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For example, Delta cannot readily expand to Canada by any means because of regulatory limits on foreign carriers.
Competition is a key driver of change in the industry as well. Firms behave in a manner similar to oligopolies, responding to each other's moves. This forces firms to be creative with respect to how they attract and retain customers. An innovation like loyalty programs is easily replicated by all competitors in the industry, as is characteristic of monopolistic competition. Innovation, therefore, only leads to short-term gains, and firms within the industry need to constantly innovate and improve in order to win steady profits.
There are three main classes of competitors for Delta. The first consists of the other legacy carriers -- United, U.S. Airways, American Airlines among them. These carriers typically have similar cost structures to Delta and similar business models. Each operates a hub or hubs around the country and utilized the hub-and-spoke distribution model. The firms in the industry have the same customer base and therefore find it challenging to truly differentiate.
The second group of competitors consists of differentiated players. Discounters like Southwest and JetBlue are in this category as are regional players like Alaskan Airlines. The third group of competitors for Delta are international carriers. Many international carriers have landing rights at major U.S. airports and compete with U.S. carriers on international routes.
Delta, after its merger with Northwest, now has the largest market share of any U.S. carrier, with 17.1%. The market is heavily diffused, with American holding 14.3% share, Southwest a 13.1% share, United an 11% share, U.S. Airways an 8.3% share, Continental a 7.6% share. Delta is the only major airline with a hub in Atlanta, the other hub there being AirTran. Delta therefore has a competitive advantage in moving people around the Southeast, where it has a very high concentration of flights feeding into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Of the main competitors, all but Southwest are legacy carriers and at this point Southwest is old enough to be in that category as well, albeit not as obviously as some of the others.
Delta is increasing its revenues steadily, but its profits have been erratic. In the two recent years with massive losses (FY08 and FY06) the company has had significant write-downs that caused the losses. Only in FY2008, with high fuel prices and a recession, did the company have negative cash flow from operations. Investing activities and writedowns have proven the most harmful to cash flow and profit. In recent years, the company's cost of goods sold has increased significantly, from 38% in FY06 to a peak of 86% in FY08. This illustrates the role that fuel prices play in Delta's financial performance -- years with high fuel prices have very low operating margins. The company retired over $2.5 billion in debt in FY10, something that has helped to improve the balance sheet. Long-term debt stands at 30.52% of assets, down from a peak of 35.77%. Shareholders equity, unfortunately is a paltry 2% of the capital structure. This tells the story of a firm with financial difficult, given that equity was 31% of the capital structure in FY07. The company also has relatively poor liquidity, given a current ratio of 0.64.
All told, Delta's financial performance is mediocre. The company earned a profit last year on improved earnings, but overall remains without much financial strength. Equity is low, liquidity is low, and the company has experienced only limited profitability in the past five years, with only one year over $1 billion in profit in that span.
SWOT and Value Chain
Delta's strengths lie in the size of its route network, its international partnerships, its brand equity and its loyalty program. Ultimately, its competitors share these strengths. The company is weak financially, has high costs, and has not demonstrated any innovative management in recent years. Worse, there are few opportunities for Delta. If future consolidation is allowed by the Department of Justice, then this remains a possibility for Delta. However, the company is limited with respect to international growth and is probably saturated in the domestic market as well. The threats, however, are numerous, in the form of the economy, regulators and competitors in particular.
The value chain at Delta emphasizes the marketing and service elements, as well as inbound logistics. The latter is critical because of the importance of fuel hedging to the bottom line. The former are critical for enhancing capacity utilization. In particular, the Delta brand is a source of strength and if the company can build a stronger brand than its competitors, it is reasonable that it can win market share. Only marketing and service can build a brand superior to those of competitors.
Delta is in a difficult position. There are few opportunities in the environment that the company can take advantage of. There are also few options for sustainable competitive advantage -- Delta has this in Atlanta but that is only valuable to the extent that Atlanta is a superior hub to those of competing airlines. There are two recommendations, therefore, for Delta. The first is that the company should pursue consolidation domestically. The industry has a low level of concentration, so it is reasonable that Delta acquiring another airline would survive regulatory challenge. By building out scale and scope, a larger Delta would have a competitive advantage over its rivals until they too consolidated. Ultimately, Delta may need to work on ensuring that any acquisitions would be met with regulatory approval, and then pursue a smaller airline in order to build market share.
The second recommendation is to lower the fixed cost structure of the airline. The challenges that the company faces during times of suppressed demand illustrate that Delta does not have enough flexibility built into its operations. As a result, it should lower its fixed costs in order to improve its razor-thin margins. With little pricing power over most key inputs, Delta needs to ensure that its organization is highly-efficient, and that the result is better margins in the long run and the ability to adapt more rapidly to changes in market conditions.
The third recommendation for Delta is that it should reduce underperforming routes. These add to fixed costs, but are often unprofitable. This might mean surrendering competition in some markets. However, with few serious strategic options available to the firm, Delta must rationalize its operations even as it seeks a merger partner in order to keep its costs down and try to drive profits.
A fourth recommendation is that Delta focuses more on lucrative overseas routes. The company still mainly connects with Europe and some major centers in Asia. A South American presence is entirely reasonable that the company only flies to Johannesburg in the entire African continent. Overseas routes have lower competition levels and are therefore more profitable. Delta should build out this aspect of its business as much as possible.
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