AMR Q4 2007 Earnings Call Transcript

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 |  About: American Airlines Group (AAL)
by: SA Transcripts

AMR Corporation (AMR) Q4 2007 Earnings Call January 16, 2008 2:00 PM ET

Operator

(Operator Instructions)

Representing Lehman Brothers, for our first question we go to the line of Gary Chase.

Gary Chase – Lehman Brothers

If you don’t have this at your fingertips it might be great if Eric could email it out, just where that MD-80 charge was on the P&L? I don’t know if that is a quick answer, but if not, if you could send that around that would be great.

Gerard Arpey

It is in other operating expense.

Gary Chase – Lehman Brothers

And then, I guess the big question for both of you, Tom and Gerard, is the concern seems to be rising about the economic climate; fuel’s up, you have noted that that is a serious challenge, you are eyeballing $2.65 for 2008; it doesn’t feel like you have made much adjustment to the capacity plan.

I understand you are not growing, but could you not create a better outcome with less capacity? I understand it is an industry-wide issue but you are the biggest player within the industry so, can you just elaborate for us on what’s driving the capacity plan, and what might change it?

Thomas Horton

Let me start and Gerard can chime in. As you know Gary, we’ve been very focused on capacity discipline over the years, and I think in the past several years you can make the case that we’ve been the most cautious of all the U.S. carriers. We still have no aircraft deliveries in 2008, and any aircraft deliveries after that are really only for renewal purposes. In fact, if you look at our fleet count end of 2007, end of 2008, we’re actually going to be down about 3 units, so we are certainly holding the line on capacity.

As you look at where we stack up versus the rest of the industry, I mentioned what we are doing on capacity, about flat on a schedule-schedule basis, but we’re down a little bit domestically; we’re up a little bit internationally, but if you look at the other airlines in the industry, they are still up domestically and up considerably on the international side.

I think you are on the right point; I think there is a capacity issue in the industry, but I think we’ve taken a pretty measured approach.

Gary Chase – Lehman Brothers

Is it a competitive issue Tom? That you think you wouldn’t be better off for doing your own just because of where the competitive landscape is?

Thomas Horton

You are always balancing the integrity of your network against what you think is the right level of capacity ought to be and we think, at least at this point, we have struck that balance. Having said that, we are going to continue to monitor the economic climate, the demand climate and fuel prices and all manner of things throughout the rest of the year, and if we see something that suggests we ought to be even more conservative on capacity, we reserve the right to do that.

Gary Chase – Lehman Brothers

Should we read your book load factor being up as indicative of demand or is that just a facet of the way the booking curve looks right now?

Thomas Horton

As we think about the demand picture, it is good news that book load factor is up 0.8 points. The bad news is average fares in the industry aren’t keeping pace with fuel price, so while we are still seeing the demand, I think the real issue is the industry is going to need to find a way to price in a way that covers the cost of inputs and produces a profit. I think that is really the big issue for the industry.

Gerard Arpey

Gary, the only thing I would add to that, one of the things we were looking at in preparation for this call is looking at the history in our average fares, and if you look at the trend in fares going back all the way to 2000, despite what oil has done in that period of time, we haven’t made up any revenue ground in average fares; in fact, our average fare for the first 11 months of 2007 was less than the average fare we collected in the year 2000 despite the extraordinary run-up in oil prices.

Obviously, the way we generated more revenue is the ten or so pick-up in load factor the industry has traded over that period of time. So we continue to be frustrated by our inability, the inability of the industry to take this enormous fuel burden and put it where it belongs, which is on our customers, because that’s ultimately where every cost has got to go.

So we are going to continue on that front, but we really haven’t done a good job as an industry on the yield front for many years.

Gary Chase – Lehman Brothers

I appreciate the time.

Operator

Next in queue, we go to the line of Kevin Crissey – UBS.

Kevin Crissey – UBS

I have to ask the obvious question, how are you positioned from a consolidation perspective? Clearly we have seen heightened discussion of Delta-United, Delta-Northwest as per Wall Street Journal etcetera. What is your latest thinking; what would concern you with other deals? Basically, how are you positioned?

