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Delta (DAL) Raises Fuel Cost Alarm: Other Airlines to Follow?

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Delta Air Lines (DAL - Free Report) kick-started the third-quarter 2021 earnings season for the Zacks Airline industry on Oct 13. Even though the carrier reported better-than-expected earnings per share and revenues for the period, its shares have been moving south with a depreciation of 5.8% since the earnings release. The Atlanta-based carrier currently carries a Zacks Rank #4 (Sell).

You can see the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank (Strong Buy) stocks here.

Why the Southward Movement?

Despite the outperformance, shares moved in the opposite direction due to the carrier’s CEO Ed Bastian’s commentary on fuel costs. He said while releasing third-quarter results that, “the recent rise in fuel prices will pressure our ability to remain profitable for the December quarter”.

Delta expects fuel price per gallon (on an adjusted basis) for the December quarter in the $2.25-$2.40 range. The mid-point of this projected range indicates a rise from the adjusted fuel price of $1.94 recorded by the airline heavyweight for the September quarter. If management’s warning on fuel prices comes true, the carrier may incur a loss in the fourth quarter (even if passenger revenues increase owing to declining COVID-19 cases) after a profitable September quarter.

What’s in Store for Other Airlines?

As noted above, Delta was the first airline to have announced third-quarter numbers. A host of airline companies is scheduled to post the same in the coming days. For example, United Airlines (UAL - Free Report) will release September-quarter results on Oct 19 while American Airlines (AAL - Free Report) , Southwest Airlines (LUV - Free Report) and Alaska Air Group (ALK - Free Report) will follow suit on Oct 21. JetBlue Airways (JBLU - Free Report) will report earnings on Oct 26.

Like Delta, we expect these companies to have performed well on the top-line front, mainly owing to higher passenger revenues. The gradual improvement in air-travel demand (mainly for leisure) after remaining tepid in most part of the September quarter due to the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, is likely to have boosted passenger revenues. Cargo revenues are also likely to have been upbeat for the carriers yet to report third-quarter results, thereby boosting the top line further.

However, akin to Delta, the airlines are expected to issue unfavorable forecasts for the December quarter with respect to fuel price per gallon. That steep fuel costs are a bane for all airlines can be understood from the fact that shares of most airline companies fell on Oct 13 following Delta’s caution. As a consequence, the stocks of Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Spirit Airlines (SAVE - Free Report) dipped 1.8%, 3.6% and 4.5%, respectively, on the aforesaid date from the respective Oct 12’s closing prices. We note that oil prices have surged nearly 70% so far this year. The same has risen around 15% in the past month.

The oil prices will continue to shoot up as reflected in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) decision to increase forecasts for oil price during 2021 and 2022. The EIA, in its October short-term energy outlook, stated that it expects the average Brent spot price of $71.38 per barrel for the current year. This marks a significant rise from the EIA’s forecast in September when it had expected the average Brent spot price to be $68.61 per barrel for 2021. The EIA expects the oil price to average $81 per barrel during the December quarter. This expectation is $10 per barrel higher than its previous prediction.

The upped forecast for oil prices by the EIA is a further indicator that airlines will struggle in the December quarter on account of elevated fuel prices. With fuel costs being a major component of the airlines’ operating expenses, the escalated expenditure on fuel is unwelcome as far as their bottom-line growth is concerned.