Let’s talk about competition, airlines and taxes: Part 1

If we use the premise put forth by the US Department of Justice that the US Airways / American Airlines merger is bad for the consumer, then we need to take a very hard, long regulatory look at all of the US airlines, many of its busiest airports and taxes as well.

If anyone was truly concerned about competition in the airline industry, the Justice Department should have continued to block mergers as they did with the original United Airlines / US Airways merger (which was vastly smaller than the one being proposed today).  Instead, they did not.  Rather, a few years later they signaled with US Airways the idea that mergers were necessary in the airline industry landscape.

Quite frankly, I was perfectly happy to see the status quo maintained pre-2005.  That landscape saw:

  • Delta Airlines
  • Northwest Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • Continental Airlines
  • US Airways
  • America West
  • Southwest Airlines
  • AirTran Airways
  • American Airlines
  • Alaska Airlines
  • jetBlue

It was a pretty well balanced mix of airlines of both the legacy and LCC flavors and pretty well distributed across the United States.  Barriers to entry were, compared to today, fairly low.

Then several bankruptcies occurred which included US Airways, United Airlines, Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines.  One airline (America West) had to get a massive loan after September 11th and essentially reorganize itself to survive as well.  Another airline, American Airlines, got Billion Dollar givebacks from its employees to lower costs instead of performing a bankruptcy.

Of the 11 airlines listed above, 6 suffered exceptional financial trauma.  Another 2 existed on fine line of financial trouble:  AirTran Airways and jetBlue.  Only 3 managed their finances appropriately and saw appropriate returns on investment:  Southwest, Continental and Alaska Airlines.

So we permitted mergers and this is what happened:

  • 2005:  America West takes over US Airways and retains the US Airways name.
  • 2008:  Delta and Northwest merge as equals and retain the Delta Airlines name.
  • 2010:  United and Continental merge as equals and retain the United Airlines name.
  • 2011:  Southwest Airlines takes over AirTran Airways and begins the wind down of the AirTran name.

By 2011, the competitive landscape was dramatically different and American Airlines had to throw in the towel (it should have in 2006, in my opinion) in November of 2011 by filing bankruptcy itself.  In the 2012 / 2013 period, the new airline landscape looks like this:

  • Delta Airlines:  Revenues  $36.6 Billion (2012)
  • United Airlines:  Revenues  $37.1 Billion (2012)
  • American Airlines:  Revenues  $24.8 Billion (2012)
  • Southwest Airlines:  Revenues $17.0 Billion (2012)
  • US Airways:  Revenues $13.8 Billion (2012)
  • Alaska Airlines:  Revenues  $4.6 Billion (2012)
  • jetBlue:  Revenues  $4.9 Billion (2012)
  • Virgin America:  Revenues $1.3 Billion (2012)
  • Frontier Airlines:  Revenues $1.4 Billion (2012)

As you can see, the airlines that exist today are hardly equal despite the perception otherwise.  For instance, Delta and United Airlines both are roughly equal as airlines but the next biggest by revenue is American Airlines which is a staggering $12.3 Billion behind.  If you added US Airways revenues to American Airlines revenues in 2012, you still come in at just $38.8 billion.  Put another way, the new American Airlines Group would operate at roughly the level of United and Delta Airlines.

Southwest would be at a disadvantage seemingly but Southwest’s revenues are based entirely on US based operations and therefore see Southwest operating at parity with the other 3 large carriers.  So, now we have 4 carriers operating at roughly the same scale in the domestic US market.

The remaining four airlines:  jetBlue, Virgin America, Frontier and Alaska Airlines have combined annual revenues of $11.2 Billion or a number that is still less than that of US Airways.  It’s notable that those last 4 airlines are nowhere near national airline scale.  They are all regional or niche in their marketshares.  They can and will survive and at least 2 of them have every opportunity to organically grow much larger.

What my point in all of this?  Scale is critical in this industry and while those billions in revenues sounds healthy, airlines often earn zero profits on such revenues.  The dollars are large, the profits are tiny, at least until very recently.

If you stop the mergers now, you have two giants and three other airlines that would have to be labled as “at risk” over the next decade.  While you allowed that to sort out, the two giants would only become . . . more giant.  And the bigger they grow, the more influence they have on airports and route infrastructure.

So, if you feel the combination of US Airways and American Airlines is anti-competitive and anti-consumer, then you *must* be ready to “break up” Delta and United Airlines.  They don’t have the potential to be dominant.  They already are dominant.  So much so that they dwarf every other airline in the industry.

More on these subjects tomorrow.

Share

Leave a Reply

Spam protection by WP Captcha-Free

Copyright © 2010 OneWaveMedia.Com