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U.S. airlines bounce back in second quarter

The U.S. airline industry was a financial train wreck through most of the past decade.

If it wasn't terrorist fears, it was attacks by low-cost competitors or fuel price spikes. When the recession choked off demand for travel — especially premium-fare business travel — the $23.6 billion loss in 2008 swallowed up nearly all the money earned in two previous profitable years.

So, this might catch you by surprise: U.S. airlines will likely end 2010 in the black.

Last week, Delta Air Lines reported its best second quarter in a decade. The carrier swung to a $467 million profit from a year-earlier loss of $257 million. Perennial weakling United earned $273 million for the quarter, nearly a tenfold increase from a year earlier.

Most analysts expect AMR, the parent of American Airlines, will be alone among the 10 largest U.S. airlines not to make money this year.

This turnaround is all about supply and demand. Airlines cut flights and parked planes as the recession took hold. Now that consumers are returning to the skies, carriers can fill more seats with business travelers.

Those left for vacationers are pricier, too. Leisure fares last week were 15 percent higher than a year earlier, according Harrell Associates, which tracks 280 domestic routes.

"In this case, a rising tide lifts all ships," David Swierenga, president of AeroEcon in Round Rock, Texas, said in an interview with Bloomberg Business News. "It's driven primarily by the recovery in the U.S. economy, and the fact that carriers have been very cautious about adding capacity."

Airlines also are catching a break from fuel prices, higher than last year but still manageable. And, of course, those add-on fees and charges, which by some estimates generated $5 billion last year at little or no cost to carriers.

• • •

I received a gotcha call last week from a US Airways pilot and friend. He razzed me about an obituary of the airline I was preparing during one of its bankruptcies several years ago.

The once-dominant carrier at Tampa International not only survived, he reminded me, but made an impressive $279 million profit for this year's second quarter. US Airways also led the government's May rankings for on-time performance, baggage handling and customer satisfaction among the five network airlines.

Employees will receive $150 from the airline as a reward.

• • •

A 32-page job description for the top job at Tampa International Airport — written by a search firm with input from airport board members — seems to include some parting jabs at former executive director Louis Miller. Some members criticized him as autocratic and soft on underperforming staffers before his abrupt resignation in February.

Desired traits listed for his replacement include:

• "A strong delegator who makes effective use of his or her team and does not micromanage."

• "Manages acutely for performance internally and explicitly rewards performance while penalizing underperformance."

• "Confident but with an ego that is in check; knows when to take credit and when to let others do so."

The board should receive a short list of candidates by its September meeting and choose a new executive director the following month.

Airline 2010 2Q Profit (Loss) 2009 2Q Profit (Loss)

Delta $467m ($257m)

United $273m $28m

Continental $233m ($213m)

AMR (American) ($10.5m) ($390m)

US Airways $279m $58m

U.S. airlines bounce back in second quarter 07/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 9:38pm]
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