February 04, 2013
Credit: Credit: United Airlines
Andrew Compart Washington
After a year in which their travails and fortunes ranged from an ongoing journey through bankruptcy court protection to a $1 billion profit, the biggest U.S. carriers seem united in their expectation for better—or even better—financial results in 2013. They are optimistic about demand, although wary about the impact on some consumers of expired tax cuts, and believe carriers have learned their lessons about adding too much capacity when business is improving.
They also are beginning their new financial year in various stages of merger negotiation or integration—save for one big exception.
Delta Air Lines already has navigated those waters, having largely completed its integration with Northwest Airlines by late 2010, and its $1 billion profit in 2012 led the U.S. airline industry. The Atlanta-based airline's executives could spend the conference call on the airline's fourth quarter and full-year 2012 earnings talking about non-merger matters such as Delta's investment in an oil refinery and in U.K. carrier Virgin Atlantic, as well as the lead Delta has taken in restructuring regional carrier Pinnacle Airlines to be a low-cost partner for operating 76-seat jets.
On the refinery, Hurricane Sandy forced a temporary reduction in fuel production that contributed to a $63 million loss for the facility in the fourth quarter—adding 7 cents per gallon to the carrier's jet fuel costs. But Delta says it expects the refinery to post a “modest profit” in first-quarter 2013 and become financially stronger during the year.
Delta also talked about more mundane but equally important matters, such as the capacity discipline it believes has been the key to the U.S. airline industry's general recovery. In that respect, at least, CEO Richard Anderson says an American Airlines-US Airways merger would be a positive development because it would strengthen the industry's capacity restraint.
Delta President Ed Bastian sees “prudent capacity deployment” as one of the key factors in the airline's results, especially on the transatlantic services, which included a 7% year-over-year capacity reduction in the fourth quarter of 2012 and an 8-10% cut in the first quarter of 2013.
Even though Delta is optimistic on future demand, it continues to see strong corporate bookings and expects unit revenues to increase 4-6% in the first quarter, its first-quarter capacity will be down 2-4%—with a bigger cut for international than domestic—and may be flat for the full year.