Thomas Horton

We generally don’t comment on that sort of thing. We do tend to operate more quietly than our peers. We don’t speculate on what our role might be, if any; but that being said, I think if you look back at our track record, we have done these sorts of things in the past, where we have seen an opportunity for our company.

Whether it is buying assets out of another company as was the case with some of the eastern assets, the (?) transatlantic routes, or the TWA acquisition, the Reno acquisition. As you recall, we participated in the United-U.S. Air deal back in 2000 where we were going to carve out some of the assets, so we tended to be pretty active where we see something make sense but we don’t talk about it in advance.

I think as to consolidation in general, our view is that given the industry’s history of losses and the fragmented structure of the industry, we do think that consolidation has the potential to create efficiencies and expand product offerings and benefit the industry and consumers. I think a more rational, sustainable industry structure is going to be good for everybody. It is going to be good for the companies, the consumers, and the shareholders as it would lead to greater efficiencies and capability and flexibility to pay debts and reinvest and grow and all of that.

So we do think there is something to this but there are a lot of challenges to consolidation in the industry and that’s why there are fewer actual deals than predicted deals and the challenges are labor and regulatory and integration and such, so we continue to assess the situation carefully and in the meantime we’ll just keep on managing our business as prudently as we can.

Kevin Crissey – UBS

You mentioned that American Eagle in the second half, would be a second half of the year transaction. Have you decided the structure at all or did I miss that?

Thomas W. Horton

No, we have not decided. We are still evaluating the best manner of divestiture and we’ll have some more for you on that as the year progresses.

Kevin Crissey – UBS

So you’ve had discussions with others in terms of a sale or we’re not to that point yet?

Thomas W. Horton

I can’t comment on that.

Kevin Crissey – UBS

Thank you very much.

Operator

Representing Bear Stearns, our next question comes from Frank Boroch.

Frank Boroch - Bear Stearns

Tom, in ’07 you were able to grow unit revenue in excess of unit costs and now with a projection of consolidated chasm growing over 8%, should we interpret the modest capacity growth plan as a bullish sign that you think unit revenue could grow over 8% in ’08?

Thomas W. Horton

No, I wouldn’t make that presumption at all. You only have to look at the -- today’s headlines to have a little pause about the economy and thus enough demand for air travel, so we are very cautious about it and as I mentioned earlier, our capacity plan is basically flat on a schedule-to-schedule basis. We think that makes sense. We thought that made sense when we built the plan. If we conclude that we need to be more conservative going forward, then we’ll do that.

Frank Boroch - Bear Stearns

Great, and are there any regions where you’ve seen any change in demand patterns, maybe as you are looking out in the next six weeks versus the fourth quarter, within the U.S. or outside?

Thomas W. Horton

I think in general what I would say is the international markets have been a little more robust than the domestic markets, and we see that in our advance book, and that’s reflected in the way we’ve allocated our capacity for the year.

Frank Boroch - Bear Stearns

Great. Thanks.

Operator

Merrill Lynch’s Mike Linenberg has our next question.

Michael Linenberg - Merrill Lynch

Just two questions; first, when you look at your unit cost guidance for ex-fuel for 2008, you are up 1.5% and yet capacity is roughly flat. You’ve targeted $150 million of savings. It would suggest that -- you also highlighted some of the -- that you face a decent amount of cost headwinds in 2008. So it would seem that just based on the commentary, that you would anticipate a larger unit cost increase in 2008. I’m just wondering if there’s other things going on there where either you are being more productive as an airline or maybe some of the cost savings that kicked in late in 2007, maybe something on the distribution front that’s at least keeping your unit cost ex-fuel pretty low with almost no capacity growth.

Thomas W. Horton

Yes, there is actually a -- we get a bit of a benefit from the new legislation on age 65 retirement in the pension and retiree medical line. So that’s probably the piece of the puzzle that doesn’t immediately jump out at you. And simply because what that means is that we assume a longer period as an active employee and a shorter period as a retiree, which tends to drive down pension costs and retiree medical.

Michael Linenberg - Merrill Lynch

Okay, good and then, just my second question, there was a blurb in Aviation Daily this morning talking about a possible retirement spike in February. What is going on there? It looks like there are some cancellations. Is that anticipation of the potential retirement spike or are you just taking some capacity out in advance of February typically being seasonally weak?

