You’re never as smart as you think you are when times are good, nor as dumb as you look when they’re bad.
If the price of fuel hadn’t dropped United would be on its next CEO by now. Ironically, if the Continental board hadn’t pushed out Larry Kellner prior to the merger it would might be a different story. He was a great student of Gordon Bethune — who incentivized and inspired the best from his employees and drove everyone to operational excellence.
Under Bethune and then Kramer Continental was the best airline in the U.S. That — and keeping United from merging with US Airways (which wasn’t really going to happen) — was the idea behind their merger with United. United had been badly run for awhile, and the thinking was that United’s problems would be fixed by that same leadership. But that leadership was already gone…
Lower fuel prices are making the management at American look amazing (to some) for the speed of the world’s largest airline’s turnaround… but a year and a half into the merger the airline is facing higher labor costs (US Airways pay was lower than American’s) and declining revenue per available seat mile as airlines lose some of the capacity discipline of the past couple of years (though they’re trying to hang onto it), as Southwest expands at Dallas’ Love Field with the expiration of the Wright Amendment, and with American most exposed of the US airlines to Latin America weakness.
I always believed that the merger would happen between US Airways and American to the extent that US Airways would overpay for the asset they’d be acquiring. It creates higher costs that can only be overcome through ‘synergies’. Those could come if American had planes that work better on US Airways routes, and vice versa. And there might have been some incremental benefit from the across the board codeshare between the two airlines that becomes a bit more seamless once the reservation systems are integrated.
But so far there’s been a lot of IT resources that have been ploughed into integration, far more than the fruit that integration has borne thus far. Indeed, if the merger hadn’t happened the airline would have been wildly profitable. The carrier simply could wait for better luck. That much was inevitable once American’s pilots decided they’d had enough of Tom Horton, and American’s unions threw in with Doug Parker — despite the latter’s far worse history of labor relations.
A year ago Qantas was losing $700 million and looking for a billion in cost cuts from their international routes. Next month Qantas is expected to report a $900 million profit.
Low fuel prices combined with a decent economy cover up a lot of mistakes in the airline industry. United is profitable even if they’re running a barely functional operation. And those are two drivers outside of any airline’s control.
Current profits don’t mean the industry is doing things right. It’s the profits earned during tougher times that some current managers deserve credit for, and could well again in the future.