What Headwinds? Airlines To Book Their 10th Straight Year Of Profitability

What Headwinds? Airlines to Book Their 10th Straight Year of Profitability

Domestic airlines weren’t exempt from the rout that hit stocks in December, the market’s worst month since the Great Recession. Shares of all four major U.S. carriers - American, Delta, United Continental, and Southwest - saw double-digit losses. Delta ended December down 17.8 percent, its worst month since October 2009, when it gave back 20.3 percent.

The losses appeared to extend into the new year. On January 3, Delta forecast slightly slower revenue growth on concerns of a global economic slowdown, not to mention the partial U.S. government shutdown. In its first month, the shutdown—which ended Friday as President Donald Trump signed a bill to extend spending for three weeks—cost the U.S. aviation industry about $105 million, according to consulting firm ICF. Delta’s stock lost almost 9 percent for the January 3 trading day. Shares of the other three major airlines fell as well, though not by as much.

I believe the selloff was overdone, and the market seems to have agreed. Investors who bought the dip were rewarded. From January 3 to January 25, Delta shares recouped about 4.5 percent. Over the same period, the NYSE Arca Airline Index soared about 14.7 percent.

Ancillary Revenues Helped Offset Higher Fuel Costs in 2018

Much of this enthusiasm was driven by better-than-expected full-year and fourth-quarter earnings reports from a number of domestic carriers.

For 2018, United reported impressive earnings per share (EPS) of $7.70, up 9 percent from 2017. This came even while total fuel costs were 34 percent higher. The carrier is now projecting an EPS of between $10 and $12 this year, based not just on increased demand but also growing ancillary revenue.

As a reminder, “ancillary revenue” includes all non-ticket items such as baggage fees, assigned seating, credit cards, loyalty programs and more. According to consultancy firm IdeaWorks, such fees on a global scale stood at a mind-boggling $92.9 billion in 2018, an increase of 312 percent since 2010. Of that amount, the “big four” U.S. airlines netted close to $27 billion. Taken together, these additional revenues have helped airlines offset rising fuel and labor costs.

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Disclosure: 

The S&P 500 Index (Standard & Poor's 500 Index) is a market-capitalization-weighted. index of the 500 largest U.S. publicly traded ...

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