Gerard J. Arpey 

Mike, I think I can take that one. We have some provisions in our pilot agreement. I don’t know if they are unique to American but the way it works is that a pilot can tell us ahead of time that they want to retire and out in three months, and then when the moment of truth comes three months later, they don’t necessarily have to go. And the reason we’ve got a lot of pilots are telling us that they may very well retire in February, more than we had anticipated in our plan is because with the reduction in the stock market, it affects a big chunk of their pension plan. So they go through some calculus on whether it makes sense to continue working or actually decide to retire on that date based on what the stock market is doing. And so we faced this situation before and given the fact that it’s February, load factors are -- that’s one of our lighter months, not that any month is particularly light anymore.

But because of that, because more than we had anticipated pilots gave us notice that they were going to retire in February than we had anticipated, we did make some reductions in, tactical reductions in our schedule before we put the bid lines out for February. So that explains that. It’s pretty de minimis as I recall but we’ve got -- this affects really the 777 fleet, to a certain extent the 767 fleet, and the thing we want to ensure is that we protect the schedules above all else.

Michael Linenberg - Merrill Lynch

Okay, great. Thanks a lot, guys.

Operator

Our next question comes from Jamie Baker with J.P. Morgan.

Jamie Baker - J.P. Morgan

Good afternoon, Gerard. Against the current fuel and capacity backdrop and with the economy slipping here, I’m curious how you intend to generate a return for the owners of your company this year and whether or not that’s even a priority for the senior management team right now.

Gerard J. Arpey 

Well, of course it is a priority, Jamie. That’s what we are here to do and we have been working very hard to position our company for long-term success and as Tom highlighted, I think we have been a leader in the industry in terms of capacity constraint. We’re going to continue to do that and this year will be a year of working very hard to have a lot of the decisions we’ve made to improve our product come online and so yeah, we very much are going to be working hard on behalf of our shareholders this year.

Jamie Baker - J.P. Morgan

As a follow-up to that, you’ve obviously made no secret as to the uncompetitive nature of your labor cost structure. I don’t need to remind you that has an impact on the share price here. And it seems to me at least that the primary tactic that the pilots are using deals more with executive compensation than where the market currently is for pilot talent. Wouldn’t management welcome the involvement of a mediator under this circumstance? I guess I’m just surprised that you turned down the offer.

Gerard J. Arpey 

Well, Jamie, I’ve actually got Jeff Brundage sitting here, who’s our head of -- Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Employee Relations under him and now I’ll let him give you some of our thinking in that regard.

Jeffrey J. Brundage

Jamie, as you know, these were five -- these agreements have a five-year term and they were negotiated back in ’03, so the term of the agreement runs through April of this year. The unions did request a provision that would allow the agreements to become amendable earlier than normal. Typically they would just be amendable about at this time or actually the beginning of February.

When the negotiations began, the pilots initially invited us to participate in a private facilitation, which we immediately agreed to for the reasons that you describe. We thought it would be great to get somebody in to help us. Subsequent to that, as you are aware, the leadership of the union changed. They went through a significant period of surveying the members, re-evaluating their opening proposals, and in fact at this point, they just concluded putting their opening proposals on the table towards the end of the fourth quarter.

We have not yet had the opportunity to even respond to all of those proposals and our expectation here is that once the national mediation board gets, becomes part of the process, one of the things they do to manage the process is they control the timing of the meetings. And our experience has been, for instance, in negotiations with our TWU group last time around, we managed to complete the negotiations without ever entering facilitation or mediation and we did it in a little over six months.

Now historically, if you look at pilot agreements that end up at the NMB, they can take from 18 to some cases out to 30, 32, 36 months. And one of the reasons for that is that the NMB uses the timing of the process and we felt that our interest would be much better served in the near term to go ahead and continue to meet on a schedule that both the pilots and management were able to control.

We did indicate to the APA that we remain interested in private facilitation or even technical assistance from the National Medication Board because if we were to do that, we then would be able to remain in control of the schedule. But once the board becomes involved, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a lot of meetings when they are unavailable because you end up having to recover that ground and go back over it and bring the mediator up to speed.

