Friday, July 31, 2009

Guest Post: Hubert Horan on Airline Consolidation

Hubert Horan is an independant aviation analyst with 25 years of experience.  He has published extensively on airline competition issues and has first-hand experience working with over a dozen major airline mergers, alliances, and restructuring.  Further information on Mr. Horan, including articles and public statements, may be found on his website, Hubert Horan Aviation. 


Thanks to Prof. Brian Havel for the invitation to post an introduction to the “anti-airline consolidation” viewpoint. The issues here are immediately relevant to the current antitrust immunity applications (CO/Star, AA/BA), the next phase of US-EU Open Skies negotiations, and the dispute between the DOT and DOJ that emerged in the CO/Star case. I am not a lawyer, but have been an airline manager/consultant for a quarter century. At Northwest, I was responsible for the original development of the NW-KL alliance network that served as the template for all of the subsequent North Atlantic alliances, and later managed one from the other side of the Atlantic (Swissair-Delta). I’ve also helped shut down major alliances that didn’t make any economic sense (CO-America West, the intra-European Qualifyer group) and have been involved in a wide variety of merger cases. I have published a number of articles on international airline competition, and testified before Congress on the Delta-Northwest merger. One can obviously not prove or refute major claims in a blog setting, but I’ll try to throw out a number of points that I think would need to be fleshed out in a more serious analysis, and addressed by advocates of increased consolidation.


A couple critical background points:


1. “Branded” alliances <> “Collusive” alliances: The Branded global alliances (Star, Oneworld, Skyteam) must not be confused with the immunized North Atlantic alliances that can collude on prices and capacity, although most press reports do. The “Branded” alliances are just a modern twist on decades-old industry practices (codesharing, favorable interlining, frequent flyer cooperation) and pose no serious competitive risks. The Collusive Alliances reduces the number of competitors, cannot function without antitrust immunity and need to demonstrate public benefits justifying the risks to consumers.


2. The original 1990s Collusive Alliances exploited a specific market opportunity. In 1990, there was a sizeable North Atlantic market niche (about 30% of the total market) primarily “double-connect” markets—city pairs like St.Louis-Stuttgart or Milwaukee-Munich that didn’t have single carrier 1-stop service via any of the competing hubs. Passengers were limited to interline services at high fares. It made no economic sense for individual airlines to build hubs on both sides of the ocean, and all such attempts (TWA at Paris, Iberia at Miami) failed badly. The original KL/NW and SR/DL alliances introduced well-timed on-line equivalent connections via efficient hubs, and offered the full range of discount fares offered in traditional markets, and consumers responded strongly to the new/improved service. The Collusive Alliances had a clear competitive advantage in this market segment just as the traditional carriers had competitive advantage in large nonstop and one-stop markets.


3. Collusive Alliances have never existed outside the North Atlantic: There have been three Collusive Alliances—KLM/Northwest (1993) the Swissair/Delta  based group (1995, shifted to Air France/Delta in 2000) and the Lufthansa/United based group (1997). The KL/NW and AF/DL alliances merged; the DOT is now evaluating a proposed new American/British Airways based group. Airlines have never attempted to apply this alliance model to the transpacific or anywhere else in the world, because this type of market opportunity doesn’t exist (or is trivial compared to the cost of the alliance).


4. Competitively, Intercontinental airline markets are very, very different from domestic/regional markets. Longhaul markets have fundamentally different economics than shorthaul markets, driven by scale requirements (the need for huge connecting hubs, global marketing capabilities, expensive long-range aircraft) and complex airpolitical requirements and constraints. It is much easier to start a narrowbody airline, easier to adopt to changing conditions, and easier to redeploy assets if things don’t work out. Intercontinental airlines require very large hubs (HKG, FRA, EWR, SIN, DXB, ATL) while domestic/regional airlines are much more point-to-point oriented. You cannot apply the competitive logic/standards of narrowbody markets (domestic US, intra-EU) to intercontinental markets. All of the dynamic (if not cutthroat) competition associated with modern aviation is limited to domestic/regional markets. Intercontinental markets are totally stagnant, with no (net) new entry in decades, despite the huge growth in global trade and travel.


Turning to some specific airline competition/antitrust arguments:

5. The antitrust issue is consolidation, not “alliances”. The question is not whether Collusive Alliances are good or bad for consumers, but whether applications that reduce competition are good or bad for consumers. Airline consolidation applications happen to have been almost exclusively limited to North Atlantic competitors, and involved expansions of (or mergers between) Collusive Alliances.


6. The current ATI applications will establish a three-airline cartel on the North Atlantic. The current applications will consolidate 23 previously independent airlines into three groups with over 90% of the North Atlantic, a market with roughly 55 million annual passengers. The LH and AF groups already dominate the Continental Europe market (75%), while the new BA group would dominate the UK market (25%). This would quickly become 26 into 3 as the next three largest carriers (USAirways, which codeshares with the LH group but does not have ATI, Virgin and Aer Lingus) would not survive independently. Each has already indicated an interest in joining, and the DOT’s logic in approving CO/Star strongly suggests it would approve these as well. This would give the 3 groups 98% of the total market.





