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Despite Huge Losses, Airlines Promise Clear Skies Ahead

It’s earnings season, which means that publicly traded companies are reporting their fourth-quarter financial results and, more significantly, their results for the full 12 months of 2008.

For the airlines, with very few exceptions, those results have been grim.

We’ve reported on the losses sustained by [% 2818118 | | Southwest %], [% 2817462 | | American %], and [% 2819600 | | Delta %], three of the country’s largest, most successful airlines.

In the past few days, five more airlines have weighed in with significant losses, as follows:

  • In its fourth quarter,
    AirTran had a net loss of $118.4 million. And for the full year, the loss was $273.8 million, compared to a $52.7 million profit in 2007.
  • Alaska Airlines reported a full year 2008 net loss of $135.9 million, compared to net profit of $124.3 million in 2007. For the year’s final quarter, Alaska’s loss was $75.2 million, versus a profit of $7.4 million in 2007.
  • Continental reported a 2008 net loss of $585 million and a fourth quarter net loss of $266 million.
  • JetBlue posted a pre-tax loss of $49 million in the fourth quarter, and a pre-tax loss of $76 million for the full year, compared to a pre-tax profit of $41 million for the full year 2007.
  • US Airways reported a net loss of $541 million for the fourth quarter of 2008, compared to a loss of $79 million for the same period last year. For the full year, the company reported a net loss of $2.2 billion, compared to a net profit of $427 million in 2007.

There were two airlines that bucked the negative trend—[% 2822732 | | Frontier %], which posted its first fourth-quarter profit in five years, and Las Vegas-based Allegiant, which earned $18.2 million for the quarter and $35.4 million for the year. But their results were clearly not indicative of the industry’s overall direction.

Most of the airlines put a positive spin on their dismal 2008 performance, acknowledging the losses but promising better times to come. The following from Bob Fornaro, AirTran’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, is typical: “2008 was an especially tough and challenging year … Despite the industry challenge shifting from high oil costs to concerns regarding consumer demand, our 2008 initiatives have us well positioned to return to profitability in 2009.”

The traveling public can only hope the optimism is well founded. Because the alternative would be another wild ride like the one in the aftermath of 9/11, when consumers needed a scorecard to keep track of which airlines were operating under protection of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and which carriers were merely on the brink of bankruptcy.

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