Posts tagged ‘airlines’

Regulation and Engineering Failures

In the aftermath of the two Boeing 737MAX crashes:

For years, the FAA has allowed plane manufacturers to self-certify parts of the oversight process for new planes, called Organization Designation Authorization. This process, in which the aircraft manufacturer’s employees perform some of the safety tests and inspections with FAA oversight, reportedly saved the government body time and money.

That practice was examined at Wednesday’s Senate hearing.

Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel III, who testified at the hearing, said the FAA will significantly change the oversight process for new aircraft by July. Speaking in vague terms, Scovel said that the changes would include new ways for the FAA to evaluate the self-certifying process.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal said that putting manufacturers in charge of their own safety audits was like putting “the fox in charge of the henhouse.” Saying he would introduce regulations to ban the practice of companies self-certifying, Blumenthal stated that “the fact is that the FAA decided to do safety on the cheap, which is neither safe nor cheap.”

A few reactions:

  1. The fox in the henhouse analogy is not apt.  The fox wants to eat the chickens, whereas Boeing does not want to have airplane failures.  In fact Boeing is going to be paying out on a bunch of really big lawsuits, not only to families of the folks that died and the airlines that lost their planes but also to airlines that have had to change their flight schedules due to these issues.  Airbus sales people will use this story in their pitches until the end of time.  Regulation is not the only, or the most important, check on Boeing's behaviors.
  2. That being said, aircraft regulation is a dumb hill for libertarians to die on.  This is just not that big of a deal.  Regulation and capital intensity has pretty much reduced choice in large aircraft to two companies and that will not likely change no matter what extra regulatory hoops are added.  Aircraft are a bit more expensive and spare parts are way more expensive due to our regulatory regime, but I don't think there is a public constituency for making a different trade-off.
  3. Whatever the regulatory environment, it is unlikely to actually catch more failures of this sort in the future.  Regulators are notoriously bad at this sort of thing (see: US financial system).
  4. I did engineering failure analysis early in my working career and my experience is that this sort of multiple stacked failure -- lack of pilot training for a bad software response based on a failed piece of instrumentation that was not reported as needing maintenance -- is hard to predict.  What will happen now in addition to some software fixes will be more mandatory training on this particular subsystem and likely a requirement that the specific piece of instrumentation involved needs to have redundancy.  At best we should hope they will also do a review of other instrumentation failures that might lead to a flight control issue and consider redundancy or software changes.  But there's always the problem of failure of imagination, the best dramatization of which is in the fabulous From the Earth to the Moon episode on Apollo 1.

Boeing 737MAX Failure Analysis

This failure analysis from tweets by Trevor Sumner as picked up at Zero Hedge seem to fit the available facts -- Boeing called the problem as the wrong software response to an erroneous instrumentation input, clearly the angle of attack sensor.  It also fits my experience from my 3 years doing failure analysis in a refinery that most engineering failures are nuanced and results from multiple causes.  In short, a software fix was made to compensate for a basic design issue; and this fix could do the wrong thing when a sensor went bad, which it often does; and when airlines skimped on a redundant sensor and crew training, these shortcomings could be fatal.

A Small Suggestion for Maximizing Value of Your Loyalty Points

It is useful to have an algorithm for spending your travel (hotel, air) loyalty points.  Years ago I generally saved them for big vacation trips, usually to Europe or Hawaii.  These were the most expensive trips I took and it felt good to bring their cost down.

Two things have killed this algorithm for me.  One is that most major airlines don't have squat for points availability on popular Trans-Atlantic and Hawaiian routes (British Airways, I am looking at you).  The second change was that I started to read some of the web sites focused on travel points, for example the Points Guy.

There is good information on these sites, but a lot of the detailed strategies are way to arcane and time-consuming to bother with (e.g. Take your American Express points and convert them into gift certificates denominated in Ecuadorian currency, and then apply these for double credit... etc).  But the one takeaway I have had is to think of your points like a currency with a constantly varying exchange rate to dollars, and find the opportunities to spend the points at the best exchange rates.  TPG  maintains a monthly estimate of the value of each type of reward point.  Expected value is between 1 and 2 cents a point for most.

My new algorithm is to use my points when I am getting at least 2 cents for them, and hopefully more.   Take hotel points for example.  From time to time I will find that there is some squeeze in hotel rooms in a city I want to visit and the price of most hotels have risen 50-100% for these days.  This is a great time to use your points, particularly if you are locked into the dates and can't go on a cheaper date.  The reason for this is while the price in $ goes up, the price in points does not.  There may be some hotel chains that limit availability, but Starwood for example does not.  Let me give an example.

In several weeks I am taking my wife for a nice weekend to see her friends in Manhattan.  We are locked into the dates.  But it turns out that there is some UN event and all the hotel rates have skyrocketed even higher than usual NYC hotel rates.  It was just going to be too expensive to stay in a really special hotel.  Until I thought of the St. Regis.  It is not my first choice, but it is in Starwood and with the Starwood Amex card I have a zillion points.  Turns out for a basic room the nightly rate had gone all the way to $1500 (welcome to NY).  But the points cost for the same room was the same as it ever was, 35,000.  I was effectively getting 4.3 cents each for my points.  One could argue that since this was not my first choice, I should compare it to that alternative, but even with a cheaper rate at that hotel this was still 2.6 cents of savings for each point.

For American Airlines, I try to do the same thing.  Most transcontinental flights have no points availability, or have availability at really bad exchange rates (The one exception I have found is Cathay Pacific, which takes American points and tends to have a lot of award seats).  I increasingly use my points domestically.  When rates shoot up for a particular flight, there still may not be availability but sometimes the opportunities are there.

A Circle Has No End -- GE and the Corporate State

The arch-corporate-statist  -- and official manufacturing company of the Obama Administration is feeding at the trough again.  Apparently a perfectly profitable company cannot buy assets from another profitable company without a large subsidized loan from taxpayers.  In this case, the Obama Administration is funding the KCS in its purchase of 30 new locomotives from GE.  The Obama Administration has recently doubled-down on its backing of the US Ex-Im bank, which has been helping to fund Boeing aircraft sales to foreign airlines (each of which, surprise!, has a couple of GE engines on it).

GE knows how this political game is played, with resources allocated based on quid pro quo.  Just the other day, GE announced that it would help bail out Obama and Government Motors buy mandating that all its company vehicles be Chevy Volts, in effect committing to buy more Volts than Chevy sold to consumers all last year.  Of course, the circle has no end, so in turn GE will be rewarded with $90,000,000 in government subsidies for its 12,000 Chevy Volts, a number that could increase to $120 million if Obama's proposal to increase the per car subsidy is accepted.

By the way, the Obama Administration has criticized oil companies like Exxon-Mobil for earning excessive profits and getting overly large tax breaks.  In 2010, Exxon paid a whopping 40.7% of its income in taxes ($21.6 billion in taxes on $53 billion in profits).   In the same year, Obama subsidiary General Electric paid 7.4% of profits in taxes.

