear answers while we are still in the middle of an economic tsunami. For all those who have said the domestic market is stabilizing (me among them) the only hard evidence on our side right now is that the environment is not getting worse.

Every carrier is supremely focused on unbungling their operations. Yes, unbungling. Because we all know that operations at many carriers have been a mess, with many factors to blame. And, as painful as the process has been, many carriers are making progress getting their operations and costs in order. US Airways led an amazing turnaround focused on its once-troubled Philadelphia hub. Many very good reforms are underway at United. And all things operational are improving at American, albeit at a slower pace than at some of their legacy peers.

Moreover, virtually every carrier – except for Southwest – remains committed to continuing the unbundling process and to maximizing secondary revenue sources. Today, Delta went so far as to announce a fee for the second checked bag on international flights -- becoming the first in the industry to do so. The industry is unequivocal that the fees will stay and that where opportunities are present to do more, they will. Further, a heartening storyline has emerged regarding distribution, where carriers increasingly see opportunities to move away from paying intermediaries to sell their tickets and to turn that model on its head so that airlines get a fee from the middle man for the right to sell their product.

The United Call

I do not have the transcript of this call in front of me, but this was a most interesting listen. My favorite part was when Morgan Stanley’s Bill Greene posed a very fundamental question that went something like this: With planned capital expenditures less than depreciation, how are we supposed to think about United, or the industry, on a going forward basis from an investment point of view?

Or, as Helane Becker of Jessup and Lamont put it: Should UAL have public equity at all, or instead raise only debt capital from the public markets? Then there was Ted Reed of TheStreet.com, who was blunt in asking whether, just maybe, United had “shrunk too much.”

Good questions. Unfortunately, they are ones that the current environment makes very difficult to answer with conviction.

In my last post, I questioned the airline industry’s access to capital given fragile economic fundamentals in an industry that, over its long history, has failed to produce so much as a dime in retained earnings. In my view, the industry is at a tipping point in which smart investors should question the structural integrity of some carriers and networks during what amounts to a market stress test . . . one that just might reveal which airlines have few moves left to shed uneconomic capacity.

This is the “new and irreversible development” I referred to, a trajectory that might change only through serious effort to remove the many regulatory shackles around this industry. Some necessary changes might not be politically popular -- increased foreign ownership of US airlines comes to mind – but the industry’s options are narrowing when you consider that revenue trends do not hold out much immediate promise.

Looking ahead, with credit tight, where will capital – affordable capital – be found unless it is from another participant in the same industry? If companies are struggling to realize any return on invested capital today, then what happens as interest rates continue to increase in lockstep with capital scarcity? As standalone companies, there is just not enough room for individual carriers to maneuver around an income statement that holds little promise of further significant reductions in the short-term. Based on Greene’s point, even United seems reluctant to reinvest much of its own, and limited, capital into a business that does not hold promise of a reasonable return.

This is not just about United. This is an industry issue. And not just a US industry issue . . . it is fast becoming a global industry issue.

In North America, Air Canada has long been the poster child of an airline that needs an influx of foreign capital necessary to keep the company relevant in the global market place. Air Canada faces some unique challenges: namely that nearly two-thirds of Canada’s air travel demand is found in just eight markets.

Meanwhile, the Delta/Northwest merger is fast proving that the combined entity is far less vulnerable than either of the two carriers would have been had they not merged. Just think about the vulnerability of each Delta’s and Northwest’s respective hubs to the economies in the interior of the US footprint.

With US Airways the exception among the legacy carriers as to international market exposure, we as a nation should at very least acknowledge the reality that globally-oriented airlines need to be just that. I’m not talking about domestic airlines with global extensions -- we tried that, in a way, with TWA, Eastern and Pan Am . But absent any real alliances that left each of them dependent only on US-origin traffic, those carriers suffered a common fate -- shut down in sagging economies as capital became tight.

Concluding Thoughts

Following an industry life cycle of value destruction, US legacy carriers now face a dilemma: whether to invest in their core businesses or not?

As the US airline industry is now six full years into a major restructuring, the tendency to legislative and regulatory gridlock did not get restructured. An inflexible labor construct did not get restructured. Policies promoting the fragmentation of the US domestic market did not get restructured – until the airlines themselves took on this task through capacity reductions in redundant markets out of necessity. 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.

