In this issue:
- Antitrust case threatens major airports
- Expansion of trusted traveler under way
- Positive outlook for US airport privatization
- Security risk of foreign-owned planes
- Tarmac delay rule's impacts
- Airport privatization news from Spain
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
Like nearly everyone else knowledgeable about aviation, I was astounded by the Justice Department's attempt to forbid the merger of American and US Airways. And after reading all 56 pages of the DOJ brief, I was appalled at its hubris and lack of understanding of the dynamics of commercial aviation. And I'm still trying to figure out why the Attorneys General of six states signed onto this disgraceful exercise.
Let me begin at the macro level. What has been unfolding for the 35 years since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 is a painful discovery process as numerous airline companies have tried to develop viable business models (unconstrained by government route selection and price controls). Many new companies entered and failed, and the least nimble of what we now call "legacy" carriers went under (Braniff, Eastern, National, Pan Am, TWA, etc.). In the past decade the surviving legacies all went through bankruptcy proceedings and joined global alliances, but still had difficulty competing with the likes of Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, Allegiant, and others with radically different business models.
Clearly this says that the "legacy" sector should be shrinking, and the recent mergers of the survivors (Delta with Northwest and United with Continental, neither opposed by DOJ) seemed to be stopping the bleeding, thanks to greater capacity discipline and more careful pricing. The last best hope for American and US Airways is to do likewise—despite DOJ.
DOJ's concerns about diminished competition are focused narrowly on the legacy sector, as if Southwest and the others didn't exist and weren't growing and profitable. Southwest, thanks in part to its acquisition of Airtran (also unchallenged by DOJ) and its moves into major markets such as Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, and New York, has become, in reality, the fourth network carrier (after Delta, United, and the post-merger American). Southwest's share of connecting (as opposed to point-to-point) traffic is now up to 28% and its average route is 21% longer than 10 years ago. And in the several weeks since the DOJ filed its antitrust case, both Allegiant and Spirit have announced many new routes. Allegiant will now serve 99 US destinations (most of them the kinds of underserved airports that the legacies have largely abandoned), while Spirit has penetrated such major hubs as DFW, DEN, MSP, and ORD. (If you want to read a well-informed critique of the specifics of DOJ's case, check out Cranky Flier's two-part assessment, August 14-15—crankyflier.com.)
As for the impact on airports, why the conservative Republican AGs of Florida and Texas would seek to torpedo American's best hope for long-term survival and growth is beyond me. Transportation Weekly suggests populist concerns about possibly reduced flights between Washington National (DCA) and smaller cities in states like these if the merger goes through. But if the merger is killed and American must struggle against megacarriers Delta and United, then it is major American hubs like DFW and MIA that are at risk of cutbacks. The former American stand-alone plan, based on large-scale expansion, was rejected by all of the airlines' creditors (as well as its employees) as highly likely to fail, yet DOJ's brief presents it as a viable alternative.
I am not qualified to present a legal opinion on the strength or weakness of DOJ's case, but my aviation background says that this case deserves to be rejected by the courts. It is based on a static model of commercial aviation, which DOJ thinks it can restructure with positive results for air travelers. Yet DOJ's way of looking at aviation would never have predicted the rise of Allegiant and Spirit, with their radically different ultra-LCC business models. If there is any role for antitrust in a deregulated airline industry, it is to keep entry open to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists with potentially better business models—not to try to micromanage the shape of the industry.
Just two weeks after the last issue of this newsletter, lamenting TSA's slow progress with expanding PreCheck, the agency announced a major expansion on July 19th. In what Administrator John Pistole is informally calling "Global Entry Lite," the new effort is open to any U.S. citizen with an $85 application fee willing to provide enough information online, and fingerprints in person, to permit the agency to carry out a Security Threat Assessment (background check) similar to what is used for airport employees requiring access to secure locations. For those who pass the background check, eligibility to use PreCheck lanes will be good for five years, and can be used at any PreCheck lanes at airports (whose number is to be increased).
