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What to Expect From the New American Airlines

DOJ settlement should produce a more competitive airline industry

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New planes, great financing: The combined airline will have some of the newest aircraft in the skies: Prior to its bankruptcy filing two years ago, AAMRQ inked deals with Boeing (BA) and Airbus (EADSY) for a total of 460 new narrow-body jets. The aircraft manufacturers ponied up $13 billion in financing to cover the first 260 of the jets — those fleet upgrades will give the combined airline an edge in fuel efficiency as well as marketing.

Don’t be surprised by systems glitches: In airline mergers, the second-hardest task after combining corporate cultures is merging technology systems. From reservations and check-in sites to aircraft maintenance and accounting systems, airline operations sink or soar on information technology. Expect an AMR-LCC systems integration to take years … and cost millions. The story of the United–Continental systems integration debacle is a cautionary tale for Parker. However, the delay caused by the antitrust lawsuit actually gave US Air and American extra planning time that may take some of the pain out of combining these complex systems. Still, don’t expect perfection overnight.

Some labor issues remain: Support from American Airlines’ unions was a critical part of making the merger happen. However, the unions representing some 30,000 machinists and ground workers are not yet satisfied. The unions say that until US Air “negotiates new contracts for its own IAM-represented employees, the new American Airlines will not get off the ground.” Parker has been here before, after the 2005 merger of America West and US Airways. The combined carrier can ill afford the distraction of a labor squabble, so expect these issues to be at the top of Parker’s “To Do” list.

Bottom Line

Investors who believed in this deal were handsomely rewarded for their faith. Shares of American Airlines closed up a whopping 26% to $12 on the news Tuesday — a far cry from the 25 cents shares were worth after the airline filed for bankruptcy two years ago — and a gain of more than 3200% over the past 12 months.

US Airways closed up a modest 1% yesterday, but the stock has gained more than 100% in the past year. Not bad for a merger that will create the world’s largest airline and generate an estimated $1 billion in annual savings beginning in 2015.

That said, I think all the good news has largely been priced in and these most recent gains are exuberance that overzealous regulators didn’t skunk the deal. The long-term outlook is strong — we are talking about $1 billion a year in synergies after all — but altitude likely will slip in the near term.

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. 

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