Ready for Takeoff
Merger puts US Airways on the runway to success
Not long ago, if you bought a ticket on US Airways, you were taking a gamble--that the airline would still be operating by flight time. Most airlines, of course, have struggled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sent the industry into a tailspin. Delta and Northwest are still operating under Chapter 11, and United Airlines emerged just this year from 38 months in bankruptcy.
But none of the big carriers have faced as much turbulence as US Airways. The company declared bankruptcy not once but twice. At one low point, during Christmas 2004, staffing shortfalls left whole banks of flights canceled, and 10,000 misdirected bags piled up on airport conveyor belts. In early 2005, the airline was close to liquidation.
Instead of shutting down the engines, however, US Airways has executed a feisty pullout. When the company posts second-quarter earnings this week, it's likely to be one of the few carriers reporting a profit. And Wall Street expects US Airways to stay in the black through the year. "It has been a pretty amazing turnaround," says William Warlick, senior airline analyst with Fitch Ratings. "They're beating the industry handily." The company's improbable success story shows that it is possible to make money in one of America's most battle-hardened industries.
While the old US Airways had headquarters in Arlington, Va., with all of its hubs in the East, the airline's new lease on life began in Phoenix, where executives at the discount carrier America West were gazing into the future--and growing worried. America West was a regional discount airline with a patchwork route map and its own cash shortfall: It was the first airline after 9/11 to obtain a government-backed loan to help ride out the aftermath of the attacks. America West had a cost structure lower than that of the big network carriers, which allowed it to price tickets more cheaply. But by late 2004, that edge was eroding. Other low-cost carriers, like JetBlue, were gathering steam. And United and US Airways were both in Chapter 11, which was allowing them to renegotiate labor contracts, cut pensions, and slash costs. The implications were dire: Once the discounter lost its cost advantage, fliers were sure to choose other carriers with wider reach and more perks. "It was going to be hard to survive in the future," recalls Doug Parker, who was America West's chief executive.
Desperate. The airline needed to expand its footprint and get more efficient, without adding to costs. It considered buying bankrupt discounter America Trans Air but was outbid by Southwest. Then Parker and his advisers started thinking about US Airways. Things were bad at the bankrupt carrier: The airline was so desperate it had asked some employees to work for free.
Yet there were opportunities others didn't see. If America West were to merge with US Airways, it could piggyback on the benefits of bankruptcy, without zeroing out its own stock price or turning control of the company over to creditors. America West couldn't simply tear up the leases on unprofitable aircraft and send them back to the lenders, for instance. But under bankruptcy protection, US Airways could. In a merger, America West could restructure the combined fleet as efficiently as possible. The idea was novel--no airline on the brink of insolvency had ever merged with a viable carrier. "At best, it appeared to be a huge long shot," says Parker.
Savings. But the merger idea quickly gained support from key players, including big creditors like Airbus and GE Commercial Aviation Services. By February 2005, meanwhile, US Airways was almost out of money. The Seabury Group, an investment bank advising the carrier, began touting a merger as the only likely alternative to outright liquidation. In March, executives of the two airlines met and decided that if they merged, they could save $600 million a year.
A fresh infusion of cash was needed, too--at least $350 million. Oil had just hit $55 a barrel and looked to be heading higher. Airline losses were piling up, with the industry headed toward a combined $5.6 billion in red ink for the year. "Our pitch to investors was, 'We're at the bottom,'" says Scott Kirby, who was America West's sales and marketing director.
About 40 investor groups said no thanks. Finally, in May 2005, a Boston private-equity firm, PAR Capital Management, pledged to invest $150 million in the venture. Other lenders joined in, and by last summer the company had raised $565 million. The merger plan cleared various government hurdles. Finally, on Sept. 27, 2005, the combined airline emerged from Chapter 11. The same day, the "new" US Airways--the corporate name of the merged carriers--held a stock offering that raised $190 million, with shares opening at about $21. A week later, the share price had risen by about a dollar--a respectable market reaction.
Most of the America West management team, including Parker and Kirby, slid over into similar posts at the new company. They brought in a few recruits from the old US Airways. Then they started executing the work that had looked so good in the prospectus. The company is nearly finished retiring 60 jets from its fleet and transferring over more-efficient America West planes. Routes have been consolidated; the new airline has scotched money-losing flights from Phoenix to cities like Raleigh, N.C., and Billings, Mont., for instance, while offering new service on promising routes like Philadelphia to Portland, Ore.
For a while, the new US Airways was just another airline struggling to stanch losses. Then in April, the company's first-quarter earnings--a tidy $65 million profit--galvanized attention on Wall Street. The modest profit put US Airways in "very elite company," wrote Lehman Brothers analyst Gary Chase, who compared the new carrier to industry darlings Southwest and Alaska airlines. By cutting unprofitable flying, the airline raised its revenue per seat by 24 percent.
Investors have been celebrating. US Airways' share price has soared to as high as $56. The private lenders who invested in two weak carriers have seen returns approaching 400 percent. US Airways has also used fresh financing and improved cash flow to pay off two federal government loans, one for each of the old carriers. Including interest and fees, the government has earned almost $300 million on its investment.
For all the whooping, however, the coup at US Airways has not been bloodless. Through bankruptcy, US Airways furloughed more than 7,000 pilots, mechanics, and other union employees. Both companies combined have shed an additional 1,200 management jobs. The layoffs have especially hurt Pittsburgh, where there is little left, besides a minor hub, of an operation that was once large enough to justify a multibillion-dollar new airport. To US Airways survivors, that's a better outcome than total liquidation would have been. "We didn't want that," says Al Crellin, operations director for both the old and the new US Airways, "because of all the employees and the families." As business has improved, US Airways has hired back about 65 pilots and 200 flight attendants.
This being the airline industry, however, there's still plenty that could go wrong. The merger is far from complete, for one thing. America West will still exist in name, fact, and logo until the two carriers merge their reservation and operations systems--thorny tasks that have already left some customers stuck in the netherworld between the two systems. Even once the two operations become seamless--probably by next year sometime--fuel prices could spike, or another shock like 9/11 could traumatize the industry again. Perhaps the worst threat to airlines is their own lack of discipline. In the past, as profits have returned following downturns, carriers have repeatedly added back routes and flights, to protect market share and battle lower-cost competitors--then ended up losing money as margins declined. US Airways says it is determined to evade that. "We're not market-share-driven," insists Kirby. "We will be very disciplined about capacity." That would mark a different kind of airline indeed.
AT A GLANCE
The "new" US Airways is the result of a merger between the "old" US Airways and America West.
CEO: Doug Parker (above)
Revenues: $11.5 billion (est.)
Headquarters: Tempe, Ariz.
Operations: 35,100 employees, 3,866 daily flights
Hubs: Charlotte, N.C.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Pittsburgh; and Las Vegas
This story appears in the July 31, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.