Really This Much Value Left?

Dish Network is going to buy Blockbuster out of bankruptcy for $320 million.  I am frankly floored there is that much value.  I have found that one can make a surprising amount of money riding an obsolete business down over the years if it is managed correctly -- but this is generally for product businesses.  Retail businesses are really hard to ride down because you need to be closing stores every year and that is hard to do cost-effectively given typical lease terms.  Never-the-less, I expected the winning bid to be from a liquidation company, someone like the folks who took wound down Circuit City.

But the purchase by Dish Network implies that the buyer wants to continue operating Blockbuster in some form, and the identity of the buyer implies some sort of on-demand or streaming service.  But what does Blockbuster offer?  Is the brand valuable in this context, or a liability?   Does it have customer loyalty with a segment (old people?) who have so far shied away from Netflix / Hulu?  Does Blockbuster have favorable royalty / licensing contracts with studios that are transferable to other video delivery models?

If I had to guess, I would bet on the latter.  There have been examples of whole businesses built from legacy contracts.   One of the best examples is a little noticed contract Carl Icahn had with TWA, which spawned a huge new travel agency and later really helped to build  Here was the story:

When TWA got a loan from Carl Icahn, an almost unnoticed part of the deal was that a certain travel agency owned by Icahn, small at the time, would be guaranteed TWA tickets at a healthy discount off the lowest published fares.  This agency, with this boondoggle, grew to enormous size as  TWA, beyond the reasons listed above, therefore had a second reason for not wanting to publish their lowest possible fare.  Normal limitations that most airlines could set on how many seats would be available at their lowest fare could not be enforced by TWA.  If they offered a new $100 fare, could blow out an unlimited number of tickets at $80 or less and TWA would have to accept it.  Therefore, by offering discounts unpublished via Priceline, TWA prevented the travel agency from getting inventory even cheaper.  And so, a huge portion of the early Priceline inventory was TWA.  (ironically, after the American Airlines acquisition of TWA killed the deal, the URL was bought by … Priceline.

I wonder if Blockbuster has something of similar value in their royalty / licensing agreements?

A Total Crock

Since the New York Times has pretty much become the official media outlet of this administration, I presume that this article represents a new trial balloon in selling government health care.  The pitch this time -- its good for small businesses!  (via Maggies Farm)

President Obama, in his Saturday radio address, said the Democrats' health insurance overhaul would help small businesses and stimulate the economy by providing relief from "the crushing costs of health care "” costs that have forced too many small businesses to cut benefits, shed jobs, or shut their doors for good."....

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, said the sharp rise in premiums for small businesses offered the latest evidence that Congress must act swiftly on health care legislation.

"This underlines the urgent need for health insurance reform, including a public option," she said in an interview. "We need to have competition for the insurance companies to keep premiums down."

I am only now getting through the 1500 pages of this bill (putting me ahead of Ms. Pelosi in reading it, I am sure), but the last House bill would have been a disaster for my company, increasing taxes on wages by up to 8% and imposing a record-keeping burden that was just horrific.

The NYT and the Democrats are apparently trying to set up a mini-class war within bussinesses, snidely saying these companies have more negotiating leverage.  Sure.  But what they have even more of is the leverage to shape federal legislation to their benefit.  However worse a deal my company may get in free insurance markets due to being small is nothing compared to how much worse of a deal we will get from Congress by being small.

If they really wanted to cut costs for small businesses, they would strip out all the national and state coverage mandates for things like aromatherapy that raise costs so much and let me shop for insurance across state lines.  That would be real competition.  Unfortunately, all Pelosi means by competition is throwing Amtrak into the mix to compete with the airlines.  Yeah, that will do the trick.

An Interesting Tale of Regulation

Bottom line:  Never assume the states reasons of "safety" or "consumer protection" are the actual reasons for a regulation.  Regulation is much more likely to be protection of powerful political interests:

Flashback to 1959. The airline industry is on the cusp of its fifth decade, but there is a problem facing younger pilots who want to enter it. The old-timers just won't retire, and this frustrates potential entrants with much flying experience and training, thanks to military service in World War II, Korea, and elsewhere. The result is a sort of malinvestment in human capital, with many men trained to be pilots without private-sector jobs to justify the training.

What is a young, aspiring pilot to do? Well, he and his peers could make their presence and skills known to the airlines, signaling that the labor market had changed and that it would be possible to hire new pilots at lower wages. Not only would some airlines opt for the lower-priced laborers, thus lowering the airlines' reservation price required to provide flights to consumers, some owners of capital might invest in new airlines, thus increasing consumer choice, industry output, and create a downward pressure on prices.

Such would be the market solution, coordinated by changes in relative prices, and it would be peaceful, characterized by voluntary interaction and compromise by the parties involved. Unfortunately, there was another option, requiring the pilot to join a pilots union to lobby the federal government to enact rules forcing existing pilots to retire at age 60. All the union needed was a lobbying presence and some sympathetic regulators at the FAA.

Guess which option was chosen? It seems that in 1959, the aspiring pilots found a sympathetic ear in C.R. Smith, the then-president of American Airlines who also wanted to ground his older pilots. The industry was switching to jet engines, and Smith wanted to freeload off of the tax-supported training with those engines many of the younger pilots received in the military. So Smith instructed his lobbyists in Washington to rewrite FAA rules to force retirement at 60, and in December of 1959, an FAA administrator named Elwood R. Quesada simply authorized them. In January of 1961, Quesada retired from the FAA and immediately joined the board of directors of American Airlines. The retirement age rule has been in effect for almost 50 years.

Person Who Will Lose a Lot of Money in GM Bankrupcy Says that GM Bankrupcy Would Be Bad

Via the AZ Republic:

Fritz Henderson, president and chief operating officer of GM, said that choosing the bankruptcy route would further erode consumer confidence in the automaker and "we want them to be confident in their ability to buy our cars and trucks."

In order to save the value of their executive stock portfolios, which are a large part of their compensation, auto executives are promoting the line now that consumers will for some reason stop buying GM cars if the company is operating under Chapter 11 protection.

The auto-makers real strategy is to get some kind of money, almost any amount will do, from the government ASAP.  It really doesn't matter how much, because with their cash burn rate almost any amount Congress gives them right now will not last much more than 6 months, and certainly will not be enough to reach recovery (their requests go up by a few billion each time they appear in front of Congress).  Automakers are facing potentially several years of recession, and any real restructuring would take 5 years or more (and even that is doubtful since the industry has had 30 years of notice on these issues and have not done anything).  But if they get some cash, then there will be a psychological pull for Congress to put in more.  They will say -- well, you've already put in $5 billion.  If you don't put in another X billion, that first 5 will have been wasted  (few people understand that "sunk costs are sunk" and Congress is no exception).  This is how expensive transit projects are funded.

