U.S. Commercial Air Transportation
Changes since September 11, 2001, and a look ahead
On September 11, 2001 the U.S. commercial air transportation industry was inalterably changed. Former American Airlines' Chairman and CEO, Robert Crandall, Vaughn Cordle, CEO, Airline Forecasts and Kevin Mitchell, Chairman, Business Travel Coalition collaborated on an analysis of how air travel has changed over the past five years and each provided his unique perspective of lingering problems facing the industry.
II. SUMMARY ANALYSIS
A fundamental shift in the commercial aviation industry marketplace predates the tragic events of 9-11, as evidenced by a sustained period of declining monthly yields and average fares, beginning in the spring of 2001. However, the terror attack greatly accelerated the worsening of the airline industry’s financial condition. Although late in responding to a changing marketplace, major airline executives were challenged to respond to a collapse of business travel segment yields, a falloff in short-haul market traffic, new aviation system security requirements, SARS, an exceedingly difficult industry-wide labor “discussion,” multiple bankruptcies, a growing use of product substitutes such as Web conferencing, an aggressively expanding low-cost carrier (LCC) segment and persistently high jet fuel prices.
During this same period, LCCs added amenities such as business class seating and onboard entertainment systems, strengthened their frequent flyer programs and continued to cut costs just as the major network carriers (the “majors”) were endeavoring to reduce their costs. Between 2001 and 2003, when the majors were essentially in denial that there was a shift in the marketplace, a window of opportunity opened for the LCCs to grow their collective market share. According to Air Transport World, “Compounding the problem [for majors] is the growing presence of low-cost carriers, which represented 12.3% of industry ASMs in the first quarter of 2001 and reached 18.1% in the first quarter of 2003… [Airline analyst] Higgins forecasts their share will rise to 27.5% in 2006.” Looked at another way, and according to AirlineForecasts, LLC, “The majors’ share of total passenger capacity fell from 78% in 2000 to 69% in 2005.”
This increased penetration by the LCCs effectively established a pricing ceiling for the entire industry and largely prevented the majors from raising prices sufficient to offset rising fuel costs. Yields have simply been too weak to cover higher fuel expenditures.
Major, LCCs, and regional airlines have collectively lost $54 billion (net earnings) between 2001 and 2005. Airline industry revenue is $20 billion or so less – based upon pre 9-11 yields - for the industry because the high yield business traveler traffic is approximately 50% of what it was prior to 9-11. In response, labor costs have been cut significantly with higher productivity and slashed wages and benefits. The majors have shed some 160,000 jobs (35%) since 2001. As an example, and utilizing just one metric, in 2001, United Airlines’ company-wide labor costs reflected 170 employees per aircraft compared with approximately 120 today. Savings from lower labor and non-fuel costs have been wiped out by higher fuel costs, which are 3.5 times higher than the average of the previous 20 years (through 2003).
Of course, all this change impacts the customer. Cost reductions, capacity cutbacks and historically high load factors have resulted in diminished onboard service and a much less comfortable experience for passengers. Less, or no food, uneven customer service levels, longer security lines, and cramped onboard conditions have encouraged high-yield business travelers to seek alternatives to air travel such as the automobile in short-haul markets and travel substitutes such as video conferencing in long-haul markets. In smaller markets, aircraft have been downsized, frequencies reduced, and in some cases, service eliminated altogether.
On the other hand, technological advancements and investments in areas such as the printing of boarding passes from home or the now-ubiquitous self service kiosks have been positive developments and it is possible that further advancements, including a Registered Traveler program, may eventually ease the security interface. On balance, however, virtually all travelers would likely say that travel through the aviation system today is less rewarding and more onerous than it was 5 years ago.
III. SPECIFIC CHANGES OVER 5 YEARS
- Airline labor costs are down significantly resulting from fewer employees, lower pay rates, revised work rules and reduced benefits such as pensions. Further reductions and changes in this area are unlikely; union pressure for improvements is anticipated if fuel prices fall. The net effect is that airlines’ goal to earn their cost of capital over a full business cycle will remain illusive.
