United: Cleared for Takeoff?

Not often do I find news that truly surprises me. Count yesterday as an exception. That's when Reuters published its interviews with several analysts and consultants who believe UAL Corp.'s (OTC BB: UALAQ.OB) United Airlines will exit bankruptcy next month in relatively good condition. One even told the news agency that United is "obscenely strong" and that the future belongs to legacy carriers.

Really?

The investor in me would love to believe that, so I did a little digging. I wanted to find out just how well United's core cash flow -- its owner earnings -- was progressing as it prepares to re-enter the public markets. Here's what I found:

Metric

Trailing 12 months

4 qtrs. prior

Net loss

($5,013)

($1,456)

ADD

Depreciation and amortization

$833

$824

Reorganization items

$4,216

$682

One-time operating items

($31)

$43

SUBTRACT

Capital expenditures

$299

$284

OWNER EARNINGS

($294)

($191)

Data provided by UAL filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission

As far as I can tell, United isn't improving -- its ability to crank out cash is actually worsening. Naturally, sky-high oil prices are to blame. Total spending on aircraft fuel equaled more than $3.7 billion over the trailing 12 months, up nearly 41% from the four quarters prior. Yeeeowch.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that this isn't a perfect analysis. Maybe analysts know something we don't, but the numbers suggest that United still has work to do before it sees a steady stream of positive earnings. And that means investors seeking profits in the reemerging airline ought to have a clear understanding of the attendant risks. Among them: labor strife, energy prices, and, as of this week, computer glitches. Every one of them is capable of delivering a bitter case of frostbite to an overexposed portfolio.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication, but he has family who are retired from United Airlines. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.


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