7. There is almost no possibility that future entry could discipline near-term competitive abuses. Only one new entrant in the last 25 years ever achieved a 2% or greater share on the North Atlantic (USAirways). Airport constraints at many important markets (New York, London, Paris, Chicago) create significant entry barriers. No “LCC”-type airline has ever succeeded in longhaul markets, and no US/EU LCC appears to have any interest in the North Atlantic. Startup would require billions in capital, and the willingness to risk predatory-style pricing reactions by the large incumbents. If DL/NW abuses its post-merger position in the local Detroit-Atlanta market, competitors could shift aircraft into that market overnight. If the LH group pursues oligopoly pricing and capacity cuts on the complex web of US-German routes in a 98% concentration environment, no comparable market correction would occur.


8. Neither DOT or DOJ has ever examined the competitive risks of extreme concentration. As noted above, the original 90s Collusive Alliances were pro-competitive, and certain consolidation steps may have been totally benign, but no one has objectively analyzed the public benefits/consumer risks of the aggressive recent trend to high concentration. The Delta/Northwest and CO/Star applications explicitly ignored the possibility of competitive response, despite years of industry agitation for consolidation, and BA/AA’s acknowledgement that their application was a necessary competitive response to the DL/AF and CO/LH ATI expansions. Would competition between the three alliances with 98% of the market serve consumers just as effectively as the 11 large competitors in 2001 when top-3 concentration was 58%? Neither DOT or DOJ have ever seen the need to look at the issue. There is no objective, verifiable analysis of this question on the public record. None of the recent cases define specific standards that had been met by the current transaction but might not be met by one of the likely subsequent transactions.


9. All of the North Atlantic consolidation of the last five years was anti-competitive. Any public benefits that would justify expanded ATI must be linked to sizeable, demonstrable cost synergies or competitive market advantages. This evidence does not exist. The market opportunity seized by the original alliances has been fully served since the late 90s. Current claims are largely based on the assertion that gains witnessed in the mid-90s will be replicated by every future alliance, regardless of market conditions. The only purpose of the recent/current transactions was to reduce competition.  None of the consolidation of recent years was due to “market forces” (airlines with lower costs and superior service driving inefficient ones out of business)—it was entirely due to government actions authorizing reduced competition among incumbent carriers. 


Brief answers to some common, related questions:


10. What is behind the DOT-DOJ Star Alliance dispute? The DOJ argued that ATI approvals required clear evidence of public benefits; the DOT argued that their policy-based assertions of benefits justified approval. The DOJ cited over 15 specific cases where the DOT’s preliminary approval had been based on unsubstantiated assertions, or evidence of benefits that were not specifically tied to the CO/Star application, or benefits that could have been achieved without antitrust immunity. The DOT’s final approval did not directly address any of the DOJ’s claims of evidentiary deficiency, but focused on the benefits of DOT’s overall airline competition policies, and the DOT’s authority in this area. I would summarize the DOT’s recent airline competition policy as “rubber stamp whatever proposal the airlines bring us as long as there isn’t serious industry opposition”. 


11. Isn’t consolidation a necessary reaction to current industry conditions? Yes, the airline industry has lots of problems but the real-world evidence directly contradicts this claim. All of the recent consolidation applications have been limited to the North Atlantic, which over the past decade was one of the most profitable sectors in global aviation, and already enjoyed major barriers to the cutthroat competition witnessed elsewhere. All of the consolidation proposals were being actively developed years ago when profits were booming. Absolutely none of the public demands for “industry consolidation” have been coming from the more competitive domestic/regional markets where profitability has been most elusive.


12. Doesn’t the US-EU Open Skies treaty require approval of these ATI applications? That’s certainly what the applicants are claiming, but if it did the State Department would have said so, and that would have saved DOT and DOJ the need to undertake detailed reviews. I didn’t see anything in the treaty limiting the application of US antitrust laws and precedent, and I think the claim that it did would stir up vigorous opposition on Capitol Hill. The whole point of America’s long campaign for Open Skies was to let the market pick winners. The DOT and the alliance carriers are arguing that government policy ought to determine the level of competition on the North Atlantic. 


13. Won’t these alliances help break down “nationality” based barriers to competition? In their current form, no.  Every one of these applications works strictly within the decades-old system where airline operations are strictly tied to nationality, unlike hypothetical mergers such as BA-Qantas, which would have divorced UK airpolitical rights from UK ownership and control. To break down nationality barriers, the industry needs to develop new systems for safety, financial, labor, and various other legal and regulatory regimes that can be enforced globally, and won’t be readily subject to regulatory arbitrage. A very worthy objective, but the current CO/Star and BA/AA applications accomplish nothing in this regard.

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Why intercontinental airlines doesn't grow ? It sounds so strange.

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