(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With their bookings collapsing, airlines are frantically trying to preserve cash by cancelling flights, deferring aircraft deliveries, sending employees home and drawing down credit lines with banks. Brussels plans to help by suspending European Union rules that require companies to keep flying to retain their takeoff slots. The Donald Trump administration has promised unspecified assistance.
But for some weaker carriers these efforts may be in vain. Deutsche Lufthansa AG boss Carsten Spohr predicts “numerous insolvencies” in the industry. Qantas Airways Ltd.’s chief executive officer, Alan Joyce, says similar. Judged by the recent strains and failures in the travel sector, the timing and extent of those bankruptcies could be determined by a pocket-sized piece of plastic: your credit card.
Co-branded credit cards linked to frequent flier programs are a lucrative source of revenue for airlines, particularly in the U.S. But problems can arise in relation to so-called “credit acquirers.” These entities are separate from the banks, which issue the credit cards to consumers. Rather, the credit acquirers act as intermediaries to authorize and process card payments. Importantly, they also issue refunds to customers if a company goes bust before they travel.
When British regional airline Flybe collapsed earlier this month, it was reported that these credit-card processors were withholding about 50 million pounds ($64 million) of its customers’ cash as a reserve — for possible use as refunds. Card acquirers were also sitting on about 50 million pounds of Thomas Cook Group Plc’s customer receivables last year when the tour operator went bust, despite a last-ditch plea for the funds to be released.
In both cases that cash was being held as cover for trips that customers had paid for but not yet taken. Credit card companies tend to increase how much of this money they hold onto if a particular airline gets into financial difficulty. They don’t want to end up carrying the can on reimbursing disappointed travelers.
Unfortunately, as with suppliers that tighten their credit terms for financially distressed companies, a credit card processor that holds back more money risks pushing a cash-strapped airline over the edge. “Payments is only one part of an airline’s operations but it has the ability to bring down the whole business. It’s almost always the final nail in the coffin that stops you trading” says George Willis, head of business development at payments consultancy CMSPI.
As well as airlines, cruise lines, tour operators and concert promoters also all depend on taking credit card payments from customers well in advance of delivering the service in order to fund their businesses.
With the virus starting to decimate forward booking for overseas travel, it’s probable that the credit acquirers will be examining their exposure to the sector even more carefully now, just as they did a decade ago after the financial crisis. In 2008 Frontier Airlines Holdings Inc. blamed its bankruptcy on a credit card processor’s decision to hold more cash in reserve.
The card acquirer sector is very profitable and is consolidating rapidly. Worldpay Inc. was acquired by Fidelity National Information Services Inc. in a $34 billion deal, Fiserv Inc. bought rival First Data Corp. for $22 billion and Global Payments Inc. bought Total System Services Inc. for $21.5 billion. JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Barclaycard are also big players.
In contrast, the heavily indebted and unprofitable Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, has for months been trying to secure more capacity from credit card acquirers because the current ones have been withholding more of its money. Norwegian’s receivables balance — the cash due from customers — ballooned by $460 million last year, which it attributed in part to money being held back by credit card acquirers. The airline, whose shares have collapsed, held only about $320 million of cash at the end of December.
You can understand why the credit card companies do this because being caught out can prove costly. Thomas Cook’s card companies probably had to foot a bill of several hundred million pounds in customer refunds. When Monarch Airlines went bust in 2017, an Icelandic card acquirer suffered a large volume of reimbursements and was later recapitalized.
“A card acquirer doesn’t ask for a bigger security deposit just for the fun of it — whatever they ask for will be less than their ultimate liability,” says Carl Churchill, managing director of Netpay Solutions Group Ltd., a fintech. “It’s not in their interest to topple an airline or tour operator but their job isn’t to provide security or capital.”
Unsurprisingly, some airlines have been pushing other payment methods as a way to keep control of more of their own cash – Norwegian plans to accept cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. For now, the travel industry remains hugely reliant on the credit card acquirers. That dependency is about to be tested.
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Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.
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