The position that customers will stop buying the product due to some loss of confidence in chapter 11 doesn't hold up.  Most every airline traveler has flown on an airline operating under chapter 11 in the last 10 years or so, and if I can have enough confidence that an aircraft is being adequately maintained in bankruptcy, I can probably muster the courage to buy a car.  I presume the issue here is downstream warranty support.  But this is about the last thing that would ever be slashed in a chapter 11.   For God sakes, airlines have never even substantially disavowed frequent flier miles in a bankruptcy, surely a much more obvious target than warranty repairs.

I would argue that it is uncertainty that is driving any loss of confidence  (in fact, sales have plummeted already, ahead of any chapter 11).  A chapter 11 filing would actually increase certainty, as those running the receivership could quickly communicate principles to be followed in the bankruptcy, such as protection of warranties. Right now, people have a perception that in a bankruptcy, GM would go *poof*.  Once it actually files a chapter 11, the media and executives would switch modes from fanning panic to actually explaining how receivership works.

In fact, if there is any fear on the issue of long-term warranty support, it is being created by executives like Henderson who are fanning the flames of fear in a brinkmanship game to try to avoid chapter 11.  If he were really worried about this loss of confidence, he and other auto executives would be out there assuring people that their cars and servicing and dealers will also survive a chapter 11 filing.  But he is not.  This is totally disingenuous.

More on why GM should be allowed to fail here and here.

The Bailout Playbook

Step 1:  Really, really screw up your industry beyond all hope of repair, while paying yourself a nice salary to do so

Step 2:  Claim to the world that your industry is unique and different, and failure of your company and/or industry will cause a chain reaction that will bring down the whole economy and cost the country many multiples of the bailout price tag

Advocates for the nation's automakers are warning that the collapse of the Big Three - or even just General Motors - could set off a catastrophic chain reaction in the economy, eliminating up to 3 million jobs and depriving governments of more than $150 billion in tax revenue.

Step 2 is obviously pulled off easier if either a) representatives from your industry run the Treasury department or b) the new President owes your unions big time for his recent victory in a critical state.  For those of you just trying to keep you small business afloat, don't try this at home.  No bailout will ever be forthcoming if you don't have the power to move electoral votes, but you should expect to pay for other people's bailouts.

Postscript: This is funny:

Automakers say bankruptcy protection is not an option because people would be reluctant to make long-term car and truck purchases from companies that might not last the life of their vehicles.

I think if people still buy tickets on airlines that are operating out of chapter 11 (an item that has zero value if the company folds) then people will still buy cars.  This is so totally lame it is tremendously irritating.

Awesome Rant

Kudos to Kimberly Strassel for going off on a world class rant against their airlines, and their desire to blame their woes on "oil speculators."

I want to say thanks for the July 10 email you sent to
all your customers seeking to explain why today's air travel experience
is so painful. The letter, signed by 12 of you, explained that "oil
speculators" -- presumably by betting on future oil prices -- are
killing your industry and thus requested that I, as a consumer,
pressure Congress to rein in this "unchecked" market "manipulation."

I admit that just lately I'd begun to feel that flying
was something akin to having my intestines fished out with a long hook.
Actually, I'd been wondering whom to blame for the fact that it would
probably be cheaper, easier and maybe even faster to drive to wherever
I want to go than to board one of your planes. Suddenly, all is clear.

I now understand that it is oil speculators who set
your hiring policies and who must have outlined the three types of
people you may employ: those who grunt at me, those who sigh deeply as
if my presence has ruined their day and those who are actively hostile
to my smallest request.

She goes off for quite a bit more.  Check it out.  I guess I am glad somebody's futures are going up in value.  My airline travel futures, also known as frequent flier miles, seem to get devalued constantly.

Wherein A Libertarian Argues For Regulation Enforcement

I got to thinking today about regulation and its enforcement in this imperfectly government-dominated world after reading this Jon Stewart quote as relayed by Kevin Drum:

With this administration, if a passenger blows up a plane, it's a
failure in the war on terror. But if the plane just blows up on its own
"” eh, it's the market self-regulating.

What struck me that I had not thought of before is the question of whether non-enforcement of a published regulatory regime was the same as letting a market self-regulate.  And my answer was:  No, at least not in the short to medium term.

The reason is that the government regulatory regime crowds out private mechanisms that might attempt to achieve the same goals.  What do I mean by crowding out?  For example, if the government published car reliability metrics and regulation for all cars, no matter how imperfect, would JD Power and Consumer Reports bother with the investment to do the same?  For decades, insurance companies wrote de facto building codes and performed fire inspections of their insured structures.  They no longer do so, because the government has taken on that role (arguably less well than the insurance companies, who had the reputation of being tigers on such inspections).  Would Moody's exist to rank bond risks if the government had regulations in place that theoretically forced all securities to (I don't know how) have the same risk?  My marina liability insurer conducts occasional inspections of my marinas.

As a result, insurers don't inspect airlines, nor do manufacturers enforce inspection and replacement regimes (as automobile companies do, to some extent, to protect their warranty).  Third parties rate airlines for customer service but not for safety.  The whole private evaluation regime for airlines exists on the assumption that the government has regulatory program X and Y in place that is enforced.  In the long term, if the government were to abandon enforcement, and this lasted long enough for that expectation to exist in the market, new private regulatory methods would arise [arguments would most certainly exist between libertarians and others whether these new regimes were as effective as the old regime, but almost undoubtedly something would emerge].  But in the near term, we don't have a self-regulating market or even the expectation of one. 

As a result, I come to the conclusion that while deregulation may be needed, the absolute wrong way to do it is via non-enforcement of existing regulations.  So there you have it, a libertarian calls for better enforcement.  Comments?  I am just starting to think about this and would appreciate feedback.

Regulation Protects Industry Incombents

I often see folks who are arguing for increased government regulation of some industry observe that "even those greedy corporations in this industry support this new regulation."  For example, if a power company takes a public position to support greenhouse gas emissions, then that is used as evidence that such regulation must really be necessary if even the to-be-regulated are in favor.  Greg Craven makes such an argument in his global warming video that I refuted the other day.

There are two very good reasons a company in such a position might publicly support even a bad regulation.  The first is basic politics and PR:  If the regulation appears inevitable and has public support, then it is sometimes better to get out ahead of it and try to curry favor with politicians and the public to manage the regulation's implementation.   We all know corporations give donations to political candidates, but look at how they give them.  Corporate donations correlate far better with "who is expected to win" rather than "who would create the most favorable regulatory environment for the corporation."  In fact, corporations are highly likely to give donations to both candidates in a closely-fought election, and a lot of their giving is after the election, to the winner of course.

