It's not as if running a successful airline involves any secrets. The principals -- being faster, smarter, lower-cost, more flexible and luckier -- are well-known. By and large, execution is the only variable.
"We're quicker -- we think we have to be," said
CEO Bob Fornaro in an interview. "It's the expectation of our culture: When we are faced with a crisis, our people expect us to do something, not to ignore it. We don't view ourselves as an institution. We're in the mindset that you have to take action first."
That is the thinking that enabled Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran, ninth largest among the nine major airlines, to be one of two to report a first-quarter profit. It earned 21 cents a share, blowing past consensus estimate of 4 cents and triggering a 24% one-day run-up in its share price. The quarter's results are the clearest sign that AirTran has led the airline industry in adjusting to the faltering economy.
Clearly, the stock market has recognized AirTran's ascendance. AirTran shares are up about 25% this year, while shares in the remaining eight major airlines are all down. The second best performer is
; its shares are down about 22%, while the
Amex Airline Index
is down about 24%.
AirTran CEO Bob Fornaro
It wasn't just AirTran that reacted to a sharp decrease in oil prices last year by chopping capacity. Every airline did that. And Fornaro, who has spent three decades in the industry working at five airlines -- including two that failed -- has no pretensions that he is any smarter than his peers.
But AirTran moved more quickly and more dramatically and was in a position to benefit more immediately than others. With revenue of $2.6 billion and a fleet of 136 aircraft, AirTran is the smallest major carrier and also one of the two newest, having formed 12 years ago from a merger of two luckless airlines. In other words, AirTran is still the new kid in town, more entrepreneurial and more daring, as the airline industry faces a new round of challenges.
It was on July 29, 2008, with oil prices trading around $125 a barrel, that AirTran announced it would slam the brakes. It had been growing at 20% a year for five years.
"In terms of the schedule change, we went from a double-digit growth rate in August to basically minus 8% in September," Fornaro says. "Two things were going on: We were facing the run-up in oil prices, and we were beginning to see the first weaknesses in the economy."
AirTran decided in May to take two key steps to adjust its growth, Fornaro says. First, the carrier re-examined its route structure. Then it deferred airplane deliveries, after starting talks with
in May. "Because other people hadn't yet made the same assessment we had, we were able to offload airplanes, and Boeing was able to find customers," Fornaro says. "At the time, other people, U.S. carriers and especially international carriers, still had growth plans. There was a lot of demand in many parts of the world, the Middle East as an example."
In terms of corporate culture, it is difficult to turn on a dime from a high-growth company to a shrinking one. But that is the transition Fornaro led. "What also impressed me was how management made a mid-course correction," says FTN Midwest analyst Mike Derchin.
"Most of these other carriers were already shrinking and went from shrinking to sharply shrinking," Derchin says. "It's a lot easier that way than to do what AirTran did. I've never seen, in this industry, that dramatic a change in that short a period of time."
In general, the other carriers had other handicaps, and other priorities. In recent quarters, with international traffic dropping more rapidly than domestic traffic, the four biggest airlines have suffered disproportionately.
, the other profitable airline during the first quarter, began to slow its growth two years earlier, responding to its own too-rapid expansion.
Additionally, Avondale Partners analyst Bob McAdoo notes, AirTran moved quickly to get out of its fuel hedges. "They cashed out a lot of their hedges in the fourth quarter," McAdoo says. "They came into the first quarter with virtually no risk from lower priced fuel."
AirTran's corporate history established a precedent of taking dramatic steps regarding the fleet.
In a 2008 interview, former CEO Joe Leonard, who hired Fornaro as president in 1999, recalled that soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when air traffic had plummeted, he asked Boeing for faster deliveries of 717s. It seemed counterintuitive, but the goal was to preserve cash. Flying new airplanes meant avoiding expensive maintenance on aging DC-9s. It also transformed the airline's image from a ValuJet successor to a scrappy young competitor. "It amazed us," Leonard said. "We killed off the old brand and built a new one."
In 2003, a low point for aircraft sales, Airtran moved again, ordering up to 100 new 737s. "We got a really good deal," Leonard said. One result is that AirTran has been able to sell airplanes at a profit. It has sold eight 737s and returned a 717 to the lessor, and it has two sales contracted this year and may sell another two to four aircraft, says CFO Arne Haak. And the lower cost to operate and maintain aircraft continues to benefit the carrier.
In the airline industry, the principal cost metric is cost per available seat mile, or CASM. CASM looks at costs in relation to the number of miles the airline flies. AirTran has the lowest CASM in the industry, after falling below longtime industry leader Southwest during the past year.
In the first quarter, AirTran CASM excluding fuel was about 6 cents. Adjusting for stage length, because costs should be compared on the basis of length of flight, Southwest costs are about 3% higher, JetBlue costs are nearly 20% higher, and
costs are 48% higher, according to figures compiled by AirTran. Costs at the other large network carriers are higher still.
Of course, "Just because you're low cost doesn't necessarily mean you're profitable," Avondale Partners' McAdoo says. "A lot of people who aren't around have been low cost. What it takes is putting the right number of airplanes in the right place, to generate revenue, and being able to react to the competition."
And then there is luck. No company, no matter how brilliant its management, can succeed without luck.
Late in 2006, AirTran offered $290 million for Midwest, a regional Milwaukee-based carrier. Midwest and AirTran haggled over the price, which eventually reached $445 million before being outbid by a team of Northwest and
. Given the decline in air travel, Midwest's ancient fleet and subsequent downsizing and AirTran's continued growth in Milwaukee, it is safe to say that losing the bidding war was among the best things that have happened to AirTran.
"If we would have been successful, the debt burden it would have created, in combination with the headwinds we were facing, would have put us in a very difficult position," Fornaro says.
"What we saw with fuel, what we are seeing with the economy, these two factors combined are much worse than anything we would have modeled," he says. "So I would say we were very lucky."