Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL:US) and US Airways Group Inc. (LCC:US) are among carriers raising fares and reaping domestic bookings for summer travel as a recovering economy spurs more Americans to take vacations.
Tickets for use in June through August rose 4.3 percent from a year earlier, while prices are up 3.1 percent, based on data compiled for Bloomberg by Airlines Reporting Corp. ARC settles transactions between airlines (UAL:US) and travel-sellers, so it has insight into flights before the trips are taken.
“It seems like there’s pent-up demand from people who had austerity for a number of years and really want and need a vacation now,” said Kevin Crissey, an analyst at UBS Securities LLC in New York. “I’m optimistic about the near term.”
Airlines count on filling planes at the highest possible fares between June and August, when leisure flying peaks. They may get a tailwind this year, after the number of Americans who reported taking a vacation climbed to 2.7 million in April, the highest tally for that month since 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The prospect of “very strong” summertime travel demand and falling jet-fuel prices spurred Helane Becker, a Dahlman Rose & Co. analyst in New York, to raise earnings estimates industrywide. Jets probably will fly with record numbers of seats filled, she said in a note today.
The Bloomberg U.S. Airlines Index (BUSAIRL) of 10 carriers rose 3.5 percent, the most in two months, at the close in New York. US Airways jumped 6.5 percent to $10.71 to lead the gains, and Delta climbed 4.3 percent to $10.58.
‘Really Good Shape’
“As we look across summer, bookings appear to be in really good shape,” Delta President Ed Bastian said at a May 17 transportation conference in Boston hosted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Travel demand is “robust” and there is an “awful lot of room” for airlines to increase revenues, US Airways President Scott Kirby said at the same conference.
“We’re being aggressive for the summer” on raising fares, Kirby said. “We feel really good about the outlook for May and the summer, as far out as the eye can see.”
Revenue for each seat flown a mile, an industry benchmark, in May and June probably will rise by “mid- to high single digits” for the U.S. carriers, Crissey estimates.
Delta and US Airways gave figures in that range last week, with Atlanta-based Delta forecasting a 7 percent jump in so- called unit revenue in May, and June “a couple points better” than that, Bastian said. Tempe, Arizona-based US Airways said May unit revenue would rise by “mid-single digits.”
United Continental Holdings Inc., (UAL:US) the world’s largest carrier, hasn’t given a unit revenue forecast for May or June and AMR Corp. (AAMRQ:US)’s American Airlines, the third-biggest carrier in the U.S., hasn’t given such projections while under bankruptcy court protection.
U.S. travel is a bright spot for domestic carriers, with Europe mired in a sovereign debt crisis and growth in China, the world’s second-largest economy, probably touching a 13-year low in 2012. First-quarter yield, or fare per mile, averaged 14.6 cents for the six biggest U.S. airlines, topping all other regional totals except for Latin America’s 16.1 cents.
“North America domestic is one of the best regions in the world right now,” said George Ferguson, senior aerospace analyst for Bloomberg Industries in Skillman, New Jersey. “These signs are absolutely encouraging. I do think the trends will continue” all summer.
A drop in fuel prices also will help airline profits. Once up as much as 10 percent in 2012, jet fuel for immediate delivery in New York Harbor fell 1.7 percent this year through May 18, to $2.93 a gallon.
Airlines have cut available seats over the past several years to trim costs, enabling them to fill planes to near-record levels and bolstering their ability to raise fares in busy travel periods such as the summer vacation season.
Load factor, or the percentage of seats sold to paying passengers, averaged 80.9 percent in the first quarter among 12 U.S. airlines, topping the figures for the same period in each of the previous two years, based on data compiled by Bloomberg.
“Airlines are getting pricing, which means there’s reasonable supply constraint and consistent demand,” UBS Securities’ Crissey said.
The moves will pare capital expenditures by $1 billion next year and in 2014, Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said on May 16 at the Dallas-based carrier’s annual meeting.
“We have a very solid second quarter under way and a very solid earnings outlook for the year,” if fuel prices don’t jump, Kelly said in an interview after the meeting. “Our business is really strong across the board.”
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