Delta, American Report Bleak Financials

Crippled by fuel prices, airlines report billions in losses.

ByABC News
July 15, 2008, 3:47 PM

July 16, 2008— -- Brace yourselves for a rough landing. It's getting ugly for the nation's airlines.

This morning, Delta Airlines reported a $1.0 billion net loss for the second quarter while American reported a net loss of $1.4 billion. Financial reports also scheduled for release Thursday by Continental and other carriers next week will give travelers and investors a closer look at the health of the airline industry. With carriers paying higher prices for jet fuel than ever before, quarterly earnings reports could also reveal which airlines are most in danger of taking a nosedive.

Excluding special charges, Delta saw a second quarter profit of $137 million and American saw a second quarter loss of $284 million.

Highlighting just how pressing the fuel crisis is, US Airways pilots published a newspaper ad today saying they're being pressured to reduce the amount of fuel onboard to save money. The pilots say they feel their jobs are threatened if they don't comply.

Watch "World News with Charles Gibson" TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. ET for the full report.

"We're looking at the very real possibility of one, two, maybe even three major bankruptcies that are not chapter 11, but park the airplanes and liquidate," ABC News aviation consultant John Nance said earlier this week.

"It's very unfortunate -- matter of fact, it's a national tragedy," Nance added.

Although the Air Transport Association, the group that represents the airlines, estimates that, on average, fuel expenses are ranging from 35-50 percent of airlines' operating costs, not all airlines pay equal bills.

That's one reason Southwest Airlines may be doing better than most, due to the fact that the carrier locked in jet fuel at a far lower price per barrel years ago by hedging its bets and securing future payments.

Other airlines hope flying more modern, fuel-efficient planes instead of older gas guzzlers that burn more fuel will pay off.

Although "that in and of itself doesn't guarantee success," said John Stilmar, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. who follows the airplane leasing business, "modern, fuel-efficient aircraft are an essential element to any airline strategy."

According to estimates from Boeing, the fuel savings of operating modern, fuel-efficient aircraft instead of older MD-80 series jets could be nearly $3 million per year.

American and Delta, for instance, fly many MD-80s, but it's not that airlines don't realize they're flying the Hummers of the skies. Some carriers have already announced plans to retire their older planes, but the problem is they don't have the money to purchase new planes to replace them.

Still, Ray Niedl, airline analyst for Calyon Securities told Tuesday that a carrier's decision to fly more fuel-efficient planes will not be apparent in their earnings.

"At this point, fuel efficiency in an aircraft is good, but at $140 a barrel it doesn't make a heck of a lot of difference," Niedl said. "Whether you have a fuel-efficient aircraft or not, you're still going to lose money.

"Even airlines with new fleets are going to lose a lot of money," he said.