CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Airline shares rocketed higher Tuesday, even before US Airways ( LCC) CEO Doug Parker said the industry could be profitable in 2009. Conventional wisdom has it that airlines will lose $10 billion this year and keep losing money next year. Parker said that assumes the industry cannot solve the problem of rising fuel costs. But, by his account: "We are going to get this fixed as an industry. What's already being done may be enough to get the industry profitable in 2009," he said, on an earnings conference call. US Airways shares surged 59% during the session, closing at $4.27. UAL ( UAUA), the parent of United Airlines, soared 69% to $8.41. AMR ( AMR) rose 37% to $9.25, and Delta ( DAL) advanced 18% to $7.71. The Amex Airline Index closed at 20.82, up 22%. Earlier this month, it hit an all-time low of 12.66. The gains reflected a variety of factors. Fuel costs have fallen recently, and crude dropped again Tuesday in New York. Airlines are chopping capacity, and that theoretically will let them raise fares. While visibility for the fall is limited, advance bookings have not fallen off a cliff and in most cases are ahead of last year's pace. So far, six airlines have reported second-quarter earnings, and all of them have beaten estimates. Also, newly introduced fees, for checking bags and other services, are projected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Meanwhile, carriers are raising cash through their agreements with credit card issuers.
The biggest single event driving the sector sharply higher was United's announcement that it will collect $600 million from Chase, as well as cash flow of $200 million a year for two years, in a deal to extend their credit-card partnership. The pact also reduces Chase's credit card holdback, which is money held until passengers actually fly, to $25 million from $350 million. Combined with other recent financing moves, it adds up to a $1.7 billion boost in United's cash position. "It's important to us to enhance liquidity in these difficult times," said CFO Jake Brace, on an earnings call. "We got what we needed out of that contract." Brace noted that in 2009 United will also collect $275 million from its new fees for checked baggage, and $100 million from additional first-time fees. At the same time, the carrier will reduce consolidated capacity by 3.5% to 4% this year and by 13% in 2009. Ironically, as earnings season started, investors had focused on checking airline cash levels as a way to determine which carrier would be most likely to run out of money first. Now, it appears, they are watching to see which carrier finds the most money in the bank vault. Continental ( CAL ) said last month that it received $413 million for extending its credit card deal with Chase, and Delta is eying an even bigger deal. Delta will have the world's largest loyalty program, with 60 million members, after it merges with Northwest ( NWA). "We will be America's premier global airline, and there is a price to pay for that," Delta President Ed Bastian said recently in an interview with TheStreet.com.
In a report issued Tuesday, Standard & Poor's airline analyst Jim Corrdiore upgraded United to hold from sell, noting that "liquidity is less of a concern,
and more importantly, oil prices are down some $14 in the past week." JetBlue ( JBLU) also beat estimates, losing 3 cents a share, whereas analysts had estimated a loss of 7 cents. Once the highest-growth airline, JetBlue said it would cut capacity by 10% after the summer and keep capacity flat in 2009. On the US Airways conference call, Parker said United's announcement "shows people what we've been saying for a while -- that you just can't assume nothing is going to happen." Industry problems, "as opposed to specific airlines with problems," generally get repaired, he said. Although domestic capacity will fall about 10% in the fourth quarter, reductions so far have been slight. "All those seats start coming out in the fall," Parker said. "That has the potential for a nice impact on unit revenues, and what we see in ancillary revenues looks real and long-term. "You have to make your own guess on where oil is, but I don't think it takes much of a stretch at all" to see 2009 profits for the industry, he said.