Northwest Airlines ( NWA), echoing similar comments from four other legacy carriers, said Monday it is exploring the possibility of spinning off its frequent-flier program. In general, Northwest seems to have a favorable view of such a transaction. "You would only spin it off if you came to the conclusion that it would not hurt the airline, that the airline would continue to have a competitive, meaningful program to attract and retain its most loyal frequent fliers," said CEO Doug Steenland. At Air Canada, which separated its frequent-flier program in 2005, "they have succeeded in doing that," he said. "
And it does clearly provide value." Steenland spoke on a conference call with analysts and reporters, after Northwest reported strong third-quarter earnings. Northwest will be "a key participant in any future industry developments," as far as mergers or spinoffs go, he said. He took issue with the CEOs of Delta ( DAL) and US Airways ( LCC), both of whom suggested this month that a frequent-flier spinoff could represent a diversion from the more important task of consolidation. "Those plans can be looked at, those decisions can be reached, independent of any other (aspects) of consolidation," he said. AMR ( AMR) and UAL ( UAUA) have also said they are examining whether to part ways with their own frequent-flier plans. In the third quarter, Northwest beat expectations as net income rose year over year and its 12% pretax margin was the best among the network carriers.
Third-quarter earnings were $244 million, or 93 cents a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial had estimated 76 cents. Revenue was $3.4 billion, down 0.9%, but was better than had been anticipated by Wall Street. Looking ahead, CFO Dave Davis said "bookings remain strong for the remainder of the fourth quarter, and we have seen no evidence of slowing demand." Fourth-quarter capacity will fall 1% to 2%. Consolidated passenger revenue per available seat mile rose 3.5% on a 0.8% capacity decline in the third quarter. Passenger RASM increases were 3.7% on domestic routes, 4.6% in the Pacific and 2.7% in the Atlantic. Mainline cost per available seat mile, excluding fuel, was flat with the same period a year earlier. Fuel expenses fell 1.5%, as 40% of fuel exposure was hedged. Northwest, the North American launch customer for the delayed 787 Dreamliner from Boeing ( BA), said it now expects its first aircraft to be in service in the first quarter of 2009. Delivery had been expected late in 2008. The carrier intends to fly the 787 on its nonstop Detroit to Shanghai flight that's set to begin in March 2009.