Will Delta Sell Airelite

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Not many people outside of the airline industry know this, but Delta Airline owns and operates a lucrative division of private jets. Delta AirElite, as it is known, is the single bright spot in an otherwise dark business environment for this U.S. legacy carrier. Some are speculating that Delta should sell its AirElite business to raise funds and turn around the carrier, but I have another more radical take on things that I believe should be considered instead.

Established in 1984, Delta AirElite has been steadily growing and making money for Delta. While the airline part of the company is rapidly and continually hemorrhaging cash, AirElite continues to make money and grow. Indeed, with a fleet of sought after business jets in its portfolio including the Challenger 300, Gulfstream IV-SP, and Learjet 31A, AirElite is an attractive company for any potential suitor.

Truly, if Delta were to sell AirElite it would only slow the bleeding for Delta, not stop it. With debt totals exceeding $20 billion, a sale of AirElite would likely only fetch the carrier a few hundred million dollars, if that. Last year, Delta sold off its Delta Connection carrier, Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA), for $425 million cash to Skywest Airlines. The sale was perceived by industry analysts as a desperate one as ASA was valued to be worth between $700-800 million dollars. The sale took place just before the airline filed for bankruptcy in September 2005, and had no effect in stemming the filing.

So, what should Delta do? In my opinion, get out of the airline business altogether. That’s right, instead of laying off thousands of additional workers and requiring steep give backs in employee wages, Delta might consider selling all of its assets off piece by piece to the competition. This would especially make sense as Delta’s restructuring is dependent on steady fuel prices and, at this point, airlines can expect to pay even more for fuel in 2006 than they did last year. Kiss that recovery plan goodbye!

Once the airline business is sold, AirElite should be all that is left of Delta. The “new” company can thrive as the business aviation market is booming. The writing is on the wall for the airlines as further consolidation, retrenchment, and big time price pressure will remain. Indeed, once Virgin America gets official government approval to fly, its fleet of 105 modern Airbus jets will have much more appeal to passengers than Delta’s aging fleet. One more reason for Delta to get out of the commercial airline business now.

Is my recommendation radical? Yes, it is. Delta, however, is in too much of a hole to ever recover. Better to realize that now when their assets have some value than to wait until what they have slips away forever. By that time, even AirElite may get dragged down and suffer.

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