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Delta explains its aircraft fleet strategy, follows-up on CEO Anderson’s “aircraft bubble” comment

Delta Air Lines (Atlanta) has issued this statement explaining its fleet strategy is driven by opportunity and flexibility:

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Delta does things differently than most airlines, and that includes the way it buys airplanes.

While most big carriers replenish and expand their fleets with brand new jets, which are either leased or purchased, Delta has purchased a mix of new and used aircraft over the past several years.

Ed Lohr, Delta’s Managing Director of Fleet Strategy, explained that the airline looks at the entire cost of jet – the purchase price, the maintenance costs, fuel efficiency and other factors – before making decisions. Often, used aircraft make the most economic sense for the airline.

And thanks to Delta’s TechOps aviation maintenance team, used planes can be maintained and retrofitted with entirely new interiors, providing a superior customer experience even though the jet may be a few years old.

And Delta typically purchases planes outright rather than leasing them.

“We do have a different strategy than most of our competitors,” Lohr said. “When you have a strong balance sheet like we do, a great TechOps organization like we do, it gives you a lot more flexibility to take advantage of opportunities when they come up.”

Above Copyright Photo: Brian McDonough/AirlinersGallery.com. Ex-AirTran Airways Boeing 717-231 N925AT (msn 55079) arrives at Baltimore/Washington (BWI). N925AT was formerly painted in the special “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” (Universal) livery.

For example, Delta acquired 88 used Boeing 717 (above) after Southwest inherited them in its merger with AirTran Airways. Those jets fill a critical role in Delta’s domestic network, and were given nose-to-tail revamps before entering service.

Delta has similarly scoured the world for used MD-90 jets, reliable narrowbodies that are also dramatically upgraded and brought into the fleet at a very reasonable price.

Still, Delta will buy new when it makes sense. For example, the airline recently ordered 25 fuel-efficient Airbus A350-900s to fly primarily long-haul trans-Pacific routes starting in 2017.

The aircraft strategy is one of the reasons Delta has been able to pay off more than $10 billion in debt since 2008, and has seen its credit rating rise to just one notch below investment grade. Less money is tied up in expensive new jets, and instead can be invested in airport facilities, operational performance, new technology and on-board improvements to enhance the customer experience.

“The days of buying just one brand of aircraft, or signing huge orders all at once, those are definitely over,” Lohr said. “At least, they are for us.”

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Graph:

Delta Mainline Fleet Graph (Delta)(LRW)

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In a related story, Delta also issued this further clarification after CEO Richard Anderson’s recent comment about an “aircraft bubble” (also reported by us):

The aviation world was buzzing last week after Delta CEO Richard Anderson discussed an “aircraft bubble” that has been dramatically pushing down prices of used widebody aircraft.

“We’re seeing a huge bubble in excess wide-body airplanes around the world,” Anderson said during Delta’s third quarter earnings conference call. Anderson said he had seen mid-life Boeing 777-200 aircraft being available in the market at about $10 million.

Delta’s aircraft experts, Greg May, Senior Vice President – Supply Chain Management, and Ed Lohr, Managing Director – Fleet Strategy, told Delta News Hub that several trends have conspired over the last few years to create a “perfect storm” driving down prices.

The major factors:

A large number of leased widebody aircraft are being returned to lessors and manufacturers, causing a glut in the market.

Boeing 777While Delta generally purchases both new and used aircraft, many carriers lease new planes, turning them in when the lease ends, usually after seven to 10 years. Those aircraft often end up on the used airplane market.

One factor driving the large number of leased aircraft now being sold is the nearly four-year delay in deliveries of Boeing’s 787 jet, Lohr said. The delay caused many airlines to lease Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 aircraft (left) to bridge the gap while waiting for their orders to be fulfilled. Many of those aircraft are now nearing the end of their leases and being returned.

One aircraft in particular – the Boeing 777-200ER powered by Rolls-Royce Trent engines –will be entering the used market in significant numbers over the next couple years, May said. He also cited the new Airbus A350 (below), a twin-engine long-haul competitor to the Boeing 787, which has reduced demand for the 777.

“There was a time when the 777 had that market all to itself,” May said. “With the A350 and the 787 that’s no longer the case, so it’s not as attractive.”

Softness in the international economy has slowed capacity growth and reduced demand for wide-body aircraft, pushing down prices.

