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Jul272011

« Thinking About American’s Contrarian Path to Transformation »

The list is long of those kicking American Airlines for not producing near-term results because that is, after all, what Wall Street wants and needs.  Wall Street’s lead striker and headline maker has been Jamie Baker, airline equity analyst at JP Morgan Chase.  Baker was quoted in a Wall Street Journal story last week saying AMR's poor financial results and worsening margin deficit raises questions about the wisdom of a giant aircraft purchase. He said,  “We cannot reconcile spending incremental capital while failing to earn returns on [the] existing capital base.”

It was Baker who, on a company earnings call that outlined some near-term strategies to address American’s underperformance, first asked AMR executives, “Is that all you got?”  In the WSJ story referenced above, Baker stated “we think the best thing AMR can do is figure out a way to generate more profitable flying with the current fleet." 

Jamie, is that all you got?

Baker and much of Wall Street’s short-sightedness is perplexing, even for a group that has a hard time seeing six months ahead.  I agree American’s quarterly revenue performance relative to peers was disappointing and concerning, as pointed out by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch analyst Glenn Engel. The point I think the Street is missing is American’s re-fleeting isn’t about six months from now or even next year. It’s about transforming a Robert Crandall vintage 1983 airline spending nary a dime. 

American’s MD80 fleet has basically been around since the earth cooled.  And it shows.  American flies more small narrowbody aircraft (150 seats and less) than any network carrier except for Southwest.  In 2009 (2010 data incomplete/incorrect) it’s the fuel guzzling, maintenance intense 140 seat per aircraft fleet flies about 9.7 hours per day (less than its peers); with an average stage length of 870 miles (about the same as its peers); and less than 4 departures per day (less than its peers).  More importantly, on those missions, the fleet burns 957 gallons of jet fuel per block hour – the same amount of burn as in 1995 when jet fuel was 56 cents per gallon – not $3.00+ per gallon.  No airline, except for maybe portions of Delta’s fleet, has to keep more spares available to maintain some sort of schedule integrity and thus have the potential for more operating leverage than American from a re-fleeting order.

And yet Baker and Wall Street want American to do more with less than its industry peers?  Maybe – and this isn’t a stretch - that aging fleet contributes to some to the airline’s under performance?  I’d say yes even though it’s difficult to quantify and I like my numbers cold and hard.  Perhaps most puzzling is the Street never offers a better time to re-fleet. When was it supposed to take place?  When it was too late and even more spares would have been required to maintain some semblance of a schedule?  That might have slaked some analysts’ thirst for capacity cuts, but that type of cutting is eerily close to shuttering an airline… and more expensive than marginal revenue improvements might lead you to believe.

Let’s Think About This Aircraft Order

American is not alone.  All of the industry, especially the more mature United, US Airways, Delta and Southwest – yes Southwest - all face some sort of replacement order.  It is just that American has a more real-time issue than do those that effectively used bankruptcy – not Southwest - and other means to get rid of aircraft with poor operating economics.  I am not being self-righteous… bankruptcy was necessary to address many legacy issues that would have buried others in the airline graveyard.  Fleet replacement is not like going to the store and grabbing something off the shelf.  Long lead times define aircraft purchases. 

What is wrong with placing an order at the bottom of the cycle versus the top of the cycle? It's a long-standing industry practice to do the opposite. It’s been a proven recipe for bad economics by adding capacity during a weakening economy that only leads to even poorer results. This quarter was less about writing down results than communicating a contrarian message – a re-fleeting announcement.  The rest of the industry, along with American, has been engaged in balance sheet repair over the past two years. 

The Street immediately pointed to the increased financial leverage associated with the new order and the fact that even though American will finance the first 230 aircraft with operating leases there will be a need to adjust upward the Fort Worth carrier’s debt by seven times the lease cost to reflect the long term commitment stemming from the lease financing negotiated with Boeing and Airbus. American’s hard won terms with the manufacturers does little to nothing to impact the company’s near term liquidity.  There is nothing to stop American from further balance sheet repair should operating results improve over the next five years as the first 230 aircraft are delivered.

