Delta’s fourth-quarter profit beats estimates thanks to cheaper fuel and strong travel demand

Earnings

A Delta Air Lines Boeing 767-300 landing in Amsterdam.

Nicolas Economou | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Delta Air Lines‘ fourth quarter profits topped Wall Street’s expectations, as lower fuel prices and strong travel demand — particularly for high-priced premium tickets — lifted the Atlanta-based carrier’s results and boosted shares more than 4% in premarket trading Tuesday.

Delta doesn’t have the beleaguered Boeing 737 Max in its fleet, the plane that has been grounded since March after two fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people. Competitors American, Southwest and United do have the Max in their fleets and have had to scale back growth planes as the fuel-efficient jets wait to be cleared by regulators to fly again.

The crash led to a ballooning crisis at Boeing that cost the previous CEO his job and drew ire from lawmakers over internal emails that showed Boeing employees gloating about bullying regulators into approving less-rigorous training than some had requested. Boeing’s new CEO, General Electric aviation and Blackstone Group veteran Dave Calhoun, started Monday.

Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC’s Phil LeBeau on Tuesday that the issues don’t effect the carrier, which operates older Boeing 737 jets, directly.

“I think it’s been widely reported that there’s a culture issue at Boeing for some time now,” Bastian said. “Dave will clean it up.”

Delta reported adjusted earnings of $1.70 a share, compared with analysts’ expectations of $1.40 a share, the company said in releasing its results before the market opened Tuesday.

On an unadjusted basis, Delta reported net income of $1.1 billion, up 8% from $1.02 billion during the fourth quarter of 2018. Revenues in the three months ended Dec. 31 rose 6.5% from a year earlier to $11.44 billion, slightly above analysts’ estimates. Revenue from Delta’s premium cabins, such as business class grew 9% to $3.7 billion, more than twice the clip that main cabin revenue grew, which was $5.24 billion in the fourth quarter.

Delta benefited from cheaper fuel and the unwinding of its minority stake in Brazilian carrier Gol, the result of Delta’s new stake in Gol’s larger South American competitor Latam. 

Delta said it expects unit revenues to be flat to up 2% in the first quarter of 2020, and flat margins. The airline reiterated its 2020 guidance of earnings per share of $6.75 to $7.75.

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