4 Airline CEOs Who Were Rewarded Last Year as Their Share Prices Soared

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's not a bad time to be an airline executive -- or a shareholder at one of their companies.

According to a WSJ study published on Wednesday, the chief executive officers of four of the biggest airlines in the United States received compensation boosts in 2014. Their investors enjoyed hefty returns as well.

The International Air Transport Association reported on June 8 that the air transportation industry made $16.4 billion in net profit in 2014. It also made an upward adjustment its 2015 industry outlook. IATA now estimates $29.3 billion in net profit for the year, more than half of which is expected to be generated by airlines based in North America.

A recent Barron's article argues that airline stocks could rise up to 50% thanks to less competition and declining fuel costs, but not everyone is in agreement. In June, Raymond James  (RJF) analysts downgraded three major U.S. air carriers.

Debates about 2015 aside, leading airline carriers delivered in a big way in 2014. Here are four airline CEOs who made money for themselves and their shareholders last year.

Richard Anderson

Delta Air Lines (DAL) chief executive Richard Anderson brought in $17.6 million in 2014 -- a 22.4% increase from the year prior.

For Delta investors, Anderson helped steer the way to an 80.5% return in 2014. The company also returned $1.35 billion to stockholders through a combination of quarterly cash dividends and share repurchases.

Richard Anderson's base salary increased to $790,625 in 2014 from $725,000 in 2013; his stock awards reached $9.6 million from $8.9 million, his option awards $3.8 million from $2.0 million, and his non-equity compensation $3.1 million from $2.5 million.

Delta is sharing the wealth with its workers. In September, the company said in a letter to employees reviewed by Forbes that it would give every employee a 5% profit-sharing payout in 2014 and promised 2015 raises for all of its front-line employees.

Delta representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Douglas Parker

Douglas Parker became CEO of American Airlines Group (AAL) in December 2013 when the company merged with U.S. Airways, of which he had served as chief executive since 2005. Parker earned $12.3 million in 2014 and returned to American investors 113.5% as well as $1.1 billion through dividend and stock repurchase programs. The company is continuing on its plan to buy back $2 billion in stock in early 2015.

Douglas Parker actually made less in total in 2014 than he did in 2013, thanks by and large to $15.4 million paid to him in stock awards in 2013 after becoming the merged company's CEO (he made $7.0 million in stock awards in 2014). In 2014, his salary and non-equity compensation increased to $687,884 and $4.2 million, respectively.

Parker has unloaded some of his American Airlines shares recently. A regulatory disclosure made public Monday reveals he sold 55,400 shares of the company's stock. The stock has been trading just about $40 a share for the past month.

American Airlines Group representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Gary Kelly

Southwest Airlines (LUV) returned approximately $1.1 billion to investors in 2014 through the payment of around $139 million in dividends and the repurchase of about 33 million shares. Shareholders also made 126.3% on their investments.

The firm's CEO, Gary Kelly, saw his pay increase as well by 23.9% to $5.0 million.

Kelly's salary remained unchanged at $675,000, but his bonus, stock awards, non-equity compensation, deferred earnings and other compensation increased. Kelly has served as Southwest's CEO since 2004 and its board chairman and president since 2008. He has been with the airline since 1986.

In 2014, Southwest celebrated the repeal of the Wright Amendment, which was enacted in 1979 to restrict long-haul flights out of Dallas Love Field and protect the Dallas/Forth Worth Airport. Kelly spoke with the Dallas Morning News about Love Field, where its corporate headquarters is located. "It will be a big bang," he said. "You'll have more seats offered to 15 more destinations initially -- at least so far -- next year."

Southwest Airlines representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Jeffery Smisek

Jeffrey Smisek, CEO of United Continental (UAL), received a 56.8% pay raise in 2014 and earned a total $12.8 million in compensation. The company's investors saw a 76.8% increase on their holdings last year. They also benefited from $1 billion share repurchase plan launched in July 2014 that returned $320 million to shareholders during the first two quarters of the program.

Smisek's $975,000 base salary went unchanged in 2014. However, his stock awards increased to $7.7 million from $5.7 million the year prior, his non-equity compensation jumped to $2.3 million from $1.3 million, and his change in pension value was $1.4 million compared to zero the year before.

Jeffery Smisek has been the chief executive of United Continental since 2010. Prior to that, he served as chairman, president and CEO of Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2010. He joined Continental in 1995.

United Continental representatives declined to comment.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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