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The Value of Relational Contracts in Outsourcing: Evidence from the 2008 Shock to the US Airline Industry

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Abstract: We study relational contracts as a means to govern transactions across firm boundaries. We focus on the airline industry, where real-time adaptation of flight schedules under bad weather is not formally contractible, and yet is essential for performance and long-term profitability. While outsourcing reduces the operating costs of major airlines, it increases their risk of failed adaptation due to a loss of control in favor of the regional partners. We theoretically show that majors and regionals can implement efficient rescheduling through self-enforcing relational contracts if their partnership’s present discounted value (PDV) outweighs the total adaptation cost. Using the beginning of the 2008 crisis as an exogenous shock, we find that, consistent with the centrality of relational contracts in governing airline partnerships, outsourced routes in networks with higher total adaptation cost, and hence higher PDV, were more likely to remain outsourced to the same partner after the crisis.

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