Most commercial airline companies declined precipitously after the terrorist events of 9/11 as consumers flew less for business and leisure. As a result of this shock, the industry faced increasing consolidation and key bankruptcies (including United, Delta and Northwest) as the sector struggled to regain its financial footing. Consolidation is beneficial in two ways for airline companies, as it typically reduces redundant operating costs and raises revenues through higher fares.
Compounding the issues around declining consumer demands was the concurrent rise in oil prices, which typically constitutes 30% of an airline's operating cost and is the major expense for commercial airline companies. Some companies such as Southwest had the foresight to lock in low fuel prices using hedging strategies, but most airlines, including the two largest by revenue passenger miles--American Airlines and United Airlines--have no hedging strategies in the foreseeable future and will suffer the most if oil prices continue to rise.
Companies that are poised to benefit from an increase in commercial air travel include Internet travel agencies such as Expedia and Priceline, which generate most of their business from airline ticket purchases. In addition, complementary travel services such as hospitality and rental car companies will also benefit. Hilton, Starwood and Marriot are hotel companies that have high exposure to airline travelers, especially lucrative business fliers who spend about 5 times more on a plane fare compared to leisure travelers. Hertz is a rental car company that would benefit tremendously from an increase in air travel, as 80% of its rentals come from airport based locations.
I can't think of a more worthy repieicnt. What an amazing talent. I hope you and your fellow Punch Brothers can make it to Australia one day. It's just a short flight from the states.
On his blog entitled "The Stalwart," former equity analyst Joseph Weisenthal observed:
Few businesses have as many variables and challenges as airlines. They are capital-intensive. Competition is fierce. Airlines are fossil fuel dependent and often at the mercy of fuel price volatility. Operations are labor intensive and subject to government control and political influence. And a lot depends on the weather.
After the events of 9/11, the domestic commercial airline industry went into a precipitous freefall, prompting consolidation of several airlines and bankruptcies of others. Elimination of airlines, through consolidation or bankruptcy, benefit both revenues--through higher fares--and costs by eliminating redundant expenses and routes. Additional terrorist attacks or declines in the overall domestic economy could accelerate consolidation as weaker airlines get acquired by financially stronger ones or become insolvent.
Airlines worldwide have also sought to share costs by creating partnerships or alliances. Through these agreements, airlines can share facilities and operational costs (e.g., maintenance facilities, sales offices) and negotiate volume discounts on large purchases. Passengers benefit from lower prices (due to lower expenses) as well as optimized routes and pooled loyalty rewards, especially in regards to international travel. Since the deregulation of the airline industry began, airline ownership has been limited to companies and individuals of the operating country. This has prevented major international mergers and acquisitions from occuring. Recently, the US government has announced its intentions to relax these regulations and clear the way for international M&A deals in the airline industry. This could create significant cost-saving and synergy in the rapidly deteriorating industry. The three major global alliances are:
|Alliance||Passengers per Year (MM)||% RPM Share Approx. (2005)||Key U.S. Airlines|
|Star Alliance||413||25%||United, US Airways|
|SkyTeam||373||20%||Northwest, Delta, Continental|
Jet fuel is a key cost for airline operations. In 2008 fuel is constituting about 34% of an airline's costs, as opposed to about 13% in 2002. For the budget airlines such as Jet Blue and AirTran, this share rises to nearly 50%. The rise has been very drastic just in the first six months of 2008. At the start of the year, jet fuel cost $850 a metric ton. As of June, the cost is now approximately $1300 a ton. Jet fuel is extremely correlated with spot petroleum prices, which have risen significantly over the past several years. On the flip side, the stock prices of domestic airlines tends to be highly negatively correlated to jet fuel prices, indicating the sensitivity of this historically low-margin business to fuel expenses.
In an exogenous event for the fuel procurement of airlines, oil companies are increasingly making airlines pay up front for fuel. In the past, the airlines were allowed to use fuel on credit and pay up to weeks later. Now, the oil refiners are eliminating this free credit line and making the carriers prepay. This will cause a negative shift in the short term cash situation for the airlines as they can no longer keep cash from revenues on the books for this credit line period.
