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Airlines relish rebound after two lean years

Commercial airlines in the United States, Europe and Asia are at last relishing a rebound in their financial fortunes, announcing profit spurts after two very lean years.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2010 11:26 IST

Commercial airlines in the United States, Europe and Asia are at last relishing a rebound in their financial fortunes, announcing profit spurts after two very lean years.

The civil aviation sector in recent months has enjoyed a pronounced pick-up in both passenger and freight demand, with airlines welcoming the return of high-end travellers with deep pockets.

US carriers United, Continental, American Airlines and Delta Airlines earlier this month reported solid net earnings, followed this past week by upbeat announcements from airlines in Europe and Asia.

"Airlines are experiencing a growth in traffic volumes and -- most importantly -- a price context that is extremely favourable," said analyst Pierre Boucheny of Kepler Capital.

In the face of a brutal plunge in demand during the finance crisis, airlines undertook drastic capacity cuts and cost reduction initiatives.

Now, as demand firms, carriers have some margin to raise prices.

On Friday British Airways and Iberia of Spain posted healthy profits, mirroring European peers Alitalia and Lufthansa taking advantage of the global economic recovery.

BA, which is merging with Iberia, said it rebounded to a net profit of 107 million pounds (122 millions euros, 170 million dollars) for the six months to September, its first interim profit for two years.

"We are ... benefiting from an improved economy, which we hope will pick up in 2011. We don't see any evidence to support a double-dip (return to recession)," BA chief executive Willie Walsh said.

Iberia reported a net profit of 53 million euros (73 million dollars) for the nine months to September, recovering from a loss of 182 million euros a year earlier.

German flag carrier Lufthansa reported on Thursday that its net earnings had tripled in the third quarter while Italy's Alitalia also announced soaring profits for the period.

Finnair on Thursday said it had bounced back in the third quarter, beating expectations with a 32.4-million-euro (44.8 million dollar) net profit, boosted by its growing presence in Asia.

Adding a nuance to the current wave of optimism, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has cautioned that in future the health of the overall airline sector will depend largely on the performance of Asian -- and especially Chinese -- companies.

"In terms of profits and traffic, growth will come from this part of the world," said Sukor Yusof of Standard and Poor's, citing India, China and southeast Asia in particular.

On Friday Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA) said it had returned to profit in the six months to September, lifted by the rebound in passenger demand.

The airline posted a half-year group net profit of 13.3 billion yen (165 million dollars) and raised its full-year outlook.

The profit represented a sharp turnaround from a year-before net loss of 25.3 billion yen, which was the group's first loss for an April-September period in 30 years.

Air China meanwhile said its third-quarter net profit surged more than fivefold, citing not only robust demand but the appreciation of the yuan.

The carrier earned 5.2 billion yuan (771.2 million dollars) in the three months ending September 30, compared with 885.3 million yuan in the same period a year earlier.

FBE Aerospace analyst Saj Ahmad nonetheless sounded a cautionary note.

"A recovery does indeed seem under way -- however we are a very long way off from previous profit margins and even further away from sustained profitability.

"With so many mergers in the pipeline, all the hard work could be undone as airlines work for synergies and amalgamation of their businesses -- so it's not over yet.

"There are still significant risks and challenges ahead for almost every player in Europe," he warned.