The other good reason that companies support regulation in their industry is because a lot of regulation is either designed to, or effectively, helps incumbent companies against new entrants.   I have talked about this many times with the questioning of licensing.  Global warming regulation and carbon trading systems in particular give us another great example:

BBC News understands the industry will be allowed to increase emissions
as much as it wants by the European environment council. Aviation is
the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases. But Europe's
environment ministers look set to reject a plan for a strict cap on
emissions from planes. Instead, airlines will be given a set number of
permits to pollute.

Instead, airlines will be given a set number of permits to pollute.

they overshoot their limit they will be allowed to buy spare permits
from firms who have managed to cut emissions elsewhere - manufacturing
industry, for instance.

So, current airlines in Europe will be given carbon permits that presumable support their current business level.  However, any new entrant, or any current player wishing to take market share from another airline, must spend money on carbon credits to grab this market share, carbon credits the current established incumbents got for free.  This in effect becomes a tax on market share gains.  This European-style protection of large corporations is typical, and is why the 30 largest companies in Europe are nearly the same as they were in 1965, but are completely different in the US.

This is also why, though I don't think expensive action on CO2 is justified, I think that if we do so the approach must be a carbon tax rather than cap and trade.   But cap and trade has so much potential for political hijinx and giving special deals to the politically influential that my guess is that politicians will want cap and trade.

Environmentalists are Anti-Change, Not Pro-Environment

Here in Hawaii, much of the talk is about the Hawaiian Island ferry service that was supposed to start up this summer.  Most of you who have not spend much time here would probably expect that there already exists some kind of ferry service between the islands.  But for some reason, there is no such service.  Lacking you own boat, the only way to get to the island that I can see right across the water (I can see Maui right now from the north shore of the Big Island of Hawaii) is for me to drive forty miles south to an airport, get on an airplane, fly to the Maui airport, and then drive tens of miles to my destination.  Those of you who live in San Francisco, imagine if the only way to get to Oakland were by airplane.  One would think a ferry service would not only be a great service for residents and tourists, but would be a huge environmental benefit, giving folks an alternative to driving and flying.

Well, not according to the Sierra Club,
which has sued to block the ferry service on environmental grounds.  Of course, absolutely everything Hawaii uses comes in by ship, and there are always ships coming in and out of port, not to mention hundreds of fishing boats.  But we just can't have this one extra boat.  It makes much more environmental sense to the Sierra Club that people drive miles and miles to an airport and fly between the islands than to take a sensible ferry.

Note, by the way, as an added libertarian bonus, the ferry service seems to be entirely for-profit and does not appear to involve any major government subsidies.  Though I could be wrong about that, there are always hidden ways to subsidize such efforts.

Update: The main reason for opposition is that the ferry will make it easier for "undesirable" people to come to Maui and make the place less, uh, desirable.  First, it is unclear to me why the ferry service should be held accountable for future environmental damage that might be committed by its passengers - certainly airlines are not held to the same standard.  Second, this is snobbery, not environmentalism.  It is the same argument that prevented the red line in Boston from being extended to Lexington -- the upscale residents didn't want an easier path for the undesirables to get in.  So now Lexington residents have to drive for miles if they want to ride the train.  My sense is that this kind of faux environmentalism has become a very popular way for the reach to keep the middle class and poor at bay.  See:  Hamptons.

Where's The Symmetry?

I am sitting in the airport now about to fly back to Phoenix.  I generally fly America West / US Airways, because they have a hub in Phoenix and doing so maximizes my chance both of getting non-stop flights as well as accumulating a meaningful frequent flier balance with a singe airline.

After way too many round trips, I have the following observation:  I am much more likely to get an elite upgrade returning home than on the outbound leg.   I have seen this effect both flying the hub airline out of Phoenix and previously flying United out of Denver.   Now, as a hub city, Phoenix has a disproportionate number of US Airways elite members, just as Denver has a disproportionate number of United elite members.  So competing with a lot of other elite members for limited upgrade seats is understandable out of Phoenix, but shouldn't it be symmetric coming back?  I have three theories:

  • Observer error, though I will say I have a fairly large number of observation points to many different cities from two different hub cities
  • I am flying when the Elite's like to fly outbound, but I tend to take unpopular flights back.  Possible.  Most business travelers tend to fly outbound in the morning on the first flight, but they may all come back different times of day depending on their business.  This is one potential asymmetry.
  • The airlines give preference on upgrades to through passengers.  I have never heard this, but it might explain it.  Outbound from a hub, many of the people on my flight are on the second flight, having just changed planes.  Going home, towards a hub, everyone is in the same boat as me, on their first leg.  I don't think the airlines differentiate, but this is the only other asymmetry I can come up with.

Smugness Coupon with Enron Accounting

Apparently one of the reasons all those stars at the Oscars were so pleased with themselves is that they all got a smugness coupon in their gift bags (emphasis added):

Hollywood's wealthy liberals can now avoid any guilt they might feel
for consuming so much non-renewable fossil fuel in their private jets,
their SUVs, and their multiple air-conditioned mansions. This year's
Oscar goodie bag contained gift certificates representing 100,000
pounds of greenhouse gas reductions from TerraPass, which describes
itself as a "carbon offset retailer." The 100,000 pounds "are enough to
balance out an average year in the life of an Academy Award presenter,"
a press release from TerraPass asserts. "For example, 100,000 pounds is
the total amount of carbon dioxide created by 20,000 miles of driving,
40,000 miles on commercial airlines, 20 hours in a private jet and a
large house in Los Angeles
. The greenhouse gas reductions will be
accomplished through TerraPass' [program] of verified wind energy, cow
power [collecting methane from manure] and efficiency projects." Voila,
guilt-free consumption! It reminds us of the era when rich Catholics
paid the church for "dispensations" that would shorten their terms in

Something smells here, and it is not the cow-poop methane.  This 100,000 pound coupon retails for $399.75 (5x79.95) on the TerraPass web site.  First, this rate implies that all 300 million Americans could offset their CO2 emissions for about $100 billion a year, a ridiculously low figure that would be great news if true. 

Lets look at solar, something I know because I live in Arizona and have looked at it a few times.  Here is the smallest, cheapest installation I can find.  It produces 295 CO2-free Kw-hours in a month if you live in Phoenix, less everywhere else.  That is enough to run one PC 24 hours a day -- and nothing else.  Or, it is enough to run about 10 75-watt light bulbs 12 hours a day -- and nothing else.  In other words, it is way, way, way short of powering up a star's Beverly Hills mansion, not to mention their car and private jet.  It would not run one of the air conditioning units on my house.  And it costs $12,000!  Even with a 20 year life and a 0% discount rate, that still is more than $399.75 a year.  For TerraPass's offset claim to be correct, they have to have a technology that is one and probably two orders of magnitude more efficient than solar in Arizona.