On June 4, the International Air Transport Association drastically lowered their profit forecasts for the industry. The group now projects that global airlines will collectively lose $2.3 billion if oil averages $107 for 2008. If the price averages $135 for the last six months of the year, airlines will lose $6.1 billion.
Some airlines have utilized hedges to lock in the price of fuel and hence insulate themselves from oil price volatility.
Business travel is important to the commercial airline industry for two major reasons. First, it commands a much higher average ticket cost, approximately 5 times higher than the average leisure fare. Second, business travel is less elastic changes in macro-economic trends than leisure travel, which may be considered a form of luxury.
Over the period from 1990 through 2006 the Air Transportation Association of America reports that domestic airlines posted a cumulative loss of $22 billion on cumulative revenues $1,866 billion. Since 1978, when commercial aviation was deregulated, no fewer than 137 carriers have filed for bankruptcy protection. And from the end of World War II, when aviation started to become big business, through 1994, the sum of the industry's profits and losses was less than zero. Warren E. Buffett once remarked that it would have been a blessing for shareholders if someone had thought to shoot down Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk. 
One reason the major airlines find themselves in this predicament is that they use huge amounts of fixed capital -- wide-body jets go for $100 million each and can't be readily liquidated. They also depend on a skilled labor force. The two problems exacerbate each other. Since airlines cannot afford to let planes sit idle, they can ill suffer strikes. That makes their unions unusually powerful. Consider some other businesses for a moment: Microsoft has highly skilled programmers but little invested capital. Merrill Lynch has both, but its assets -- stocks and bonds mostly -- could be liquidated overnight. Steel has high fixed capital, but it can replace its workers more easily. This clearly points to a major factor in the airline industry.
The near freefall of the U.S. airline industry is strongly reminiscent of the downfall of financials that began tumbling last summer. Like the financials, most of the airlines are suffering the same major problems - increased fuel costs, slowing demand and a weakening U.S. economy. At the same time, efforts to increase cost efficiencies through mergers have been blocked by labor unions.
And recently, nearly every U.S. carrier has felt the burn.
On Thursday, the world’s largest air carrier, American Airlines (AMR) - principal subsidiary of AMR Corp. (AMR) - canceled 933 to continue inspections on MD-80 aircraft wiring. Last week alone, American cancelled more than 2,500 flights and stranded an estimated 100,000 travelers.
Two weekends ago, Skybus shut down operations and declared bankruptcy, becoming the third carrier in the span of a week to close its doors - joining the ranks of Columbus, Ohio-based carrier joined Aloha Airlines and ATA Airlines Inc.
Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) and Northwest Airlines (NWA) have been in merger talks for months now, with a major holdup coming from the 12,000 pilots between them who’ve yet to endorse the deal. For Q1 08, Delta posted a net loss of $274 million, or 69 cents per diluted share. Northwest, which Delta agreed to merge with a couple weeks ago, posted a $4.1 billion loss, or $15.78 a share, which included a $3.9 billion non-cash expense and other costs. Delta said in a statement that its fuel costs increased by $585 million year over year. Northwest phrased their pain at the pump slightly different, saying it paid $2.77 per gallon for jet fuel in the first quarter compared to $1.85 a gallon in the first quarter of 2007, nearly a 50% increase.
With their losses in the books, all five major U.S. airlines posted losses in the first quarter - as the diving dollar and a slowing economy added the strain of skyrocketing gas prices. And to recover, carriers are bumping up prices accordingly while trimming the number of planes in the air.
Also in the merger arena, United Airlines (UAUA) and Continental Airlines (CAL) had also started talks earlier this year, but negotiations are on pause as the two airlines are waiting to see what happens with Delta and Northwest, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
It's predicted that the U.S. airline industry would lose more than $1 billion in 2008, mostly from the one-two combo of high fuel costs and shrinking demand. However, top carriers Delta, Northwest and Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) are best positioned to weather the storm as of now.
If baggage aecrghs are a necessary criteria for choosing an airline for your flight, then you will have exactly two options Southwest (who does not charge for the first two checked bags per passenger) and JetBlue (who does not charge for the first checked bag per passenger). Of these two airlines, you'll need to see whether they serve the airports you're looking to fly from in California both of these airlines have service between California and the Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI), but both of these airlines don't serve every airport in the state, either.