TSA has announced ambitious goals for expanded PreCheck, including enrolling passengers responsible for 25% of daily trips by the end of this year and 50% of daily trips by the end of next year. That is not the same as 25% or 50% of all airline passengers, because a large fraction of those flying on any given day are frequent flyers, most of whom (like me) make dozens of trips per year and some of whom make hundreds. From an airport's standpoint, what will really improve the flow at checkpoints is the fraction of daily trips diverted to fast lanes, and that is what TSA is aiming to accomplish.
To facilitate the process, the agency will be opening enrollment centers at airports, first at Washington Dulles and Indianapolis, and at an unspecified number of other airports later on. Christopher Bidwell, VP for security at Airports Council International-North America told New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey that expanded PreCheck is "the best thing since sliced bread" for airports, though he expressed some concern about space requirements at smaller airports.
While I applaud this expansion of the trusted traveler concept, I still have two concerns. First, TSA says members will be able to use the PreCheck lanes "when flying on any of the participating carriers." That means despite opening the program to non-high-level members of airline frequent flyer programs, it is still airline-specific. Yet the whole point of the expanded program is to enroll (and vet) individuals, not airline FF members. Once an individual has passed the background check, he or she should be able to use PreCheck lanes no matter what airline is needed for a particular trip.
But this flaw may be related to the other flaw in the expanded program: the absence of a biometric ID card. With Global Entry, when you show up at the kiosk to bypass the long lines at Immigration, you insert your biometric card into the machine and then provide a fingerprint that has to match what's encoded in your card. That verifies that you are the person who passed the background check, rather than someone who either obtained the Global Entry card of someone else or purchased a counterfeit one. But in the absence of a biometric card, the new PreCheck members will rely on the boarding pass which their airline (if and only if it's a PreCheck participant) will have imprinted with the PreCheck symbol. So if your routing requires you to fly a non-participant such as Southwest, you apparently will be out of luck at the PreCheck lane (unless you present a Global Entry card).
I have also just learned that TSA's effort to enlist the private sector to vet additional travelers as trusted, launched back in January, is close to producing results. Three of the companies that submitted concept papers in response to TSA's Request for Information have been selected to recruit and vet PreCheck applicants, each using its own method. Reportedly, they are in the final stages of having their models reviewed by TSA, with the intent of starting operations sometime this fall.
In June I attended and spoke at the 3rd annual AAAE/LeighFisher Airport Public-Private Partnership Conference. While its scope was global for context, the main focus was on assessing the prospects for airport privatization and PPPs in the United States.
And on that score, the message from a number of speakers was relatively bullish. Despite a lot of discussion about how different U.S. airport funding and governance is compared with most of the rest of the world where airport privatization has been going on since 1987, the financial speakers in particular saw the United States as a largely untapped market for airport privatization. Tim Reynolds of Highstar Capital (fresh from the successful lease of San Juan International) told attendees that more and more local officials are asking their airport directors about privatization (and in a conversation during a break, one such financier told me they have had serious queries from six mid-size airports since the San Juan deal was finalized early this year). William Sutherland of ING noted the "enormous" amount of private capital looking for good infrastructure investment opportunities, including in U.S. airports. Tim Bath of RBC Capital Markets noted a "massive appetite" for financing U.S. airports, versus those of other countries. And from the operations side, Amit Rikhy of ADC & HAS (the only U.S. airport privatizer with global scope) said that as they see it, the United States and Japan are the next major frontiers for airport privatization.
One question getting a lot of attention was how to value U.S. airports, given the differences from overseas airports. Neal Attermann of Citi said that U.S. airports can be valued on the same basis as overseas airports: either discounted expected future cash flows or as a multiple of net revenues. His slides presented considerable data on the past decade's worth of overseas transactions, finding that the market valuation of privatized (and publicly traded) airports as a multiple of EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortization) averaged 7.1 in Europe, 7.8 in Asia, and 8.7 in Latin America. On the other hand, a more detailed look at the value of stakes acquired in airport companies in Europe during the last three years ranged widely, with a median of 14.0 times EBITDA. We will likely get a better handle on potential U.S. multiples when the Chicago Midway deal reaches financial close this fall or winter.