[update:  Al Gore's house 221,000 kwH last year.  Call it 18,400KwH per month, that would require about 62 of these solar installations for $744,000.  I don't think $399.75 is really offsetting it]

So if Al Gore and the Hollywood-ites start whipping out these coupons and claiming to be green, be very, very skeptical.  My guess is that TerraPass is less like a real carbon offset and more like, say, the International Star Registry, where you get a nice certificate for the wall and the internal glow of having a star named after you (which, officially, it really is not).  Both the star registry and TerraPass are selling the exact same thing -- fluff.  Actually, TerraPass's certificate is a bit cheaper than the star registry.  Smugness on sale!  Think of it as the "International Earth Good-Guy Registry."

Update:  This type of thing is incredibly amenable to fraud.  If you sell more than 100% of an investment, eventually the day of reckoning will come when you can't pay everyone their shares (a la the Producers).  But if people are investing in CO2 abatement -- you can sell the same ton over and over and no one will ever know.

Also, this is a brilliant way to finance a power station.  Say you want to build a wind power station.  Actual regular investors will, you know, want a return paid to them on their investment.  But TerraPass has apparently found a way to get capital from people without paying any return.  They just give these people a feel-good share of the lack of CO2 emissions and a little certificate for the wall, and TerraPass gets capital they never have to repay to build a power station they likely would have built anyway that they can then in turn sell the power from and not have to give any of the revenues to investors.  Smart.

More thoughts:  My guess is that TerraPass, when it sells the electricity from these projects to customers, is selling it on the basis that it is earth-friendly and causes no CO2 emissions.  This lack of emissions is likely part of the "bundle" sold to electricity customers.  But note that this would be selling the same lack of emissions twice -- once to TerraPass certificate holders, and once to the electricity customers.  I am sure they are both told they are avoiding X tons of emissions, but it is the same X tons, sold twice (at least).  Even Enron didn't try this. 

I really wish I had fewer scruples, because this would be a fabulous business model -- free capital, the ability to sell the same goods multiple times to different people, all the while getting lauded for saving the world in the press and getting invited to the Academy Awards.

Update #2:  LOL. IowaHawk is offering the same thing, but for the discounted rate of $9.95!  And with much better bumper stickers.  He also suggests a multi-level marketing approach.  Here are just two of many choices:



Ethics of Frequent Flier Programs

Am I the only one who gets ethical qualms about frequent flier programs?  If your job was to buy supplies for the company you work for, and a printer company offered to give you and your family a Hawaiian vacation if only you would have your company buy their printers instead of the competition's, could we all agree that would be a kickback or bribe?  And that it would be, if not illegal, certainly unethical?

So why don't the same rules apply to airline travel?  When buying an airline flight for business, you are acting as a purchasing agent for your company.  And the airlines, in the form of frequent flier miles, are offering you [not the company] something of value to steer your corporate purchasing decisions to their product.  Frequent flier miles are a blatant kickback.  Informal poll:  How many of you have purchased flights that are a worse deal for your company but a better deal for your frequent flier account?

A further rant: OK, if you are not turned off by that rant, here is a related one about Visa cards that give out frequent flier miles.  As mentioned earlier, these are hugely profitable for credit card companies, so much so that they create much of the value in modern airlines.  Credit card companies, perhaps the only stable monopoly I have seen in my lifetime, have perfected the art of forcing retailers to subsidize their credit card users. 

Now, a fairly rational person would expect that a cash transaction is cheaper than doing one on credit.  However, due to the very strong position of MC and Visa processors, credit card customers actually get a lower price than cash customers.  Here is why:  Credit card companies have taken to giving their users a rebate on their purchases, either in cash or frequent flier miles or some other compensation.  These rebates are funded by charging higher interchange fees to merchants (basically a percentage of credit card transactions cleared).  The magic occurs because merchants, in their processing agreements, are generally banned from giving discounts to customers for using cash.  As a result, the higher credit card interchange fees are spread among all customers, cash or credit card, equally.   The result is that credit card customers pay lower net prices than cash customers, when the rebates are factored in.

Though our trade association tries to seek government action of some sort, I am neither confident that this will help or philosophically inclined to ask for such help.  Right now, I am working within the association to try to build support for some sort of one day boycott against accepting credit cards as a starting point to trying to build up some group negotiating power vs. the credit card processors.

Agency Costs and Airlines

Apparently, USAirways (the recently merged product of America West and US Air) has made a bid for buying Delta out of bankruptcy.  The bid is around $4 billion in cash and $4 billion in USAirways stock.  Which got me thinking about airline mergers in general.

Companies can be thought of as having tangible assets (trucks, airplanes, factories) and intangible assets (reputation, employees, brand names, contracts).  Most companies are worth far more than the book value of their tangible assets.  Most of Microsoft's value, for example, is in it's products, its brand, its franchise, its contracts, its people, etc., not in hardware or buildings.  As a result, most acquisitions are completed at prices far above the book value of the assets of the purchased company.  The difference is called "goodwill" by accountants and "enterprise value" by economists.

But enterprise value is a problem in airline mergers.  Most investors expect to pay and get paid a premium over asset values in a merger.  But I am not sure there should be any such premium nowadays for airlines, because I fear that the typical airline's "goodwill", or the value of their intangible assets, may be negative.

Take the example of Delta.  Unlike scrappy competitors like Southwest and JetBlue, Delta has a lot of baggage (so to speak).  First and foremost, they have terrible legacy union contracts that mean that pay all of their employees much more money than do startup airlines and they are much more constrained by work rules in improving productivity.  They have huge and building under-funded retirement and medical accounts.  They have legacy contracts that may suck, and they often have hodge-podge mixed fleets that are hard to maintain.  All of this tends to add up to a negative effect on value.

The one positive intangible companies like Delta have is their brand value, and I would argue that most of that is tied up in their frequent flier programs[** Update Below].  Without these programs, most frequent fliers have demonstrated that they would switch airlines for trivial improvements in fares.  This value in the frequent flier programs was demonstrated in the America West merger (among others), when Juniper Bank contributed $455 million (!) to the merger for the right to issue the visa card attached to the program.  Wow.

Given this problem of negative enterprise value, it is not surprising that savvy upstarts like JetBlue and Southwest before it have not grown by acquiring other companies.  Both are willing to take advantage of bankrupt competitors to grow, but they only have bought assets (like planes and gates) rather than whole enterprises, so they don't inherit legacy contract or union issues.  When the companies who are making money do things one way, and the companies who find themselves in bankruptcy court every five years do it another way, the difference probably matters.

Which brings me to the title of the post and agency costs.  It is really, really uncertain whether buying Delta is good for the USAirways shareholders.  Since buying airline equities has always been a losing proposition over the long haul, the deal only makes sense if 1)  They are getting a screaming deal, either because of Delta's bankruptcy or because they are doing the deal in just the right part of the business cycle; or 2) They can really harvest synergies, which in this case would have to include shutting down entire hubs, such as Charlotte in favor of Atlanta or Cincinnati in favor of Pittsburgh.   While I can't speak to the latter with any facts, you have a better chance betting Arizona will win the Superbowl than betting any acquisition hits its promised synergy values.

