On The Airline Industry, Don’t Trust The Airlines, Just Listen To A Consultant
The Kansas City Star recently published an article airing the views of a consultant group, Frasca & Associates. Frasca attacked the airlines’ critical view of the proposed $1.2 billion new terminal plan for Kansas City International Airport (MCI). Despite getting more ink than the airlines’ representative received, all the points the consultant made were irrelevant or shortsighted.
First, the consultant criticized the airlines’ statement that the airline industry has experienced considerable stress since 2001 and would attempt to use their limited resources where they make the most profit. The consultant claimed that, “In fact, the airlines are now experiencing record profits.” This point is shortsighted. Airlines have managed profitability in the last couple of years. However, in the last two decades, the airlines lost so much money that Warren Buffett joked, “If a capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk back in the early 1900s, he should have shot Orville Wright.” The airlines only reached this profitability after massive consolidation, keeping just the most profitable flights, and closing airport hubs. Airlines, especially MCI’s largest carrier, Southwest, have learned their lesson and will likely remain cost-conscious in the future.
Second, the consultant objected to the airlines’ view that terminals do not create demand. They stated:
…a new or expanded terminal can address certain deficiencies and open up new air service opportunities…For example, the lack of international gate capacity…
This point is strange, as the consultant admits that growth in international travel at MCI is essentially flat (0.7 percent growth) and will remain so. But, according to the consultant, Kansas City can be like Pittsburgh, which has a flight to Paris. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh had to pay $9 million in subsidies for that honor, so maybe Kansas City does not want be like Pittsburgh. As Southwest officials stated, MCI has adequate capacity and its price competitiveness means more service. Compared to non-hub peer airports, MCI has more non-stop destinations.
Third, consultants disagreed with the airlines about the importance of landing costs for airlines. They stated:
In general, airport costs (i.e., terminal rents and landing fees) comprise roughly 3 to 6 percent of an airline’s total costs.
The consultants claim that fuel is most important to airlines and operation costs can decrease at a more efficient, new site. However, this is irrelevant. If a new terminal is built that makes MCI more expensive to operate out of, the airport could certainly lose flights. Perhaps the consultants at Frasca & Associates should call Southwest officials and tell them that 3-6 percent of their costs don’t matter and they should not have refused to sign a lease agreement with Sacramento International Airport after that airport’s costs increased.
The consultants make several other points that are equally not insightful. Perhaps it need only be pointed out that airlines understand the aviation industry. The airlines also decide where their airplanes actually go, making their viewpoint on why they choose specific airports especially important.