So we think that this adds a layer of complexity that this time actually may slow down the process instead of speed it up.

Jamie Baker - J.P. Morgan

Okay. Well, thanks for the color on it. Appreciate it. Take care.

Operator

Representing Credit Suisse, we have a question from Dan Mckenzie.

Dan Mckenzie - Credit Suisse

Dan Mckenzie - Credit Suisse

I guess Tom, maybe it’s just because I’m in New York here, but the macro backdrop just seems absolutely frightening and I guess I’m just kind of curious. What do you need to see before concluding it makes sense to cut more capacity? I guess how quickly could you respond? Is that a six month timeframe, a nine-month? And if you could just provide some additional color there, that would be helpful.

Thomas W. Horton

We can respond if we think it’s appropriate, and it may well become appropriate. I’m not suggesting we rule that out by any means, but we do try not to manage our capacity based on headlines day to day. We do try to be very thoughtful about this and watch our advance booking, watch the pricing environment. We look at all the corporate demand survey data and we talk to our corporate customers.

So at this point, we think we’ve got a fairly conservative capacity outlook but we are going to keep watching. I think that’s really all I can say.

Dan Mckenzie - Credit Suisse

Can you provide -- just following up on that, can you share some of the corporate travel -- well, just your outlook on corporate travel as we look ahead and what you’re hearing in that area?

Thomas W. Horton

You know, we look at the same sort of things you guys do and we talk to our customers, but the data is conflicting, quite frankly. I mentioned earlier that our load factor is up. That’s a little bit of good news. Obviously the industry isn’t pricing to its costs. That’s bad news. You look at the corporate travel survey that was done by one of the investment banks and I think it was pretty bearish. You look at another one that was done by AMEX and it was fairly bullish. But again, just look at the headlines in the Wall Street Journal over the past couple of weeks might suggest a more bearish view.

So we’re just going to keep watching it and if we see a need to do more reductions in the interest of our shareholders and the company, we’ll do so.

Dan Mckenzie - Credit Suisse

Okay, thanks, and then just one final question here -- Southwest has put a big spotlight on ancillary revenue opportunities and quantifying potentially $1 billion. With AMR essentially twice the size of Southwest, I’m wondering if you can just talk a little bit about that opportunity for AMR.

Gerard J. Arpey 

Dan, I’ll let Tom fill in with some numbers if has them handy, but this has been an area of focus for us for many years now, going back to 2003. We recognized that we weren’t going to solve all our problems on the cost side and so we have put an intense focus on driving other revenues, whether it be upgrades to self-service devices from coach to first class, standby for a fee. We now charge for reservations that are not made online but are made through our res offices. Of course, in the coach cabin of our airplanes, we charge for food and for liquor and we have credit card readers now on board all of our airplanes to enable us to do that.

And so we have had an emphasis on this for many years now and our other revenue, I don’t have the numbers in front of me but I suspect it’s approaching at $1.5 billion when you include some of the work we are doing in maintenance and engineering and elsewhere.

So I think this is an area that we’ve been on top of for many years and we’re going to continue to push forward and I’m not surprised to hear that it’s an area of focus for Southwest now.

Tom, I don’t know if you have any numbers.

Thomas W. Horton

Yeah, I do. It actually as been, as Gerard mentioned, an area that we’ve really been focused on and the results have been pretty good. For 2007, we generated a little over $1.4 billion in other revenues and that’s up from $970 million back in 2002, so we’ve really been pushing that line hard.

And as you can imagine, that’s pretty high margin revenue, given that we’ve already got the capacity flying around. So it’s been a big success story for us.

Dan Mckenzie - Credit Suisse

Sure, but I was trying to get at the incremental opportunity.

Thomas W. Horton

Well, we are going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We are going to look for opportunities to raise fees where appropriate. We are going to look for more opportunities to do maintenance and engineering, third-party work. It’s really just a continuation of the stuff we’ve been doing -- creative things with the Admiral’s club and the advantage program and each year, we’ve found a few new things to do and we’re going to keep looking.