But if the value of the acquisition is unclear for shareholders, there is one group that almost certainly benefits:  USAirways management.  Management, even if shareholders don't get a great deal, will benefit in both monetary and non-monetary (e.g. status) ways from running an airline three or four times as large as the current enterprise.  This mis-match in incentives between hired management and shareholders is called agency costs, and is something every board should be more cognizant of when approving acquisitions.

**Update:  A rant on the ethics of frequent flier programs

Hey, I was Actually Right

A number of years ago, when I was in marketing for the commercial aviation business at AlliedSignal (now Honeywell), I made a lot of presentations to folks that they shouldn't bet the farm on the Airbus A380 because it made no sense.  I didn't think it would ever get built.  Well, very few people in the aviation business wanted to hear this.  Most people in aerospace are airplane guys first, and business guys second.  They wanted this plane to be built and longed to be a part of it.  I left before everything was finalized, but my sense is they went off and spent tens of millions of dollars to develop products for the A380.

Well, I was right and wrong.  The plane still makes little sense, but it will get built. Maybe.  Someday.  What I underestimated in the latter question was the willingness of European governments to push the plane against the headwind of economic reality merely as a grand salve for the European ego.

What was wrong with the plane is still wrong now.  The original logic, which the company still parrots today, was that airport congestion would require larger and larger planes.  If airports are at capacity, in terms of the number of planes they could handle, the planes have to get larger, right?  Well, no.  The problem with the larger plane is that the FAA and other air transport regulators will require the larger plane to have larger spacing with trailing planes  (the larger the plane, the more they create turbulent air and very stable wingtip vortices that pose a danger to trailing planes).  In fact, regulators are going to force double or triple the spacing behind the A380 that is required of the 747.  How does the plane help congestion, then, if it holds twice the people but takes up three times the landing capacity?  Answer:  It doesn't.  The same arguments can be made where gate space is at a premium - loading and servicing times for the plane can be expected to be twice as long as a regular plane, so in effect it takes up double the gate capacity.

Glenn Reynolds links to this Popular Mechanics article covering this ground and more on the A380.

Postscript:  The alternate strategy to deal with congestion is to start to abandon the hub and spoke system and move to a point-to-point flight network using smaller planes and involving more airports.  This takes connecting traffic out of overloaded hub airports.  Its the way the market has been moving, with competitors like Southwest and JetBlue developing point-to-point networks.  Asia may be the exception to this development, and it is no accident most A380 orders are Asian airlines.

While I am patting myself on the back, I also said that the Boeing Sonic Cruiser made no sense.  The engine and body/wing technology that would make the Sonic Cruiser could either be applied to generate more speed at constant fuel consumption or to achieve current speeds at greatly reduced fuel consumption.  I predicted that 10 out of 10 airlines would prefer the latter.  And that is the way it played out, with Boeing dropping the Sonic Cruiser, the more monumental and sexy project, in favor of the unsexy but demanded-by-the-marketplace next generation fuel efficient mid-sized aircraft.

More Trouble Than I Thought at GM

Today's announcement that GM will sell 51% of their GMAC financing arm really brought home to me how bad things are at GM.  I haven't really followed the situation, but I had assumed that GM was facing the same type demographic bomb as the airlines, fat and underfunded pensions and retiree health care benefits promised when times were good and US auto makers didn't face much troubling competition.

Here is what I found interesting:  GMAC is reported to make about $2.5 - 3 billion a year in profits.  This might tend to imply a value of at least $25 to $30 billion, which is confirmed by the fact that GM just sold half for $14 billion.  But GM as a whole has a market cap of just under twelve billion.  This means that their entire manufacturing business is valued in the market at roughtly -$16 Billion.  Yes, negative sixteen billion.  Another way to look at this is that if instead of selling GMAC yesterday, GM had instead sold all of their automotive manufacturing, brands, designs, etc. to someone for $1, and became a pure financing business, GM shareholders would be richer by $16 billion, the equivilent of raising the current stock price from about $21 to about $49.

Airlines and Credit Cards

Via Marginal Revolution, I thought this was fascinating:  The profits from those airline frequent flyer Visa and Mastercards (like my Citibank Advantage Visa) dwarf those of the airline business itself.  OK, so the profits of my tiny little company probably dwarfed the anemic profits of most airlines last year, just because they were positive.  But the magnitude is staggering:

Juniper bank is contributing $455 million to the merger of America West and
USAirways in exchange for the right to issue its frequent flyer credit card. This was a
huge blow to Bank of America, which had been issuing cards for both airlines,
and BofA is taking the deal to court.

They have several more examples, with credit card companies providing much of the new financing in recent airline bankruptcies.

By the way, why is it that frequent-flyer miles holders, who are a creditor of the airlines after all, are the only major creditor consistently NOT asked to take a haircut in these bankruptcies.  For god's sakes, there are retired workers losing a large portion of their pensions, but I still get to retain all my miles so I can go to Hawaii next year?

Update:  The fact that mileage holders have not taken a hit in bankrupcy does not mean they have not ever taken a hit.  Airlines from time to time devalue miles, by raising redemption rates, as Northwest did last year.

Thank You, Richard Branson

I have never been a Richard Branson groupie, but I must say for once I am appreciative of his efforts.  Branson has helped to make crystal clear the process by which governments take control of the economy.  The story comes to us via the Mises Economics blog, and starts this way:  According to Branson:

"The big oil companies are making extortionate profits out of the current oil
price," he announced, in his most calculating, populist style.

How anyone who runs the Virgin Megastores can complain about someone else's high pricing is beyond me, but lets let him run a little further:

"The biggest problem with the oil price is the lack of refinery capacity. There
is enough oil for everyone in the world, but the refineries are just not there."

And they are not there because...governments do not allow oil companies to build new refineries.  The government having created the problem, the solution would seem to be for the government to repeal the offending restrictions that caused the problem.  But here is where we get to the great tool of statism:  The problem created by the government is blamed on private enterprise and "market failure" and portrayed as necessitating... more government intervention:

"There has been talk of a windfall tax on big oil companies. Perhaps the
Government should use that money to invest in refinery infrastructure."

Of course, the big oil companies would invest those windfall profits in refining capacity on their own had they been allowed by government, but lets ignore that messy detail.  Ahh, but here is the best part.  Not only does the government now get to invest in refineries, but it gets to do it by channeling the money to the political supporters (i.e. Branson) of those in power, thus cementing their power and control.

According to the paper, Britain's favourite "entrepreneur" aims to put $100
million behind his latest scheme to build an oil refinery for airline fuel. Yes,
the Bearded Wonder is said to be about to launch a new company called - you
guessed it! - "Virgin Oil" within four or five months and is "seeking to attract
funding from other airlines and the Government...."

