By Sam Levin
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By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
Airport commissioner John Krekeler didn't just fall off the baggage carousel.
A private pilot who makes his living as a Boeing aerospace engineer, Krekeler has spent three years on the seventeen-member commission, appointed as a representative from St. Charles County, where folks worry about the noise that a new runway at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport will bring.
When Krekeler joined the commission, airport brass said TWA's maintenance facilities and the Missouri Air National Guard headquarters would have to be relocated before the new $1.1 billion runway opened. Safety was the reason. The buildings, located near the end of the planned runway, were deemed airspace obstructions.
That was back in 2000. Before 9/11. Before bankrupt TWA was bought out by American Airlines. Before American steadily reduced flights, then announced in July that it will slash daily departures by more than one-half in November. Before Lambert, once the eleventh-busiest passenger airport in the world, arrived at the brink of losing its status as a major U.S. hub.
This July, faced with dramatic drops in passengers and flights, airport director Colonel Leonard Griggs told Krekeler and other airport commissioners that moving the Guard headquarters and the maintenance hangars will be postponed indefinitely owing to a lack of money. Moving the Guard will cost an estimated $35 million; relocating the hangars has an estimated price tag of $24 million.
Krekeler can't fathom how buildings that needed to be moved because of safety concerns are suddenly not an impediment to the new runway, which is scheduled to open in 2006. Bolstering his criticism of airport spending priorities, Krekeler points to a parking lot scheduled to open this fall. The airport launched the parking project in November 2001, buying out homeowners to make room for cars despite the terrorist attacks two months earlier that sent the air-travel industry into a slump from which it still hasn't recovered.
"Here, you've got...facilities that are absolutely, definitely in the runway protection zone," Krekeler says. "With fuel tanks. With the Missouri Air National Guard having ordinance bunkers. They just devastated an entire subdivision to build a new parking lot."
Not to worry, says Griggs, who promises he'll eventually come up with a plan for moving the Guard, which pays the airport $1 a year in a sweetheart lease that doesn't expire until 2023. The airport sees the $12 million parking lot as a moneymaker, even though there was plentiful parking at Lambert when construction began. Parking revenue fell by $4.4 million between fiscal years 2001 and 2002 and is down nearly 2 percent since 1998. The solution, according to a May prospectus accompanying a $29 million airport bond issue, is a marketing campaign "that will create brand awareness for all Airport parking facilities."
Spending millions on a parking lot while airspace obstructions remain unsolved puzzles isn't the only aspect of planning and financing at Lambert that Krekeler doesn't understand. He fears the new runway will prove a financial folly, but he's been a voice in the wilderness while his fellow commissioners rubber-stamp the hopes, dreams and plans of Lambert executives and St. Louis officials who have long seen the airport as a cash cow, which in the most recent fiscal year ending June 30 pumped $6.4 million into the city's general fund.
"I vote 'no' regularly on things they present poorly that I don't understand or that I don't think are good deals," Krekeler says. "I've never been able to get a second on any motion I've proposed. My intent is to bring things to light that they'd rather not talk about. I think the airport sits on information that they refuse to share with the commission. I've asked repeatedly for [financial] details. I continually get vague responses. I'm an engineer. You've got to show me numbers, man.
"Don't give me vague statements and say, 'Trust me, everything's OK.' That's bullshit."
Krekeler and other skeptics say they doubt the new runway will pay for itself, as airport officials and city politicians promised in 1991 when St. Louis voters overwhelmingly approved a measure allowing the airport to issue up to $1.5 billion in bonds for airport expansion. Voters last spring approved another $2 billion in borrowing for Lambert for capital-improvement projects not related to the new runway.
All told, the airport has slightly less than $940 million in outstanding bond debt, including $505 million for the new runway, which is the most expensive public-works project in state history.
Griggs and city officials have long insisted that everything will be just fine, no matter what. Falling demand for air travel? The market will bounce back. Cutbacks in American flights? Competing airlines will make up the difference. Airline bankruptcies? Our leases with airlines and our lawyers will protect us, and even if they don't, other airlines will come to Lambert because St. Louis, by virtue of its location near the center of the United States, is an irresistible hub for airlines. Such optimistic predictions have been repeated and embraced by influential entities such as the Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA), Civic Progress and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Don't count on it, says at least one expert with no stake in Lambert expansion.
"We know this: American is going to eliminate their connecting flights," says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colorado. "The argument that someone else is going to come in there? I don't think so. They might. But the airport bringing someone else in is about as likely as Ed McMahon showing up at your door with that $1 million check from Publishers Clearinghouse."
Looming cutbacks by American have finally forced airport officials to admit they're facing a money crunch with no easy answers. Griggs is begging the Federal Aviation Administration for $100 million to subsidize runway construction, with no assurance that the feds will pony up and no back-up plan. St. Louis mayor Francis Slay has appointed a task force of business leaders to come up with a twenty-year plan to ensure Lambert will remain a regional economic engine, even though the airport in 1996 adopted a twenty-year master plan to guide airport development. Airport officials have been trying to soothe investor concerns and convince airlines to come to St. Louis.
In short, it turns out that airport and city officials were wrong when they said a new runway is a can't-miss proposition. Wall Street is starting to worry.
When American Airlines in July announced that it will cut daily departures from 417 to 207 in November, Standard & Poor's downgraded Lambert's credit rating and warned that an additional downgrade may come this fall. The Standard & Poor's downgrade from A- to BBB+ brought the airport's rating to the low end of investment grade, which is anything above BBB-. Lambert and Pittsburgh International Airport, where officials have openly worried about defaulting on $670 million in bond debt since U.S. Airways canceled its gate leases earlier this year, are the only two major hub airports in the nation with ratings below the A range. Pittsburgh International bonds are also rated BBB+.
Any rating below BBB- is considered junk-bond status, and Standard & Poor's has Lambert just three steps away (the highest possible grade is AAA). Moody's and FitchRatings, the nation's two other major credit-rating agencies, kept the airport's credit-rating at the A- level but, like Standard & Poor's, launched a review of airport finances that could result in downgrades by the end of October. The ratings are key because downgrades can increase borrowing costs for future projects.
Whether the worst actually happens remains to be seen. No large airport in the United States has ever defaulted on a construction bond. And Lambert isn't the only airport under scrutiny from bond analysts. In the past year, FitchRatings has downgraded the credit ratings of four major airports. Standard & Poor's has ten large hubs with negative outlooks, meaning downgrades are possible.
In the event of a default, city taxpayers won't be on the hook because airport bonds are backed by revenue generated at the airport as opposed to the city's general fund. In addition, the city has insured the airport bonds, so bondholders would get their money. Even when public agencies default on bond payments, bond insurers typically look for solutions short of handing control over to a trustee.
In a written statement prepared in response to an interview request, city comptroller Darlene Green, who has signed off on more than a half-billion dollars in bonds to pay for the new runway, says she's not worried. "I remain confident the airport will have sufficient funds to complete the runway expansion and cover all bond debt at the airport," Green wrote. Liz James, a spokeswoman for MBIA Insurance Corporation, which has insured more than $100 million in airport debt, also says the company isn't concerned.
Despite safeguards, Krekeler says he fears the new runway will prove a financial disaster.
"The sad part is, I don't know the answers," he says. "I don't know any more than you do. What does that tell you?"
Like Krekeler, Colonel Michael Brandt, commander of the Missouri Air National Guard at Lambert, has had trouble getting answers out of Griggs and other airport executives. He says he doesn't know what the future holds, and he can't guarantee that the Guard will remain at Lambert. One thing, however, is certain: Keeping munitions, a hospital and headquarters where they are isn't an option when the new runway opens.
"They have to be moved -- there's no ifs, ands or buts about it," Brandt says. "In talking to the colonel [Griggs], I said, 'You know, you've got to move that.' And he goes, 'Yeah, we'll take care of it.' And I said, 'But where?' And he says, 'We'll take care of it.' We can certainly appreciate the financial difficulties that the airport has -- I'm not grousing at the colonel. But this latest move does not make us happy."
Feasibility studies prepared as recently as February by Unison-Maximus, a Chicago-based aviation consulting firm hired by the airport, have been based on six assumptions, several of which have not proven true or are looking shaky.
The assumptions, and their current statuses:
· American Airlines will continue to operate a major hub at Lambert. (Service cutbacks announced by American already far exceed the consultant's worst-case scenario.)
· The new runway will open in the first quarter of 2006. (The opening has been delayed until the latter part of 2006 owing to shortfalls in projected passenger counts that have resulted in shortages in construction money.)
· The city will complete the runway expansion project and all other capital-improvement programs on schedule and within budget. (Given that the runway won't open on time, the outcome looks doubtful.)
· The city will complete the runway expansion within the $1.1 billion budget. (Halfway through construction, cost overruns are at $50 million, nearly two-thirds of the project's $78 million contingency budget.)
· The FAA will give the city $141 million in construction grants. (The airport says the grants will be $10 million less than anticipated owing to falling passenger counts.)
· After terminal and gate leases expire at the end of 2005, the airport will set rates that will generate at least as much revenue as the airport is collecting now. (The outlook is uncertain, but if the airport charges too much, airlines could opt for less-expensive cities for connecting flights, which account for about half the air traffic at Lambert.)
Unison-Maximus is now revising forecasts in light of American's cutbacks. "Although we're troubled and concerned, we think the airport's finances are in fairly good shape, given the circumstances," says Anthony Drake, company president.
Butts in seats and planes on tarmacs pay the bulk of bills at Lambert, which has been hit harder than most other large hub airports since the airline industry went into a slump following the terrorist attacks. The biggest single chunk of money for the new runway is coming from passenger facility charges, commonly called PFCs, which are tacked on to ticket prices for nearly every passenger who starts a journey in St. Louis or catches a connecting flight.
When it issued $435 million in construction bonds two years ago, the airport figured there would be plenty of money to cover the debt service. Under the terms of the bond, the city had to certify that net revenues would exceed the debt service -- the amount of money earmarked to pay bonds -- by at least 25 percent. At the time, the per-passenger PFC was $3, which increased to $4.50 in the latter part of 2001. At the lower rate, roughly half of the airport's PFC money would be needed for debt service, according to projections by Unison-Maximus. When PFCs increased to $4.50, just 29 percent of the proceeds would be required to service the debt, the consultant predicted. There would be enough left over to pay for yet-to-be-determined projects, the consultant predicted as recently as February.
The consultant's financial projections are key to borrowing money for the new runway, because the airport uses the studies to demonstrate it will have revenues at least 25 percent higher than the annual debt service, a condition of issuing bonds backed by PFCs and other airport revenue. Griggs called Unison-Maximus one of the airport's most important consultants when the airport in 2001 extended the company's contract until mid-January 2005 at a cost of $900,000. The airport had already paid the consultant approximately $680,000.
The importance of the consultant's role in airport finances is further reflected by Darlene Green's response when asked for details about Lambert's financial obligations and prospects. Through a spokesman, the comptroller referred questions to Unison-Maximus.
"It was probably all a part of the psychological bubble that we got into in 1998 and 1999 as a society, that was reflected in our capital markets," he says.
But optimism lingered after the recession, which began in 2001, became obvious.
By early this year, American Airlines was in serious financial trouble, and that spelled trouble for Lambert, considering that American accounts for more than 76 percent of the airport's total enplanements and more than 94 percent of connecting enplanements. When Unison-Maximus released its most recent report in February, American executives had announced a goal of cutting costs by $4 billion to stave off bankruptcy, eventually winning concessions from its unions totaling nearly half that amount.
Even before American announced in July that it would slash daily flights by 50 percent in November, the airline had been cutting daily departures, peaking at 512 in July 2001 and shrinking to 417 two years later, when the company announced it would cut daily flights to 207 in November. The cuts didn't escape the attention of Standard & Poor's analysts, who noted in a June report on hub airports that the number of seats on aircraft passing through Lambert plummeted by 47 percent between the second quarters of 2000 and 2003. That was the largest drop at any of the nation's 31 large hub airports. Coming in second was Washington's Dulles International, which saw a 40 percent decline. Overall, seat counts at large hub airports dropped by 14 percent.
Unison-Maximus, which has written at least four financial feasibility studies for the new runway since construction began, has always considered worst-case scenarios. But the studies proved wrong.
When TWA was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as the airport prepared to issue its first construction bonds in 2000, Unison-Maximus considered the possibility that the airline would cease operations. Even then, the airport's prospects were rosy. Other airlines would pick up half of the airline's connecting flights while the number of TWA passengers who embarked from Lambert or ended their journeys here would remain unchanged, Unison-Maximus predicted, leaving the airport with plenty of money for the runway and easily meeting the 25 percent borrowing test. At worst, annual enplanements would bottom out at 12.2 million in 2000, then begin a steady climb to 12.7 million in 2002. More likely, the airport with its TWA hub would board 15.3 million passengers in 2000 and reach nearly 16 million in 2002, the consultant said. The actual number in 2002 was 12.8 million.
Less than a month after American bought TWA in April 2001, Unison-Maximus predicted that airport net revenues would be enough to cover the debt service, plus 25 percent, if American shut down the St. Louis hub. But just barely, considering the airport was issuing $435 million in bonds that would increase annual debt service by more than $17 million. Drops in PFC revenue could force the airport to borrow additional money that would result in higher landing fees once the runway opened, the consultant warned. Passenger forecasts were almost identical to predictions a year earlier, with the number of passengers bottoming out at 12.4 million in fiscal year 2002 without a hub and dropping slightly to 15 million if a hub remained. The actual total that fiscal year was 12.6 million.
By December of last year, the picture, at least through Unison-Maximus' crystal ball, was brighter, despite American's bleak balance sheets and slumping air travel. Rather than consider a complete shutdown of American's St. Louis hub, Unison-Maximus changed the worst-case scenario to a 20 percent reduction in American flights and stayed with the more-optimistic estimate in a subsequent report published in February. That report estimated a 20-percent reduction would result in 11.8 million enplanements in fiscal year 2003 as opposed to its most-likely forecast of 12.6 million.
Drake says his company last year changed the worst-case scenario from a hub shutdown to a 20 percent reduction in flights because American had already cut daily flights by more than 100 since its Lambert operations peaked in the summer of 2001. In addition, Drake says the airport talked to airline executives shortly before the cuts were announced: They were given no indication that such a severe reduction was coming. As for cost-cutting goals announced by American before Unison-Maximus released its most recent study, Drake says his firm believed that the goals would be achieved through wage concessions by American's unions, increased efficiencies in maintenance and streamlined flight schedules short of steep reductions.
"I want to make it clear that the $4 billion [in cuts] did not really focus on airport operations, nor was the airport caught asleep, so to speak, because the airport had been in regular dialogue with American Airlines," Drake says. "A week before the announcement, airport management had been in American Airlines' offices during that conversation; American Airlines did not express an intent to reduce services to the level that they did."
Unison-Maximus predicted three years ago that the airport would collect $66 million in PFCs during fiscal year 2002, nearly $26 million more than actual revenue. Fewer passengers mean less money from parking and other concessions such as restaurants and car-rental agencies that do business at the airport. In fiscal year 2002, Unison-Maximus predicted concession revenue would be $41.25 million; actual collections were $34.24 million.
In its most-likely scenario released in February, which Unison-Maximus called "conservative," passenger counts would climb moderately through 2012, when Lambert would see more than 15 million enplanements, approaching the all-time high mark of 15.3 million recorded in 2000. Ever the optimist, Griggs last month told the St. Louis Business Journal that he expects to replace 100 of the lost American flights by next summer and completely make up for cutbacks by the time the new runway opens. Federal Aviation Administration forecasts are also optimistic, with the most recent predictions showing Lambert enplanements reaching 13 million in 2006 and rising to 19.8 million in 2020.
Boyd, the Colorado aviation consultant, says FAA projections aren't worth the paper they're printed on. "We do it bottom up," says Boyd, whose predictions are much darker. "We look at St. Louis. What's American Airlines going to do? What reaction might Southwest Airlines have? What we see is most of the connecting traffic at the airport is going to evaporate."
Enplanements, Boyd says, are likely to drop between 38 percent and 54 percent from 2000 to 2004, when he says Lambert enplanements will most likely be at 8.5 million. Boyd doesn't predict past 2008, when he calculates that Lambert will have about 8.6 million enplanements. He sees no chance of the airport topping 15 million enplanements within a decade, as Unison-Maximus predicted in February, nor will another airline step in to take American's place as a dominant hub carrier at Lambert. In a written bulletin released August 22, Boyd wrote that a few low-cost carriers might be interested in St. Louis, but that's a "very distant" possibility that amounts to "raw, uncut speculation."
Boyd has often been more accurate than either the FAA or consultants hired by airports. For example, Boyd's 1992 prediction of fewer than 700 million U.S. enplanements in 2000 was much closer to the actual mark of 709.2 million than the FAA's forecast of 1 billion. Boyd also correctly predicted hub shutdowns at Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; San Jose, California; and Nashville, Tennessee, airports.
Despite Griggs' statements to the Business Journal, Drake says preliminary revised forecasts are more in line with Boyd's predictions than with a scenario in which the airport completely recovers from American's cutbacks. In 2008, Drake foresees 8.5 million enplanements. "I want to caution you: The forecast is not completed as of yet," Drake says. "Even at the lower levels, we're confident in all years that we meet the requirements of the bond documents and we can meet the debt-service obligations."
Cash flow is another matter. Between lower-than-expected PFC revenue and reduced FAA grants based on passenger counts, the airport figures it will be $100 million short in paying construction bills on an ongoing basis. Airlines, which are supposed to pay for about one-third of the project, can't be forced to pony up through landing fees and rents until planes start landing on the new runway. "Most of the money that's been spent has been bond funds, which the airport has the obligation to repay, but only has the ability to repay when the project has been completed," Drake affirms.
The airport could borrow money to close the $100 million gap but would have to pay a premium in interest because it would be a short-term loan that would be paid off soon after the runway opens and the airport can collect from airlines. "It's just not the best way to do business," Drake says.
Even without new runway costs, landing fees have skyrocketed past projections made by Unison-Maximus.
Landing fees are determined annually based on traffic projections from airlines. After receiving projections, the airport calculates how much it must charge airlines to make ends meet.
Unison-Maximus in 2000 predicted airlines in fiscal year 2003 would pay $1.79 for every 1,000 pounds of an airplane's weight and $2.70 when the runway opened. The actual figure in fiscal year 2003, when aircraft weight totaled 22.2 billion pounds, was $2.47.
All told, airlines in fiscal year 2002 paid $4.94 per enplaned passenger to do business at Lambert, which collected nearly $70 million from airlines that year. The per-passenger cost now is $6.09, which is on the low end compared with other large hubs such as Pittsburgh International, which charges $10.27, and Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports in Washington, D.C., which charge approximately $13 and $15, respectively. Once the new runway opened and airlines started paying for it, Unison-Maximus three years ago predicted, the per-passenger cost would be $5.88. More recently, the consultant in February set the cost at $8 when the new runway opens. Ever the optimist, Griggs told the Business Journal last month that he wants to keep the per-passenger cost "somewhere around $8" when the new runway opens, even with American's cutbacks.
That's not likely, according to Peter Stettler, a director in the airports rating group of FitchRatings's public finance department, who believes the per-passenger cost could rise as high as $15. "That would get them a little ahead of the pack, but doesn't by any stretch of the imagination really get them into an uncompetitive situation," Stettler says. "It still seems, based on the forecasts they've given us, that their costs stay reasonably in line with the industry."
The picture will likely clear up after 2005, when terminal and gate leases for all airlines at Lambert expire. At that point, the airport will have to negotiate new deals sufficient to service debt for the new runway, plus cover operating costs.
In his interview with the Business Journal, Griggs acknowledged that PFC revenue will be $164 million less than originally projected between 2002 and 2007 -- which works out to fewer than 10 million enplanements per year -- if other airlines don't fill the gap created by American cutbacks. In the month after American announced reductions, other airlines added 14 flights, and Griggs predicted that airlines will add a total of 100 flights by next summer. When the new runway opens, Griggs told the Business Journal, he expects other airlines will have added enough flights to completely make up for reductions announced by American.
Boyd doesn't think so.
"There ain't nobody else that wants to put 200 flights a day in St. Louis," Boyd says. "In 2005 [when American's gate leases expire] you might have a couple of the world's longest bowling alleys: Concourses A and B." Boyd believes more cuts are coming from American. "I think when you're down to the levels they've announced, there's just almost no way this hub is going to remain a hub," he says. "American's going to keep that pretty close to its vest. How badly do they want to tick off [U.S. Representative Richard] Gephardt?"