In truth, the US market should not fear individual carrier failures or consolidation. Indeed, this market has demonstrated time and time again that where competition is vulnerable, a new entrant will exploit that vulnerability. Where there are market opportunities, there will be a carrier to leverage that opportunity. Where there is insufficient capacity, capacity will be sure to find the insufficiency.

At a minimum, government should take a very serious look at where this industry sits. The US airline industry is not asking for government handouts. Rather it is my view that this industry seeks nothing more than the same rights to operate as virtually every other successful US industry selling to the global marketplace is permitted.

Few shackles unless consumer harm can be proven. Going backward will result in significantly more dislocation for virtually every stakeholder remaining in the industry today as it begins with an industry even smaller than today’s.  It would be a shame to waste six years of some very good work.

Wednesday
Sep102008

Horton Says American Means It

Last month, in a blog post Begging ……. The Questions, I wondered aloud if the US industry, that had announced capacity cuts in July as crude touched $147 per barrel and jet fuel approached $180 per barrel "in the wing", would rollback their capacity cutting plans as oil prices have dropped nearly $40 per barrel since.

At least in Ft. Worth, announced capacity cuts will be actual capacity cuts. Tom Horton, American’s CFO said the domestic capacity cuts are permanent in an interview with the Associated Press. Horton touches on two important cost benefits that will be realized by the decisions his company is taking: 1) the fleet being retired is not efficient from a fuel consumption perspective; and 2) older aircraft require much greater expenditures to maintain.

American Airlines has been aggressive in its capacity planning and has been joined by United and others. Airports around the air transportation system will certainly point to the fact that oil has dropped significantly in the past two months. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that the price of crude oil is only part of the equation; remember the crack spread or the cost to refine crude oil into jet fuel.

The industry is still paying roughly a $140 per barrel equivalent for jet fuel. On average, the industry spent the equivalent of $90.93 per barrel for jet fuel in 2007. It is the difficult management actions that are being undertaken like capacity reductions, ancillary fees and additional employee dislocations that are giving Wall Street some hope that the industry just might be profitable in 2009. But, that all depends on the actual condition of the economy doesn’t it? And I am not sure we can even get an accurate temperature read today.

A Demand Prism?

Let’s not lose sight of the important guidance the cargo side of the business gives to the passenger business despite the fact that they are very different business models. It was the cargo sector that first warned of a slowing economy earlier in the year and the effects it saw on its business outlook. The cargo business addresses more traffic that is demanded on a just-in-time basis and as a result is less price-sensitive. The cargo business is a more leading indicator of things to come. The passenger business sells a significant level of its product well ahead of the actual delivery and tends to be more price-sensitive for a majority of its demand.

Last night, William Greene of Morgan Stanley wrote a piece on Federal Express. It was entitled: Weak Guidance Highlights Cyclical Pressures. And I quote: "Cyclical headwinds clearly a challenge for earnings. As we noted when we downgraded FDX shares back in late July, we struggle to find a compelling reason to own parcel stocks. Although lower fuel prices have pushed off some of our secular concerns about a permanent modal shift, a global slowdown is undermining one of the few remaining areas of strength – international. Moreover, air fuel surcharges are still high from a historical perspective and domestic volumes remain under pressure."

A couple of things in closing. Oil is down but still 50 percent higher after the fall than the average price paid in 2007. And, passenger airlines now face the reality of economic forces and the actual health of consumer’s pocketbooks as the peak travel season just completed was sold in February and March of this year. Fuel coming down is good for all of us, but its fickle nature should not be ignored. Nor should it suggest that the hard decisions made by the industry earlier in the year to park capacity are no longer necessary.

Interesting too is Greene’s assessment that international markets might be weakening. Does the cargo sector offer a prism for the passenger side of the business? I think so and you do not have to read aviation news from around the world everyday to reach that conclusion.

I must say I am amazed that I have not read any uneducated and uniformed reporting to date that suggests that the capacity cuts are not needed given the fall in crude oil prices – but I am sure that I will. Maybe even one written in 2002?

More to come.

Tuesday
Jun172008

10 Airline Issues That Have My Attention

Note: at 634pm I made some minor edits to the orginal post. Immediately after posting, a personal issue arose that required immediate attention. I apologize.

