Gremlin on the Wing

Why TWA keeps losing money and how Carl Icahn keeps cashing in at the airline's expense

Southwest's presence here, combined with TWA's less extensive domestic network and its lack of significant alliances with international airlines, limits TWA's revenue potential, Buttrick says.

And there's another issue, adds Jenkins of the Aviation Institute. If St. Louis lost TWA, it would be unlikely to entice another airline to operate a hub here, he says.

"For one, I don't think anybody will come and take over St. Louis as a hub," Jenkins says. "The workforce is kind of disgruntled. Take American Airlines, for example: Those who have taken over workforces from bankrupt airlines -- it's never been pleasant. Nobody wants to take over their problems."

TWA's domestic hub is based at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis.
Jennifer Silverberg
TWA's domestic hub is based at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis.

Of course, "disgruntled" may be an understatement. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is frustrated with TWA's current financial condition, believing that though Icahn may still be a problem, current management -- under the leadership of chief executive officer William F. Compton -- is not helping matters much, either. A TWA spokesman said Compton, the fifth CEO to run the airline since Icahn's departure, was not available for an interview.

"Anytime a company performs as bad as they're performing while the employees are performing as well as we're performing, you're going to get a little bit of frustration," says Howard Coldwell Jr., chairman of the TWA branch of ALPA. "We've done everything we can to make sure that TWA has the tools it needs to do well, so it's frustrating when they don't."

Jim Marino, grievance-committee chairman of the International Association of Machinists, says that although Icahn helped put TWA "in the hole," at least Icahn had an agenda when he ran the airline. Marino says he can't see the mission of the airline now. "What everybody forgets is that it was between Icahn and Lorenzo at the time, and I thank God we ended up with Icahn," Marino says. "Icahn was in it for a day-to-day operation.

"But now I'm starting to think that these people in there now are over their heads."

Given TWA's financial straits, the airline's management is, at the very least, between a rock and a hard place. Their options for generating cash and cutting operating costs are limited.

Not that they haven't tried. In recent years, TWA has launched an aggressive program to replace its wide-body jets with smaller aircraft -- a strategy Icahn blasts -- and moved to improve its marketing efforts. And the airline has made important strides toward polishing its customer-service performance by addressing its old punctuality problems. Last year, TWA ranked first among major airlines for on-time performance. And it's made the tough decision to retreat from some markets where it once was a dominant U.S. player.

In January, TWA announced it was ending daily service between New York and Rome, Barcelona and Madrid, saying those routes were unprofitable. Instead, TWA is putting its emphasis on the Caribbean. A blitzkrieg promotion heralded the new service to tropical hot spots like the Turks and Caicos Islands. "The Caribbean is a place right now that is booming," says TWA's Bishop.

The move appeared, in part, an effort to soften the effect of the Karabu deal, which won't expire until 2003. The Caribbean strategy, a source at the airline tells the RFT, involves deals with third parties, such as tour wholesalers, who front the money for a bulk purchase of tickets and other cooperative marketing agreements. With these deals, TWA essentially determines what the minimum profitability of a particular route will be before it begins and gets more control over its inventory.

But TWA, which was once a dominant player in European service, may need to take even more drastic steps, analysts say. "They are still in a position where some of the difficult decisions, such as maybe getting rid of New York (the hub at JFK Airport) altogether, are going to have to be made before they can consistently turn it around," says analyst Brian Simpson.

And this, perhaps, could be coming down the road.

"New York Kennedy is an expensive airport from which to operate," Simpson says. "If you're Delta and you're operating out of Kennedy, and you can go to a corporate client in New York and say, "Hey, we can not only offer you three times as many destinations, we can offer you connections on our partner destinations; we can get you where you want to go -- let's make a deal,' that has a lot more sway than if you're TWA and you go and say, "Hey, we can offer you seven destinations.' So it puts them at a competitive disadvantage when they're trying to get high-yield customers."

Jenkins, the George Washington University professor, says TWA may want to consider selling its stock in Worldspan, a computer-reservation system, to generate some quick cash. "Worldspan would give them some breathing room and would more or less take them through the time period until 2003, when they get Icahn off their back."

But whether those steps are enough remains to seen.

Jenkins isn't hopeful. He's spent 20 years in the airline-travel business, was tapped by Vice President Al Gore in 1997 to chair the White House Conference on Aviation Safety, and has studied TWA for years. Comparatively speaking, Jenkins says, TWA is in a serious hole.

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