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American’s New Business Plan Looks a Lot Like the Old One But With a Lot More Outsourcing

February 1 was a big day at American. It was the day that the airline went over its (not really) new and improved business plan with employee groups, and that meant detailing the cuts it was going to ask for. As you can imagine, this brought some outrage but also a lot of sadness. American is asking for very deep cuts from employees (and elsewhere), and it’s not really presenting anything new. This seems like the same plan it’s been operating under, just free of some employee contract limitations.

American's New Business Plan

Admittedly, American hasn’t shared all the details of its plan. That wouldn’t be very smart at this point, I suppose. But it’s shared enough at a high level so that it can make its case for massive cost reductions. You can read CEO Tom Horton’s letter to the troops with the high level plan to “not just to compete, but to win.” There’s the “win” phrase again. Ugh.

In short, Tom outlines a strategy of increasing revenue by $1 billion a year while cutting costs $2 billion a year, more than half of which ($1.25 billion) will come from employees. This is the magic plan. Let’s take this one side at a time.

Plan to increase revenue by $1 billion a year
The revenue plan has three parts to it. The $1 billion a year is expected to come from “network scale, fleet optimization, and product improvements.”

Network Scale
American has laid out an ambitious (and quite likely overly aggressive) plan to increase departures by 20 percent over five years from its cornerstone markets of LA, New York, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas/Ft Worth. That’s right. TWENTY percent. For the relatively mature industry we have here in the US, this seems to be very aggressive. I was going to guess that much of this would be from smaller airplanes with fewer seats, but then I saw Tom tell Terry Maxon that the increase would be more in the international arena than domestic. That makes me think that it’s less about regional jets and more about larger aircraft growth. That could mean some serious capacity growth. It’s starting to sound like the days of old when airlines mistakenly chased market share only to hurt themselves and everyone else in the process.

This isn’t just about the 20 percent increase under the American brand, however. This is also about increasing codesharing. Right now, it can’t grow its domestic codesharing business but it has proposed eliminating those shackles. Hello, JetBlue.

Fleet optimization
At first, this seems like a cost savings and not a revenue savings, right? I mean, the airline keeps talking about adding newer, more fuel efficient airplanes and retiring older ones. That has nothing to do with revenue. But that’s not what I think the airline is talking about here. This is really American talking about growing its regional fleet. Today, there is a very tight cap on outsourcing of flying on aircraft with more than 50 seats. American has maxed it out with 47 CRJ-700s, and that’s the only aircraft American has between 50 and 136 seats.

That’s a huge disadvantage for American versus Delta and United, both of which operate about 200 to 250 regional aircraft with more than 50 seats. American is getting aggressive, shooting for the right to outsource a boatload of flying on airplanes all the way up to 88 seats. In a minor bright spot for American’s own employees, American has also ordered Airbus A319s that will give it an option below 136 seats (maybe in the 120 seat range). That’s what American means by fleet optimization, having more aircraft in between the 50 and 136 seat range that it can use to better match seat supply with demand.

Product improvements
This is something that really has nothing to do with bankruptcy. American has already suggested it would improve the onboard product, but what can it do to actually goose revenues? Well, the new flat beds that it’s putting in business class on the 777-300ER aircraft are a good start. Hopefully that expands to the rest of the international fleet, because people aren’t willing to pay a premium for the inferior product in business class today. The new premium economy section could help as well, though that also reduces the number of seats so it relies on American being able to generate a good premium to make it worthwhile.

So that’s what we see on the revenue side. Bankruptcy should allow for more liberal codesharing and regional flying contracts. That’s really it. Now let’s look at the flip side.

Plan to decrease costs by $2 billion a year
Of the $2 billion in annual savings that American wants to see, $1.25 billion will come from employees. The rest will come from a variety of things that allow American to reduce costs – get out of expensive contracts, reduce rates for suppliers, ditch assets it no longer needs, etc. But as expected, American rests the bulk of the weight on employees.

The basic proposal (and it’s only a proposal at this point) is for every work group to give up 20 percent of compensation. That doesn’t mean salaries get cut by 20 percent, but it’s a combination of all types of compensation from benefits to productivity. The cuts vary by each group, and you can read all the union term sheets here.

Some will see pay reductions, all will see pensions terminated, and benefits will cost more for the employee if American has its way. There will also be major increases in productivity. For example, for flight attendants, American wants to increase the maximum monthly hours from 77 (domestically) to 100 which will result in an average of 80 to 90 hours scheduled per person month. I won’t get into the details of each workgroup’s proposed changes, but you should definitely take a look.

In return, what will employees get? There will be company-wide profit sharing that starts with the first dollar of income. Of course, that’s for the employees that don’t get a pink slip. American will be laying off 13,000 employees, about 15 percent of the airline’s total today, and it will come from all groups. We’ll see 1,400 management positions gone, 2,300 flight attendants, and 400 pilots.

But the biggest cut comes to mechanics and fleet service workers – more than 4,000 each. Those deep cuts will come thanks to more outsourcing. American will shut one maintenance base (Alliance, in Ft Worth) and it will start to outsource a lot of work so that it doesn’t need all these employees anymore. The TWU represents both these groups and leadership sounded downright sad in its conference call discussing the proposed cuts. The pilots and flight attendants, on the other hand, sound more angry. At least the pilots don’t sound surprised. The flight attendants strangely acted like they didn’t see this coming.

Let’s back up for a second. Twenty percent more departures in five years but 15 percent fewer employees? Seems strange to think about it, but it really is all about outsourcing.

We do need to keep in mind that these are not final. There will be negotiations and the ultimate resolution will undoubtedly be less dramatic than what we’re seeing here. Regardless, the employees that remain will need to be more productive and they won’t be compensated as well for the work they do. There will need to be more flexibility with work rules, including codesharing and regional flying.

In the end, this doesn’t sound much like a turnaround plan at all. It sounds like an airline continuing to push forward with its same old strategy, just with a new fancy lower cost structure to help it stumble into profitability. I find it hard to really become a believer in this plan, since it’s nothing really new at all. If anything, US Airways, Delta, and other potential buyers should be thrilled to see the current team not really proposing anything game-changing. It gives them a bigger opening to walk through.

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