Economic softness in Asia and Latin America has caused many foreign airlines to tamp down growth plans. That has resulted in leased widebody aircraft being returned earlier than expected.

“They are paying the rent on those planes every month, so it’s very expensive to park them,” Lohr said. “That’s why they are not extending leases and in some cases are willing to pay a penalty to get out of other lease early, in each case, increasing the availability of used aircraft in the market.”

In addition, lower fuel prices have blunted a major advantage of new planes, which tend to be more fuel efficient.

Cheap financing created a demand for new aircraft, lowering the value of used jets.

Historically airlines in small and developing nations primarily leased or purchased used aircraft because they couldn’t afford new jets. But a wave of cheap financing, some from export credit agencies, has made it much easier for those airlines to buy new planes. Less demand for used aircraft means lower prices.

Airbus A350Lohr likened the widebody jet bubble to the housing bubble in the U.S. that burst in 2008 and collapsed the real estate market.

“Why did we have a real estate bubble? Because anyone and his brother could get a loan,” he said. “It’s the same story with new airplanes.”

While these factors have primarily impacted the widebody market, the narrowbody market is likely to be affected as well, Lohr said.

“The economics and the trends will eventually get to the narrowbodies,” he said.

After Anderson’s comments, Boeing’s stock value plunged. Analysts issued a flurry of reports debating the issue, and the question will likely be in the spotlight this week when Boeing announces its third quarter earnings.

Reuters reported Friday that Boeing may need to slow production of its Boeing 777 because of the weakness in the used aircraft market. Orders for the current generation 777 have fallen from 194 in 2011 to 63 in 2014 and just 34 this year, according to the report.

“Boeing is going to have to slow down the production rate,” Gueric Dechavanne of appraisal firm Collateral Verifications told Reuters.

Despite the attention that Anderson’s remarks received, Delta isn’t in negotiations to purchase used planes for the airline to fly right now, May said.

During the earnings call, Anderson said that he expects prices to decline further.

“Prices are going to get lower,” he said. “You wouldn’t strike a deal now.”

Delta Air Lines aircraft slide show (current livery): AG Airline Slide Show

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Delta Air Lines reports first quarter adjusted net income of $372 million

Delta Air Lines (Atlanta) today reported financial results for the March 2015 quarter kicking off the airlines earnings reporting period. Key points include according to the airline:

Delta’s adjusted pre-tax income1 for the March 2015 quarter was $594 million, an increase of $150 million over the March 2014 quarter on a similar basis. Delta’s adjusted net income for the March 2015 quarter was $372 million, or $0.45 per diluted share, and its adjusted operating margin was 8.8 percent.

On a GAAP basis, Delta’s March quarter pre-tax income was $1.2 billion, operating margin was 14.9 percent and net income was $746 million, or $0.90 per share.

Results include $136 million in profit sharing expense, recognizing Delta employees’ contributions toward meeting the company’s financial goals.

The company used its strong cash generation in the quarter to return $500 million to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases and to make $904 million in pension contributions.

“Delta’s business is performing well, producing the best March quarter, both operationally and financially, in Delta’s history,” said Richard Anderson, Delta’s chief executive officer. “While the strong dollar is creating headwinds with international revenues, it also contributes to the lower fuel prices which will offset those headwinds with over $2 billion in fuel savings this year. We are looking at June quarter operating margins of 16-18 percent with over $1.5 billion of free cash flow—these record results and cash flows show that the strong dollar is a net positive for Delta.”

Capacity Actions in Light of Strong Dollar and Lower Energy Prices

To address currency headwinds, Delta plans to reduce its international capacity by 3 percent year over year for the winter schedule. These international reductions, combined with 2 percent domestic growth, will result in flat system capacity for the December quarter. Capacity adjustments will be focused on markets that have been most affected by the strong dollar and markets where demand has been negatively impacted by the decline in oil prices. Key actions for the December quarter will include a 15-20 percent reduction in service from Japan, a 15 percent reduction to Brazil, a 15-20 percent reduction to Africa, India and the Middle East, and suspension of service to Moscow for the winter season.

