Air and Rail networks have lost substantial revenues. First Rail freight traffic due to trade disagreements, tariffs, and the downturn in coal, and then both Air and Rail due to the impact of the Covid-19 shutdowns. Economics remains challenging. The landscape that has emerged was unexpected. Air Carriers are zero base budgeting equipment needs, personnel (payroll support ends in September), and optimizing networks. Flying point-to-point with few passengers onboard is not economically viable. Legacy carriers are rediscovering the virtues of ‘hub-and-spoke’ systems which work to maximize load factors. Operators are retiring older equipment from their fleets, preferring newer more fuel-efficient equipment and technology.
An example is the jumbo jets which are too big for current passenger demand. The International Air Transport Association updated its projection of when it expects passenger air travel to return to pre-Covid-19 levels – 2024. This year, when Boeing finishes the last fifteen 747 freighters on order, 747 production will be discontinued. The last passenger 747 was delivered in 2017. Older 747-400s are not expected to fly again. There are only 35 of the newer 747-8 variant flying. These four-engine aircraft are not as fuel-efficient as newer design dual-engine aircraft. The pandemic has grounded almost all of Airbus’ superjumbo A380s and Airbus will close A380 production delivering the last unit in 2021. The A380 was designed with little cargo space compared to the twin-engined A350 which has twice as much cargo capacity as the four-engine A380. With 500 seats on average, the A380 is just too much aircraft and too expensive to operate when most seats are empty. Engine issues have delayed Boeing’s 777X which when certified will compete directly with the A350.
As fleets are repositioned trends are becoming apparent. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of video conferencing. Many see this resulting in a long-term reduction in higher-margin business travel. We’ll have to wait to see if Robert Crandall, former chief of American Airlines, will be right when he said, “You are never going to see the volume of business travel that you’ve seen in the past.” Lower margin leisure travel is expected to return once a vaccine is available. But even after a vaccine has been developed and tested it will take time for acceptance and coverage. Then countries will have to standardize entry and documentation requirements for international travel to return. Class One Railroads, using Hunter Harrison’s Precision Scheduled Railroading (“PSR”) strategy, are removing railcar capacity, locomotives, and employees. Their focus is on reducing ‘operating ratios’ and improving short-term profitability.
The unexpected demand environment is forcing Bank Lenders, Operating Lessors, Private Capital, and those who service and support aviation and rail equipment investment to reconsider their investment strategies. Success rarely comes from projecting trends. Rather it comes come from insights that define future demand. Even with no additional Washington stimulus, another 1.4 million jobs were created in August, unemployment declined to 8.4%, and labor force participation increased to 61.7% (only 1.7% below its February level).
The best investment strategy in a low demand environment? Maintain liquidity, competitive market position, and key talent. Be responsive to opportunities that deliver long-term value. Call RESIDCO.
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