There might be a credit crunch, but don’t tell that to the airline industry. The Wall Street Journal reports “U.S. airlines, largely unprofitable and saddled with poor debt ratings, are enjoying surprising success raising money at a time when other companies are struggling amid the credit crunch.”
“Never underestimate the ability of airlines to raise money,” Bill Warlick, an airline debt analyst at Fitch Ratings, tells the Journal. Indeed, the airlines have resorted to a wide variety of means in their efforts to boost their cash reserves. Delta, for example, is scheduled to get up to $2 billion through 2010 in cash from American Express as part of the companies’ pact for their co-branded frequent-flier credit card. American? The Journal says AA parent AMR raised nearly $2 billion from items such as stock sales and selling off a previously owed money-management unit. Even Southwest has added as much as $2 billion to its cash reserves “by selling and leasing back 10 of its planes,” the Journal writes.
But, why are U.S. carriers scrambling to bolster their cash reserves in the first place? The Journal writes they “are building cash as a bulwark against global recession and losses on fuel-price hedging efforts.” Perhaps a more pressing question, who is willing to put up more money for the struggling industry, which already has lost billions this decade? The Journal explains that since fuel costs have bottomed out this winter, “both investors and airline partners are betting the carriers will be able to generate positive cash flow even as travel demand falls in the recession. Some analysts expect U.S. carriers to be profitable next year, thanks to the cheaper fuel, shrinking route networks, and an influx of new revenue, such as fees for checked bags.”
On that note, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland writes “the recent plunge in energy prices might allow big carriers to eke out a profit in 2009, in the throes of a recession.” The Plain Dealer says a recession-time profit “would be a first for the American aviation industry,” though the paper warns that projection “assumes stability in fuel prices, when volatility rules the day.” The International Air Transport Association (IATA) actually predicts North American airlines will turn a tiny cumulative profit in 2009 of about $300 million -– a figure that stands in stark contrast to the cumulative $2.5 billion loss IATA forecasts for carriers elsewhere in the world.
Still, whatever the factors that have made fresh cash available to U.S. airlines, the financing well might be about to run dry, one analyst suggests. “Airlines continue to defy expectations by raising more cash,” Philip Baggaley, an airline debt analyst for Standard & Poor’s is quoted as saying by the Journal. “But,” Baggaley adds, “the cookie jar is getting close to empty for many of them. Assets that could be turned into cash already have.”