Airlines in financial crisis, aviation group says

Airlines around the globe are in their most widespread financial crisis since World War II, the world's largest aviation trade group said Thursday.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 230 airlines worldwide, reported that December's international air passenger traffic fell 4.6% year-over-year, and only about 74% of plane seats were sold. International air cargo volume fell an unprecedented 22.6% year-over-year, a sign of plummeting consumer spending.

"There is no clearer description of the slowdown in world trade," said Giovanni Bisignani, the association's CEO.

The report came on the same day that four U.S. carriers — Alaska, alk Continental, cal JetBlue jblu and US Airways lcc— posted losses for 2008.

The only major US carrier that reported a 2008 profit is Dallas-based discount giant Southwest Airlines. luv American, amr Delta dal and United uaua also posted 2008 losses.

"Like other airlines that have reported before us, our financial results reflect the staggering increase in fuel prices we faced throughout most of 2008," said Doug Parker, CEO of US Airways.

In all, the IATA said airlines worldwide lost $5 billion last year, and will post more losses this year.

That number could be low. Wall Street analysts such as Calyon Securities' Ray Neidl say U.S. carriers posted combined 2008 losses of about $4.5 billion, not including special write-downs for accounting purposes.

This is the first time in memory that airlines in virtually every region of the world have been simultaneously hurt by falling ticket sales and cargo loads, the IATA said.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks hit U.S. carriers hardest in consumer demand. The 2002-03 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome hurt carriers serving Asia the most.

But in recent months, the crisis of last summer's record-high jet fuel prices has been supplanted by a crisis in consumer confidence worldwide. Falling demand for vacation trips and business travel have prompted widespread fare sales.

In response to fuel price increases, U.S. carriers slashed routes. As of last fall, U.S. carriers were planning to ground more than 500 airplanes, JPMorgan reported.

This week, two of Asia's largest carriers, Singapore Airlines and Japan Airlines, said they will start cutting flying capacity to better match supply and consumer demand.