Revenue Environment

Delta’s operating revenue improved 5 percent, or $472 million, in the March 2015 quarter compared to the March 2014 quarter. Traffic increased 3.6 percent on a 5.0 percent increase in capacity, which includes 2 points due to capacity removed in the first quarter of 2014 as a result of winter storms. Foreign exchange pressured revenue by $105 million for the quarter.

Passenger revenue increased 3 percent, or $246 million, compared to the prior year period.

Passenger unit revenue (PRASM) decreased 1.7 percent year over year primarily driven by 1.5 points of negative foreign exchange impact.

Cargo revenue was unchanged from the prior year period as higher volumes offset lower yields.
Other revenue increased 22 percent, or $226 million, driven by SkyMiles revenues and third-party refinery sales.

“For the March quarter, Delta delivered solid 5 percent top line growth and a 17.8 percent operating margin at market fuel prices,” said Ed Bastian, Delta’s president. “The substantial benefit from lower fuel prices will again more than offset the unit revenue decline of 2 to 4 percent for the June quarter to produce operating margins north of 20 percent at market fuel prices.”

Fuel

Adjusted fuel expense2 increased $23 million as lower market fuel prices were offset by $1.1 billion of settled hedge losses, including $300 million of early settlements of contracts originally settling in the second half of 2015 as the company restructured its hedge book. Delta’s average fuel price was $2.93 per gallon for the March quarter. Operations at the refinery produced an $86 million profit for the March quarter, a $127 million improvement year-over-year.

Cost Performance

Consolidated unit cost adjusted for fuel expense, profit sharing and special items (CASM-Ex3), was down 1.4 percent in the March 2015 quarter on a year-over-year basis, with higher capacity, foreign exchange and the benefits of Delta’s domestic refleeting and other cost initiatives offsetting the company’s investments in its employees, products and operations.

“With nearly 10 percent of our expenses non-dollar denominated, we are seeing cost tailwinds from the strong dollar which should benefit our non-fuel unit costs by 1 point in the June quarter,” said Paul Jacobson, Delta’s chief financial officer. “With this currency benefit and the strong cost control that is a hallmark of the Delta culture, we are on track to deliver our eighth consecutive quarter of non-fuel unit cost growth below 2 percent in the June quarter.”

Adjusted for special items, non-fuel operating expense in the quarter increased $333 million year-over-year driven by wage increases, profit sharing, and higher volume-related expenses. These cost increases were partially offset by foreign exchange and savings from Delta’s cost initiatives.

Non-operating expense, adjusted for special items, declined by $34 million as a result of $55 million in lower interest expense, partially offset by an $11 million higher foreign exchange loss on foreign-denominated assets and liabilities compared to the first quarter of 2014.

Cash Flow

Cash from operations during the March 2015 quarter was $1.1 billion and free cash flow was $511 million, driven by the company’s March quarter profit and the normal seasonal increase in advance ticket sales. Cash flow from operations and free cash flow exclude the return of fuel hedge margin posted. Capital expenditures during the March 2015 quarter were $586 million, including $411 million in fleet investments. During the quarter, Delta’s net debt and capital lease maturities were $260 million.

With its strong cash generation in the March 2015 quarter, the company returned $500 million to shareholders. The company paid $75 million in cash dividends and repurchased 9.3 million shares for $425 million. Delta also made over $900 million in pension contributions during the quarter.

Delta ended the quarter with adjusted net debt4 of $7.4 billion, including cash held by counterparties as hedge margin. The company has achieved nearly $10 billion in net debt reduction since 2009, resulting in a roughly 50% reduction in annual interest expense.

GAAP Metrics Related to Cost Performance and Cash Flow

On a GAAP basis compared to the March 2014 quarter, consolidated CASM declined 8 percent, total operating expense was down $306 million, and fuel expense declined $600 million. GAAP fuel cost per gallon for the quarter was $2.29. Non-operating expenses for the quarter decreased by $73 million. Cash from operations for the March 2015 quarter was $1.6 billion and the company ended the quarter with debt and capital lease obligations of $9.6 billion on a GAAP basis.