On the "sell" side, what is likely to motivate U.S. cities and counties to consider leasing their airports under the FAA pilot program? Changes in airport financing, stimulated by the fiscal crunch affecting the federal budget and state and local government budgets, are a likely driver. As former highway official Jack Basso told attendees, "Innovation comes about when the money runs out." Several participants suggested that federal Airport Improvement Program grants could be scaled back, and that even the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds may be at risk in a future comprehensive federal tax reform. David Sigman of LCOR likened airports' long-term dependence on tax-exempt bonds and AIP grants to heroin dependence.
Which U.S. airports might be next, after San Juan and Midway? My guess is that two categories may be favored. One category is airports that have lost market share and need to be revitalized with a new business model—such as Ontario (CA) and St. Louis Lambert. The other is fast-growing airports that may be tempted to over-invest and put local taxpayers at risk (as happened with Pittsburgh and St. Louis). One such airport is Austin, whose mayor has spoken publicly about privatization in connection with planning for a large-scale expansion. In such cases the ability to shift major risks to investors could make a long-term PPP lease attractive.
More than a year ago, a participant in an online aviation forum posted an item alleging that numerous foreign persons and companies had registered business aircraft in the United States via U.S. front companies that concealed their actual identities. I'd intended to look into this as a possible article for this newsletter, but other issues came along and I gradually lost interest. But fortunately, the issue had also come to the attention of the DOT Office of Inspector General (OIG), which released a disturbing audit report on June 27th ("FAA's Civil Aviation Registry Lacks Information Needed for Aviation Safety and Security Measures," FI-2013-101).
As Alan Levin summarized the findings in a Bloomberg News story, "U.S. registries of pilots and aircraft contain incomplete information that may interfere with screening for terrorists and investigations of aviation accidents." In particular, based on its sampling of FAA records of aircraft owned by trusts for non-US citizens, OIG estimates that 54% of the 10,292 aircraft registered by such trusts "lacked important information such as the identity of the trusts' owners and aircraft operators." This is a huge aviation security gap, but it's also illegal. Under the Chicago Convention which regulates international aviation, "FAA has a duty to provide, upon request from appropriate foreign civil aviation authorities, accurate information on U.S.-registered aircraft operated in foreign countries." OIG's report notes that there have been "numerous accidents, operational errors, and other incidents involving U.S. aircraft registered to trusts for non-U.S. citizen beneficiaries. Because the Registry lacks information on these aircraft, FAA is at risk of not being able to meet its duty under the Convention and answer these authorities' requests for information."
That was the main headline finding of the audit, but there are other worrisome findings. It turns out the Registry of information on planes and pilots is insecure, because "FAA has not implemented needed security controls over the Registry's configurations and account management to minimize the risk of unauthorized access to PII [Personally Identifiable Information]. . . . FAA is also not in compliance with DOT policies calling for PII encryption and account access controls." Furthermore, FAA "does not have agreements in place with external parties that receive Registry information to protect PII to prevent unauthorized access," as required by the Federal Information Security Management Act. And FAA's recovery plan for the Registry "does not meet DOT's information technology security policy requirements."
FAA responded to the audit's eight recommendations, concurring with some and partially concurring with others. But OIG disagreed, on the matter of non-citizen trusts, that FAA's recent publication of a revised policy will fix the problem, and also differed with FAA's response on three of the other recommendations. After explaining why OIG disagrees and considers these recommendations still open, it added, "Given FAA's reactions to our recommendations, we remain concerned that the integrity and privacy of the Registry's data will remain at risk." And on the specific topic of the non-citizen trusts, the auditors write that "We are conducting additional audit work on the relationships between these trustees and the anonymous owners/beneficiaries."
The US DOT's tarmac delay rule went into effect in April 2010, after 853 flights in 2009 had experienced severe-weather-related ground delays of three to five hours. The regulation aimed at punishing airlines for any delay exceeding three hours with a fine of up to $27,500 per violation. In the September 2010 issue of this newsletter I reported on a quantitative study by aviation analysts Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks estimating that while the rule would spare 110,000 passengers per year of long ground delays, it would also spur airlines to cancel 2,600 flights to avoid the penalties, thereby harming another 200,000 passengers, with an overall net cost to air travelers of $3.5-3.9 billion.
How are things shaking out three years later? A relatively new aviation data firm called masFlight, whose CEO is Joshua Marks, has released an assessment. Cancellation rates did increase in the stormy 2011 summer season, but by 2012-13 they appear to be returning to historical levels, aided by a very mild winter 2011-12. Instead of the predicted excessive cancellations to avoid DOT fines, airlines are doing a lot more premature returns to the gate: the return-to-gate rate has grown from 58.9 per 10,000 departures in 2009-10 to 66.9 in 2012-13. The way DOT has interpreted its tarmac delay rule, if a flight is at risk of a three-hour delay, it must be back at the gate by 180 minutes after push-back, which apparently leads many airlines to make the return-to-gate decision after just 90 minutes. Historical data suggest that most flights still waiting at 120 minutes would depart before 180 minutes, but airlines don't want to risk the fines.
So masFlight has crunched the numbers from DOT's Part 234 data and found that before the rule went into effect, 8,063 passengers/month were returned to the gate, spending an additional 83 minutes there before re-departing. By 2012-13 those numbers had increased to 11,028 passengers/month, spending an additional 94 minutes at the gate. The total passenger hours spent at the gate after gate returns increased 52%, to 1,075,000 per month or 12.9 million passenger hours per year. Besides these initial delays, many of the passengers involved also miss their connections due to their very late ultimate departures.
Incidentally, DOT never published a schedule of fines, nor did it precisely define what a violation of the rule consisted of. It has therefore avoided any legal test of whether the $27,500 fine applies per passenger or per flight by obtaining consent agreements from those it has cited for violating the rule.
The following commentary is by David J. Bentley of Big Pond Aviation, Manchester, UK. www.bigpondaviation.com
The Spanish infrastructure company Abertis sold its stake in London Luton airport at the end of July, thus reducing its exposure to airports almost to zero following a clutch of other disposals. The sale was to its Spanish co-investor AENA, with which it jointly owned the lease on Luton Airport in the ratio Abertis 90%/AENA 10%. AENA is joined now as the new lease holder by AXA Private Equity (France) in the ratio AENA 51%/AXA 49%. AXA is a relative newcomer to the business but had previously (August 2011) joined a consortium to bid in tandem with Abertis (!) and CVC Capital Partners for the Madrid and Barcelona (AENA) airport concessions (for which the bidding was then cancelled by the newly elected government).
The enterprise value of the Luton transaction is €488 million. This asset would have contributed an estimated €141 million to Abertis' revenue and €46 million to EBITDA at group level in 2013, which represents a 2013 Enterprise Value/EBITDA ratio of 11X. The transaction, which is subject to approval by the competition authorities, the contracting authority (Luton Borough Council) and the Spanish Board of Ministers, forms part of Abertis' strategy to revise its infrastructure portfolio away from airports. London Luton Airport had been part of Abertis' portfolio since 2005, when the company and AENA Internacional purchased the British operator TBI, which was a real estate company until it decided to focus on airports, and which had previously acquired the assets of Airports Group International (AGI) in North and South America. Abertis has bid for individual and group airports across the world, and subsequently (2007) acquired Desarrollo de Concesiones Aeroportuarias, a holding company with stakes in 15 airports in Mexico, Jamaica, Chile and Colombia. But since three airports managed by its subsidiary in Bolivia, SABSA, were renationalised in February 2013, its airport business has been on a downward slope.
Two months ago, Abertis announced an agreement with the Houston-based ADC & HAS Airports Worldwide selling it Belfast International and Stockholm Skavsta airports, the terminal concessions for Orlando Sanford Airport, and TBI's airport management business for €284 million in cash. Abertis had previously agreed to sell Cardiff Airport to the Government of Wales for €61 million following criticism of inadequate investment (the same as in Bolivia). Following the completion of the two recent sale agreements, Abertis' airport business will be limited to a stake in Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacífico in Mexico and the concession for Montego Bay Airport in Jamaica. Both assets remain held for sale.