But, not content with this, our man from the tropical paradise has scented an
easier mark, for Sir Richard has seemingly exploited the crass celebrity-worship
of our New Labour masters, while also playing up to our ineffable Chancellor's
ever present desire to meddle in the markets.

For those of you who have held up Branson as some archetype of entrepreneurship: Stop it.  Here you see a man who is attempting to finance his entry into an industry by getting the government to take money by force from the current competitors in that industry and to give it to him to finance his startup.  I have always suspected Branson of being from the Orrin Boyle school of business and this just proves it.

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Hey Southerners, Join Arizona on the "Dark" Side

Congress is probably going to extend Daylight Savings Time, despite complaints from airlines that their rescheduling and reprogramming costs will be exorbitant. Virginia Postrel points out that while a boon for the Northeast, southerners are not amused:

The source of this bright idea is, not surprisingly, the ever-meddlesome Ed Markey, who calls the bill
"a huge victory for sunshine lovers." As a certified sunshine lover, I'd say it
looks more like Massachusetts's revenge on Texas (and the rest of the Sunbelt)
for George Bush's victory over John Kerry. There are some places--and Dallas is
definitely one of them--that need just the opposite: shorter sunny evening
hours. Once the sun goes down and the temperature falls to the high 80s, you can
actually enjoy sitting outside.

The ostensible goal of the bill is energy saving, but the evidence
is weak

Oddly missed even in fairly
 accounts is
any consideration of the extension's most obvious cost: More demand for
energy-eating air conditioning in the fast-growing, very hot Sunbelt. A lot more
people live down here than did back during the Nixon administration.

Southerners, come join Arizona on the "dark" side of this issue.  Arizona decided long ago that it had plenty of daylight, did not need to save it, and therefore was not going to play with the other kids.  We sometimes catch some grief for being out of step, but you don't see any of us scrambling around the house twice a year looking for our VCR manual to figure out how to change the clock.


Let Some Airlines Die

I missed it last week, but apparently the CEO's of a number of major US airlines took the PR offensive last week to beg for more government subsidies and pension bailouts.  Reason's Hit and Run has the roundup.  They observe that the Senate was open to their pleas:

But luckily for the money-squandering dullards, there are enough members of
the Senate Commerce Committee who apparently believe certain businesses are too
colossally incompetent to fail:

The Commerce Committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Daniel Inouye of
Hawaii, agreed: "If we do not begin to solve the problems plaguing the air
carriers, we will see more failures in coming months and certainly more jobs

Because what is the federal government if not a
guarantor of full employment at lousy companies?... If Inouye and his fellow
hacks were serious, they could start by privatizing airports, allowing vigorous foreign
to own more than 50 percent of U.S.-based airlines, and letting
the failures actually fail, for starters. But that would take a belief in free
airline markets we haven't really seen since the Carter Administration.

It has always been hard to get airlines to just go away.  Pan Am hung around forever, as did TWA, through bankruptcy after bankruptcy.  My guess is that politician's unwillingness to let airlines fail has only increased with the advent of frequent flyer miles - no congressman wants all of his well-healed constituents calling the office and complaining about the 300,000 United miles they just lost.  By the way, have you ever noticed that frequent flyer mile holders are the only creditor of airlines who consistently come out of bankruptcies whole?  Even the worker's defined benefit pension plans get a haircut before frequent flyer mile holders.

Legacy airlines are really backwards in their practices - for example, many of their supply chain processes are reminiscent of the auto industry in the 60's and 70's, in part because airlines are sheltered from foreign competition while auto makers for the most part aren't.  I used to work in the aviation industry, and the opportunities there are tremendous, but no one in the industry will even listen.  The "not invented here" attitude was invented in the airline industry.

And while the management of these firms is backwards, you also have to deal unions a share of the blame.  Union supporters often accuse companies of "union-busting".  I have never heard the term, but in the case of airlines, one might be able to accuse the unions of "company-busting".  Unions hold out and strike for outrageous salaries and benefits and work rules that far outstrip what similarly skilled people make in other industries.  By the way, unlike conservatives, I don't have some deep seated hatred of unions.  In a free society, workers can try to organize to increase their bargaining power.  I do have problems with the way the US government, through legislation, tilted the bargaining table in the unions' favor, but that is a different story. 

For some of these reasons, and others, I was flabbergasted that local company America West would purchase USAir.  When there are so many planes and gates for sale on the market, and cities are begging for new competitors to enter their airline market, why would you buy yourself a load of trouble in the form of legacy union contracts and frequent flyer obligations?  It is noteworthy that Southwest has never bought another airline, and prefers instead just to buy assets out of bankruptcy.

The Loyalty Program Revolt Starts Today

I HATE most new loyalty programs at stores.  When loyalty programs really came in vogue with airlines, they made sense.  Airlines gave their best customers bonuses for spending lots of money with them.  Today, though, every store I go into has a loyalty program.  I have a Fry's card, an Albertson's card, and a Safeway card (grocery stores);  I have a Borders and a Barnes and Noble card;  I have an Ace Hardware card and a Best Buy card;  For god sakes,  I have a TGI Friday's card.  Not to mention the cards from American, America West, Southwest, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, National, Hertz and probably 20 others I can't remember off-hand.  I carry a stack of the travel related ones in a big rubber band in the bottom of my briefcase.  The rest bulge my wallet up to about an inch thick, even when it is (all too often) devoid of cash.

Did I mention I hate all these programs?  Most of them have no real reward for purchase volume, you just have to have their card in your pocket to qualify for the best deal.  What is the point of this --its not like they are rewarding purchase volume (in fact, grocery stores do just the opposite, by rewarding the people who buy the least with better service via the express lane).  Why do I need to fatten up my wallet to unmanageable proportions just to get a store's best price? 

This analogy will date me, but its kind of like all those women who used to carry eggs and live chickens in their purses on Let's Make a Deal in the hopes that Monty Hall will ask for that item to qualify for some prize.   When I check out in the grocery store, they even put little asterisks by certain items to remind me that I am not getting their best price because I have not shown them their plastic card.  Come to think of it, my Monty Hall analogy may be flawed.  It is more like the pagan gods refusing to provide rain until their hapless subjects had sacrificed the right kind of goat.  Now how would that be for a loyalty program -- "I am sorry Mr. Meyer, but you sacrificed a goat, and Best Buy requires that you sacrifice an ox to get 10% off that DVD player".

Well, the revolt (or, if you accept the pagan religion analogy, the reformation) begins today.  I chucked everything in a drawer except the travel cards.  The book store cards are easy - its Amazon all the way now.  I used to drop in and buy some impulse items at my local Borders, but with free 2-day shipping for the rest of the year at Amazon (I signed up for the offer) there is no reason to buy anywhere else.  Amazon always gives me their best price without a piece of plastic in my pocket or an animal sacrifice and I don't have to deal with that irritating reminder from the cashier at Borders that without their card, I'm not going to get their best price.

