Major U.S. airlines during the past two weeks reported
sustained growth in corporate travel demand and ongoing success in hiking
fares. Concern about surging oil costs should provide further momentum to raise
prices but potentially stifle capacity growth plans, according to airline
Meanwhile, fourth-quarter results were much improved around
the industry. Delta swung to a $19 million net profit from a $25 million loss
in 2009; AMR's $97 million net loss was less than a third of the loss from the year
prior; US Airways reversed a $79 million to loss to net $28 million, its first
fourth-quarter profit since 2006; Southwest piled on another $15 million from a
year earlier to achieve a $131 million profit for the quarter; and Alaska Air
Group said its $65 million net profit was among the "best results" in
its history. Reporting combined results following the United-Continental
merger, United Continental Holdings posted a $325 million fourth-quarter loss
including $485 million in one-time charges.
"We ended the year with overall corporate volumes in
line with levels we saw in 2007 and 2008," said Delta president Ed
Bastian, who last week claimed that the carrier's most recent data showed that
corporate revenues were up 23 percent year over year. "We are seeing
notable improvements in key sectors, with [auto industry] traffic driving
improvement in the international field and banking and retails contributing to
strong domestic performance."
US Airways president Scott Kirby claimed fourth-quarter
corporate demand grew 17 percent and has continued to improve in recent weeks.
"It feels like we've seen another step function improvement in that
business demand," he said, citing anecdotal evidence of companies boosting
attendance at meetings and "going back to the behavior they had in 2007
Executives at AMR and United also pointed to improving
corporate travel trends. "Corporate revenue increased for the quarter
versus last year, and we continue to have a corporate revenue share premium
versus the industry," said AMR CFO Bella Goren.
At United, chief revenue officer Jim Compton noted
"increasing corporate travel sales" as the company attracts new
accounts following the United-Continental merger. "In terms of business
traffic, it's been a slow recovery," he said. "What we're hearing
from corporate partners is that generally they're feeling better and business
traffic continues to improve, but again, that's a function of the
A Rising Tide Lifts All Fares
A key indicator of pricing,
passenger yield in the fourth quarter was up at all major U.S.
carriers—American's by nearly 7 percent, Delta's by 9 percent, and United
Continental's and US Airways' each by 11 percent. Southwest Airlines' average
fourth-quarter fare increased 9 percent to $131.17.
Passenger revenue per available seat mile during the fourth
quarter also increased at the largest U.S. airlines, ranging from
mid-single-digit to low double-digit percentages. Carriers reported particular
strength in transatlantic and transpacific markets, as well as in premium
Fare hikes continued during the past month. FareCompare.com
since mid-December counted four successful domestic price increases, though
none topped $10 each way. Said AA's Goren, "As fuel has been increasing,
there's also strengthening on the revenue side."
Looking ahead, "basically all months in 2011 will set a
new all-time high for both RASM and yield," US Airways' Kirby predicted.
Oil Prices Could
Curtail Capacity Growth
U.S. carriers generally have planned to grow 2011 capacity
by low single-digit percentages, favoring international markets. Executives at
American, Delta, United Continental and US Airways—in some cases at the
prodding of airline analysts—said they would recalibrate should oil prices
jeopardize profitable growth.
"We remain committed to capacity discipline," said
United CEO Jeff Smisek.
"In the past, capacity growth did not slow until oil
prices moved above $100 per barrel and stayed at that level," according to
a research note issued by Dahlman Rose & Co. airline analyst Helane Becker.
Crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Thursday traded above $87.