US Airways Takes a Huge Step Toward Acquiring American

For those who like to continue to point out that a US Airways bid for American in bankruptcy will fail just like the bid for Delta in bankruptcy failed, Friday’s news that the airline had won backing from the American labor unions should finally prove that this is a very different animal. US Airways now has the inside track to taking over American. I’d say the chances of American coming out of bankruptcy independently are now pretty slim.

American Labor Supports US Airways Merger

Remember, with Delta, US Airways didn’t try to get labor’s buy-in but it would have had trouble anyway. The US Airways plan then was to shrink the combined airlines, and that doesn’t sit well with labor. Meanwhile, Delta was able to rally its workforce and a huge groundswell of support to “Keep Delta My Delta” sprung up. That couldn’t be further from what’s happening at American.

US Airways doesn’t want to shrink, but more important than that, at American, labor hasn’t respected management for a decade. Sure, there’s a new CEO in town but Tom Horton is still part of the same regime. His announced plans for labor involved so many cuts to wages and jobs, that it wasn’t hard for US Airways to come in with a better plan.

Revenue Growth, Not Just Cost Cuts
See, the current management team at American blames nearly all of its problems on its costs. Sure, that’s an issue, but Doug Parker, Scott Kirby, and the rest of the US Airways team know that there’s a big revenue problem as well. Fix that, and you don’t need to slash labor to the same extent. That’s music to the unions’ ears.

The terms that American unions have agreed to will keep 6,200 jobs that would be furloughed under the American plan. While we don’t know details of where these jobs will come from, this plan should be a no-brainer for mechanics and those in the airports because they stood to lose the most under the current management team’s plan. But what’s really telling about the potential here is that the pilots and flight attendants have jumped on board.

American’s misguided plan is to flood the market with a 20 percent capacity increase over the next few years. Though incredibly misguided, that would mean more jobs for pilots and flight attendants. So even with that carrot being dangled, they’re supporting the US Airways plan. Why?

The pilots have been very vocal about it. In a memo, the message was blunt. “The APA leadership does not believe that AMR’s business plan will produce an airline that is viable long term.” In other words, they agree with US Airways and most airline analysts that they need some heft to compete with Delta and United. And they need that heft without organic growth since there’s no need for more capacity in the market. US Airways offers that opportunity plus the promise of a very smart management team that can make American competitive again.

A Better Team with a Better Network
The real issue here is that labor has no faith in American’s management team. They don’t believe that the business plan will work (read what the flight attendants say), and they have good reason to feel that way. They also don’t trust their management team and haven’t for years. In the pilots’ memo, it was pointed out that American has engaged the same attorney the much-hated Frank Lorenzo used with Continental/Eastern. Things like that do not help build trust. Neither does a Section 1113 proposal that will result in dramatic cuts.

More importantly, the US Airways efforts have started to help build trust with that management team. Some have worried that a combined US Airways/American would look like US Airways. It won’t. It will be American but better-run. The airline will remain American Airlines and will be headquartered right where it is today. There will just be a better team in place to run a better network.

Keep in mind, this is just an agreement with the unions IF an acquisition happens. That means there’s a lot of work to do, but this is a huge first step that might seal the deal. Why do I say that? Look at the creditors committee.

Swaying the Creditors
The unions hold 3 of the 9 seats on the creditors committee, and clearly they support this move. Boeing sits on the committee as well. With US Airways affirming the orders on the books, Boeing should be happy since it hasn’t sold an airplane to US Airways in years. This creates more opportunity.

The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) is also a member. It has been downright angry about American’s plans for its pensions, so you would think that US Airways would present a better option. And then there’s Hewlett-Packard. American has been working with HP on a new reservations system but nothing has come of it yet. US Airways, however, uses SHARES, a system that HP owns. You think HP will be onboard? Oh yeah.

That’s plenty of votes right there. If you have the creditors committee behind you, that’s huge. Of course, we haven’t seen what US Airways will offer yet, but you know that if it couldn’t offer something compelling, it wouldn’t be putting so much effort into this.

Can it Be Stopped?
What can American’s current management team do to stop this? Well, they continue through the process on breaking union agreements in bankruptcy (Section 1113). Could this move by US Airways make American reevaluate its proposal to try and keep labor? Probably, but labor is lost. A new proposal now will be seen as hollow. I don’t think American can get labor back, but really it doesn’t even want to try. The airline circulated some talking points that included this:

We believe statements of non-binding support from union leaders for alternative proposals are no coincidence given the timing of the 1113 process.

Right, it’s all just a negotiating ploy. Keep thinking that, American, and you’ll watch your airline slip away.

I’m sure there are still ways that American can try to maneuver, but so far it doesn’t seem to be trying very hard. It appears to be playing the “stay the course” game with a reminder that it has the exclusive right to reorganize until September 28. What it fails to mention, as has been reported by Holly Hegeman over at PlaneBusiness, is that the while American has the exclusive right, it’s not true exclusivity. The creditors can ask the court to end the exclusivity early if there’s another real option.

What About US Airways Unions?
Yet another common objection to this merger is the tired line that US Airways can’t get its own house in order, so how could it handle American? Very well, actually. The US Airways unions are being cautious, but they should be happy. US Airways has been clear that it needs to keep wages lower because it can’t produce as much revenue as the big three from it existing network. With American, that changes and raises will become possible.

Now, that might not please the pilots union USAPA since that group has acted against its own interests from the start, but that’s too bad. American’s pilots outnumber USAPA members handily. USAPA will disappear in a merger and then hopefully there will be a rational union leadership that will best represent its members on both sides. If the legacy American pilots can come to an agreement with US Airways so quickly, then the US Airways pilots would probably be insane not to take that same contract.

In the end, US Airways is making all the right moves right now. It has now become far more likely that we’ll see a combination of the two airlines.

[Original photo via Flickr user numberstumper/CC BY-SA 2.0]

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