Liquidity buffers, loans, restructuring operations, cost savings. As the pandemic lingers it continues to depress economic activity.
The drop in passenger traffic is driving air carriers to constantly adjust network flight schedules and evaluate equipment needs and workforce reductions. United is exploring the possibility of a fall workforce reduction and American is considering similar plans. The major carriers are moving forward signing letters of intent lining up U.S. Treasury Department loans as their net bookings drop. Twin aisle and aircraft with higher operating costs are being parked. Newer more fuel-efficient single-aisle jets that can be filled with passengers more easily would be preferred.
But with demand down and list prices near $120 million, financing is challenging. United’s CEO, Scott Kerby, earlier told an investor conference “We won’t be taking delivery of a single aircraft unless it is fully financed.” American’s CFO has told Boeing it will not take delivery unless aircraft are financed under terms similar to those it enjoyed prior to the pandemic; “No financing, no 737 Max deliveries.” Delta said it will not take delivery of any new jets this year. Of Boeing’s 737 MAX on the ground inventory, 41 units are currently unclaimed (about 10% of the total parked). By year-end, as many as 155 may be without takers.
Airbus has reduced production rates of its A320 by one-third. Its CEO, Guillaume Faury, said in late April, “we’re facing the gravest crisis this industry has ever experienced”. The engines that power these aircraft are sold at a loss in order to secure long term service revenues. Ninety percent of Rolls-Royce Trent engines operate under service agreements that require airlines to make payments based on flight time. General Electric and its joint venture partner Safran (SAF, France) manufacture the Leap engines which power the MAX. They operate under similar long-term service agreements. The demand downturn is forcing Rolls-Royce to reduce production. It has resulted in a 17% workforce reduction (9,000 jobs out of its global workforce of 52,000). GE Aviation is implementing similar workforce reductions.
But discount carriers sense an opportunity as the legacy airlines retrench. Low-cost Allegiant Travel, CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr.: “I expect we will thrive in this changed environment.” Jets at bargain prices will be available as the legacy carriers retrench and sell aircraft.
In Rail, U.S. Rail carloads improved slightly in June but are still down 22.4% from 2019. Carload declines continue across the board with declines in coal, crushed stone, sand, gravel, motor vehicles and parts and chemicals. Coal continues to lose its share of U.S. electrical generation. Despite declining U.S. rail volumes Class Ones are improving their operating ratios (operating expenses as a percentage of revenues) as they focus on equipment and workforce efficiencies driven by Precision Scheduled Railroading. A third of the North American rail fleet remains in storage. But lower operating ratios make more cash available. With nonfarm payrolls rising by 4.8 million in June the unemployment rate fell to 11.1%. As Glassdoor economist Daniel Zhao puts it: “It’s fair to say the recovery has started, but that’s not a guarantee that the recovery will continue uninterrupted.” Its timing and path will depend on a Covid-19 solution.
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