United Airlines boosts profit on more revenue, cheaper fuel

United Airlines reported Tuesday that higher revenue and cheaper fuel helped boost its fourth-quarter profit by nearly 40%, to $641 million.

The airline’s forecast of first-quarter earnings easily beat Wall Street expectations.

It is not all clear sailing for United, however.

The financial report came the same day that United shares tumbled on fear that a virus outbreak in China could hurt travel between the U.S. and Asia, a key market for the airline. Even before the outbreak, a closely watched measure of revenue per seat was dropping on United’s flights to and from Asia.

And Boeing again pushed back its timetable for return of the 737 Max, making it almost impossible for United to meet its goal of putting the plane in its schedule by early June. It is more likely that United will go through a second straight summer without the Max, forcing it to cancel thousands of flights and lose the revenue from those ticket sales.

United executives were scheduled to discuss the financial results with analysts on Wednesday.

For the fourth quarter, United said profit excluding what the company deemed non-repeating items was $2.67 per share. That was 3 cents better than the average estimate of 17 analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research.

Revenue rose 4% to $10.89 billion, in line with analysts’ forecasts.

United added passenger-carrying capacity despite the loss of its Max jets, and revenue grew about twice as fast as operating expenses. There, labour costs rose 6%, but United’s fuel spending dropped more than 5% as fuel prices fell from the same period in 2018.

Passenger revenue per mile for each seat, an indication of pricing power, rose nearly 1%, in line with United’s forecast of three months ago. The airline predicted that same figure would be flat to up 2% in the January-through-March quarter.

United forecast adjusted earnings of 75 cents to $1.25 per share in the first quarter. Analysts are expecting 72 cents per share.

Shares of Chicago-based United Airlines Holdings Inc. fell $3.91, or 4.4%, to close Tuesday at $85.79. They were down 64 cents in late trading.

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