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Count it Up: Airline Losses and Gains for 2009

‘Tis the season for airline financial reports, where we, the traveling public, can really take the airline industry’s pulse. I’ll update this blog entry with financials as they are released.

American: American announced a net loss of $344 million in the fourth quarter of 2009 ($415 million if you exclude “special items), and a net loss of $1.5 billion for the year. This is actually an improvement over 2008, when the airline lost $2.1 billion.

No matter how bad the raw numbers are, airlines always try to put a positive spin on their horrific losses. American claims it “took many positive steps to manage through near-term challenges and position itself for long-term success,” including capacity cuts and a partnership with British Airways and Iberia.

Interestingly, the airline is proposing a slight uptick in capacity in 2010, around 0.9 percent overall. Domestic capacity is expected to drop slightly, but international capacity will rise just over 3 percent. This increase includes routes that were canceled due to the H1N1 outbreak, as well as new service from Chicago to Beijing, which was deferred from last year.

Continental: Continental posted a surprising fourth quarter profit of $85 million, and a less-surprising but relatively modest full-year loss of $295 million.

Continental CEO Jeff Smisek sounded a cautiously optimistic tone for the coming year, saying, “While we are seeing some business traffic increasing, we likely have a long and slow road to recovery.”

Continental’s financial numbers are surprising mainly because few analysts predicted any of the country’s larger carriers would make money in the fourth quarter.

Southwest: While yearly profits at Southwest are about as reliable as the sun coming up, many were predicting an annual loss in 2009. Not so, says Southwest, which closed the year with a strong fourth quarter and posted a $99 million profit for the year. It is the airline’s 37th consecutive profitable year.

That annual profit is due largely to the carrier’s higher-than-anticipated $116 million profit in the fourth quarter.

CEO Gary Kelly pointed to customer-friendly policies (namely that it doesn’t charge bag fees) and careful route expansion as reasons for the airline’s success.

Delta: The world’s largest carrier posted better-than-expected numbers, with a net loss of “only” $25 million in the fourth quarter. The airline’s total loss of $225 million, however, was below some expectations. Last year, Delta posted a $1.4 billion loss in the fourth quarter. The relatively good performance is due largely to lower costs, which “decreased $1.2 billion due to lower fuel expense, reduced capacity, productivity improvements and merger benefits.”

For the year, Delta’s net loss was $1.2 billion.

“2009 was a difficult year by any measure,” Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in the airline’s release. “As a result of the strategic pieces we put in place in 2009 and the strong momentum of our merger integration, Delta is now positioned to capitalize on the economic recovery.” To that end, Delta expects its operating margin to break even this quarter and for mainline capacity to decrease between 3 and 5 percent, all signs which point to stability, if not profitability, in the near future.

United: United posted a net loss of $176 million for the fourth quarter, and a net loss of $1.1 billion for all of 2009. Both figures are significantly better than those from 2008, notably the fourth quarter numbers, which improved by $1.1 billion over last year.

Most of this improvement is due to reduced costs. In 2009, United spent $4.6 billion less than in 2008, largely thanks to lower fuel costs.

In its release, United mentions several times that “preliminary industry results” show it “ranked first among the five U.S. network carriers in on-time arrival performance in both the fourth quarter 2009 and full year 2009.”

AirTran: The low-cost carrier posted record profits in both the fourth quarter of 2009 and the full year, in which all four quarters were profitable. AirTran pulled in $17.1 million in the fourth quarter, and $134.7 million for the entire year.

AirTran points to its operating cost, which was “the lowest non-fuel operating cost per mile” in the industry, as a main component of its success. Also factoring in, as with most carriers, was a drop in fuel expenses. AirTran spent $516 million less on fuel in 2009 than in 2008.

Looking forward, the airline is expected to raise capacity between 3 and 4 percent during 2010.

US Airways: US Airways reported losses for both the fourth quarter and full year of 2009. In the fourth quarter, the carrier posted a $32 million loss, a vast improvement over last year’s $222 million fourth-quarter loss.

For the year, US Airways lost $499 million, again a big leap forward from last year’s $808 million loss.

In its release, CEO Doug Parker said this year’s improvements justified the occasionally unpopular changes implemented this year. “The actions we have put in place to address the challenges of the past two years—capacity cuts, a la carte revenues, cost control, and a commitment to efficient operating reliability—are working.”

He also cited the airline’s improvements in customer service, pointing to an 80 percent on-time arrival rate for 2009, a 36 percent year-over-year improvement in baggage handling, and a 34 percent reduction in customer complaints.

JetBlue: JetBlue posted profits for the fourth quarter and the full year. In the quarter, JetBlue took in $20 million, compared to a $51 million fourth-quarter loss last year. JetBlue’s full-year profit was $99 million, versus a $90 million loss in 2008. Like AirTran, JetBlue was profitable in all four quarters this year.

As for the year ahead, the airline said, “Capacity is expected to increase between six and eight percent in the first quarter and to increase between five and seven percent for the full year. JetBlue expects all of its capacity growth to be driven by its Boston and Caribbean markets. Capacity in the rest of JetBlue’s network is expected to decrease year over year.”

Stay tuned for more updates.

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