- Most airlines’ balance sheets are significantly overleveraged; 2 majors are operating in Chapter 11. What’s more, there is little flexibility for absorbing future losses. Many airlines will not be able to “earn their way” to a healthy balance sheet before the end of the current business cycle.
- Federal government-imposed taxes and fees has become a material problem for the airline industry.
- LCCs continue to increase market share and provide pricing leadership while airfare simplification has eroded the majors’ ability to trade off price vs. value.
- Majors are at significant risk of being marginalized in foreign markets. All are at the bottom of the world’s list in terms of weak balance sheets, returns on capital and profitability. High fuel costs will not allow the investment in capital expenditures required to improve their competitive position relative to better financed foreign competitors.
- If oil prices remain at current levels, the probability of mergers and consolidation increases, which will likely mean less choice and higher fares for consumers. In such a scenario, the industry would continue to shrink forcing up leisure fares and placing the democratization of air travel at risk.
- Passenger traffic levels are back to year-2000 levels, the peak of the last business cycle, but it takes on average fares that are 15% lower to generate this level of traffic.
- Congestion is a growing threat to the efficient growth of the airline industry as smaller planes, and a resultant greater number of operations, have become a significant factor. O’Hare is “Exhibit A.”
- Persistent high fuel prices are reducing demand for older aircraft and forcing the airlines to replace them with new generation aircraft at a time when they cannot afford to do so.
- Intelligent implementation of technologies such as kiosks and passenger information systems has benefited passengers.
- Airport congestion, and the consequence of more traveler time spent in airports, has helped drive upgrades and innovations in airport retailing.
- Airfare simplification has taken hold, and supported by the Internet, pricing transparency has increased for consumers.
- Airline data security has become an issue with several high profile violations of passengers’ privacy rights expectations, e.g., JetBlue, Northwest Airlines.
- Corporate travel policies and tracking software that allows corporations to know their travelers’ whereabouts during all manner of potential crises has become a best and growing practice.
- Unpredictable security service delays make the system more inconvenient to use and rob business travelers of productivity necessary to make them and their companies competitive.
- Security programs such as Secure Flight and Registered Traveler have still not been implemented.
- Air service frequencies have been significantly reduced and load factors are at historic highs; public convenience has been significantly reduced.
- Smaller aircraft now used on many routes represent an incremental passenger inconvenience. Fewer destinations render the aviation network less usable.
- Lack of onboard meal service represents an incremental passenger inconvenience.
- Frequent flyer programs are perceived as less valuable due to changes and cutbacks.
- Load factors have increased and are likely to stay high as airlines have perfected highly efficient methods of selling perishable seat inventory over the Internet. The commercial aviation customer service processes and systems designed 30 or more years ago never envisioned sustained load factors at these levels. (Remember the newspaper articles of the 1980s about the “stress” of business travel!)
- Continuing pressure for ever lower costs is eroding all aspects of customer service resulting in growing public dissatisfaction. A less useful aviation system means slower U.S. economic growth in the future as the airline industry is a fulcrum over regional and national economic activity. There will likewise be lower economic returns for labor and investors.
- There are more people (airline passengers) driving in short-haul markets causing greater personal risk, more roadway congestion and damage to the environment. The distance some business travelers are willing to travel by car has roughly doubled to 500 miles.
- The persistent threat of liquidation of some majors has prompted concern for passengers holding tickets; “Section 145,” which protects passengers, has been extended twice by Congress.
- LCCs grew their collective market share from 12% in 2001 to an expected 28% by year-end 2006. This impressive penetration has provided pricing discipline for virtually the entire U.S. commercial aviation system. Despite this growth though, even low cost airlines have been forced to become more efficient to offset higher fuel costs.
- LCCs have increased amenities blurring the distinction between their and the majors’ product offerings. LCCs improved their loyalty programs as well.
- Business travelers, i.e. high yield passengers, have been and will continue to “book away” from the majors because of travel hassles that include security concerns and delays and because travel alternatives and substitutes are becoming less expensive and more mainstream.
- Global alliances are more integrated and more competitive with one another and the LCC segment.
IV. LOOKING AHEAD
Each co-author of this analysis was asked to provide some insight into what he perceives as the most pressing issue facing the U.S. commercial air transportation system.
