Delta Air Lines (Atlanta) on January 11, 2018 reported financial results for the fourth quarter 2017. Highlights of those results, including both GAAP and adjusted metrics, are below and incorporated here.
Adjusted pre-tax income for the fourth quarter 2017 was $1.0 billion, despite a $60 million impact from the combination of December’s power outage at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and Winter Storm Benji. For the full year, adjusted pre-tax income was $5.5 billion, a $621 million decrease relative to 2016.
“Delta people rose to the challenges of 2017 to produce solid financial results, industry leading operational reliability and strong improvements in customer satisfaction, and it’s an honor to recognize their achievements with $1.1 billion in profit sharing,” said Ed Bastian, Delta’s chief executive officer. “Looking ahead to 2018, we expect to drive solid earnings growth by growing our top line 4 to 6 percent, improving our cost trajectory and integrating our international partner network. As a result, we are able to increase our previous full-year guidance to $6.35 to $6.70 per share due to additional benefits from tax reform.”
Delta’s operating revenue of $10.2 billion for the December quarter was up 8.3 percent, or $787 million versus prior year. Total unit revenues excluding refinery sales increased 4.4 percent for the December quarter.
Passenger revenue increased $527 million, including $200 million from Delta’s Branded Fares initiatives. Passenger unit revenues increased 4.2 percent, including 0.5 points from one-time revenue adjustments, on 2.3 percent higher capacity.
Cargo revenue increased 14.4 percent, driven by higher volumes and yields. Other revenue improved 17.9 percent primarily due to higher loyalty revenue and a $150 million increase in third-party refinery sales.
For the full year, Delta’s operating revenue of $41.2 billion was up 4.0 percent, or $1.6 billion versus prior year. Total unit revenues excluding refinery sales increased 2.4 percent on 1.0 percent higher capacity.
“We enter 2018 with significant momentum and every entity delivering positive passenger unit revenue for the first time in five years, driven by a robust demand environment and improving business fares,” said Glen Hauenstein, Delta’s president. “We expect to deliver total unit revenue growth of 2.5 to 4.5 percent in the March quarter and leverage our unrivaled domestic network, international partnerships, and solid pipeline of commercial initiatives to deliver similar performance each quarter throughout 2018.”
2018 First Quarter Guidance
For the first quarter, Delta is expecting improving revenues and the benefit from tax reform to partially offset fuel cost increases and the period of highest non-fuel expense growth for the year.
2017 Cost Performance
Adjusted fuel expense2 increased $349 million compared to the same period in 2016 as market fuel prices increased throughout the quarter. Delta’s adjusted fuel price per gallon for the December quarter was $1.93, which includes $0.03 of benefit from the refinery.
CASM-Ex3 including profit sharing decreased 0.4 percent for the December 2017 quarter compared to the prior year period driven by the impact of Delta’s pilot agreement ratified in the December 2016 quarter. The pilot agreement resulted in $475 million of expense in the prior year period and included a $380 million retroactive payment for the first three quarters of 2016.
Normalized CASM-Ex4 including profit sharing increased 5.6 percent versus the prior year period, driven by continued investments in Delta’s people, product and operation, as well as pressure from accelerated depreciation due to aircraft retirements.
For the full year, CASM-Ex including profit sharing increased 4.3 percent compared to 2016. Excluding profit sharing, 2017 CASM-Ex increased 4.7 percent driven by targeted investments in Delta’s employees, fleet, and product.
Non-operating expense increased $36 million for the December quarter due to higher interest expense from Delta’s unsecured debt financing primarily used to fund its pension plan, as well as foreign exchange pressures.
“Our focus for 2018 is to bring our unit cost trajectory back in line with our long-term 0 to 2 percent target,” said Paul Jacobson, Delta’s chief financial officer. “We have a line of sight to achieving our cost goal, and expect our March quarter to be the peak of our non-fuel expense growth as we lap investments in our business and higher levels of depreciation, and the savings from our fleet and efficiency initiatives begin ramping up as we move through the year.”
Cash Flow, Shareholder Returns, and Adjusted Net Debt
Delta generated $1.7 billion of adjusted operating cash flow and $435 million of free cash flow during the quarter. The company invested $850 million into the business for aircraft purchases and improvements, facilities upgrades and technology. The company also spent $450 million to purchase its 10 percent stake in Air France-KLM.
Delta generated $6.8 billion of adjusted operating cash flow and $2.0 billion of free cash flow for the full year, and invested $3.6 billion into the business and $1.2 billion in equity stakes in partner airlines.
During the December quarter, Delta announced an order for 100 state-of-the-art Airbus A321neo aircraft with deliveries beginning in 2020 and a long-term commitment with Pratt & Whitney for Delta TechOps to be a major maintenance, repair and overhaul provider for the PW1100G and PW1500G engines, powering Delta’s A321neo and C Series aircraft.
Adjusted net debt at the end of the quarter was $8.8 billion, up $2.6 billion versus the prior year largely as a result of a $2.5 billion increase in unsecured debt, primarily issued to accelerate pension funding. The company’s unfunded pension liability declined by $3.6 billion from the end of 2016 to $7.0 billion at the end of 2017.
For the December quarter, Delta returned $541 million to shareholders, comprised of $325 million of share repurchases and $216 million in dividends. For the full year, Delta returned $2.4 billion to shareholders, comprised of $1.7 billion of share repurchases and $731 million in dividends.
As a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Delta recognized a one-time charge of $150 million in the December quarter from the estimated impact of the inclusion of foreign earnings and revaluation of deferred tax assets and liabilities. This one-time charge is being excluded from Delta’s results as a special item. For 2018, Delta expects the reduction in the corporate tax rate will result in an all-in book tax rate for the company of 22-24 percent.
Fourth Quarter Results
Special items for the quarter consist primarily of the impact from tax reform noted above and mark-to-market adjustments on fuel hedges.