But before we go there I will share my favorite headline of the week gone by: Congress, get off your gas, and drill!

1. Crandall

It is interesting to me that Gordon Bethune has gone quiet for the most part and has now been replaced by Crandall. The entire industry recognizes what Crandall recognizes and that there is little obvious cost cutting that remains other than capacity cuts and that the revenue line must become the focus for the industry. The interesting note to all of Crandall's suggestions for some form of reregulation is how US airline labor generally, and American Airlines' labor specifically, are hanging on his words of late. Is it Crandall the leader or the suggestion of reregulating the industry? Crandall the leader would not be handing out big increases in compensation in this fuel environment; yet Crandall the re-regulator is the silver bullet that would enable the industry to charge enough for an airline ticket to offer a return of the concessions and still employ all 400,000+ people that remain in the industry?

2. IATA Annual General Meeting

Mark Pilling of Airline Business writes Airline bosses call for strict capacity discipline following IATA’s Annual General Meeting last week in Istanbul. This piece is good reporting on the differing levels of cuts being considered around the globe. With the US undertaking the most aggressive actions: Europe is now beginning the process of how to react; the Asia-Pacific carriers are exiting some routes but redeploying capacity to other more promising routes; and the Middle East is continuing on their aggressive growth path. Is the industry serious about capacity discipline this time and will we really put capacity down as a reaction to outside forces and inherent inefficiencies? Or is this just a time out?

3. Labor PR and of Course Fuel Does Not Matter

I did not think I would see ALPA take a page out of APA’s tired play book, but they have. On Sunday night, the following appeared: labor Relations Darken at Hawaiian Airlines. But my favorite story in this topic area was written last week as Continental pilots picket for higher pay, benefits. I have no issue regarding a union’s right to picket. But I do have an issue with yet another irresponsible statement from a labor leader. In the Continental story, Captain John Prater, President of ALPA is quoted as saying: “Don't try to use the price of gas," said Prater. "The industry is unstable, and the only way to add labor stability is through a solid contract." What does that mean? Of course the price of gas will have absolutely nothing to do with the outcomes of negotiated agreements John [emphasis added]. With so many things happening in the interesting Hawaii market, I only wish I could write on some of them.

4. European Carriers

Over the last few months, stories have been appearing that suggest the underlying fundamentals in the European market are weakening. Austrian Airlines has suggested the carrier will seek a strategic partner. We all know of the woes at Alitalia. Among the Big 3 in Europe, British Airways has been warning of turbulence ahead for the carrier in the face of high oil prices and the carrier’s exposure to the weakening US market. And now there are even rumblings from Lufthansa and Air France/KLM. For each of those two carriers the revenue synergies have been captured through their acquisitions. Now there will be a renewed focus on costs. Finally, the US is not alone.

5. Asian Carriers

For me, things were starting to get interesting in this critical world region immediately following Singapore’s earnings announcement in February that was less than stellar. Then Cathay Pacific suggested it would begin to curb capacity growth. Then Qantas. Each of these carriers has a place on the list of global elite airlines and are not immune from the environment either. AFP reports that Oil costs will push some Asian airlines under: analysts. Thinking about it, this region’s airlines carry passengers long distances and we know that the price of fuel and long-haul flying are not in concert today in all markets. In the article it is suggested that the region’s airlines are not close to doing enough and that SARS-like capacity actions should be considered in some cases. With or without high oil prices though, this region is certain to lose airlines along the way given its early stages of development.

6. Boeing and Airbus – A Couple of Things

Julie Johnnson of the Chicago Tribune writes that Foreign carriers' woes could hurt jetmakers. I have heard that some deliveries will be deferred. Certainly today’s issues will only prolong the needed replacement programs for the US industry, except for Southwest, Continental, AirTran and others. The manufacturers and lessors cite the fact that aircraft can be quickly placed into another carrier’s portfolio if positions or newer generation aircraft come available. But we still have not felt the full effects of the economy’s headwinds in my judgment.

At the same time the manufacturers are doing the industry no favors by perpetually delaying the delivery of the new generation aircraft that promise significant efficiencies and fuel savings. I found it most interesting in Continental’s announcement last week that it would park its older aircraft but continue to take delivery of new aircraft. This will be a story to watch.

