Airline Industry to Lift Annual Profit 80% on U.S. Surge

Airline passengers waiting for their flights watch from the terminal as a United Airlines airplane takes off at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona.

Airline passengers waiting for their flights watch from the terminal as a United Airlines airplane takes off at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photographer: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The airline industry will post record net income of $29.3 billion this year, up almost 80 percent from 2014, spurred by a surging U.S. economy and low fuel prices, the International Air Transport Association estimates.

While all regions will be profitable, the projection, which is $4 billion higher than one issued in December, masks “stark” variations, IATA said on Monday. Earnings at North American carriers will likely account for $15.7 billion of the total and produce a margin double that seen in Europe or Asia.

Improved demand, coupled with capacity constraints, is set to produce the best-ever seat-occupancy level at 80.2 percent, while the return on capital will exceed borrowing costs for the first time, IATA said at its annual meeting in Miami. Shareholders should still “keep things in perspective,” according to Tony Tyler, the group’s director general, with airlines lagging behind industries such as technology.

“The industry’s fortunes are far from uniform,” Tyler said in his opening address at the event, pointing out that the annual profit figure for all North American airlines is only marginally higher than Apple Inc. second-quarter earnings. “It is important for our stakeholders, particularly governments, to understand that the business of providing global connectivity is still a very tough one.”

‘Milestone’

IATA’s earnings projection would see carriers retain $8.27 for every passenger carried and represents a 4 percent margin on industry-wide revenue forecast to slip 0.7 percent to $727 billion due to the stronger dollar. Net income for 2014 was restated as $16.4 billion, down from the original $19.9 billion.

A “milestone” will be achieved if a projected 7.5 percent return on capital surpasses the 6.8 percent cost, driven by lower bond yields, IATA said. U.S. airlines are benefiting most given the fall in dollar-denominated fuel prices, a strong economy and restructuring that’s seen mergers including the formation of American Airlines Group Inc., it said.

The average non-U.S. airline is “still struggling with returns below the cost of capital and a significant debt.”

Projected net income of $5.8 billion at European airlines will be barely one-third of the North American total, IATA said, with leading operators Air France-KLM Group and Deutsche Lufthansa AG striving to cut costs. Asian carriers may earn $5.1 billion, burdened by exposure to a sluggish air-freight sector.

Middle Eastern airlines, led by the Gulf triumvirate of Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways PJSC, should accrue $1.8 billion, with passenger growth of almost 13 percent, marking the region out as the only one with double-digit expansion.

Latin America’s airlines may post a $600 million profit after breaking even in 2014 and African carriers should earn $100 million, reflecting a “poor performance” as they continue to lose traffic to outside operators, IATA said.

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