Friday, April 17, 2009

Will Southwest Lose Some of the LUV?
By WSJ Staff
Journal reporter Mike Esterl writes:Those famously cheerful smiles aboard Southwest Airlines could become a little more strained in the coming months.

The giant discount carrier has long had a feel-good vibe on board and at the check-in counter, partly because the company has never had layoffs in its 38-year history. Or any bankruptcy filings, which have caused other airlines to slash employee wages and benefits.

Southwest struck pay-hike deals with unions in recent weeks with a minimum of fuss. Contrast that with American Airlines, currently mired in protracted and poisoned negotiations with most of its workers.

But Southwest management is finding it tougher to be generous now that it has posted three straight quarterly net losses. On Thursday the airline said it plans to reduce staffing and will offer voluntary buy-outs, available to almost all of its 35,500 employees. It’s the third such offer in the past five years; a bit more than 1,600 took buyouts in 2004 and 2007.

CEO Gary Kelly,
known for dressing up in funny outfits to keep spirits up at Southwest’s Love Field headquarters, says management hasn’t set a firm number for workers it must shed. Offer terms have not been made public and will reach employees in early May. But it’s quite possible a lot of them won’t be willing to walk in the midst of a prolonged recession.

That could force some tough decisions. Southwest management has long held that treating employees well means they’ll treat customers well and business will do well as a result, making shareholders happy.

Mr. Kelly says layoffs remain a last resort, but he also acknowledged in a conference call Thursday that all options are on the table during a dramatic downturn in travel.

Mr. Kelly said he could envision a scenario of forced layoffs if the company has to cut its fleet size by around 10%. Southwest isn’t there yet. But it has put fleet expansion plans on indefinite hold. That’s in contrast to previous industry downturns, when Southwest used the opportunity to aggressively gain market share. He also said if conditions continue to deteriorate, he could at some point ask workers for pay concessions.

Southwest’s overall cost structure remains low, thanks in part to the simplicity of its business model. But its labor costs — adjusted for capacity — were second only to American among 13 big carriers last September, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation. In the first quarter of this year, its workforce grew 2.1% and its labor costs rose 4.5% over the same period in 2008, even as capacity shrank 4.1% and revenue fell 6.8%.

Those kinds of numbers don’t usually put smiles on the face of shareholders or employees.

Monday, April 13, 2009

American Invests in Its Future With First Deliveries of New Boeing 737-800s
Despite Challenges, American Continues to Invest for the Long-Term With Fuel- Efficient Aircraft
Monday April 13, 2009, 12:30 pm EDT

CHICAGO and TULSA, Okla., April 13 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- American Airlines today took an important step toward a significant investment in its long-term future by welcoming two Boeing 737-800 aircraft into its fleet on the eve of their maiden passenger flights.

As American begins the process of replacing its MD-80 fleet, employees, customers and public officials commemorated the arrival of its first new 737- 800s since December 2001 with ceremonies at company facilities in Chicago and Tulsa. The new airplanes, which go into service April 14, are the first of 76 737-800s that will arrive through the first quarter of 2011.

"Even as we battle many significant challenges, we must remain focused on our long-term future, which is what these new 737s represent," said Gerard Arpey, Chairman and CEO of AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines and American Eagle. "While our MD-80s remain an important part of our fleet and continue to serve our company and customers well, our new 737s are a vital investment that will benefit our customers, employees, shareholders and the communities we serve. They will help keep our product competitive while offering cost, environmental and operational benefits.

"With today's economic realities causing many companies, including American, to cut back, we must continue to find ways to control costs and boost revenues. While it is a big decision to spend money on new airplanes, especially in tough times, not doing so could be more expensive in the long run."

Arpey noted that the two locations chosen for today's ceremonial events also hold a special significance.

"Chicago, which is one of our vital network hubs, is where these two new airplanes -- and many other new 737s -- will be based," Arpey said. "Tulsa is one of our important maintenance bases and employment centers, and, unlike other airlines that outsource maintenance work and jobs, it is where our own employees will maintain and service these new airplanes for many years to come. This delivery represents the very essence of Made in America, Maintained by American."
AMR employs 7,000 people in Tulsa and 10,000 in Chicago, contributing $14.6 billion to the local economies of the two metropolitan areas.

In spite of an increasingly challenging credit market, Arpey noted that American has been fortunate to be able to secure financing commitments to cover the majority of its expected 737 deliveries. "With the financing commitments we have in place, we now have the ability to finance our expected 737 deliveries well into the fourth quarter of 2010, and we continue to pursue a number of additional financing opportunities," Arpey said.

The new airplanes, which will carry 160 passengers, offer many cost, environmental and customer benefits. They include numerous upgrades and enhancements from previous airplanes and a configuration aimed at improving the passenger experience and operational efficiency.

"Boeing is pleased to be a part of this new chapter in American Airlines history and we look forward to seeing these state-of-the-art airplanes in the skies," said Kevin Schemm, Vice President, North America Sales, Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "We're proud of the relationship we have with American Airlines, and we're excited about the superior product American's passengers will soon enjoy."