7. Liquidity and US Airline Equities

Bill Greene, Morgan Stanley’s airline analyst, published another very good piece of research today where he continued to write on his tipping point theme. He writes: Too soon to begin buying US airlines, in our view. "As we’ve written in the past, we believe that amid the current macro backdrop, airlines will not become attractive investments until the industry reaches a Tipping Point - when extremely bearish fundamentals trigger broad, acute financial distress and restructuring that leads to significant capacity reductions (beyond current announcements); thus, serving as a very bullish catalyst for shares in surviving airlines. After updating our estimates for $130/bbl oil, it appears that a Tipping Point catalyst is more a question of when rather than if."

In Greene’s liquidity analysis of his tipping point theory, some very interesting findings are expressed. I have written often of liquidity concerns and that this period’s focus will remain firmly on the balance sheet and the cash flow statement. Yes we are in a cash burn scenario yet again. As Greene analyzes the airlines he covers, he points to the steeply downward sloping liquidity positions for each of the carriers assuming $3.81 jet fuel and taking into account all fixed obligations between now and the end of 2009.

Through 2009, he ranks the US airlines he covers from worst to best in terms of liquidity: US Airways, and a need to raise $1.5 billion to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; American, and a need to raise $2.6 billion to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; Northwest, and a need to raise $856 million to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; Continental, and a need to raise $260 million to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; United, and a need to raise $290 million to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; Delta with no need to raise cash; and jetBlue, with no need to raise cash.

8. Continental's Announcement of Capacity Cuts

Last week, Continental described in detail its planned capacity reductions. Can we learn anything from their list as we look toward the detailed cut announcements to be unfurled by United, American, Delta, US Airways and others as we approach fall? Markets with leisure attributes that demonstrate little to no hope of being able to charge for the full cost of fuel, let alone all other expenses associated with carrying a passenger from A to B will either be eliminated or cut back significantly. Long-haul regional jet flying will be scrutinized, and reduced, as Continental cut a number of these city pairs. City pair routings of a highly seasonal nature might be totally eliminated during the shoulder season. And while much has been made of the shift to international flying, Continental certainly demonstrated that underperforming international markets will be cut as well. Finally, the elimination of service to certain cities that offer little hope of ever being profitable were dropped from their network map. Distinct patterns will develop as other carriers make their announcements.

9. The Mixed LCC Bag

Samer A Majali from Royal Jordanian was named the new Chairman of IATA. In an interview where he discussed issues confronting the global airline industry, he stated that fuel prices to hit budget airlines the hardest. In the US we have witnessed this very issue. We have seen ATA liquidate; Skybus liquidate; Frontier file for Chapter 11 reorganization and still searching for capital; and just recently Sprit announced that it will begin to cut capacity and headcount. This is not a very good time to be a "bottom fisher". AirTran and jetBlue have each sold aircraft and/or delivery positions to bolster liquidity. A question to ask: what will Southwest do when it has to run an airline instead of a trading desk? Will Southwest become the savior for big leisure-oriented markets like Las Vegas and Orlando and will these will be the markets that “fuel their growth”? Southwest is the one that scares me on the capacity discipline issue.

10. Those Frothy Commodity Markets

Today, the Air Transport Association called on Congress for U.S. curbs on oil speculators. I just get nervous when this industry calls on Congress for anything as it seems to be an invitation for layering on more favors that tend to make this industry even more inefficient than it is. But I do understand the need to investigate anything and everything that could help in the jet fuel area.

Finally and based on my previous post, the world’s best golfer was crowned yesterday. Only issue is - he had already been identified.

Wednesday
Feb272008

Time Well Spent; Unchanged Catalysts to Consolidation; and Concerns Surrounding the Delta – Northwest Deal

Time Well Spent

A significant amount of my career has been spent participating in labor negotiations surrounding a distressed situation. There are two principles I always adhered to when advising clients: 1) you can always make a bad deal; and 2) strive to make a deal where either both sides are happy or both sides are unhappy because in both scenarios that probably means you have negotiated the best deal possible. Trying to avoid a scenario where one side is happy and the other side unhappy means you have negotiated a bad deal – and that is precisely what Northwest and Delta are trying to avoid.