Time will tell whether I can live with the increased grocery prices that will come from not having their card, but I am going to give it a shot on principle.  The revolt begins -- anyone want to join me?

PS - should I name this effort my loyalty pogrom?

UPDATE:  Thanks David, I fixed "principle".

UPDATE #2:  Per the comments, I do indeed understand that  one of the major goals of  well-structured loyalty programs is to gather data about the customer.  However, I would argue that out of 100 companies gathering customer purchase data, maybe 3 know what they are doing with it - meaning that they do more than just make nice powerpoint slides for the bosses with the data.

Take an example of my grocery store, Fry's.  Fry's has a loyalty card you must present at the register to get the best pricing.  Once you present the card, the checkout person will tell you at the end of the transaction how much you saved by using the card.  But half the time the people around me forget their cards, and the checkout person asks other people in line to lend their card, so the hapless customer who forgot theirs can still get the better pricing.  In other words, if the data is really being used, it is corrupted.

But how do they use the data?  Certainly bricks and mortar stores have limited options - they can't do like Amazon does and present me with a custom selection of goods when I first walk into the store.  They might send me a customized coupon package, but I have found no evidence that any loyalty program I have used has ever done this.  My guess is that most of the data just feeds the voracious appetite of the bosses to see data.  At best, the data might be used in vendor negotiations, but I doubt this too.

By the way, to provide a customized customer experience

UPDATE #3:  One of my friends who used to work with me in the pricing practice at McKinsey & Co. suggested that the cards may be a way of maintaining multiple pricing levels for different customers, much like airlines have done for years with business and leisure travelers.  The theory goes that the most price sensitive will get and use such a card, while the busier, perhaps wealthier and less price-sensitive shoppers won't bother.   This is certainly possible, but if this is the strategy, they certainly need to train their register people not to shout all over the store to find a card for shoppers that don't have one.  Since I put my Fry's card in the drawer last week, I have visited the store three times and every time the register clerk, without my asking, has borrowed a card from someone else so I could get the discount.

Reverse Auctions - and why Priceline REALLY succeeded

Business Pundit has a post today about a new auction site named jittery

One thing BusinessPundit mentions is that the new site will have a

"Buy Offer" feature, which I believe gave him the idea in the first place. Basically, instead of buyers competing over an item and raising the price, buyers specify what they want to buy, which features are important, what prices they want to pay, and sellers compete to give them the best deal.

I am extremely skeptical that this would work.  As background, I ran the marketplace portion of Mercata, that similarly tried to bring a different, more buyer focused model to table and failed fairly spectacularly.  We found that you can be as innovative as you want, but you need a lot of traffic to your site, and building such traffic takes a lot of time or a lot of money or both.  You also need to provide a value proposition for both buyers AND sellers.

A LOT of people have tried some sort of reversal of the auction process, where buyers specify the goods they want and sellers bring them to the table, bidding against each other (ie lower and lower prices) to get the business. FreeMarkets made some hay with this in the B2B world, but from the beginning the auctions were never really the money maker, but were a Trojan horse for supply chain consulting, which helps to explain why they merged with Ariba. 

The only people to make this model work in the consumer area is Priceline.  However, what most people fail to realize about Priceline is that it fulfilled a real business need for SELLERS, even more than for buyers. 

Airlines have a classic fixed cost pricing problem.  They want to sell as many tickets at a high price as possible, but an incremental passenger costs them nothing, so if the plane is not full, getting even $50 for a passenger to fill an empty seat at the last minute is profitable to them.  The problem is somehow offering the $50 fare only to the passenger who would not fly otherwise, and not cannibalizing the customers who are willing to pay $300. 

The problem is, if they offer the $50 fare to anyone, they can't hide the fact very well.  The airline industry, as most know, have very transparent computer systems that let everyone know their prices on every route every minute of the day.  If an airline cuts prices on a route, everyone knows - so that competitors can match the cut immediately and customers can switch from the higher to lower fairs.  Airlines protect themselves somewhat with limited availability of certain fares and advanced purchase requirements - so that people, particularly business travelers, who need to maintain flexibility, have a reason to pay higher fares.

However, advanced purchase requirements were not providing enough protection.  What airlines really wanted was a way to cut fares for one person who might not have flown otherwise, and let no one else see them do it.   And Priceline was the answer.  Yes, airlines had to tell the Priceline computers what the lowest bid they would accept from a customer for a flight was, but this did not constitute an official price that went into the reservation systems.  So, the airlines could cut their price (via Priceline), but only the customer who got the price ever saw it.

In fact, the story is even better.  At the time Priceline came around, one airline had a particular problem they needed to solve.  When TWA got a loan from Carl Icahn, an almost unnoticed part of the deal was that a certain travel agency owned by Icahn, small at the time, would be guaranteed TWA tickets at a healthy discount off the lowest published fares.  This agency, with this boondoggle, grew to enormous size as  TWA, beyond the reasons listed above, therefore had a second reason for not wanting to publish their lowest possible fare.  Normal limitations that most airlines could set on how many seats would be available at their lowest fare could not be enforced by TWA.  If they offered a new $100 fare, could blow out an unlimited number of tickets at $80 or less and TWA would have to accept it.  Therefore, by offering discounts unpublished via Priceline, TWA prevented the travel agency from getting inventory even cheaper.  And so, a huge portion of the early Priceline inventory was TWA.  (ironically, after the American Airlines acquisition of TWA killed the deal, the URL was bought by ... Priceline.

Anyway, I just don't see how reverse auctions can work in the consumer world, particularly if the customers are allowed to specify price and quality and features, etc.  The transaction costs for suppliers would be just too high wading through this stuff -- in fact, many companies in the B2B world, where transaction sizes are in the millions, have come to this same conclusion - for a variety of reasons, they are choosing not to participate in reverse auctions (here too).

Marketplaces must offer value to both buyer and seller.  If you don't offer honest value to sellers, then no products appear on the site and it will fail.

Basically, there are two gorilla's in the online marketplace arena - eBay and Amazon.  eBay had the head start in building a brand and community in the marketplace space, but Amazon has brought some really nifty technology to the table.

As a user of both, I welcome a new competitor, sortof.  I hope that there will be competitors who force eBay to adopt some overdue new features (e.g. auction sniping protection and better search features on past auctions) but I don't really want any to be successful enough to create a third or fourth or fifth major platform out there, because that just increases my search costs and time when I want to buy something.


I missed pointing out one bit of irony.  The Internet is generally attractive to consumers because it increases product information, and particularly increases knowlege about market pricing.  However, in this case, Priceline's attractiveness to airlines was that it decreased pricing transparency in the market.


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