Analysis for The Americas
Europe’s largest airline group has decided to further revise full-year capacity growth downwards to 0.5% and rigorously pursue its SCORE restructuring programme to protect yield and combat the dire operating environment marked by economic uncertainties in Europe, a night-flight ban at its main hub in Frankfurt, increased air traffic taxes and above all high fuel prices. Lufthansa Group’s decision follows an unsatisfactory performance in 1H2012 in its passenger airline business segment, which recorded an operating loss of EUR179 million, widening the EUR100 million operating loss recorded in the year-ago period despite a 7.2% increase in revenue to EUR11.2 billion.
The Group’s airlines recorded diverging results and highlights the need to cut costs at its largest unit Lufthansa while simultaneously increasing synergies between the different airlines. Lufthansa German Airlines amassed a 1H2012 operating loss of EUR300 million (nearly double the EUR146 million operating deficit reported 1H2011) while SWISS and Austrian Airlines earned EUR48 million and EUR26 million, respectively. Austrian’s operating performance reflects the ruthless restructuring implemented by CEO Jaan Albrecht and the noteworthy turnaround is in contrast to the declining performance of Lufthansa Group’s long-standing star SWISS.
Canadian low-cost star WestJet delivered a 66% rise year-on-year in 2Q2012 profits to CAD42.5 million (USD42.2 million) as strong demand helped lift the carrier’s revenues by 9% to CAD809 million (USD804 million). But despite showing confidence that positive revenue trends will continue, WestJet has further revised its full-year 2012 unit cost guidance upwards driven by hiring staff to accommodate its winter schedule, shorter stage-lengths and a slight capacity reduction stemming from an aircraft reconfiguration project to install a premium economy section on its fleet of 100 Boeing 737s.
Similar to its US codeshare partner Delta, WestJet believes the costs it is incurring from certain investments in the short term will produce favourable margin expansion over the long term, particularly the addition of eights seats on its 17 737-800s as part of the reconfiguration project scheduled to begin in Aug-2012. The carrier is also increasing its technology spend to improve its product merchandising. But those investments along with other cost pressures has resulted in WestJet issuing its second revision to unit costs guidance excluding fuel for the full year to 3%-3.5% from 1.5% to 2.5%.
Special charges stemming from the integration of United and Continental after their 2010 merger were a major contributor to the company’s 2Q2012 profits falling 37% year-over-year. Despite echoing comments made by other carriers that demand remains relatively stable against a backdrop of macroeconomic uncertainty, United’s revenue performance continues to lag behind its US industry peers, and it is not clear when the gap will be closed.
United recorded USD206 million in special charges during 2Q2012, of which USD137 million, or 66%, stemmed from integration costs related to the merger. The charges pressured the carrier’s quarterly profits, which year-over-year fell from USD538 million to USD339 million. Excluding those items United’s profit for 2Q2012 grew to USD545 million.
Delta Air Lines enjoyed strong revenue growth during 2Q2012 as demand remained steady despite the negative macro economic headlines from Europe that continue to fuel global jitters. The carrier’s forward bookings for 3Q2012 indicate both corporate and leisure demand is holding steady despite underlying economic uncertainty. But as the carrier’s revenue performance continues to be strong, Delta is facing steady cost headwinds throughout the remainder of the year as a result of capacity cuts and product investments that the carrier assures will produce margin gains in the future.
Unfavourable settlements in its fuel hedging portfolio drove Delta to a 2Q2012 loss of USD168 million. Excluding special items that included the losses on fuel hedges and expenses associated with 2,000 employees opting to take early-out packages, Delta’s profit during the quarter was USD586 million, compared with a USD198 million profit in 2Q2011.
Executives at Southwest Airlines are remaining cautious even as the carrier recorded a healthy 42% increase in 2Q2012 profits on a nearly 12% rise in revenue. But the carrier’s cost creep continued throughout the first six months of 2012, and Southwest warns of rising unit costs throughout the remainder of the year. The anticipated cost pressure coupled with uncertain domestic economic trends have led Southwest to remain subdued in its outlook even as demand and pricing continue to remain strong.
Southwest’s 2Q2012 performance was strong across all the key financial metrics as net income increased from USD161 million to USD228 million year-over-year. Operating revenues increased from USD4 billion to nearly USD5 billion, aided by a 5% rise in average fares to USD150. The carrier also reported a impressive 122% jump in operating income during 2Q2012 to USD407 million. Southwest’s performance during the quarter was a marked improvement from the USD18 million net loss and 90% drop in operating income the carrier recorded in 1Q2012.
Major European airports – some privatised, others in the public sector – have released financial results for 1Q2012 and in two cases for FY2011. Unlike the last time an across-the-board results survey was undertaken, in 2011, there is a greater degree of uncertainty in some countries in this first quarter that is reflected in these reports but there still remain more positive than negative results, especially in Scandinavia.
Persistently high fuel costs and challenges in a passenger system information technology cutover pushed United Airlines into a loss for 1Q2012 as its unit revenues lagged behind US legacy peers. Forecasts for the month of Apr-2012 show the lacklustre revenue performance continuing before heading into May-2012 when comparisons become increasingly difficult due to numerous fare increases pushed through in 2011. Despite the weak performance relative to the rest of the US airline industry, United remains confident it is taking the right steps through its merger with Continental Airlines to remain competitive over the long term. But for the moment the carrier is not disclosing a timetable of when it might close the unit revenue gap with its industry peers.
Special charges related to the passenger service system cutover in March and other integration expenses pushed United to a 1Q USD448 million loss compared with a loss of USD213 million the year prior. The cutover was the final step in combining United and Continental, and now that it is complete the Continental name has been retired.
Despite 1Q loss, Delta is bullish on profitability as it strengthens hubs and cuts Atlantic capacity
Delta Air Lines intends to improve this year on the USD1.2 billion profit it posted in 2011 despite recording a pre-tax USD36 million loss 1Q2012. The carrier believes strong demand and revenue trends will continue throughout 2012, allowing it to recoup increases in fuel expenditure that rose USD250 million during the first three months of 2012.
The pre-tax loss was a USD355 million year-on-year improvement of Delta’s 1Q2011 results, driven by a strong revenue performance despite headlines of a spreading recession in Europe and the uncertain ripple effects of the continent’s economic woes. Factoring in USD136 million in special items, including the favourable settlement of fuel hedges and a USD39 million gain from the settlement of its airport slot swap with US Airways, Delta recorded a USD163 million profit. Its net loss excluding those items was USD39 million.
A first quarter loss at Southwest Airlines was accompanied by a better-than-expected result in the carrier’s unit cost performance driven in part by labour productivity improvements. The carrier is striking a cautiously optimistic tone regarding the rest of the year, indicating it should record a favourable financial performance if fuel prices remain at current levels. But until Southwest completes the integration of AirTran Airways into its operations by 2014, the carrier will be constrained in reaching its full revenue potential.
Favourable gains on the settling of certain fuel hedge contracts helped Southwest to record a first quarter profit of USD98 million. But excluding special items the carrier’s loss was USD18 million compared with a USD20 million profit the year prior. The airline’s operating income tumbled USD100 million to USD10 million as the carrier recorded fuel and oil expense of USD1.5 billion, a 45.5% rise from 1Q2011. On a combined basis with AirTran, Southwest’s operating revenue was USD86 million.