AMR’s Horton Willing to Weigh Airline Acquisitions After Bankruptcy Exit

AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, whose bankruptcy made it a possible takeover target, may try to buy a rival after leaving Chapter 11 as the U.S. industry shrinks, Chief Executive Officer Tom Horton said.

“It’s not hard to envision how we could be a force in the industry and, potentially, a consolidator,” Horton said in a Feb. 3 interview at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters. “I don’t think we need to combine with anybody, but I think there will be ample opportunities to.”

Openness to a future acquisition contrasts with Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR’s decision to sit out a round of deal-making by U.S. airlines from 2005 through 2010. Horton said AMR would like to exit Chapter 11 this year and expects to do so independently, which would mean dodging potential bids from Delta Air Lines Inc. and US Airways Group Inc.

American, the third-biggest U.S. airline, must move quickly to secure $2 billion in cost cuts that include axing pensions and 13,000 jobs to help fend off potential suitors, Horton said. Its turnaround strategy also counts on adding $1 billion in revenue as overseas routes expand and new jets join the fleet.

“If we don’t get our act together and we don’t show some progress on this plan, that’s an opening for others,” said Horton, 50, who was AMR president until predecessor Gerard Arpey stepped down upon the company’s Nov. 29 bankruptcy filing.

Labor Costs

American’s restructuring success is by no means certain, said Jeff Straebler, an independent airline analyst in Stamford, Connecticut.

“American will know their labor costs relatively shortly,” Straebler said. “They won’t have the same control over revenues. Capacity restraint has benefited the industry and I don’t see how adding even more flights” at hub airports, as the airline projects, will restore profits.

Deals done shortly after bankruptcy aren’t unknown in the U.S. industry. Delta began exploring mergers less than six months after its 2007 bankruptcy exit, a process that led to its purchase of Northwest Airlines Corp. in 2008. Northwest agreed to buy Midwest Air Group Inc. in 2007, within three months of leaving court protection.

At the same time, AMR’s public discussion of possible future purchases comes “early in the process” of reorganizing in Chapter 11, said Betsy Snyder, a Standard & Poor’s analyst in New York.

‘Premature’ Discussion?

“It seems premature to be talking about an acquisition for them at this point,” Snyder said today in an interview. “If you know there’s another 1 1/2 to 2 years to even exit bankruptcy, who knows what the industry is going to look like at that point?”

While American holds exclusive rights to file a reorganization plan with the bankruptcy court, rivals can talk with its unsecured creditors committee. That panel, which includes the airline’s three biggest unions and the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., is involved in all American’s major decisions outside routine business.

Horton refused to identify any potential acquisition targets and played down the risk of a takeover by US Airways, noting two failures in merger talks with UAL Corp.’s United Airlines and in a hostile approach to Delta when that carrier was in bankruptcy.

No Worry

“My view is, this will be every bit as successful as their prior three attempts,” he said. Tempe, Arizona-based US Airways has acknowledged hiring bankers to study AMR; Delta is doing likewise, a person with knowledge of that effort has said.

Any future mergers among U.S. airlines are likely to see smaller carriers, including Alaska Air Group Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp. and perhaps US Airways, gobbled up by bigger rivals, Horton said.

“They are not likely to be independent in the long run,” he said. “Over time, there will be more consolidation in North America.”

AMR was on the sidelines for the last four large U.S. mergers: US Airways left bankruptcy in a 2005 tie-up with America West Holdings Corp.; Delta bought Northwest in 2008; and in 2010, United combined with Continental Airlines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. agreed to acquire AirTran Holdings Inc.

In the U.S., the new United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL) and Delta rank ahead of American by traffic.

‘Sending a Message’

“AMR is definitely sending a message that they intend to remain independent,” said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst at Atmosphere Research Group LLC in San Francisco. “AMR doesn’t need a partner. They have a strong network, a strong frequent flier program and strong relationships with corporations.”

Positioning AMR to be an acquirer means ending annual losses that began in 2008 and have persisted even as competitors have returned to profit in recent years.

Horton said future growth in flying at the post-bankruptcy American will be “disproportionately” based on international routes, which fetch higher fares because of a lack of discount competition. American will build on its Oneworld alliance and joint business ventures with Japan Airlines Co., British Airways and Spain’s Iberia, Horton said.

American had 41 percent of its available seats in 2011 on flights outside the U.S. Horton wouldn’t say how that mix would change, or how he will allocate a planned 20 percent capacity increase over five years among hubs at Dallas-Fort Worth, New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Talks or Force

Horton said he hoped to win unions’ assent to proposed contract changes instead of having to go to court to impose the terms. A peaceful outcome would break with recent history: Five years of talks with unions failed to produce cost-saving accords before bankruptcy, and labor chiefs have denounced the job-cut plan as “bad for America” and “positively awful.”

Union leaders, who represent 81 percent of American’s 73,802 employees, will come to see the turnaround program as the best hope for the airline’s survival, Horton said.

His recent soundings on the views of that workforce, he said, included his Feb. 3 flight to New York from Dallas-Fort Worth: He spent half the time in the cockpit with the pilots and the other half chatting with flight attendants in a galley.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas at maryc.s@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ed Dufner at edufner@bloomberg.net

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