June 2015 Second Quarter Guidance

Following are Delta’s projections for the June 2015 quarter:

2Q15 Forecast

Operating margin

16% – 18%
Fuel price, including taxes, settled hedges and refinery impact

$2.35 – $2.40
CASM – Ex (compared to 2Q14)

Up 0 – 1%
System capacity (compared to 2Q14)

Up ~3%

Special Items

Special items, net of taxes, in the March 2015 quarter totaled $374 million, including:

$372 million for mark-to-market adjustments and settlements on fuel hedges;
$8 million for mark-to-market adjustments on hedges owned by Virgin Atlantic; and
a $6 million charge for fleet and other items, primarily associated with Delta’s domestic fleet restructuring initiative.
Special items, net of taxes, in the March 2014 quarter totaled $68 million, including:

a $31 million charge associated with Delta’s domestic fleet restructuring;
a $21 million mark-to-market adjustment on fuel hedges;
an $11 million charge for debt extinguishment; and
a $5 million charge for mark-to-market adjustments on hedges owned by Virgin Atlantic.

End Notes

(1) Note A to the attached Consolidated Statements of Operations provides a reconciliation of non-GAAP financial measures used in this release to the comparable GAAP metric and provides the reasons management uses those measures.

(2) Adjusted fuel expense reflects, among other things, the impact of mark-to-market (“MTM”) adjustments and settlements. MTM adjustments are defined as fair value changes recorded in periods other than the settlement period. Such fair value changes are not necessarily indicative of the actual settlement value of the underlying hedge in the contract settlement period. Settlements represent cash received or paid on hedge contracts settling during the period. These items adjust fuel expense to show the economic impact of hedging, including cash received or paid on hedge contracts during the period. During the March 2015 quarter, we paid $302 million to early settle contracts that were originally scheduled to expire in the second half of 2015. See Note A for a reconciliation of adjusted fuel expense and average fuel price per gallon to the comparable GAAP metric.

(3) CASM – Ex: In addition to fuel expense, profit sharing and special items, Delta believes adjusting for certain other expenses is helpful to investors because other expenses are not related to the generation of a seat mile. These expenses include aircraft maintenance and staffing services Delta provides to third parties, Delta’s vacation wholesale operations, and refinery cost of sales to third parties. The amounts excluded were $293 million and $184 million for the March 2015 and March 2014 quarters, respectively. Management believes this methodology provides a more consistent and comparable reflection of Delta’s airline operations.

(4) Adjusted net debt includes $383 million of hedge margin receivable, which is cash that we have posted with counterparties as hedge margin. See Note A for additional information about our calculation of adjusted net debt.

Fiona Cincotta, senior market analyst at www.finspreads.com commented on the financial results:

“Delta reported the best first quarter, from a financial perspective, in the company’s history. The airline announced profits, which more than tripled to $746 million from $213 million a year ago and an increase in revenue of 5% to $9.4 billion. The strong dollar has dented Delta’s international revenue to the tune of about $105 million, however it has also been a factor in the decline of the price of oil which has meant cheaper fuel for the company so the strong dollar is actually net positive for Delta. Furthermore Delta expects to save more than $2 billion on fuel this year and also expects record profit margins and free cash flow for the second quarter.

Despite these encouraging results, which beat analyst’s expectations, Delta has also announced that it will be reducing international flights by a further 3% during the last 3 months of the year. This seems to be quite a prudent move by a company who has reported the best first quarter in its history. However, as big price cuts are no longer a significant part for large US airline’s strategy, pulling back on flights seems like a sensible option given the expected strength of the dollar going forward.”

Copyright Photo: TMK Photography/AirlinersGallery.com. Delta is now leasing the former AirTran Airways Boeing 717 fleet from Southwest Airlines. Boeing 717-231 N921AT (msn 55082) taxies at Toronto (Pearson).

Delta Air Lines aircraft slide show (current livery): AG Airline Slide Show

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Delta to bring the Boeing 717 to the West Coast, will resume Atlanta-Honolulu Boeing 747-400 flights

Delta Air Lines (Atlanta) is bringing its leased Boeing 717-200s to the U.S. West Coast on four routes. Los Angeles-Las Vegas, Los Angeles-Portland, Oregon, Salt Lake City-Kansas City and Salt Lake City-Las Vegas will be changed to Boeing 717-200 equipment starting on June 4 per Airline Route.

In other news, Delta is bringing back the Boeing 747-400 on the Atlanta-Honolulu route starting on May 1.

Copyright Photo: Gilbert Hechema/AirlinersGallery.com. Boeing 717-231 N927AT (msn 55077) departs from Montreal (Trudeau).

