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OM in the News: Delta Wants to Pump Its Own Fuel

April 8, 2012

When we discuss vertical integration in Chapter 11 and core competencies in Supplement 11, we never considered an airline buying an oil refinery to slash its fuel bills. But as The Wall Street Journal (April 6, 2012) reports, that is exactly what Delta Air Lines is trying to do. Delta’s unconventional proposal to acquire a Pennsylvania refinery is a bet that world’s second-largest airline can save $20-$25 a barrel on jet fuel, a big advantage as industry costs now approach $140 a barrel, up 11% so far this year.

Delta’s plan is being dismissed by aviation and energy industry experts, who said owning a refinery is a risky and potentially costly undertaking for an airline. “We are a little uncomfortable about the company going outside its core expertise,” says an analyst who follows Delta. “I can’t recall any other airline buying a refinery.”

The estimated $100 million to $150 million price tag for the refinery is about the cost of a new, wide-bodied aircraft. Delta’s plan would involve using an energy company partner that would handle day-to-day operation of the midsize refinery.  Its deliberations are the boldest step yet in an airline industry struggling to mitigate rising fuel prices that are expected to continue long term. Delta, which paid more than $11 billion for fuel last year–about 36% of its operating cost– has ongoing cost-saving efforts and is investing heavily in more fuel-efficient planes.

Other carriers, of course, also work hard to control their largest cost. Air Canada scours the globe for vessel shipments of jet fuel that it brings to its home airports in an elaborate supply chain of fuel-storage depots, pipelines and docks, leased rail cars, barges, and trucks. Fuel costs are up about 25% over last year.

Discussion questions:

1. What is Delta’s core competency and what are the chances this approach will be successful?

2. What are some other examples of vertical integration in major businesses?

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