CHICAGO — A merger between United Airlines and US Airways would hit the smaller hub airports where the two operate hardest as the carriers would likely move to consolidate those bases, Moody’s Investors Service warned in a new report on the potential credit impact of a union between the two.
Reports have circulated this week that Chicago-based UAL Corp.’s United Airlines and Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways Group Inc. have been in discussions since February on a possible merger that would create the second-largest air carrier behind Delta Air Lines. United is currently the third largest and US Airways is sixth largest.
Representatives of both companies have declined to comment and — underscoring the preliminary nature of the reports — stories circulated yesterday that the talks had prompted renewed merger discussions between Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc. and United.
The credit impact of a United-US Airways union would not be felt for at least another 12 months and ultimately would depend on post-merger business decisions made by the merged air carriers.
“A completed merger would likely result in the elimination of redundant routes and reduced seating capacity. For airports, this translates into fewer enplanements throughout the U.S. domestic market,” wrote the report’s author Kurt Krummenacker.
The carriers also could be forced to give up some routes in order to win regulatory approval. Approval of both the U.S. Justice Department and unions would be needed.
Hub consolidation has proven to be a key strategy in recent airline mergers. In this case, the two carriers operate a total of eight hubs, with a merger likely to affect capacity at the smaller, secondary ones, including US Airways’ hub at Philadelphia International Airport and United’s hubs at San Francisco International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport.
In addition to those, United operates hubs at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Denver International Airport, and Los Angeles International Airport. US Airways also operates hubs at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The Moody’s ratings on the owner or issuer entity that operate the airports range from A2 to Aa3. Most have stable outlooks.
Airports where the two hold substantial pricing power due to their market share or substantial route overlap also face credit risks. “Airports that have a greater than 30% concentration in both carriers would be most at risk in Moody’s opinion,” the report warned.
Those include airports in Augusta, Ga., Charlotte, Colorado Springs, Denver, Fresno, Calif., Philadelphia, Phoenix, and San Francisco. They also include the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport in Pennsylvania, Dulles, O’Hare, Grand Junction Regional Airport in Colorado, Jackson County Airport in Oregon, Piedmont Triad Airport in North Carolina, Richland-Lexington Airport in South Carolina, Charleston County Airport in South Carolina, Albany County Airport in New York, and Greenville-Spartansburg Airport in South Carolina. The ratings on the group range from Baa3 to Aa3.
United previously held talks with Continental in 2008 and in 2001 nearly acquired US Airways, but Justice challenged the deal over the monopoly it would have created on dozens of routes. Airlines remain under pressure to consolidate due to rising operational costs and fuel prices.
US Airways emerged from Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy in 2005, agreeing to the continued payment of all its approximately $350 million of special facilities revenue debt.
United emerged from a Chapter 11 filing in 2006. The airline challenged repayment of about $1.1 billion of its $1.6 billion of special facilities debt and was able to settle for reduced payments with bondholders on some of it.
Neither airline has borrowed new money through special facilities revenue bond issues since their reorganizations, but Denver refunded $270 million of United bonds in 2007. The courts had ordered the airline to fully repay those bonds during its bankruptcy proceedings.