27 June 2010

Can They Survive Without Merging?

Travel Weekly USA posited in Friday June 25th email that the fate of the merger hung on survivability. The recent hearings in Washington DC over the proposed merger are showing a harder time for the parties than the Delta/Northwest merger had under the Bush Administration. There are lots of reasons for this but there was a less than veiled threat put out by the airlines themselves which is – Let us merge or we fail and cause havoc. The dilemma was succinctly outlined in the Senate version of the hearings by its Chairman: "If this merger is approved, our passenger aviation system will have one less global network carrier, and I am not certain if this is good or bad, but it is increasingly clear that the current structure is not financially sustainable," Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) said at the start of his committee’s hearing earlier this month on the merger.

This is potentially true, but only part of the story.

As far as the overall ability of the two airlines to better compete – there is little duplication. For United Airlines the situation is more precarious than Continental. UA has mortgaged just about everything including some of its international routes. Its planes are old and even the announced order of 787 and A350s wont be on the flight line pool for many years. For what was for many years the largest US airline (indeed the largest by pax and flown miles worldwide for a while), the situation is not that great. For CO the situation is not precarious. It is healthy and so regarded on Wall Street. It has a relatively young fleet. It has good labour relations and a sensible route structure.

The labour relations have not started out well. The two Pilot Unions have failed to come to terms on “non-monetary” issues. Most likely seniority. The UA guys are so old that they would trump CO’s guys. The issue of seniority among pilots has been messy before. It still is over at US Airways with HP and US pilots still battling it out in court. I have flown more than a few DL flights this year where the crews have thanked me for “Flying Northwest”

But where I have the most trouble is in the competition area. The DoT seems hell bent on supporting the merger because they buy the argument of survival. The DoJ seems not to agree. The doctrine of bigger is better is not in the consumer’s best interests. As I have raised before the argument of “too big to fail” seems to be creating a monster no matter what the underlying arguments might be. Is that in the best interests of the US government which in essence would be agreeing to underwrite the ultimate commercial viability of the nation’s possibly soon to be largest airline. I think it comes down to the consumer’s best interests. In the more than 30 years of deregulation in the USA – the consumer on the whole has benefitted. It is not the government’s responsibility to police the stupidity of investors and managers. To return to a controlled oligopoly market either through mergers or regulation that must ensue, in my opinion, is not in the interests of the consumer. The basic economic argument points to a significant rising price to the consumer.

The better question is probably – do we need New United? If we take the worst case scenario that current UA fails, the impact across the board would be that the industry could accommodate such a failure. But both carriers are arguing they are vulnerable. CO’s Smisek and UA’s Tilton said, as standalone carriers they would not be able to weather the next big economic or industry "shock." The argument that one or both carriers could end up in Chapter 11 is being trumpeted. A new entrant however would possibly (I would say likely)emerge to challenge the status quo and offer low cost services domestically. The other carriers would be the stronger for it.

A challenging question. So what do you think?


No comments: