“If the Wright brothers were alive today,” Southwest Airlines’ (NYSE:LUV) co-founder Herb Kelleher said, “Wilbur would have to fire Orville to reduce costs.” While the airline’s chairman emeritus spoke those words 17 years ago, those words are perhaps even truer today — and the quest for lower costs is one of the biggest reasons LUV acquired budget competitor AirTran earlier this year.
But while few observers doubt the longer-term benefits of industry consolidation, like most previous airline marriages, Southwest-AirTran probably will have to wait a while for the honeymoon. Here’s why: The merger of two airlines is a lot easier on paper than it is in practice.
Recent major mergers between United (NYSE:UAL) and Continental (2010), Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) and Northwest (2008), and US Airways (NYSE:LCC) and America West (2005) have proven that airline marriages are tough on all parties at the beginning. Issues ranging from culture wars and labor challenges, to blending flight schedules and reservations systems, have sent most newly combined carriers to couples’ therapy.
And the devil’s even in the smallest details. United Continental’s routine attempt to merge its future flight schedules in May accidentally reinstated flight numbers 93 and 175 — two of the flights that were hijacked and crashed by terrorists on 9/11. It went unnoticed by UAL until employees and customers stumbled across the future schedules online, creating a PR fracas.
With so much risk and so little immediate reward, why are airlines getting hitched? Because they’re struggling in nearly every way possible as a still-sluggish economy, expensive jet fuel and painfully thin margins eat the sector’s collective lunch. Even though planes will be packed to the gills with holiday travelers this week, that’s only because airlines are substituting smaller planes for higher capacity gas-guzzlers — actual passenger counts are expected to fall by 2%, which is 12% below the peak rates the industry enjoyed in 2006.
But Southwest has long defied the rules that have broken other airlines. Its low-cost strategy eschewed the traditional “hub-and-spoke network,” operating point-to-point service with mini-hubs for connecting passengers in some focus cities.
That business model hammered legacy carriers, and its “Bags Fly Free” policies trump other airlines’ ancillary fee explosions. Southwest has managed to keep costs low by very rapid aircraft turnarounds. It also has gleaned big efficiencies by flying only one aircraft type — the Boeing (NYSE:BA) 737.