Justin Baer of the Financial Times writes an excellent piece describing why seniority is critical for pilots. So it is important to understand just why these discussions are taking so long. Given that we are more than 20 years from the US industry’s last round of consolidation involving multiple carriers, pilots recognize that decisions made today will more than likely impact the majority of their remaining careers. But the always thoughtful and insightful Liz Fedor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune raises the specter of a negotiating clock. Another important negotiating rule is that it is hard to negotiate without a deadline.

Whereas many journalists and pundits are suggesting that the end is near in these negotiations, and as a result the much discussed deal will die, I am not one of them. Ms. Fedor in her opening paragraph writes: “A veil of silence has encircled the pilot leaders at Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines who are struggling to integrate their seniority lists -- the lone impediment to a merger announcement”. So why is this important? I typically read no talking as a positive sign. And the only people I have heard say Hell No to this deal before seeing the details is Congressman Jim “Hell NO”berstar and members of his staff.

I am an open proponent of change. I am an opponent of closed mindedness. One of the big points that I think is being missed: if there is concern over a political clock running out to get regulatory approval, then weeks spent today could possibly save months gaining regulatory approval for the deal tomorrow. In concluding her piece, Ms. Fedor raises this very important point that I have not seen written elsewhere as well: “If an agreement is negotiated in advance of a merger announcement, the two pilot groups also would be expected to be political allies for a merger during a regulatory review in Washington”.

The Catalysts to Consolidation Remain Unchanged

This morning, William Greene, analyst at Morgan Stanley writes a research note referencing the widely covered internal Delta memo to employees yesterday. The text of Mr. Greene’s note follows:

Delta Air Lines, Inc.
Quick Comment: CEO Memo Does Not Change Our Views

Impact on our views: The Delta CEO memo made public on Tuesday highlights the difficulties involved in completing airline mergers. That said, we still believe a deal is possible near-term for 2 reasons: (1) Oil prices at $100/bbl and a slowing US economy will keep the pressure on major airlines “to do a deal” and (2) the very substantial pay increases and equity ownership that labor stands to receive should a deal happen will increasingly put pressure on labor leaders to find common ground on seniority issues. Moreover, the economic arguments supporting consolidation are as compelling today (if not more so given the macro backdrop) as they were 6-12 months ago.

What's new: On Tuesday, Delta released a memo from CEO Richard Anderson to employees that outlined guiding principles for Delta in the event of a merger. The memo is intended to allay concerns that Delta employees have regarding a merger. Key concerns for employees include: seniority, job security, career growth and maintaining pensions. The memo indicates that any deal must satisfy these key concerns and a deal that does has not yet been attained (see memo on next page for more details).

Investment thesis: We maintain an Overweight-V rating on DAL primarily due to the company’s positive stance toward consolidation and good position vis-à-vis our key themes (market exposure, strategic actions, and labor risk). We also see relative value in DAL, although we note that we see the group as a whole as overvalued on an absolute basis at current oil prices. This is one reason we continue to recommend that investors sell into strength on news of consolidation. Should the stock run sharply higher from current levels or if the outlook for consolidation changes dramatically, we may need to revisit our rating.

Concerns – And Yes I Have Some

In a post earlier this month, I asked the following question regarding a labor leader’s decision making whether to support a deal or not: is the implementation risk of a merger deal (seniority integration, single collective bargaining agreement etc.) any greater than a leader having to manage the expectations of any employee group that actually believes they can make themselves whole in the next round of Section 6 negotiations?

While I understand the Northwest pilots are not prepared to sign on just because they would work under Delta rates of pay on the day following consummation of a deal. But doesn’t the question beg, as far as career earnings are concerned, just how much would pilots earn at Northwest if the company were to remain a stand alone entity? What are Northwest’s 20 year growth prospects? Will Northwest be able to duplicate organically what it would get fairly quickly in a deal with Delta? Will labor have any better opportunity over the next 5 years to do any better by their members?

Only the Northwest MEC can answer these questions. Where I am concerned is that the Northwest MEC is being advised by counsel in the Northwest – Republic seniority integration and in the most recent US Airways – America West pilot seniority integration (also reported by Ms. Fedor). By now everyone is aware that there are few, if any, success stories in either of these two cases. I just hope that decision making is not being clouded by the prospect that somehow past wrongs can be righted through this deal. But only those that know, know.

So hopefully either all will be happy or all will be unhappy. Otherwise just go ahead and say "Hell No". At least someone will be happy.