ATLANTA - Planes packed with summer travelers boosted Delta Air Lines to a $1.11 billion profit in the third quarter, and the carrier said Thursday that it expects revenue to keep rising into the holiday season.
Profit was up 59% from a year earlier, as strong ticket sales — especially for premium seats and international flights — helped Delta shrug off higher labor costs.
The Atlanta-based airline predicted ranges for fourth-quarter and full-year profit that mostly exceed Wall Street expectations.
"I think we’re closing the year strong, and the holiday bookings that we see right now are pretty good," CEO Ed Bastian said in an interview. "Domestic (travel) is solid, and international is really strong."
U.S. airlines are flying high as the travel recovery that began last year shows few signs of slowing down.
Delta increased its passenger-carrying capacity an aggressive 16% and was able to fill all those extra seats. Travelers flew 64 billion miles on the airline in the quarter, a 17% increase, and they filled 88% of the seats on the average flight, a point higher than last summer.
Revenue from ticket sales in the main cabin grew 12% — and 17% for premium seating. Money from Delta’s loyalty program soared 21%.
The program, called SkyMiles, has become so popular that there are far more passengers hoping for upgrades to better seats than available seats. Lines can grow long at Delta lounges at busy airports like Atlanta and New York’s JFK.
But when Delta announced changes to deal with the overcrowding last month — including basing elite frequent-flyer status purely on spending, and limiting lounge access for holders of Delta credit cards — the reaction from longtime customers was quick and brutal. Some vowed to switch airlines. Alaska Airlines and JetBlue fished for disgruntled Delta members by promising elite status in their programs. Even Bastian admitted the airline " probably went too far."
Bastian has promised to modify the unpopular changes, but he hasn’t given any details yet.
"We are working on that. We’ll be announcing something in the coming days," Bastian said in the interview. He said he has received "a lot of feedback – everyone had their own ideas as to how we might restructure the program. Almost universally, people acknowledged that we needed to do something."
Delta’s third-quarter profit, adjusted to exclude one-time items, was $2.03 per share, 8 cents better than forecast by analysts in a FactSet survey. Revenue rose 11% to $15.49 billion, also beating expectations.
For the fourth quarter, Delta said revenue will rise as much as 11% from a year ago and it will earn between $1.05 to $1.30 per share. Analysts expected $1.09.
The airline predicted that full-year profit will land between $6 and $6.25 per share after saying in June it would be at the top end of a $5-to-$6 range.
The short-term outlook would be rosier if not for a recent pickup in jet fuel prices — although fuel is still much cheaper than it was a year ago. Bastian expressed confidence that Delta and other carriers can raise prices enough to cover any increase in fuel expense.
Shares of Delta were virtually flat in morning trading.