New First Class and coach seats will provide improved living space and comfort. In addition, new "big bins" for overhead storage will significantly increase passenger cabin luggage storage capacity by allowing roll-aboards to be loaded wheels first, increasing standard roll-aboards storage capacity by almost double.

Inflight entertainment will include 20 drop-down LCD monitors mounted in passenger service units under overhead storage bins. The new planes have 110V AC power available to all passengers -- a first in American Airlines fleet history and a customer convenience that ends the need for power adapters. Travelers can now plug in laptops and other portable electronic equipment just as they would at the home or office.

There is one power port per seat in First Class and two ports per three seats in coach class. Over time, American plans to equip these aircraft with AirCell's Gogo® Inflight Internet service, which will allow passengers to surf the Web, check e-mail, and send instant messages conveniently from the air.

The 737-800s will burn 35 percent less fuel than an MD-80 on a seat-mile basis. They will also be outfitted with Blended Winglets(TM), similar to those installed on American's current fleet. These wing tip extensions provide significant operating, fuel efficiency and environmental benefits, such as reduced noise on takeoff and approach and lower emissions through lower cruise thrust.

The new deliveries will be added to American's current fleet of 77 737- 800s and are intended to eventually replace American's fleet of approximately 270 MD-80s.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Continental Move to Star Alliance: Will it Heighten Competition with Delta?
April 8, 2009, 10:46 AM ET

By WSJ Staff
The U.S. Transportation Department on Tuesday gave Continental Airlines preliminary approval to join a global alliance that cooperates on scheduling and revenue sharing, a sign the Obama administration may not support a congressional effort to limit such alliances, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Journal reporters Christopher Conkey and Paulo Prada write:
The administration’s decision will allow Continental to join the Star Alliance with UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, Air Canada, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and other carriers. It also grants the alliance antitrust immunity, in essence giving the carriers permission to act as a single airline on international routes. The approval was expected and is consistent with policy under previous administrations.

But the Continental action comes as Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is pushing legislation that would curtail international airline alliances.

The agreements, especially when fortified by antitrust immunity, enable airlines to act in ways that would otherwise be considered collusive. Mr. Oberstar, who couldn’t be reached to comment, says these alliances limit competition and hurt consumers.

A DOT spokesperson declined to comment on Mr. Oberstar’s proposal…
For Houston-based Continental, the switch to the Star alliance will give it a bigger and more strategic role than it currently has in SkyTeam, where many of its routes overlapped with Delta, which flies to many of the same markets in Europe and Latin America as Continental.

By aligning itself with United, whose main international routes lie across the Pacific, and Lufthansa, one of the biggest carriers in Europe,the airline is expected to enjoy a greater volume of transfer traffic and broader international reach than it does now. Continental expects to make the switch to Star later this year, after it modifies sales and reservations systems so they can communicate directly with those of its new partners.

As we noted in a previous post, it’ll be interesting to watch how Continental’s move to the Star alliance will play out in the New York market. For instance, Delta recently has touted its promotional links to the New York Yankees and Mets, while it opted not to renew its sponsorship of the Atlanta Falcons. Some said part of that decision might be an effort at Delta to try to connect with Continental fliers — who frequent the carriers major New York-area hub in Newark and have gotten used to SkyTeam — and keep them from switching to Star with Continental.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Southwest Airlines set to upset its NYC rivals
Discount carrier offers low prices for its first routes from LaGuardia
Christopher Hinton, MarketWatch
Last update: 12:27 p.m. EDT April 7, 2009

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- New Yorkers who make frequent flights to Chicago and Washington, D.C., are about to find themselves paying less for airfare.

On Tuesday, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines (LUV:
LUV 6.84, -0.50, -6.8%) said it would begin eight daily flights from New York City's LaGuardia Airport to Chicago Midway and Baltimore-Washington airports, beginning June 28.

The low-cost carrier also offered historically low ticket prices on its LaGuardia routes, with one-way flights to Chicago for $89 and to Baltimore-Washington for $49. That's bound to put pricing pressure on rivals like AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and UAL Corp.'s United.
UAUA 5.53, -0.33, -5.6%) United and JetBlue Airways.

Many carriers out of New York City have offered similar fares during sales over the past three months to increase demand in a recessionary economy, but the "Southwest effect" of bringing permanently lower prices is well known across the industry, analysts said.

"They most definitely bring in a lower cost structure," said Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst with AirlinesForecast LLC.

More groundbreaking have been Southwest's walkup fares for LaGuardia, priced "substantially lower" than competitors at a range of $225 to $425, according to Rick Seaney of

"This may be in part to compensate for the legacy airlines' advantage with frequent nonstops to several popular business destinations out of New York where Southwest must connect with a one-stop," Seaney said.

Southwest announced last year that it would purchase LaGuardia time slots from bankrupt ATA.

At the time, Chief Executive Gary Kelly said he was confident his airline could maintain its high standard for on-time efficiency despite the airport's reputation as a traffic bottleneck.

Shares of Southwest were down 6% at last check to $6.94. Christopher Hinton is a reporter for MarketWatch based in New York.