I don't like to fly Atlanta-based

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

. Ever since I flew on a packed Delta flight almost two years ago, I vowed I'd never endure such an excruciating seat pitch again.

Investors have felt the same way about Delta stock over the past few years. Even during times when the airline consistently outperformed its competitors in terms of quarterly earnings performance, the stock did little to reflect its improved financial health. You could almost hear shareholders saying, "Don't make me endure this lackluster performance any longer."

All Things Considered, a Good Quarter

Despite languishing stock performance, Delta managed to post very respectable third-quarter earnings numbers Thursday. Delta lost $2.43 per share, excluding special items, smaller than the consensus estimate of a $2.70-a-share loss.

But when you compare key operational statistics for the quarter, as reported by Delta's major competitors, Delta stacked up pretty well.

When looking at these year-over-year changes for the quarter, remember that Delta cut capacity less than its major competitors did after the Sept. 11 attacks. Delta confirmed Thursday that it has cut its capacity by about 15%, its target number. To compare apples to apples, the

RASM dropoff for the airline probably isn't as great as it would seem, because it actually flew more miles than its competitors did and still posted an acceptable number.

The 10.2% yield figure is just simply a good performance -- all things considered -- as was

Continental's

(CAL) - Get Report

10.2% drop.

Another thing to remember is that the year-over-year capacity figures for

American Airlines

, a unit of

AMR

(AMR)

, were scheduled to shrink anyway as a result of the company's "More Room in Coach" idea. The 16.6% drop in revenue per available seat mile at American is actually a bit worse than it appears.

Open Skies Overseas

Internationally, slow-moving Delta also seems to have picked a winner in partner

Air France

. Two years ago, I gave Delta President Fred Reid grief over the airline's nonexistent alliance structure. After Delta signed up Air France, the industry joke was that the partnership would work great when Air France wasn't on strike. (Employees at Air France seem to strike fairly regularly.)

But this "brown-bag" alliance has turned into the SkyTeam alliance. Compared with its competitors' continued wrangling over access to London's Heathrow Airport, Delta enjoys a much more pleasant situation with Air France in Paris. Progress on further liberalization of open skies between the U.S. and France also continues to move at a fast clip.

With $2.8 billion in cash at the end of the quarter, a relatively nonunionized workforce and a CEO who has lately become an excellent ad hoc spokesman for the industry, the airline seems content to sit on the veranda with mint juleps, watching with benign amusement as the rest of the players slug it out.

Now, if we could only get the stock to move...

Holly Hegeman pilots the Wing Tips column. At time of publication, Hegeman held no positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site at

www.planebusiness.com. While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she welcomes your feedback and invites you to send it to

Holly Hegeman.