Elsewhere in Spain, Ciudad Real Central Airport, located 100 miles south of Madrid and one of Spain's infamous ghost airports, is up for auction, with a starting price of €100 million, a fraction of the construction cost of €1 billion, which was financed through an ambitious PPP scheme. The new owner will, however, take on the airport's €529 million debt. The Castilla-La Mancha airport is currently going through bankruptcy proceedings, and the sale has been ordered by the case's overseeing judge. Once sold, there are a number of parties waiting in line for compensation. The auction house will claim roughly €2 million, followed by 72 airport workers made redundant. A variety of savings banks (€233 million), Iberia franchise Air Nostrum (€2.6 million) and Air Berlin, the biggest airline brave enough to have tried to make a go of it at Ciudad Real (€1.8 million) are also owed dues, and local residents whose property was compulsorily purchased to construct the airport are claiming a further €106 million. The financially strapped Spanish government is unable to assist with a funding package.
Two other ghost airports are Castellón Airport north of Valencia, which has yet to see a commercial flight and which is now thinking of opening with flexible hours pending service schedules on a "more flights, more hours of operation" basis and Cordoba Airport in Andalucia, which has yet to attract interest from any commercial carriers after completing its runway extension on 25 July. The project lengthened the runway from 1380m to 2050m, and was completed with the support of local hoteliers and entrepreneurs in the hopes of attracting commercial services.
There are possibly better prospects for Murcia International Airport, a greenfield facility in the Costa Blanca region, where a concession grant will be awarded before the end of the year so that the facility can commence operations in the early months of 2014. This is another PPP project, similar to those at Ciudad Real and Castellon.
The Spanish government is still considering privatizing 51% of AENA, despite fears among unnamed airlines over the development of a "private monopoly" which might increase airport charges further and negatively impact the provision of services. Ferrovial, which distances itself increasingly from Heathrow Airport Holdings in the UK, is the betting man's choice to "save AENA" if the government cedes a majority stake in the company. Before that, AENA may be split into separate airports and air navigation units before the privatization, which may now come in 1Q2014. The delay in privatization to 2014 from the Fall of 2013 is apparently to allow traffic numbers to recover, after a fall in passengers of 9.7% year-on-year in 1H2013, with Madrid Barajas Airport particular seeing a year-on-year fall of 14.7% in passengers in 1H2013. Some of the coastal vacation airports are doing much better.
Editor's Note: columnist David Bentley is working on a report titled "UK Airport Capacity—Unraveling the Conundrum: A Special Report referenced to the work of the Airport Commission," to be published before the end of September.
Orlando Airport Considering Outsourced Screening. Members of the board of the Orlando International Airport (MCO) visited San Francisco International Airport in August, to learn more about its contractor-provided passenger and baggage screening under TSA's Screening Partnership Program (SPP). Board member Dean Asher told the Orlando Sentinel that their goal is to achieve a partnership for airport screening. No timetable has been announced for the board to reach a decision.
De-Icing Manager Offered in Aerobahn. Saab Sensis has announced an addition to its Aerobahn Product Suite. In addition to its Surface Manager, Departure Manager, and Airport Dashboard features, Aerobahn can now provide a De-Icing Manager for real-time situational awareness of the entire de-icing process. Versions of Aerobahn are in use at 25 major airports worldwide including five of the 10 busiest U.S. airports (Atlanta, Charlotte, Denver, JFK, and Phoenix).
Charlotte Airport Governance Decision to FAA. The ongoing saga of who will manage Charlotte Douglas International Airport took a new twist early in August, when a county judge ruled that the change from city control to a joint city/county airport commission—as enacted by the state legislature—cannot go into effect unless and until the FAA approves. The measure was enacted to replace a bill passed in July that would have transferred control of the airport to a newly created airport authority instead of the city. That measure was dropped after a lawsuit from the city led to an injunction blocking that transfer, leading instead to the law creating the joint city/county commission.
Four Teams Qualify for LaGuardia PPP. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey selected four teams from among those submitting their qualifications to design, finance, build, and operate a new central terminal at LaGuardia Airport. The teams are led by (1) Hunt-VRH and Fentress Architects, (2) Skanska, Tishman, Parsons Brinckerhoff, HBK, and Vantage Airport Group, (3) Lend Lease, Turner, Gensler, Macquarie Capital, and Hochtief, and (4) STV, Arup, and Kohn Pederson Fox. The estimated cost of the project is $1.5 billion.
CLEAR Adding Four More Airports. During August CLEAR announced four additions to its front-of-the-line service. The San Antonio CLEARlane opened August 1st , and San Jose International will open in September. Coming this fall will be CLEAR at both Houston Hobby and Houston's George Bush Intercontinental. CLEAR allows members with biometric ID cards to bypass screening lines but receive regular TSA screening.