Keep in mind, this order isn’t just about American. It’s also very much about Boeing and Airbus. They’ve thrown their balance sheets on the table as well, betting on American’s strategy and willing to take on the cost of building planes with no cash up front. That doesn’t normally happen in the airline industry. That’s serious backing and just how much of a deal both manufacturers gave American could very well be a game changer.

This Order Is About Both Finance and Competitive Positioning

When comparing American’s small narrowbody economics with Continental’s, American burns 262 more gallons per block hour than does the newly Chicago-based carrier.  I use Continental because its fleet is the most modern among the network carriers. Let’s not forget Continental began its re-fleeting project at the bottom of a profit cycle beginning in 1995 upon exiting bankruptcy #2. At 10 hours per day per month and with fuel assumed to be $3 per gallon, American’s new planes would immediately save $236,000 per month per airplane in fuel costs versus its MD80 fleet.  For every 10 cent increase in the cost of jet fuel, American would save an additional $8,000 per month per aircraft.

Few fleets have realized maintenance cost increases like American’s narrowbodies over the past decade.  I appreciate there are many ways to pay for maintenance expenses across the life of an aircraft, but during the honeymoon period of 5-10 years, American will, at least, not be paying $600 per block hour just to keep its MD80s in the air.  Instead it will likely save about $400-450 per hour.  Using the same calculus as in fuel savings, that saves the company another $135,000 per month per aircraft.

Yes, American still has to pay for the airplanes. As a general rule, the lease cost of an airplane is one percent of the sticker price.  If the retail cost of the various airplanes is $40 million per copy, then the lease cost is somewhere around $400,000 per month.  The fuel and maintenance savings are estimated at $370,000 per airplane per month. 

But wait a minute. We know that American did not pay retail for the airplanes.  Reuters reported American will only pay 70 percent of the list price on the Airbus equipment.  Airbus disputes that and I normally don’t believe numbers bantered around in the press, so let’s split the difference. Assume American is paying 85 percent of sticker price.  That brings the operating lease cost of the first 230 airplanes to $340,000 per month.  Even Wall Street can do this math.  If the planes cost $340,000 per month and the potential exists to save $370,000 per plane per month (and we haven’t talked about ancillary revenue possibilities from IFE, crew cost efficiencies from a simpler fleet once complexity costs are addressed, crew cost savings from a more reliable fleet, new passenger acceptance of a modern fleet etc), all of a sudden, American’s income statement and thus its balance sheet looks much different.

Is The Fleet Order Itself Transformational?

In a word, no.  Or maybe, sort of. The fleet is transformed, but that alone doesn’t necessarily transform the way American works today.  What would make this order even more exciting is to see a pilot agreement that really is transformational and recognizes the sub optimum economics of the U.S. domestic market.  What if the pilots were to negotiate pay banding, training language that does not create a bubble and benefit packages better resembling what corporate America provides its employees?  That would really make things interesting.  Problem is, those are all long-term realizations, which makes no one in New York any happier than they are today.

Another benefit from a pilot deal that could be labor transformational is to break the current regional – mainline mold.  If the economics of the smaller mainline airplanes (pilots, flight attendants and airplane) just ordered can match the economics of the largest regional jet airplanes out there, then much of the discussion over scope just might be over.  American needs access to more 76 seat aircraft (existing scope relief) with two class service, but the ask of the mainline pilots would not be further relief into the 90 and 120 seat range – unless of course there is no headway with APA making necessary changes.

Another thing to consider is, if some of the new planes are less efficient than even newer models or the price of oil goes significantly higher, the leasing options let American re-fleet the re-fleet.

Odds and Ends

Some say that American’s transatlantic partners are not the same airlines today as they were in yesteryear – namely British Airways.  That may be true in some respects, but either way, 1 + 1 is greater than 1 and that addresses those that believe American and their London counterpart are but half of their previous selves.  It was nice to read BA’s earnings release Wednesday morning citing improved traffic flows from American.  That will only continue to get better.  Realizing the full benefits of the joint business agreements is transformational for American as it evolves from a single entity into a much broader network.

