Thursday, December 01, 2005

Southwest Airlines: A Case for “Right Sized” Airlines ?

This weeks’ Wall Street Journal article about Southwest Airlines’ move into a new hub in Denver brought me back to some insights about the airline sector from a few years ago.

There seems to be an irreconcilable conflict in many sectors between a company’s growth objectives, its profitability, and the real constraints to satisfying both of these. It is especially obvious with airlines.

As a business with large fixed capital assets and varying customer demand levels, both in unit volumes and revenues, airlines have always been management challenges. Factoring in the relevant economic attributes of the typical airline- low barriers to entry, relatively high capital requirements, unionized labor, lack of control over the system in which it operates, tendency towards costly evolution to multiple plane types, underlying derived demand for travel- suggests that there are probably very real limits to profitable growth.

In Southwest Air’s case, when I read about the airline changing its operating model to accommodate growth, I expect financial doom to be in the offing. The stock is down over the last five years as it is, and even under-performs the S&P500 during that period.

Similar to the “wheel of retailing,” about which I have written in an earlier post, budget airlines beg for trouble when they depart from their original low-cost, no-frills, or limited-geographical service model. It does seem that historically financially successful airlines were regional carriers who had identified a fairly self-contained segment of fliers whom they could serve at lower costs than larger airlines could do so. So long as such airlines expanded within a region that provided high load factors while the airline grew service points and passenger volume, there was no problem.

What seems to sound the death knell for these regional carriers is their eventual desire for passenger and revenue growth which requires them to outgrow their original, self-contained market segment of travelers. Just because an airline wishes to profitably continue its growth does not mean it should, or will, happen. Thus, Southwest’s dilemma.

It is pushing for growth while its total returns over the last five years are already penalizing its shareholders.

Hard as it may be to accept, many companies simply run out of profitable market segments in which to grow, and then their days of consistently superior returns are over. Airline total return performances seem to reinforce this conclusion with stunning regularity. So much for learning by example, or even from their own mistakes.

No comments: