essays and articles by david g allen

As Investments, Airlines Have Bumpy Rides


Until recently, I had four distinct memories of Charleston's airport.

The most vivid, of course, was my first landing. I kept wondering if the pilot was ever going to descend low enough to land when, all of a sudden, the runway was right under the plane. That first landing on a hilltop was an unforgettable thrill. And then wondering whether the pilot would ever get the plane stopped in time more or less topped the thrill of landing.

That landing brought back memories of a plane crash at the airport many years prior. I remembered the dope-filled DC-7 that came in too low and went kersplat. The plane crash, however, wasn't as newsworthy as was the response by a sheriff's deputy. At first, he was praised for getting to the crash scene so quickly. Then it was learned that he was actually there to meet the plane.

After Tom Wolfe's bestseller "The Right Stuff" was made into a movie, the Charleston airport was named in honor of Brig. Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager. You just knew that Chuck Yeager had the right stuff when he quipped that having the airport named for him must be an honor because it's so hard to land a plane there.

And my other memory of the airport was reading a newspaper article from the mid-1940s in which the author pointed out the benefits of building Charleston's (proposed new) airport at Teays Valley to serve both Huntington and Charleston. That did not happen. Charlestonians wanted their own airport regardless of its location.

Allow me to pause here and mention Warren Buffett. As you know, Mr. Buffett became one of the world's richest men because he is a brilliant investor. Even so, the Sage of Omaha once made a poor stock pick -- US Airways. He later conceded his error and said, "If capitalists had been present at Kitty Hawk when the Wright brothers' plane first took off, they should have shot it down." No one, not even Warren Buffett, has made money on airline investments.

Until now, that is. Because this time, it's different.

The descendents of the tribe that flattened seven of Charleston's hills by moving enough earth and rock to rival the construction of the Panama Canal are now going to get into the airline business. Yeager Airport is going to be home to a startup, discount airline -- code name: Jet America.

My sources tell me that investors and public officials from Kanawha County sealed the deal after being flown to Nebraska, where they feasted on Omaha steaks at Warren's Buffet, a trendy eatery in Scotts Bluff.

Charleston, Kanawha County and the state have announced they will pony up $2.2 million in seed money for the Jet America start-up. All of this money comes from taxes or public grants.

Jet America is modeled after Skybus, the discount carrier that operated out of Columbus, Ohio. In less than a year of operation, Skybus lost so much money that it unceremoniously pulled the plug April 4. Travelers were stranded. Employees were left in the lurch. And everyone who held a ticket for a future flight is probably out their money.

It goes without saying that Port Columbus airport, the state of Ohio and investors have lost money -- about $160 million. Yet just last spring, Skybus was going to revitalize Port Columbus and central Ohio. Because that time, it was different.

In this current round of airline bankruptcies, the airlines are blaming high fuel prices. Before this, they blamed pilots' salaries. Before that, they blamed machinists' salaries. Before that, it was airport fees or not enough landing slots.

The reason why airlines go in and out of bankruptcy so often is actually quite simple -- there is too much capacity in the industry. Too many seats lead to poaching customers to gain market share.

There seems to be no shortage of people who think airlines are a good investment. The business does have a certain allure, not unlike that of horse racing. Perhaps, it is that allure that makes investors convince themselves that this time, it's different.

But really. What do I know? I don't own airline stock.



"As Investments, Airlines Have Bumpy Rides" originally appeared in the April 11,  2008 issue of the West Virginia State Journal and was reprinted in the April 13, 2008 issue of the (Clarksburg, WV) Exponent-Telegram.



Copyright 1990-2008  David G. Allen