Market Overview

How Is Earnings Season Setting Up For The Airliners?

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How Is Earnings Season Setting Up For The Airliners?

Airline stocks were suffering another down day on Tuesday after Delta Air Lines, Inc. (NYSE: DAL) reported March traffic numbers and updated shareholders on second-quarter guidance.

Update Gist

Here are the highlights from Delta’s investor update:

  • Projected March quarter operating margin is expected to be in the 10.0–11.0 percent range.
  • March PRASM came in at 0.5 percent.
  • In the March quarter, passenger unit revenue declined an estimated 0.5 percent.
  • Delta returned roughly $350 million to shareholders in the March quarter.
  • CASM-Ex including profit sharing fell in the +5.0–6.0 percent range in the March quarter.
  • System capacity declined about 0.5 percent in the March quarter.

Passenger unit revenue, which compares sales to flight capacity, is a major metric of efficiency for airlines. The new guidance of a 0.5 percent year-over-year decline represents a negative revision from the company’s previous Q1 passenger unit growth guidance of nearly flat.

Shares of Delta, Southwest Airlines Co (NYSE: LUV), United Continental Holdings Inc (NYSE: UAL) and American Airlines Group Inc (NASDAQ: AAL) were all down more than 1.3 percent in midday trading on Tuesday.

2017: Clear Skies Or Stormy Weather?

Delta isn’t the only airline not living up to expectations in 2017. Earlier in March, United CEO Oscar Munoz said the airline is combatting smaller-than-expected margins by increasing capacity. United upped its 2017 domestic capacity growth guidance from 1.5–2.5 percent to 3.5–4.5 percent.

Evercore analyst Duane Pfennigwerth said United was “abandoning its commitment to shareholders to keep its capacity growth below GDP.” Rising capacity could eventually lead to a glut in available seats and loss of pricing power for airlines.

Delta’s latest unit revenue guidance cut comes on the heels of similar cuts by American and Southwest in March. At this point, investor expectations for Q1 airline earnings season are relatively low. JPMorgan says the Delta's weak RASM projections will likely weigh on Delta shares and the rest of the airline sector.

Since March 1, all and the “Big 4” airline stocks are down between 7 and 12 percent. Delta is expected to be the first of the Big 4 to report Q1 earnings on April 13.

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