modern technology

Up In The Air

© Can Stock Photo / jefras

We have written before about the miracle of air travel. You can go from breakfast on the coast to lunch in the middle of the country, renting the use of an $80 million machine and the services of $1 million in payroll for just a couple hundred dollars.

It is no wonder that US passengers flew 57% more miles in a recent year than they had twenty years before. This record of growth included the disruption caused by terrorists on 9/11. Our commercial aviation system was used against us, to devastating effect. Dramatic changes in the flying experience resulted. But traffic volumes still grew over the long term.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created a larger shock to air traffic volumes. Noted investor Warren Buffett, who had previously invested in four major US airlines, recently announced the sale of those holdings by his firm. Many are wondering what to think.

Our research and thinking will continue to evolve, but we do have thoughts to share.

  • Buffett had the luxury of selling out before news of his sales depressed the share prices. What we may choose to do today is a different set of choices than what could be done last month.
  • Although he is arguably the most successful investor in all of human history, he has proven to be wrong from time to time. (We treasure those moments when we were right and he was not– just ask us, we will tell you all about them.)
  • Buffett’s original idea, that he was buying $1 billion per year of earning power for an $8 billion investment in airline ownership, became obsolete. But perhaps the buyers of those shares have purchased $1 billion per year of future earning power for less money, $6 billion. No guarantees.

The future of air travel and participating companies is up in the air. But it seems likely to us that the miracle of air travel will sooner or later exert its charms over an increasing number of people from year to year. We are working to understand what this all means in terms of investment opportunities and challenges.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Traveling by Miracle

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / andyb1126

Next month I will be traveling again, to and from a conference. I’ll be going by miracle.

More specifically, air travel. I’ll fly on planes that cost about $80 million each. The planes are part of an airline company fleet that cost about $19 billion dollars. Of course, planes are useless without airports—and we spend another $19 billion per year on airport capital improvements in this country.

The planes and airports would not do us any good without the people who fly them, load them, change the sparkplugs, and do everything else it takes to run an airline. My airline spends $6 billion on the help each year. (OK, maybe planes do not have sparkplugs, but you get my drift.) Another $4 billion goes for fuel.

I’ll have breakfast in Nebraska and lunch in San Diego. A few days with colleagues and consultants, experts and peers, listening and presenting (a first for me, this year!): a priceless experience. Then back to Nebraska.

If I had to drive or take the train, the travel would take days and days. Instead, I get the use of these billions of invested capital and all those talented people to do the trip in hours instead of days.

All this for a few hundred dollars. It is traveling by miracle. The company that serves me lives in mortal fear that the next company will figure out a way to serve me better for less money, so it is on a perpetual quest to provide even better value for my buck. As a customer, I’m really doing well in this transaction.

If I choose, I can be more than a customer. I could also be a percentage owner of the aircraft maker, the energy company that provides the fuel, and the airline itself. I could lend these companies money by buying their bonds, and collect interest from them.

On my journey, I will probably meet at least one person who complains about the service, or a slight delay, or the crying baby, or the security procedures. But I’ll be counting my blessings that I was born to this place and age, and enjoying the miracles around me.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.