Consolidation in 2011

With the various mergers and consolidation that we’ve seen over the past 3 years, there is quite a bit of speculation as to who is next in the merger game in the United States.   The truth is, with the exception of some very small players, I see no opportunities.

Sun Country is actively looking for a purchaser and I think it will find one but it won’t be for Sun Country’s business nearly as much for Sun Country’s Minneapolis / St. Paul gate space and, perhaps, a few routes.  Two candidates as buyers come to mind in this area:  Southwest and Frontier.  Both should find the opportunities in MSP attractive and Southwest is liable to also be attracted to the staff and equipment Sun Country is flying.  Sun Country flies the 737-700 and -800 and getting their hands on the -800 of which there are 10 available could help SWA get a jump start on an aircraft it needs.

Frontier has a little bit less incentive for MSP.  The aircraft fleet doesn’t match and they already have hubs and/or focus cities bracketing MSP in Denver, Kansas City and Milwaukee.  But getting to compete against Delta in MSP where it is by far the dominant airline could be attractive to Frontier. 

As far as other airlines go, I just don’t see it for now.  Airtran will be going away this year.  JetBlue is doing OK and while I think it could stand to grow, nothing is available and an attractive fit in areas where it could grow.  There is the ever so slight chance that JetBlue could make a bid for Frontier but Frontier’s new management hasn’t had very long to make a go of it with that brand and it doesn’t seem like they would want to be consumed.

Alaska Airlines is very profitable and doing very well with its multiple relationships with various legacy and international airlines.  They could be attractive to purchase but I think they would seriously resist overtures unless the economics just made their shareholders rich. 

American Airlines has too many labor problems and is busy coordinating with its OneWorld partners at this time.  This is an airline whose house is not in order and whose leadership is not really interested in acquisitions and who is not very visionary to begin with.   Without new and radically different leadership, I presently see AA maintaining the status quo.

US Airways is pretty profitable and has their act together in many ways operationally speaking.  They, too, have labor problems but somehow management manages to sit back and let labor fight among themselves while earning profits.  This is another airline that could stand to grow and the most attractive place to grow would be internationally.  The bad news is that they don’t have any long haul aircraft on order except the A350 and that isn’t due for quite some time.  What’s worse, there is no internationally strong airline for them to target for another purchase.   Obtaining long haul aircraft isn’t financially easy to do presently due to constrained credit markets and the popularity of their choice in long haul equipment (the A330.) 

In addition, in light of the uncertainty that fuel prices and the economy present, I think that any growth that airlines choose to do will be slow, methodical and very cautious.  It will be organic and through upsizing aircraft rather than many new routes. 

The merger game of this decade is still undecided.  Certainly Delta appears to have done well although their profits still seem very dependent on fuel prices.  But United is far from complete and they’re already experiencing more problems than Delta ever did.  Southwest and Airtran are working hard to consummate their relationship but Southwest has stumbled as much as they have succeeded in the past 2 years.  There is nothing to say that SWA will execute their merger with Airtran smoothly so far.   We hope they will but we don’t know they will.

Look for it to be quiet in the merger and acquisition game for the next 12 to 24 months absent the possibility of a few small acquisitions.  I expect well see the alliances spark up a bit more in the near future, however.

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