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United’s Passenger Debacle An Immaterial Investment Consideration

publication date: Apr 18, 2017
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author/source: Brian Nelson, CFA

Image Source: Business Insider 

The major airlines in the US have done a fantastic job capitalizing on the ongoing upswing in air travel demand, but their economically-sensitive business models remain the most operationally-leveraged out of any industry group in our coverage. This should be investors' biggest concern: A downturn in the global economy and competitive pricing pressures are far greater worries for investors than United’s recent passenger debacle. However, as with many news-oriented items (as opposed to materially-relevant, investment-related items), United's misstep is making headlines in a big way. Though the footage in this article is appalling, investors in airline stocks have much more important things to worry about, in our view.

By Brian Nelson, CFA

The airline industry has undergone meaningful changes since the beginning of the last decade. The painful restructuring of labor agreements and balance sheets by most of the legacy carriers via Chapter 11, the significant mega-mergers of Delta (DAL)/Northwest, UAL (UAL)/Continental, US Airways (LCC)/America West, Southwest (LUV)/AirTran, and most recently the new US Airways/AMR Corp, the introduction of ancillary revenue streams to combat rising fuel costs, and continued efforts to rightsize domestic capacity to slow the long downward trend in real yields are but a few. While unarguably these are steps in the right direction, airlines remain shackled to the poor structural characteristics of their industry. Absent implicit price collusion across every participant within the domestic landscape (a very unlikely event), airline stocks should solely be viewed as speculative bets or hedges on the trajectory of the economy (passenger travel) and the direction of crude oil prices, and not as long-term investments

Perhaps the most enlightening of analysis of an airline's business model is to test the sensitivity of its profitability and cash flow to changes in the forecasts of a few industry-accepted metrics: revenue per available seat mile (RASM) and cost per available seat mile (CASM). RASM, or unit revenue, is a function of yield (pricing) and capacity utilization (load factor), while CASM, or unit cost, is predominantly driven by jet fuel prices and labor. The difference of the two represents unit profit, or the profit generated by an airline to fly one seat one mile.

Due to the tremendous operating leverage inherent to airline business models non-pursuant to capacity purchase agreements (regional airlines operate on cost-plus arrangements), it becomes readily apparent that even minor changes in these key metrics can have large implications on profitability, cash flow and ultimately the fair value of an airline's equity. And while operating leverage may spell opportunity should these metrics move in favorable directions (as they have been doing during this economic upswing), the wide range of potential outcomes in forecasting these metrics suggests that most airline stocks should be viewed as no more than boom-or-bust, speculative vehicles.

As many airline executives may attest, both unit revenue and unit cost are largely out of their control. For one, air travel service is largely commodified and suffers from substantial and intense fare competition driven by severe price transparency and the unavoidable concept of perishable inventory -- when a flight takes off, empty seats cannot be filled. Such a combination is the weight that keeps real pricing (yield) growth from being sufficient to meaningfully alter the long-term economics of the industry. To do this day, network airlines are still forced to match fares offered by low-cost carriers or suffer even greater revenue declines. Fare increases can only be sustained if they are matched permanently by low-cost peers (like Southwest or JetBlue (JBLU), for example).

Further, with barriers to entry primarily limited to capital costs (any US carrier deemed fit by the Department of Transportation can operate passenger service in the US), it's safe to assume that we haven't seen the last domestic start-up, even after the most recent failure of upstart Skybus. The mere existence of interested, economically-tied parties (like Boeing, for example) seem to suggest that new entrants will always pose a threat to dump unwanted capacity on otherwise healthy routes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one can even tap Boeing's expertise in launching an airline: Starting an Airline. The poor performance of systemwide--domestic and international--real yields (pricing) across US airlines is very unlikely to change anytime soon.

As an airline's unit revenue is pressured by intense pricing competition, its unit cost is significantly impacted by the price and volatility of jet fuel. According to the Air Transport Association, jet fuel now represents more than a quarter of industry operating costs, surpassing labor expenses as the largest cost item. Although airlines may hedge fuel to some extent, such a strategic move is financial and should not be viewed as an operational boost or any sort of sustainable competitive advantage. And due to the presence of low-cost providers, network carriers have traditionally found it difficult to hike fares or charge additional fees sufficient enough to pass along these rising energy costs. The rising price of jet fuel offers an interesting contrast to the rapid decline in industry real yields.

With more than 160 airlines failing since deregulation in 1978, the structural characteristics of the airline industry do not lend itself to long-term investing, and even meaningful shifts in the industry landscape over the last decade have done little to change this. But does Warren Buffett's recent and highly-publicized investment in the industry change all of this? Watch Valuentum's 10-minute podcast or read the transcript of the podcast here >> to find out! We're fairly confident in one thing about the airlines though: United's passenger debacle won't be a material driver behind industry profitability over the long haul.

Airlines - Major: AAL, ALK, DAL, HA, JBLU, LUV, SAVE, UAL

A version of this article has appeared on our website in the past.


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