United Airlines posts $1 billion profit on summer travel

DALLAS — Cheaper jet fuel and slightly higher fares helped United Airlines boost third-quarter profit 23% to $1 billion.

The results released Tuesday were better than Wall Street expected, and United raised its forecast of full-year profit.

United indicated that demand for leisure and business travel is holding up well despite concern about the slowing global economy, although there are pockets of weakness such as China.

The worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max after two fatal crashes led to thousands of cancelled flights and lost revenue for United, although the company did not provide figures. The airline has removed the Max from its schedule until Jan. 6 and dropped nearly 8,300 flights between October and early January.

Investors worry that when the grounded planes return to United, Southwest and American, there will be more seats for sale and fares will drop. Cowen analyst Helane Becker said rising capacity — not all of it from the Max — will cause United’s revenue per mile to decline next year. United didn’t forecast that far ahead, but it said revenue per seat will be flat to up 2% in the fourth quarter.

A few years ago, United lagged its closest competitors by many financial and operational measures. It has since reduced delays and cancellations and boosted margins above those at American Airlines, although it’s still behind Delta Air Lines.

Since early last year, United has grown aggressively in Chicago, Denver and other places, adding flights between hub airports and smaller cities. Rapid growth often spooks investors. Analysts at Fitch Ratings were worried about United’s strategy, but now they say the results have been positive, leading to above-average increases in revenue per mile and several quarters of improving margins.

United’s third-quarter profit compared with $833 million a year earlier. Excluding one-time gains and losses, the company said adjusted profit was $4.07 per share, compared with an average forecast of $3.94 from 17 analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research.

Revenue was slightly below expectations, at $11.38 billion. The airline blamed a drop in travel to Hong Kong, where anti-government protests have at times disrupted operations at the airport.

United doesn’t provide a figure for the average fare, but passenger revenue for each seat flown one mile — a gauge of fares and fees — rose 1.7%.

Meanwhile, the company saved $276 million, or 11%, on its fuel bill thanks to a modest decline in average prices since the same period last year.

United said it now expects to earn between $11.25 and $12.25 a share for all of 2019. At the midpoint, that is an increase of 50 cents from United’s last estimate in July.

Last week, Delta Air Lines reported record traffic and revenue for the summer but tripped over a forecast of sharply rising costs due to hiring and pay raises.

United’s third-quarter costs per seat rose at a slower pace than Delta’s but were still higher than the 1%-2% range that United had predicted. United is talking to pilots about a new contract, which could further increase spending when they reach a deal.

Shares of United Airlines Holdings Inc. closed at $87.88, up 91 cents. In late trading shortly after the release of financial results, the shares were up another 51 cents to $88.39. At the closing price, they had gained 5% in 2019 and about 8% in the last 12 months.

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