Operator

Next representing Avondale, we go to the line of Bob Mcadoo.

Bob Mcadoo - Avondale Partners

A couple of questions about fuel -- I’m trying to understand what you said in the fuel expense and hedging paragraph. You talk about the 264 average fuel price. I’m trying to understand what -- I mean, obviously a barrel of oil has moved around a lot in the last week or so and I am trying to figure out how to think about that in terms of what kind of barrel price you were using to come up with the 264. If I mess around by doing things like relating the 221 to the 264 and then try to extrapolate the $77 that you tie to the 221 up to 264, that would imply like a $91 or $92 barrel overall, but yet you’ve got a lot of it hedged already -- I’m not sure I understand what you’ve done there.

Thomas W. Horton

The 264 equals about an $89 barrel of oil.

Bob Mcadoo - Avondale Partners

That’s what the market price is out in the world.

Thomas W. Horton

Well, that’s what 264 equates to, and $89 is hedged.

Bob Mcadoo - Avondale Partners

So I guess I’m trying to figure out, if you’ve got a chunk of yours at 77 and then overall at 89 you’ve assumed that the unhedged portion then is well north of 91 or 92 -- is that right?

Thomas W. Horton

All we really do is we take the forward curve, which you guys can go look at, and then we apply our hedges to it and then out pops our projection of fuel prices, so that’s what the 264 is -- take the forward curve, apply our fuel hedges to it, equals 264.

Bob Mcadoo - Avondale Partners

I guess the question is, when you did the 264, was that this morning or was that a week ago or two weeks ago? Because obviously the barrel has moved around a lot, from $99 to $91 to $90 even.

Thomas W. Horton

We use sort of an average forward curves during the month of December and it just so happens that that was pretty close to where we were about yesterday.

Bob Mcadoo - Avondale Partners

Okay, fine. And Tom, one other thing; one time you were -- we sat in a meeting and you made some comment that said, as to consolidation, if this was back in the Delta U.S. Air days, that if the Justice Department was going to see the -- try to think about what the landscape would be like if that merger took place, you’d want to be sure that they saw the entire landscape, implying that you wouldn’t be left behind if somebody else was going to do something. Is that statement still operative?

Thomas W. Horton

Well, I can’t comment on what we may or may not do. I do think there is some benefit from a public policy standpoint to the regulators having a full look at how the industry may shake out before they make a decision with respect to any one merger.

Operator

Next we go to Ray Neidl - Calyon Securities.

Ray Neidl - Calyon Securities

It sounds like from the Q&A that you are still looking at this year as being a fairly strong demand year. I think you said that demand still looks pretty strong, particularly in the business area. Is that the reason why you are not more aggressively grounding some of your older, narrow body fleet and bringing down capacity?

I think Ray, what Tom said is where we sit today, our advanced book is up from where it was a year ago. We have given you the capacity guidance for this year, but we will be watching very carefully economic trends, our advanced book and we will be paying careful attention to our competitors, many of whom have been growing for the past couple of years in the face of deteriorating conditions.

Eric Briggle

So we are going to be weekly monitoring all of those things and making judgments about what we should do going forward. As you point out, we’ve got a lot of airplanes and our fleet plan this year has fewer airplanes at the end of this year than we start with and depending on how all of those factors play out, we’ll be paying attention to whether we’ve got the right capacity plan for this year or not. We will make that those judgments real-time throughout the year.

Gerard Arpey

Ray, I think that is a very compelling question to be asked all around the industry, where you see growth occurring at some of the other carriers and aircraft being added to the fleet. I would argue that capital isn’t providing any return.

Ray Neidl - Calyon Securities

Assuming that the 265 gallon fuel and your other guidance, my back of the envelope indicate that you are going to have a fairly good loss this year. Then on top of that the CapEx, debt maturities, pension, it looks like it’s going to really start biting into your cash reserves.

Assuming that’s correct is it possible, do you think, for the industry, for American to levy maybe a fuel surcharge? Something, not a price increase, but a fuel surcharge to cover some of the additional costs?

