Posts tagged ‘America West’

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.

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

Viva Las Vegas!

There are probably a lot of reasons out there to criticize Las Vegas, but one thing it is great for is that it is perhaps the best and least expensive place in the country for a small business like mine to put on a national managers meeting.

We bring 60 managers in from all over the country.  We held our event at a hotel/casino a mile or two off the strip called the Orleans, where two years running we have gotten nice clean rooms and great service.  Beyond the good service and more-than-acceptable rooms, we get:

  • $60 room rates for mini-suites
  • Two days of lunches, breakfasts, snacks, coffee, an open bar with appetizers, and a meeting room all for less than $100 per person
  • Bar none, the best airline connections of any destination city except maybe Chicago, and they are all cheap (lots of America West and Southwest flights)

On top of all this, my people love it there.  Anyone running a national meeting on a budget should definitely consider it.

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.

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.