I’ve been chatting with a bunch of media surrounding the expected United-Continental merger, being considered by the Continental board tomorrow.
Lucky offered his thoughts on Thursday. Here’s his money quote:
If you’re a mileage runner you shouldn’t be looking forward to this merger, plain and simple. Part of what makes United “profitable” as a customer is what a mismanaged airline they are and how poorly so many of their policies are thought out. If you complain that your seatmate farted, you’ll get a $200 electronic certificate good for future travel.
And that’s certainly true, United is pretty dysfunctional and customers who understand their system have lone done well by them. Ultimately some of the more rewarding quirks of United will likely ultimately go away in a post-merger world.
But somehow I don’t think United’s perspective on the merger is that finally they’ll get someone competent to run the airline! And most of the supposed benefits are already in place. They’re already frequent flyer partners, there few new benefits for customers there. And they already have anti-trust immunity to coordinate schedules and pricing. That leaves downsizing combined fleet and routes as the sole real benefit, which in my opinion is outweighed by the cost of integrating workforces and technology.
My bottom-line is that I have to believe United wants this merger, and likely underprices themselves to get it, because United’s management sees it as a payday. It’s several times been reported that Tilton gets a $9 million personal payout if he leaves within two years of change of control of the airline. And it wouldn’t surprise me if management got an ownership stake in the combined company as a payoff as well. We’ll see what the details look like.
My guess is to why this might go forward now — with US Airways pulling out of the merger sweepstakes, Tilton saw this as his last best chance. So he became willing to recede to the role of nonexecutive Chairman and turn the reins of a merged company over to Jeff Smisek. And without competition to partner up with United the price likely drops as well.
On the big questions, much of the forward facing merger work has already been done, and a merger is hardly required.
But there are also real open questions in a Continental – United merger.
So what happens next?
If the two companies merge, little will change right away. We’ll probably see something along the lines of gradual integration and I’m hopeful that Continental’s IT architecture survives, that their award rules survive even though everything gets the United and Mileage Plus names, and even that there remains Continental’s emphasis on US call centers (but that those go 24 hours for award booking).
I look forward to being able to move miles back and forth between the two programs, the way that Delta and Northwest allowed and US Airways and American West allowed in their transitions. Of course that would drive up costs, with those ‘in the know’ booking all their awards with United miles moved over to the Continental Onepass program.
Since the merger only makes sense if they wring cost savings out of their combined operations, they need to shut down excess capacity. There’s little question that Cleveland becomes even more de-emphasized than it already is, given its proximity to Chicago. The city will need to survive strictly on the capacity that its own arrivals and departures can sustain.
The same logic holds for Washington-Dulles, though the DC metro area will support more traffic than Cleveland. It hardly makes sense to keep both Dulles and Newark as transatlantic gateways, and it makes no sense to de-emphasize Newark. So I’d expect those flights servicing the DC market primarily, especially government-to-government business to remain. But less feed.
Finally, I was a guest recording the Upgrd.com podcast this past Thursday (presumably it’ll be posted this week) and I speculated “who is left?” for mergers. American and US Airways could begin talking, though (and I’m no expert in the business of the airline industry) I’ve always assumed that American remains a bankruptcy waiting to happen and US Airways has no cash. Though one imagines that a stock-for-stock deal could still happen. And even that although Alaska has been getting closer to Delta in spite of the airline’s partnership with American, that American could buy them as well. That would leave them strong in the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast to complement their Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, and New York operations. And the only real overlap that would need to be ‘rationalized’ would be the US Airways Northeastern operations, already on the decline.
Update: Two more predictions.
First, I agree with Lucky that the combined airline gets more discounted first class fares a la Continental, which makes upgrading harder. All the more reason to be a top tier elite if anything at all.
Second, I’d predict that we finally see complimentary alcoholic beverages in United’s Red Carpet Clubs. Currently Continental, Delta, US Airways, and Alaska all offer complimentary beer and wine at a minimum. United and American are the sole carriers charging for the house offerings of those. A Continental-managed United standardizes their complimentary offerings, probably adopts Contnental’s model of charging for premium brands. So much for combining to lower costs! Meanwhile, American will not stand alone — their AAdmiral’s Clubs will follow suit, for fear of losing business especially out of Chicago.