Air France-KLM Narrows Full-Year Loss on Job Cuts, Fares

Air France-KLM Group narrowed its loss last year after cutting jobs and said there’s no certainty that the improvement will continue in 2013, sending shares of Europe’s biggest airline on their sharpest drop in three months.

The operating loss fell to 300 million euros ($396 million) in 2012, versus 353 million euros a year earlier, as Air France cut 3,300 posts and froze capacity to lift fares. Fluctuations in fuel prices, the economy and world trade have the potential to derail the recovery this year, the Paris-based carrier said.

Jean-Cyril Spinetta, recalled as chief executive officer in 2011 following a slump in profit, is scrapping a total of 5,000 posts at the French arm and 1,300 more at the smaller Dutch unit. Capacity rose just 0.6 percent in the year, helping to lift unit revenue, a measure reflecting fares, by 5.9 percent.

“Pricing is good and I’d expect that to continue as the industry benefits from capacity restraint,” said Donal O’Neill, an analyst at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin. “Staff costs should come through later this year but a lot of positivity from the restructuring is built in and there’s not much low-hanging fruit now, so they could struggle to surprise on the upside.”

Net Loss Widens

Shares of Air France-KLM fell as much as 8.6 percent, the most since Nov. 15, after gaining 3.1 percent in early trading. The stock was down 7.3 percent at 7.72 euros as of 5:13 p.m. in Paris, paring this year’s advance to 10 percent and valuing the company at 2.32 billion euros. It surged 76 percent in 2012.

Analysts had predicted an operating loss of 331 million euros, based on 14 estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The net loss widened to 1.19 billion euros from 809 million euros after fuel costs rose 14 percent to 7.44 billion euros and the airline booked 471 million euros of restructuring expenses.

“The economic backdrop in 2012 was mediocre, but capacity was well managed, nicely contained, and it’s thanks to that that we managed to increase unit revenues,” Chief Financial Officer Philippe Calavia said at a briefing, adding that “the context is too uncertain” to make predictions about earnings for 2013.

Air France-KLM is more exposed to the spot price of crude than some carriers because it tends to hedge less, Goodbody’s O’Neill said. Kerosene costs represent 40 percent of expenses on many routes and sometimes even 50 percent, CEO Spinetta told reporters, up from 29 percent in 2012 and 10 percent in 1997.

Short-Haul Battle

Net debt was cut by 500 million euros in the year to 6 billion euros and unit costs fell 0.9 percent in the fourth quarter at constant rates. Spinetta is seeking to pare expenses and debt again this year with the Transform 2015 plan.

Capacity restraint will also continue, with the company planning to boost seating by no more than 1.5 percent, it said.

Air France-KLM is seeking to fend off the likes of EasyJet Plc in the European short-haul market while competing with British Airways Plc and Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Gulf rivals including Dubai-based Emirates on long-haul routes.

The carrier cut fares on 58 routes from Feb. 6. Sold under the “MiNi” branding, the ticket are as much as 20 euros cheaper than the regular price though come without the right to air miles and free hold baggage. It has also consolidated most of its regional operations as HOP!, with a fleet of 98 aircraft.

In the inter-continental market, Spinetta ended a war of words with Mideast carriers, sealing a code-share deal with Abu Dhabi-based Etihad on Oct. 8.

Alliance Entry

That accord could be a precursor to the third-biggest Gulf airline eventually joining Air France’s SkyTeam global alliance, Calavia said today. Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. may also become a member of the grouping after Delta Air Lines Inc. agreed to buy a 49 percent stake for $360 million on Dec. 11, he said.

Europe’s major carriers, which have been in a phase of consolidation initiated by Air France’s merger with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines NV in 2003, require further integration to remain key players and “defend our common interests,” Spinetta said.

Air France has ordered 27 Boeing Co. 787-9 jetliners, with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2016. Calavia said today it’s likely the planes will come somewhat later than planned given the current grounding of the Dreamliner by regulatory authorities after difficulties with batteries.

The company has also committed to buying 25 Airbus SAS A350s and that agreement should be firmed up soon, he said. Spinetta said that the order -- which has been held up by a dispute with Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc over rights to service the planes’ engines -- will come before the year’s end and that there’s “no rush,” with delivery due from the end of 2017.

There are no discussions to buy newer single-aisle planes right now since the savings achievable are less significant over the shorter distances flow, the CEO said.

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