Edward Jones' John Bachmann, who sits on American Airlines' board of directors, would presumably be in a position to know whether American can meet its cost-cutting goals without further reductions at Lambert. If so, he's not saying. "That, I can't talk about," he says. "You need to talk to the people at American. We have company spokesmen who have the details."
Bachmann refused to say whether he, as an investor, would buy airport bonds, saying Edward Jones' role in crafting airport-bond issues prohibited him from answering without creating a conflict of interest. But Bachmann is still bullish on the new runway. As far as he's concerned, now is the perfect time for construction bills to come due. Air travel will increase in the long term, he predicts, and that bodes well for Lambert.
"The airline industry is an incredibly cyclical industry," he says. "I think that's when you want them [bills] to come due, when the cycle's swinging up. The economy's improving. What I'm saying is, when you take the static out and take a look at this on a moving average, the demand is moving back up rapidly. That's what's going to determine the payment of the bonds."
Historically, Bachmann is right. Enplanements at Lambert increased from less than a million in 1961 to an all-time high of 15.3 million in 2000, an average annual increase of more than 7 percent. But there have been periods of little or no growth. For instance, enplanements at Lambert stayed relatively flat between 1985 and 1993. While the airline industry is healthier today than it was a year ago, that doesn't translate into higher passenger counts. According to the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, July enplanements in the U.S. were down nearly 1 percent from a year ago, even though airline revenue was up by more than 8 percent. That's because airlines crammed more people into fewer planes, increasing efficiency and profits.
With more than $85 million in debt service due during each of the next two fiscal years, bond analysts are less optimistic than Bachmann or Griggs about the short-term prognosis.
"I think St. Louis is going to have a difficult period here for the next couple of years as they adjust to the changes that have taken place at American," FitchRatings's Stettler says. "We put out a negative watch on the rating [in July] because there are things that have happened and it does look like it might end up in a downgrade. They've got their challenges in getting other carriers back. Over time, I see a good case that St. Louis could bounce back from what's happened here over the next five, six, seven years. In the short term, we may yet decide that the credit quality has deteriorated to the point where we do have to take some action right now."
Mary Ellen Wriedt, associate director at Standard & Poor's, says her agency thought that Unison-Maximus' worst-case scenario was "certainly possible," which is why the agency issued a negative outlook when the bonds were issued in May. The negative outlook is a signal to investors that the grade could change for the worse, and that's exactly what happened when American announced its cutbacks. Wriedt says Standard & Poor's takes forecasts by airport consultants with a grain of salt.
"We have our own opinions on where we think things might go," she says. "When American made those service-level decisions -- or announcements -- in July, they were greater than 20 percent. We just really felt that that kind of change in costs and cost structure at the airport was more consistent with a BBB+ rating in our rating universe. We were clear on which direction the costs were going, and the magnitude."
Even with empty concourses, Boyd thinks the new runway is a good idea.
Lambert's two main runways are too close together to be used simultaneously in bad weather, which leads to delays that can affect other airports forced to wait for planes to arrive from St. Louis. "Honestly, I've never seen a runway I don't like," Boyd says. "With or without a connecting hub, it will make the airport more efficient. I think it's an investment for the long-term future."
For Bachmann, the stakes couldn't be higher. He sees Lambert as the single most important ingredient in the region's economic health.
"Attracting business is not the most important thing," Bachmann says. "The most important thing is keeping the business you have. If it becomes inconvenient to travel from here, then you run the risk of seeing businesses putting more of their people in locations other than St. Louis."
The city comptroller also flies high on wings of hope.
"The airport's and the city's finances remain stable, but certainly, in light of American's cuts, we are planning accordingly to ensure financial stability continues," Darlene Green said in a statement. "Lambert Airport has a bright future, and I am optimistic that Lambert will continue to be the economic engine that drives the economy of the St. Louis region."
But Krekeler remains a show-me-the-money airport commissioner.
"The changes that have gone on in the past two years and what's going to happen in November are beyond anyone's imagination," he says. "If I was king, it never would have gotten this far. I'd stop what we were doing. It could still be an awful nice park or a golf course or something like that.
"You could plant grass and stop the bleeding right now."