Delta Air Lines aircraft slide (current livery): AG Slide Show

Southwest takes over AirTran routes to Punta Cana and Mexico City, launches eight new routes from Love Field

Southwest Airlines (Dallas) reached a milestone in the final stage of its integration of wholly owned subsidiary AirTran Airways by launching Southwest-branded flights to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and Mexico City. All international flights between seven destinations outside the United States and the carrier’s nine U.S. gateway cities are now flown by Southwest.

Southwest has completed the integration of booking and frequent flyer functions into Southwest.com, referring all Customers who visit airtran.com to Southwest.com. All bookings for remaining flights on AirTran Airways flown through December 28, 2014, will now be made through Southwest.com and all of AirTran’s A+ Rewards Members have Rapid Rewards accounts in the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® frequent flyer program, which offers unlimited reward seats, no blackout dates, and points that don’t expire. (Flight or Partner earning activity required every 24 months. Benefits apply to points transactions. All Rapid Rewards rules and regulations apply.)

The expansion of service at Dallas Love Field continued with the launch of additional eight nonstop destinations, following the launch of nonstop itineraries to seven cities that began last month. New flights began yesterday (November 2) between Dallas (Love Field) and Atlanta, Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood, Nashville, New York (LaGuardia), Phoenix, Orange County/Santa Ana, San Diego, and Tampa.

Additional nonstop service between the San Francisco Bay Area and North Texas begins after the first of next year when new flights between Dallas Love Field and both San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland (OAK) begin on January 6, 2015.

Copyright Photo: Brian McDonough/AirlinersGallery.com. The sun will be setting next month for AirTran Airways when the last Boeing 717 flight is operated between Atlanta and Tampa on December 28. All of the AirTran 717s will be leased to Delta. Boeing 717-231 N985AT (msn 55090) banks on its final turn on the river approach to Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA).

AirTran Airways: AG Slide Show

Southwest Airlines: AG Slide Show

Video: A first for Southwest, a wedding at 32,000 feet:

Delta to introduce the Boeing 717 on five routes from the Minneapolis/St. Paul hub

Delta Air Lines (Atlanta) continues to expand Boeing 717 operations as more aircraft are released from AirTran Airways. As previously reported, AirTran will operate its last flight on December 28.

Delta will introduce the 717 to the Minneapolis/St. Paul hub starting on January 6, 2015 with a route to Charlotte. Kansas City, Madison and Philadelphia will be added on February 13 followed by Detroit on March 2 per Airline Route.

Delta is also assigning the 717 to two new routes from the Atlanta hub to both Georgetown (December 20) and Nassau (January 12) in the Bahamas.

Copyright Photo: Brian McDonough/AirlinersGallery.com. Boeing 717-231 N929AT (msn 55075) arrives at Washington (Dulles).

Delta Aircraft Slide Show (current livery): AG Slide Show

Delta to operate the Boeing 717 between New York (JFK) and Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood

Delta Air Lines (Atlanta) will begin operating the Boeing 717 on the New York (JFK)-Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood route starting on January 15, 2015  per Airline Route. This very competitive route used to be served with wide-body aircraft.

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Former TWA/AirTran Airways Boeing 717-231 N933AT (msn 55071) arrives in Atlanta.

Delta Air Lines: AG Slide Show

 

Southwest Airlines to retire the AirTran Airways name and brand by the end of this year

Southwest Airlines (Dallas) intends to retire the AirTran Airways name, brand and remaining international and domestic routes by the end of this year according to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly at his press conference announcing the first Southwest international routes.

Southwest acquired AirTran in 2011 and has been gradually transferring planes, people and routes to Southwest as it works on the integration.

It will be the end of the carrier and an era.

Copyright Photo: Brian McDonough/AirlinersGallery.com. With the lease transfer of the AirTran Boeing 717s to Delta Air Lines the special liveries are rapidly going away. AirTran was a big believer in the special schemes. Formerly with TWA, Boeing 717-231 N936AT (msn 55058) in the Indianapolis Colts NFL team colors arrives at Baltimore/Washington (BWI) in the past.

AirTran Airways: AG Slide Show

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Remaining AirTran routes from the Atlanta hub:

AirTran 1.2014 ATL Route Map

Video: A previous AirTran TV Commercial:

Video: A company video celebrating its 10th Anniversary back in 2010: