Cheaper fuel helped Delta Air Lines Inc. shrug off a slight decline in revenue and post sharply higher third-quarter net income of $1.32 billion.
The third quarter includes much of the busy summer-vacation season when airlines are most profitable. Delta predicted that it would continue to rack up healthy margins into the winter on the combination of cheaper fuel and solid demand for travel.
"We expect that strong performance to continue in the December quarter," said CEO Richard Anderson.
On a conference call with analysts, Anderson compared Delta's financial performance to industrial companies such as 3M — by notable omission, not against other airlines.
Airlines are among the biggest beneficiaries of the slump in oil prices that began in mid-2014. Delta burned more than 1 billion gallons in the third quarter and saved more than $1 per gallon over last year's price.
Delta's fuel spending plunged 38 percent, a savings of more than $1.1 billion.
Passengers got a small break from the cheaper fuel, as the average fare per mile dropped 5 percent.
Delta, however, banked two-thirds of the fuel savings as profit. It didn't have to cut fares more deeply because demand for travel remained solid — many planes were packed. The average flight in the quarter was 86.8 percent full, a level that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
Atlanta-based Delta forecast more of the same in the fourth quarter. It predicted more fuel savings but a decline of 2.5 percent to 4.5 percent in a key measure of revenue per mile. The airline said it would hold flying steady at late-2014 levels to bolster revenue per seat and limit 2016 capacity between flat and 2 percent growth.
Helane Becker, an analyst for Cowen and Co., said that Delta's plan to limit flying in 2016 would reassure investors who worry that airlines are undermining their pricing power by adding too many flights while fuel is cheaper.
By region, Delta saw lower fares across the board but particularly on international routes, which also suffered from the effects of the strong dollar and lower fuel surcharges. The airline responded by cutting passenger-carrying capacity to Asia, its weakest region.
In March, Delta broke fares into five classes from premium to "basic economy," a category designed to compete with discount airlines. Delta said the changes are boosting revenue partly because more people are paying to sit in first class instead of using upgrades.
For the third quarter, Delta's income jumped to $1.32 billion from $357 million a year earlier.
Excluding non-recurring costs, profit was $1.74 per share. The average estimate of nine analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was $1.71 per share; 15 analysts surveyed by FactSet expected $1.72 per share.
Revenue fell less than 1 percent to $11.11 billion. Both the Zacks and FactSet forecasts called for $11.12 billion.
Delta is on its way to its sixth consecutive year of profitability, but there were several years of multi-billion-dollar losses before that. Delta reports its earnings as fully taxed but doesn't pay cash taxes because it — like other airlines — has carried forward past losses. Chief financial officer Paul Jacobson said Delta won't begin paying cash taxes again until 2017.
Delta shares rose 86 cents, or 1.8 percent, to close at $48.59. They are down 1 percent for the year, compared with a 3 percent decline in the Standard & Poor's 500 index.
David Koenig can be reached at http://twitter.com/airlinewriter
This story includes material generated by Automated Insights (http://automatedinsights.com/ap) using data from Zacks Investment Research. Access a Zacks stock report on DAL at http://www.zacks.com/ap/DAL
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