A Kinder, Gentler Downturn: America’s Big Three appear headed for tougher times. But not that much tougher.
The worst part about winning streaks? They never last forever.
For America’s Big Three airline giants—American, Delta and United—2015 will mark six straight years of operating profits and five straight years of rising margins, from 4% for the three carriers combined in 2011, to 5% in 2012, 7% in 2013, 11% in 2014 and likely in excess of 15% for 2015. That’s a long string of good fortune in an industry notorious for ups and downs and booms and busts. So are the U.S. Big Three due for a downturn?
When American, Delta and United say this time is different, they have a point. First of all, they’ve never been so big, and in this business, scale confers powerful advantages like global network diversification, massive loyalty plans, enormous buying power with suppliers, the wherewithal for one airline to influence fares across the industry with unilateral capacity moves and the ability to fight localized fare wars without losses from those wars wiping out profits elsewhere. As Delta recently explained, achieving such massive scale forestalls the need and temptation to grow at all costs, as happened in the past, when airlines borrowed and borrowed to expand and expand.
Today’s U.S. airline industry is, more importantly, less competitive than it was, with just three big intercontinental airlines rather than six as recently as 2008, before Delta merged with Northwest. The practice of ancillary selling, now worth billions in revenue, is another powerful tonic against the financial storms that plagued the forebears of today’s giants. Other strong defenses today include overseas joint ventures and new technologies, from fuel-efficient aircraft to mobile sales channels and slimline seating.
The Big Three, moreover, are pricing their seats more effectively today, by using fare families, for example. They’re selling their ancillary services through more channels and getting more revenue production out of their aircraft through widespread seat densification. More joint ventures are coming (Delta-Aeroméxico, for example), and American has yet to realize all its merger synergies. Products and services are improving. Balance sheets have never been stronger and capital spending never so disciplined during boom times. As the Big Three bask in the good…
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