Gerard Arpey

Ray, we are not prepared to comment on any of your observations other than to go back to the guidance that Tom has given for the year. Ray, I would just point out to you that we have been a consistent price leader in the industry and I highlighted earlier our frustration that we were selling tickets through most of 2007 for less than we did in the year 2000. I would say that is not necessarily where we would like to be, but nevertheless it is a function of 15 different airlines and different views of elasticity and we have a view that we would trade load factor for yield and we expressed that through our pricing actions and we will continue to do that going forward.

Ray Neidl - Calyon Securities

That leads to basically the industry is very fragmented which is calling for consolidation, is that in the back of your mind? Maybe holding off some American Eagle to give you some flexibility if you did combine with another carrier in the regional area?

Gerard Arpey

Ray, I think Tom gave a pretty full explanation on our views on consolidation and I don’t really have much to add to that.

Operator

Next, we go to the line of William Greene - Morgan Stanley. Please go ahead, sir.

William Greene - Morgan Stanley

The effort we saw last week to add a fairly significant amount to the prices, the fare increases you attempted, the fuel surcharge, whatever you want to call it, can you add more color as to why it failed? Was it all from the low-cost carriers? Did you see just too big of a drop in bookings? I don’t quite understand what the roll back was.

Gerard Arpey

William, I am not sure that I can comment specifically. But I know generally the way these things work is that if one carrier does not match, that will overlap with another carrier who overlaps with another carrier and the whole thing falls apart. So I am not sure about the specifics in this case and of course we have to be very careful commenting publicly on this subject. I think the short answer is it didn’t stick.

William Greene - Morgan Stanley

Let me ask you about balance sheet management. Given the challenges that we see on fuel, given the slowing economy and the potential for perhaps some sort of actions in the industry that may require you to react, should we think about, you mentioned $750 million in principal payments on debt but you were very aggressive this year in reducing debt. Should we assume you should be less aggressive this year, given those sort of outlooks or you can be as aggressive as you were in 2007?

Thomas Horton

We are just going to have to call them out on that depending on how the year shakes out. All we would say is that we are glad that we went out and did a lot of balance sheet repair when we did, when the markets were strong and I think the company is pretty well positioned to weather whatever ‘08 throws at us, including strategic activity in the industry.

William Greene - Morgan Stanley

Thanks for your help.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Mr. Arpey and Mr. Horton, next we go to Robert Barry with Goldman Sachs. Please go ahead, sir.

Analyst for Robert Barry – Goldman Sachs

I wanted to know if you could give an update on how things are trending in the London market? I think previously last quarter you talked about some premium traffic was not performing as well; there was some aggressive pricing from competitors. What did you see in the fourth quarter and any color on what you are seeing in Q1 ‘08?

Thomas Horton

I think we are seeing much of the same. London tends to be weaker than the rest of the European marketplace. London pricing tends to be very competitive due to a weak market environment and some pretty aggressive pricing led by our biggest British competitors, BA and Virgin.

London point-of-sale yields are down year over year, despite the beneficial impact of exchange rates on the UK point of sale yields. Premium traffic results have also been impacted in London by a variety of factors, including a very competitive market condition in New York, London and Chicago, Heathrow.

So the load factor gains we have seen have been primarily driven by coach traffic. London continues to be a challenge. It is at least in the near term uniquely challenging for us because about 50% of our trans-Atlantic capacity is to London compared to less than 20% for most of the other US carriers.

In the long run, over the cycle, London is a terrific asset to have. But, at this particular point, it’s been a bit of a challenge.

Analyst for Robert Barry – Goldman Sachs

Just a question about getting back to that mileage plan, strategic transactions. I am just curious as to your thoughts thinking about the economic environment, where crude prices are, is it fair to say that the probability of a sale or spin-off of a mileage plan business diminishes in light of where we are in the economic cycle, where crude prices are? I think it’s a fair assumption that that business is generating a lot of cash for you guys. How would you think about that?

Thomas Horton

Well I don’t think I would offer any probabilities on that. It is an important part of the business but we are thinking about how best to manage that part of the business for our shareholders in the long run.

Operator

Thank you, sir. Ladies and gentlemen and members of the analyst and financial community, that does conclude your question-and-answer session for today so we do thank you very much for your participation.

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