Airlines are calling the current financial environment one of the worst in industry history, but that is not to say there are no green shoots for aircraft makers. Continental ( CAL) says it remains enthusiastic about the pending delivery of 787s it has ordered, whenever they come, while United ( UAUA) is contemplating an aircraft order that would be placed by the end of the year. United has said it is talking with both Boeing ( BA) and Airbus. Speaking of Continental's order for 25 Dreamliners during an earnings conference call on Tuesday, CEO Larry Kellner said: "Fuel prices while down are still higher than in 2004, when we ordered (the 787). It's a very efficient aircraft (and) we have a lot of international growth opportunities out of Newark and Houston." Kellner said Continental expects to start to take delivery in 2011, but "clearly we're waiting for Boeing to update its schedule." American ( AMR) and Northwest, which is now part of Delta ( DAL), have also ordered the 787. Northwest would be the first U.S. airline to operate it. Meanwhile, on the United earnings call, CEO Glenn Tilton said the carrier is investigating an aircraft order as "a strategic consideration with a forward-looking agenda" and has been "very pleased with the responsiveness" of the manufacturers. CFO Kathryn Mikells added: "Challenging times like we're operating in today present issues we need to face today, but also opportunities. From a timing perspective, we're looking to make a decision before the end of the year, committing to a long-term fleet replacement strategy. The aircraft would not come for some number of years into the future."
United said last month that it would seek proposals from the manufacturers. In a letter to employees, Tilton said the carrier wants to replace its widebody fleet and potentially its 757 fleet. He specified these conditions: "In addition to earning a return
on investment, any aircraft order must be financed in a way that strengthens our balance sheet over the long term and does not impact our cash position" Clearly, United enters the aircraft market at an advantageous time. Orders at Airbus and Boeing have slowed precipitously during the past year, not surprisingly given the dismal operating environment, which shows no real signs of improvement.
Southwest ( LUV) warned Tuesday that it could lose money in the third quarter, normally the most profitable quarter for airlines. Southwest has not reported a third-quarter loss since 1972. Southwest and other carriers have strong leisure bookings through the summer, but leisure travel not only provides limited yields, but also drops off after Labor Day. Meanwhile, business travel is lagging badly. "The outlook is such that we can't confidently predict a profit," said CEO Gary Kelly, on the earnings conference call. "I don't think the worst is behind us -- I think the worst is ahead of us," Kelly said. "There's no reason to believe based on history that business travel will pick up sharply anytime soon." Business travel did not pick up sharply following the 1991 recession or the 2001 recession, and "this recession is worse," he said.