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GUEST COMMENTARY: Direst strait keeps Delta CEO up at night

Thursday, March 22, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Richard Anderson is feeling good. About his airline. About Memphis.

As CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc., why wouldn't he?

He's the top executive at what is now the largest airline in the world in terms of passengers and number of commercial airliners.

Delta is on track to make millions in profits again this year — after ringing the bell with back-to-back years of record profits in 2010 ($593 million) and 2011 (estimated at $800 million). The company is buying new jets, improving its airport facilities — including an $80 million upgrade in Memphis — and has mostly good relations with its 80,000 employees — particularly after paying out 4.5 percent salary bonuses to workers.

Thanks in large degree to Anderson's steady hand, Delta has emerged from its 2007 bankruptcy to become a star player in a very competitive industry. For his efforts, Anderson earned $4.76 million last year.

Yet when asked at an editorial board meeting of The Commercial Appeal what keeps him up at night, Anderson didn't hesitate.

''Strait of Hormuz,'' he said.

You're excused if you can't find the place on the map. Clue: It's not in Mississippi.

But you do need to brush up on your geography. Because when the CEO of Delta Air Lines can't sleep after thinking what a tiny band of blue water 7,000 miles away could mean to his company, it's safe to say that Memphis International Airport and the greater Memphis economy need a dose of insomnia as we get to MapQuest and search.

The Strait of Hormuz is a tiny ocean channel, barely 21 miles wide, that pinches between Iran on one shore and Oman on the other in the Persian Gulf. This year, about 35 percent of all the oil shipped by sea to ports around the world must squeeze through the Strait of Hormuz. That's 25 giant oil tankers a day, bringing vital fuels to refineries all over the world that make gasoline, lubricants — and jet fuel.

''Delta is the largest private purchaser of jet fuel in the United States,'' Anderson said. He said the company spent nearly $12 billion on fuel in 2011, up from about $9 billion in 2009.

The $3 billion rise in fuel costs is the result, Anderson says, of what he calls the Strait of Hormuz effect.

It's driving the price of oil up by $20 a barrel, he says, because of the uncertainty over Iran's nuclear ambitions and the subsequent political saber-rattling by the United States, Israel and other nations.

This added cost for oil isn't because of any rise in demand by airlines or consumers for fueling this country. Delta and all other U.S. airlines are back to the size they were a decade ago. Consumers are buying about the same amount of gasoline as they did in the mid-1990s.

Yet a barrel of oil costs more, and the average price of an airline ticket out of Memphis is among the highest in the country — and that's not even the scary part.

Because the $20 Strait of Hormuz premium is already factored in to all of this — the jet fuel prices, the high-priced tickets, the cutbacks in consumer driving.

What isn't factored in, and what puts the bags under Anderson's eyes, is the prospect that America, or Israel, or some combination of military powers, will attack Iran. And then Iran, in retaliation, will block the Strait of Hormuz.

If that occurs, the price of a barrel of oil could go to $440. That estimate was made just a few days ago by Bob Bandos, North American executive for the shipping services company GAC, which is the largest independent shipping and transport service company in the world.

What would an overnight 300 percent increase in the price of a barrel of oil mean to this country?

Well, look back to the one time it happened — in 1973 during the Arab oil embargo, when the tankers stopped coming through the Strait of Hormuz. Chaos reigned supreme: record unemployment; huge lines at gas stations, staggering inflation. Businesses ruined. Political and military unrest around the world.

With some bemusement, and a rather long silence, Richard Anderson declined an opportunity to reflect on the recent Republican presidential debates where the leading candidates talked tough on Iran.

Mitt Romney supports : ''A military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions."

Newt Gingrich chimes in: "Going to war to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.''

Rick Santorum says: ''If Iran doesn't dismantle its nuclear facilities we will tear them down ourselves.''

Anderson didn't want to get in the middle of a political fight. Or choose sides.

He did note the news that the U.S. State Department seems to have taken an important step with North Korea in negotiating a path forward to reduce that country's rogue nuclear weapons program. ''And if we can negotiate with North Korea, why can't we solve it in Iran?'' he asked.

He quickly followed up to say he isn't a politician, but an airline CEO. But then he listed again the three things that keep him awake late, even at this shining moment for himself and his company: Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Hormuz.

In the months ahead, don't be surprised if those worries start to keep all Americans fretting into the dawn.

Chris Peck is the editor of The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal. This column was reprinted with permission.


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