Assuming that federal regulators don’t put a stop to this, the newly combined airline (“Continited”?) will drop the Continental name and operate under the United banner. However, Continental’s CEO Jeff Smisek, will take the reins, with United CEO Glenn Tilton stepping back to the salutary title of “non-executive chairman” for two years. In other words, it’s Continental’s executive team, with United’s name, in United’s headquarters building. Assuming that current market shares simply transfer over to the combined entity, the merged United would have 21% of domestic ASM (available seat miles, i.e., market share) and 7% of global ASM, making it the biggest American player.
(Will this put an end to the on-again-off-again wooing of US Airways by United, in a seasonal display reminiscent of a National Geographic wildlife special? I sure hope so. It was growing tiresome.)
As I have argued several times over the years, these airline mergers are anti-consumer. True, there is no overlap between the United and Continental operating hubs, but a merger will give “Continited” a great deal of pricing power. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, here’s something I wrote in January 2007, that still holds true today:
Sure, you might get a few more potential destinations or routings for your flights, but the total number of flights is bound to be cut, and prices in turn are bound to rise. With less competition, it’ll be easier than ever to raise fares and make them stick.
The caveat to the “mergers mean higher prices” argument is that cuts in capacity (and increases in prices) eventually are met with new market entrants. Relatively constant demand is met with entrepreneurs wielding fresh supply. (The rise of JetBlue can, at least in part, be seen in the context of the disappearance of TWA and PanAm, through merger and bankruptcy, respectively.) The benefits to the merger participants are short-lived, and it’s debatable whether they actually pay off. Think back to past mergers: Is American really eating everyone else’s lunch since they bought TWA?…
In fact, the merged airlines’ competitors may benefit more. As fares rise, the companies that aren’t part of the merger arguably benefit more than the merger participants, because they get to raise their prices, without having paid the price of the merger…
So if consumers lose, and merging airlines don’t really win for very long, then who is the real winner in all this?
The answer: the CEOs, and the Wall Street investment banks advising them.
As the folks at Morningstar’s Footnoted.org blog noted earlier last week, the real motivator for a deal here isn’t “synergy” but “payday”:
We’re sure there are plenty of operational reasons United’s management might be looking for a deal. But we also couldn’t help noticing that the company has made it substantially more attractive for the top officers themselves to seal a deal — in the case of Chairman and Chief Executive Glenn Tilton, more than three times as attractive as in prior years.
According to the proxy that UAL Corp., parent of United Airlines, filed at 5:25 p.m. on Tuesday, Tilton’s payout if there’s a change of control rose to $9 million last year — up nearly fourfold from the $2.4 million listed in last year’s proxy. If he loses his job within two years after a deal, his payout would be $14.3 million, up 78% from $8 million last year.
Loses his job within two years? Why yes, that’s exactly what’s planned. What a coincidence!
It’s not just United’s current CEO who’s getting the big payday, either:
Other executives have seen similar jumps. Executive Vice President John Tague, also president of United Airlines, would see his payout in a change-of-control rise to $3.7 million, from $1.1 million. Total cost for the top five officers under a change in control scenario, even if none of them are fired: $17.6 million.
Footnoted’s post on the subject is worth reading in its entirety.
FYI: I am unable to get search results from the SEC’s EDGAR database right now, so I can’t see if there’s a merger bonus in the cards for Continental’s Smisek or not. (Try searching for yourself, using Continental’s stock symbol “CAL.”)
In coming days, you can expect the usual parade of executives touting the benefits and synergies of the merger. Don’t believe them. This merger is about them, not you.
Related posts from yesteryear:
- What will airline mergers mean to consumers?
- (Flashback to 2006) What’s in the cards for a United-Continental merger?
- (Flashback to 2008) Merger do-si-do: Continental spurns United, but other partners are ready to dance