But the most important fight taking place to transform American – and the industry for that matter – is the fight with the Global Distribution Systems.  Imagine the revenue benefits that will accrue to American in addition to just passenger revenue if they are able to package the product for the individual consumer.  If they are successful in breaking the monopolistic practices and reclaim their inventory – now that is transformational.

Taken together, there are some interesting possibilities taking shape in Fort Worth, Texas.  What needs to take shape immediately are the unit revenue benefits supposedly coming from the cornerstone strategy.  As analysts have correctly pointed out, that hasn't happened yet, which might explain the Street’s shortsightedness about other things American.

Look, I’ve been teasingly picking on Baker, Keay (indirectly) and Wall Street types. I realize their job is gauging the near-term forecast for clients.  But we’ve gotten so wrapped-up in Street predictions and instant opinions we’ve forgotten long-term, especially in the airline industry, like January 2015. American is resetting itself with a bold move that, honestly, shocked competitors and analysts. It deserves credit for making an astounding and first comer economic deal. Whether it works won’t be known 24 months (or five years given the jet fuel price) from now or even possibly 72 months.

But I doubt anyone is going to be asking if that’s all American’s got anytime soon.

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Reader Comments (3)

Bill, as I said this week in PlaneBusiness Banter, I think longer-term, the decision was a good one. But you miss the point of why I think most analysts came down hard on the airline last week. It's not the order itself. It's the fact that the airline continues to ignore other issues and problems. Example: The airline's revenue problem. Yeah, it has one. It's not all about costs here.

I think you have to separate the airline's ongoing inability to make money -- from the news of the order. This task, granted, was made very hard to do by the way in which American made sure the order news was rolled out on the same day earnings were announced. That was a huge strategic communications error in my opinion Old way of doing things. The airline should have split the news. That way the order could have been looked upon as a separate entity. I think the reaction would not have been nearly as harsh. But no, the airline pulled an aging comm ploy -- it very much wanted the news to distract from the airline's abysmal performance.

But the truth is -- take away the "new metal" news, and there was nothing new in the airline's earnings call as to how the airline proposes to start making money, not lose it.

You say that Wall Street tends to focus on the "short-term." Bill, when did AMR last post an annual profit? We're not talking short-term. And when will AMR begin to feel the bulk of the lower fuel costs from the new order? Not anytime soon.

Taken by itself, the order is not necessarily that bad. But overlay it over the airline's continuing issues, what is perceived as a "tone-deaf" approach from management to any number of internal operational problems, and the airline's ongoing inability to acknowledge it is slipping further and further behind its peers in a number of measures, and then it is no wonder that many people, me included, looked at the airline's gushing, at it flying in reporters, at the gung-ho press conference -- as nothing more than a circus side show. Frankly, all it did was put more emphasis on the airline's quarterly loss. Not the opposite.

07.28.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHolly Hegeman

Holly

Thanks for the thoughtful post. Believe me when I tell you that you are not the first person to tell me I missed it on this one. But as is often the case, I took a different route.

Hope all is well. Now back to following Sam in the Virginia State Junior Stroke Play via texting.

07.28.2011 | Unregistered Commenterswelbar

I have to respond to Holly's comment about AA's alleged "revenue problem". I agree that there is a problem, although I don't think we agree as to what that problem is. In my view, the primary issue is that AA is hemmed in on two key issues: work rules and the competitive landscape.

In short, the work rules of the various unions at American mean that AA employees are working less hours for the about the same pay as their counterparts at Southwest and legacy airlines. Bottom line is that AA needs its workers to be more productive.

On the competitive side AA isn't able to raise fares because doing so would have a significant negative impact on bookings (and hence revenue). It is competing against airlines with lower costs structures thanks to multiple Chapter 11 filings in the last decade. Because AA didn't file, its costs are higher and therefore margins thinner (assuming rough parity on airfare pricing).

Change on these two issues would leave to a dramatic change in AA's short-term fortunes. But until AA's competitors have to renegotiate their own contracts, and until AA's unions stop playing rough, there's not much American can do on the revenue side.

07.31.2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Lile

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