Friday, April 27, 2012

End Game

Well my, it's certainly been an interesting few weeks in the old "bums in seats" business, eh? WidgetCo pilots started contract negotiations about six months early, Southwest/Airtran possibly reached a deal with WidgetCo to offload their MD-95s B-717s, and the UCAL pilots got so fed up with their own joint contract negotiations that they announced they'll be seeking a release to strike from the NMB (good luck!). The biggest and juiciest piece of news involved the APA and several other unions at American Airlines forming an unholy alliance with USAirways' "Drunk Dougie" Parker to potentially disrupt Tom Horton & Co's plans to rape and pillage the employees in bankruptcy court. Under the agreement, the AA employees will lend their considerable influence on the creditors' committee in support of a merger with USAirways in exchange for slight raises (as opposed to the 20%+ cuts AA is seeking). It's not that AA management is opposed to a merger; they just want to wring every possible cent in bonuses, stock options, and golden parachutes out of the bankruptcy process before they do it. I think we'll see a few more twists before this particular chapter is through.

Of most interest to me, however, was Pinnacle Airline Corp's own bankruptcy filing on April 1. This is the second bankruptcy filing in several years by a major regional holding company (the first being Mesa) and it reflects the huge challenges that have developed across the entire regional airline industry in recent years. I first wrote about these challenges two years ago, and was accused by a few readers of being a negative Nellie (although I personally consider the regionals' demise to be a net positive for aspiring airline pilots). The trends I noted then have continued and intensified. The regionals' cost structures have continued to increase, major airlines have continued to cancel and not renew contracts for 40-50 seat feed, and additional growth in the 70-90 seat segment has been extremely limited due to scope constraints.

The regional airline industry has tried numerous strategies to cope with these challenges, with dubious results. One idea is to branch out from fee-per-departure flying to perform at-risk independent flying, sometimes with larger aircraft. ACA tried this with Independence Air, ExpressJet attempted their own brand, and Mesa entered the intra-Hawaii market with go!. All were failures. A variation on this strategy is to purchase a mainline carrier to essentially act as a shock absorber for surplus regional aircraft and a hedge against losses from fee-per-departure operations. Republic Airways Holdings did this by purchasing bankrupt carriers (and erstwhile clients) Midwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines and replacing some of the mainline service with Republic-operated E190s and E145s. It hasn't worked out well, with Frontier posting consistent losses and RAH now looking to spin them off.

The other tack taken has been to acquire multiple additional certificates as a means of diversifying one's contract portfolio, reducing one's exposure to the tumultuous 50-seat market, and as a means of securing 70-90 seat growth. Skywest started the consolidation trend with their purchase of ASA and then ExpressJet. The usually-profitable Skywest subsequently posted a loss in 2011. The company I call Osage Holdings started a new certificate ("Pariah Air") and then bought my own airline, NewCo, from WidgetCo in July 2010, an event I wrote about a few months later in the context of industry consolidation. Osage is privately owned and does not file SEC reports, so I have no idea how that's working out for them.

Pinnacle Airlines, meanwhile, purchased Colgan Air in 2007 and Mesaba Airlines (from WidgetCo) in July 2010. It made sense at the time; Colgan diversified Pinnacle's portfolio to include Continental Airlines and the Q400 airframe, while Mesaba decreased Pinnacle's exposure to the 50-seat market. The Mesaba acquisition was at a particularly attractive price, and was financed by WidgetCo, but involved a new fee-per-departure agreement that was not made public at the time but apparently included industry-low compensation rates. This was WidgetCo's quid pro quo for Pinnacle expanding their 70-90 seat business. Unfortunately, it meant Pinnacle began hemorrhaging money when merging the airlines proved costlier than expected. In the first months of the year, Pinnacle tried renegotiating their contracts to stave off bankruptcy. WidgetCo refused to modify the agreements, and Pinnacle filed bankruptcy on April 1.

Here's where things get really fascinating. The bankruptcy filing included $74 million in debtor-in-possession financing by none other than, you guessed it, WidgetCo. Pinnacle announced that among other things, this money would repay a $44 million debt owed to, yep, WidgetCo - so that WidgetCo needn't vie with other creditors for repayment. Pinnacle then moved to terminate its feed agreements with United/Continental and USAirways - incidentally killing the entire Colgan operation and leaving a gaping hole in United's Newark feed at the same time Widget is ramping up operations at LaGuardia - and reject the associated aircraft leases. There is widespread speculation that Pinnacle will emerge from bankruptcy as a whole-owned subsidiary of WidgetCo.

If this all seems a little familiar, it's because we've heard this story before. In 2005, Northwest Airlines filed for bankruptcy and stopped payments to longtime contractor Mesaba Airlines. It forced the otherwise healthy Mesaba into bankruptcy, where Northwest bought them for pennies on the dollar. WidgetCo inherited Mesaba in the merger, then sold them off to Pinnacle, thereby sowing the seeds of Pinnacle's demise. In any other country this would be a national scandal. Here, playing dirty pool is just good business. I fully expect other major airlines to follow suit in dealing with their own costly regional contractors and unwanted 50-seat feed. Consolidation having failed, the regional airlines are essentially left without any good options for survival.

I feel very badly for the hundreds of Pinnacle, Colgan, and Mesaba pilots who are soon to be out of jobs, downgraded, or displaced - particularly Mesaba pilots, given their recent history. At the same time, the majors are essentially tearing down a system that they themselves created. It was natural that they would maintain it only as long as it was advantageous to do so - which it manifestly is not in a world with $105+/bbl oil and consolidated mega-airlines. I think there will always be a certain role for regional airlines, but it's going to be a niche rather than as the mainstay of major airlines' domestic networks. For those pilots who have seen the two-tier system up close and experienced the havoc it has wrought on the piloting profession, the destruction of that system can only be a good thing. It will ultimately mean more jobs at the major airline level, less downward pressure on those jobs' wages, and very possibly a shorter career path to the majors.


Don Hodges said...

Sam, nice analysis of a nasty situation. Do you have any links on the LUV sale of 717's? I'm retired widget tech ops, arrived the same day as the first DC9-15 (Dec 20 1965), and if this deal goes through will probably see the type outlive me.

Sam said...

Don-- It's all rumor at this point, albeit one of the more credible variety. Has been reported on the PlaneBusiness blog and confirmed by friends at WidgetCo (& their union) as a "mostly done deal." Both R.A. and Gary Kelly have pointedly avoided denying the rumors when questioned about them during their respective investor calls the last few weeks. I'd like to see the "DC9-NG" live on at Widget...went through ground school on it at TWA when I was interning there, jumpseated on it a bit, and even got to fly the 717 sim around a couple hours.

Ron said...

Wow. I feel for all you 121 guys. I'm glad I went the charter route! Hopefully the future will, as you predict, be brighter for all in the airline world.

Anonymous said...

another very insightful post Sam. Interesting (and sometimes unnerving) to think what may take place over the next few years.

-Gabe SKW FO

capnaux said...

Good analysis on all the crap coming down the pipe. Having a vested interest in the US/AA potential merger, we're all on pins and needles. While it may solve one can of worms, of course it opens up several more!

And, as we all know, in mergers the little guys (employees) get squashed like bugs.

Good explanation of the Mesaba rape. Seen that too many times in this biz.