Delta, US Airways: Winter of Discontent

ATLANTA ( TheStreet) -- It has so far been a winter of discontent for Delta ( DAL) and US Airways ( LCC).

Though Delta is far larger, the two carriers are similar in some ways: both have their largest hub in the Southeast, as well as a major presence in the Northeast. Both areas have been slammed by winter storms.

While weather events are, of course, anticipated by airlines, they nevertheless can have an impact on financial performance. After Delta pegged the cost of a post-Christmas Northeast blizzard at $45 million, several analysts reduced first-quarter estimates.
Delta

For instance, Dahlman Rose analyst Helane Becker reduced her fourth quarter estimate to 26 cents from 31 cents and reiterated a buy rating and a $16 price target. Currently, analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters are estimating 25 cents. Delta will report earnings Tuesday, kicking off the industry's fourth quarter reports.

This week, Delta has cancelled about 5,500 flights, most of them to or from Atlanta, from Sunday through Thursday. That is more than the 3,030 post-Christmas cancellations. The carrier operates about 5,500 daily flights.

Spokesman Anthony Black said a winter storm struck Atlanta Sunday evening, dropping four inches of snow in two hours. The storm continued into Monday morning, then changed to sleet and freezing rain, which is worse for an airline than snow and requires more de-icing time. The freezing rain continued into Tuesday.

What is an airline station manager's least favorite word? The answer is "de-icing," because there is no way an airline can remotely maintain its schedule once de-icing is involved. Atlanta's airport, the biggest in the world, normally has about 120 departures an hour. On average, at least half are Delta departures. But once de-icing starts, even in optimal conditions including improved weather and cleared ramps, Delta's flights are limited to 18 or 20 an hour.

At times during this week's storm, Delta was limited to as few as eight departures an hour. Normally, about 1,000 Delta and Delta Connection flights depart Atlanta each day. Black noted it normally takes about an hour to de-ice a widebody jet, using four trucks, and about 30 to 35 minutes to de-ice a narrow-body jet. But it can take longer when the ice is heavier.

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