Two Finalists for Midway Airport Lease. Two of the prequalified teams in late July submitted bids to lease Chicago's Midway Airport for 40 years. London Heathrow's largest owner Ferrovial teamed with Macquarie's infrastructure group as Great Lakes Airport Alliance. Competing with them was the bid from Industry Funds Management teamed with Manchester Airports Group. Final bids will be due in September, with a decision announced sometime this fall.
Branson Airport's Runway Problem. Privately owned Branson (MO) Airport has sued a group of airport contractors over the collapse of a portion of the airport's runway in 2011, just two years after the airport opened. The suit seeks unspecified damages over the failure of the $70 million runway. The airport is in default on its $113 million in tax-exempt bonds and continues to operate under a several-year forbearance agreement with its creditors.
Yet Another Delay for New Berlin Airport. The long-delayed opening of the new Berlin Brandenburg International Airport (BBI) has been postponed yet again, the fifth time this has happened. The previous delay was announced in the spring of 2012, only weeks before BBI had been set to open. In July of this year, the airport CEO said he would announce the opening schedule in October, but in mid-August said the opening date would be announced sometime in the next several months. Instead of a full opening, BBI will begin with only the north pier of the new terminal, for a handful of daily flights.
Seattle to Supply Air Conditioning for All Planes. Under a $43 million project, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA-TAC) will supply conditioned air to planes parked at all 73 of its gates, to avoid the aircraft having to operate their APUs to provide air conditioning while at the gates. The change is projected to save airlines $15 million a year in fuel, which SEA-TAC says will provide a three-year payback period while also reducing exhaust emissions. Half the cost of the project is being funded by a grant from FAA, with the airport funding the rest from its airline charges.
"[I]t seems doubtful that American can wait in Chapter 11 until this antitrust case is resolved. Unless the case is quickly settled, American is pretty much going to have to put off the merger for now. And maybe American can reinvent itself as a kind of specialty carrier, or a largely domestic operation like JetBlue. But otherwise, one has to wonder if the carrier can survive in a world now of international behemoths like United Airlines, International Airlines Group, Lufthansa Group, and Emirates. I'm not an antitrust expert, but imposing the antimonopoly norm on a market that is already somewhat warped by things like prohibitions on cross-border mergers strikes me as a bit suspect. And the Justice Department has to worry that without the merger, American will be the kind of 'vigorous competitor' that Eastern Airlines and Pan Am are now."
—Stephen Lubben, "The Future of American Airlines," New York Times, Aug. 14, 2013
"[T]he U.S. has constructed an antiterrorism enterprise so immense, so costly, and so inexorably interwoven with the defense establishment, police and intelligence agencies . . . that the idea of downsizing, let alone disbanding such a construct, is an exercise in futility. . . . Over the coming years, many more Americans will die in car crashes, of gunshot wounds inflicted by family members, and by falling off ladders than from any attack by Al Qaeda. There is always the nightmare of terrorists acquiring and using a weapon of mass destruction. But nothing would give our terrorist enemies greater satisfaction than that we focus so obsessively on that remote possibility and restrict our lives and liberties accordingly."
—Ted Koppel, "America's Chronic Overreaction to Terrorism," Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2013; updated Aug. 6, 2013
"The chance of dying in an airplane is vanishingly small. The chance of being killed by a terrorist in an airplane is smaller still. Mark Stewart, a civil engineer who studies probabilistic risk, has put the odds at one in 90 million in a year. Looking at these figures dispassionately, one might wonder if the Transportation Security Administration has found the right balance between safety and convenience with its notoriously burdensome airport screening procedures. . . . It is time to stop pretending that annoying protocols like these are all that stand between us and devastation. The most effective security innovation post-9/11 was also the simplest: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, which has made it virtually impossible to hijack an aircraft. As things stand, the TSA asks its officers to enforce rules of questionable utility while giving them remarkably little discretion; they're more like hall monitors than intelligence personnel. That is a huge waste of human talent and a source of inefficiency."
—Editorial Board, "Airport Security without the Hassle," New York Times, July 27, 2013