CEO Would Like American Airlines' $5B 'Steady State' Profit to Be Shared With Kitchen Workers
Unite Here airport kitchen workers demonstrate in Charlotte on June 11

American Airlines Group Inc. (AAL) expects to regularly produce annual profit of $5 billion, CEO Doug Parker said. He wants the newfound wealth of American and the airline industry to be shared not just with investors, but also with workers -- and not just with those workers employed directly by the carrier.

Parker's confidence in American's unrecognized investment potential is not new. Nor is his willingness to offer better contracts to American employees, who are 83% unionized. In April, the carrier offered pilots and flight attendants an non-negotiated $830 million pay raise over two years.

But on Wednesday, June 14, speaking at American's annual meeting in New York, Parker seemed to expand his commitment to wealth distribution to include employees at third-party vendors, both the catering companies that prepare airline food and the companies that hire airport workers including baggage handlers, cleaners, custodians, security officers and wheelchair attendants.

At the annual meeting, workers at the third-party vendors, represented by Unite Here and by the Service Employees International Union, advocated that airlines share their profits.

"Airline food workers are an important part of the airline industry," said Bobby Kirkpatrick, a Unite Here shop steward and food truck driver for LSG Sky Chefs in Charlotte. "Some of my co-workers in Charlotte catering kitchens make less than $8.20 an hour."

Although it doesn't directly employ catering workers, American has spent $22 million since 2014 to enhance their pay in cities where municipal authorities have endorsed a higher minimum wage.

Parker told Kirkpatrick that higher pay is "something you have to take up with your employer." He said, "I'm sorry LSG Sky Chefs has not gotten there yet," adding, "We will do what we can to make sure your employer understands that we're willing to do our part."

LSG Sky Chefs spokesman Shane Sumrow said Wednesday, following the annual meeting, "The airline catering sector has historically and continues to remain a low-margin sector within the airline industry.

"We have a collective bargaining agreement signed by both ourselves and our recognized trade union that provides an agreed-upon process to address issues with wages, to which we remain committed," Sumrow said.

Meanwhile, several airport workers, some seeking representation by the SEIU also spoke at the meeting. Parker said American "has supported and will continue to support your right to organize."

As for investors, Parker said, "We believe that American is going to produce $5 billion through good and bad cycles," adding, "We believe that so strongly that we pay our teams based on that." The company sets annual incentive plans based on "steady state" pretax earnings of $5 billion.

"If you believe the company is going to produce $5 billion on a regular basis, on an average basis the company is undervalued," Parker declared. He reiterated his belief that Wall Street hasn't yet figured out the value of an airline industry transformed by bankruptcies, consolidation, ancillary fee revenue and, more recently, by share buybacks.

Since the start of 2014, American has bought back nearly 35% of its shares; its share count has declined to about 493 million shares from 756 million shares. Based on $5 billion in pretax earnings, Parker said the price earnings multiple is 8 times, compared with an average P/E multiple of 19.6 times for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index since 1990.

American is not the only carrier that believes the airline industry is positioned to produce steady profits in the $5 billion range going forward. This year, Delta expects to produce a $6 billion annual profit for the third year in a row.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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