National Air Transportation Policy Needed. A major problem continues to be the complete lack of a transportation policy, and the glaring absence of any concern at the national level about the erosion of service quality -- availability, frequency, service levels -- that has made the system vastly less useful and much more unpleasant. Additionally, there is a total lack of concern for taking steps to ensure the continued competitiveness of U.S. airlines. The problems are evident; what is lacking is any political interest in structuring a superior alternative.
Airline Industry Viability Questioned. The U.S. commercial air transportation industry is inefficient and unable to earn its cost of capital over a full business cycle. U.S. majors are at the bottom of the world's list in terms of overleveraged balance sheets and profitability. They have underinvested during the last decade, and given high fuel costs, cannot properly invest in a manner that improves the customer’s value proposition. This is especially true relative to financially stronger and better (service) quality foreign competitors. Relative service is perceived to be poor, which suggests that U.S. airlines will, over time, continue to lose market share in world markets. Domestically, the majors still have a significant cost disadvantage to younger LCCs that are growing fast. The majors have reduced domestic capacity more than 20% since 9-11. Consolidation may be the best bet for long-term survival for many U.S. old-line majors.
Even if fuel prices fall to levels that reflect below $60 a-barrel-oil - a real possibility given a slowing economy and oil inventory levels - the industry will be back in trouble again eventually because of labor’s expectation of higher pay and benefits and the tendency of the airlines to grow capacity too fast for the collective good of the industry. The implication is that any profit recovery will be short-lived and many of the network airlines will continue to muddle through in what can only be described as a slow liquidation. This is not in the best interest of our nation or traveling public who need large network airlines that can compete on a global playing field.
Foreign airlines have historically had an advantage in terms of less competition, which is the result of less government liberalization relative to the U.S. There is less penetration and growth of overseas LCCs and this has resulted in better economics for foreign majors.
Greater government liberalization, i.e. greater foreign ownership levels and Open Skies agreements, is perceived as a “consumer benefit” because it provides – at least in the short term -- greater choice and lower fares. However, the big U.S. majors are at risk of becoming marginalized in world markets because of their inability to earn satisfactory returns in the hyper-competitive and fragmented domestic U.S. market. Overleveraged balance sheets and the inability to improve the product relative to more financially fit foreign competitors is the fundamental problem. Bottom line: Foreign competition is in better shape today because foreign governments are more oriented toward the welfare of producers than is the U.S. government.
On a positive note, the U.S. majors have a large customer base and have reduced non-fuel costs dramatically since 9-11. The challenge will be to improve customer service and employee morale, especially in terms of managing future expectations. Given $60 a-barrel-oil, the industry will be quite profitable even as it must play catch up in terms of investing in its competitive resources.
Public Policy Debate Re Aviation Security. Current U.S. aviation security policy is an outgrowth of immediate post 9-11 political reactions resulting in new laws and mandates. We now have the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration. However, we have never had a full national public policy debate regarding the definition of the problem we are facing, i.e. do we have an aviation security, a national security or a national defense problem? The need going forward is to get aviation security right, at the policy level, and in the appropriate overall context.
Moreover, and depending on the definition of the problem, questions that need to be examined include what resources would be available to put against which prioritized risks and threats and what would be the required tradeoffs in personal liberties, conveniences and our way of life? Who would be charged with safeguarding citizens against abuse and the institutionalization of such personal liberty takeaways? If this is a war, how will citizens know when it has been concluded so that restrictions on personal liberties could be lifted? This is a debate we never had, post 9-11.
Security experts will testify that unlike safety, which can be improved in quantifiable ways over time, security is more like a moving target. Close one gap and the bad guys exploit another. Box cutters one day, explosives in shoes the next, shoulder-fired rockets, then sports drink containers. So this begs an important question for the debate: where do we get the best return for a dollar spent, on a $5M explosives scanning machine, or in the field with intelligence gathering and analysis to catch those who would do us harm before they ever get near an airport? Remember, the failure to gather, analyze and share intelligence was a root cause of the 9-11 tragedy; not a single aviation security protocol was violated on that day.