(By Street Authority) Europe is on the ropes, U.S. businesses remain cautious, and U.S. consumers are ill-inclined to spend money. Meanwhile, crude oil has been in triple-digit territory.
That should all spell deep trouble for the nation's airlines.
Instead, they just posted a superb quarter. According to data compiled by Deutsche Bank, the seven top U.S. airlines just bagged a collective $247 million operating profit. That compares with a modest loss for the industry a year ago, and comes at a time when the collective bill for jet fuel is $1.8 billion higher than last year's first quarter.
The fact that decent profits were generated in the slowest quarter of the year tells you something. The current quarter and the third quarter are typically the most profitable, thanks to rising levels of travel. For all of 2012, Deutsche Bank now thinks the top seven domestic carriers can earn a collective $3.8 billion, well ahead of the $2.3 billion earned in 2011.
Frankly, that forecast could be off the mark. The analysts assume oil prices will stay range-bound, but they are starting to weaken, recently crossing below $100 a barrel. Might we be looking at $4 billion or even $5 billion in industry profits? It's possible -- and investors who recognize this early on could profit handsomely after the rest of the crowd catches on.
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The robust industry profits are the result of one simple factor: Airline executives are no longer concerned with market share at any cost. Instead, they are solely focused on ensuring that every flight earns its keep. Almost any route that is unprofitable has been eliminated, and the resulting scarcity of available seats is leading to firmer prices. The fact that airlines now charge for many things such as checked luggage also helps.
I could single out a specific carrier as an example of the newfound wisdom of expense control and revenue maximization, but virtually every carrier (except for beleaguered AMR) has gotten religion.
Yet Delta Airlines (NYSE: DAL) serves as good an example as any.