Rising fuel costs cast a pall over easing profit pressures

November 10, 2021
Photo: Frankfurt Airport

Rising fuel costs are casting a shadow over the airline industry’s recovery despite figures showing the pressure on global airline profitability eased in the third quarter.

The latest Airlines Financial Monitor from the International Air Transport Association shows aggregated airline financial losses in Q3 diminished compared to the previous quarter with some carriers reporting their first profitable quarter since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

A sample of 27 airlines indicated the industry-wide earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) margin improved to minus 2 percent of revenues in the third quarter, driven by passenger recovery on some domestic and short-haul routes.

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But the report said initial financial results indicated passenger revenues were still 34 percent lower in the third quarter than they were in the same period in 2019. This was partly offset by 65 percent rise in cargo revenue but total revenues were still down by 30 percent.

It warned a sharp increase in jet fuel prices was boosting operating costs and represented a risk to a further recovery in profitability in the current quarter.

“Average monthly jet fuel price and Brent crude oil price continued to climb higher in recent weeks, and is currently well above pre-crisis 2019 levels,’’ the report said.

“At the beginning of November, the price per barrel of jet fuel was at US$96.1, up 70% year-to-date.

“Many airlines have been voicing concerns about the impact of rising fuel costs – airlines’ largest operating cost item – on their financial recovery.”

The report noted the fourth quarter tended to a  seasonally weaker period for airline passenger revenues and the fuel price increase represented an unwelcome challenge.

The fuel threat was also seen as a factor in a fall in global airline share prices in October. The performance gap between the wider equity markets and airlines widened in the face of a broad-based fall in stock prices across all regions.

The biggest fall between September and October was in North America, where stocks fell by 7.2 percent, while Europe averaged the weakest share price performance for the year with a fall of almost 7 percent year-to-date.

In the Asia-Pacific, stocks in October were down 3.2 percent versus September and 6.5 percent since the start of the year.

“The global airline share price index has been trending sideways at well below pre-pandemic levels throughout most of 2021 amidst uncertainty about pandemic outbreaks and their impact on the air travel recovery,” the report said.

“Indeed, the metric rose by only 1.8 percent year-to-date, compared with a 15.2 percent increase in wider equity markets over the same period.”