It seems abnormal that the CEO of an airline that buys oil by the tanker and will burn through 250 million gal. this year alone isn't complaining too much about the record high price of fuel. But in fact, Joe Leonard, head of low-cost carrier AirTran Airways, thinks a few weeks of $66-per-bbl. oil would bring an overdue shake-out in the struggling airline business. "High oil prices are going to force some carriers out of the market," he says, "and it's going to happen quickly." You can almost see him smile, since AirTran won't be one of those grounded.
The fallout may be fast, especially as Katrina's effects kick in. Delta Air Lines--the nation's third largest airline and AirTran's most powerful rival--may soon declare bankruptcy and cut back flights. Meanwhile, the labor strike at Northwest Airlines, the country's fourth biggest carrier, could drive it over the financial edge too. That would put a total of 5 out of 12 major airlines in bankruptcy (United, US Airways and ATA are already there). The same fate may await Independence Air, a small Virginia-based start-up that has been instrumental in driving fares down over the past year.
The squeeze is on for airlines. Fuel is so expensive, it will cost the airlines $9 billion more this year than in 2003. And although planes are full, there are too many seats on offer, and ticket prices are actually too low for most airlines to make money. Bankruptcy has only delayed the pain. Washington has helped prop up failing airlines with government loans or pension relief for the oldest and least-reformed airlines. Oil, predicts Vaughn Cordle, head of the analytical firm AirlineForecasts, "will do to the industry what bankruptcy hasn't been able to--put some airlines out of business once and for all and consolidate many of the others."
AirTran, based in Orlando, Fla., may stand to gain more from the looming industry restructuring, particularly a Delta bankruptcy, than any other carrier. For one thing, AirTran's bread-and-butter routes are in the eastern U.S.--where Delta and others will probably trim the number of flights and raise fares. Says Leonard: "We've been sitting here quietly for the past five years minding our own business and making money, but if three airlines pull down capacity as expected, that will be even better for AirTran."
The main reason AirTran is prepared for the turbulence: like the better-known JetBlue, its focus has always been on cheap tickets, low costs and reliable service. It offers the only low-fare business class in the industry. As a result, AirTran has stolen market share from Delta at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport--Delta's primary hub.Leonard and president Bob Fornaro built AirTran on the ashes of ValuJet, which suffered a fatal crash in the Florida Everglades in 1996. In 2003, when aircraft prices hit rock bottom, they made a decision that looks prophetic today: they ordered 100 fuel-efficient, long-range Boeing 737s. Fornaro says the airline is burning 25% less fuel than it was five years ago. AirTran reported net income of $11.4 million on $366.3 million in revenue in the second quarter. Delta lost $382 million, and Northwest lost $225 million.