Delta Air Lines, Inc. Is the Cash King of the Airline Industry

Delta Air Lines  (NYSE: DAL  ) has turned into a massive cash cow in the last few years. Since the end of the Great Recession, the airline industry has become much more stable and profitable, and Delta has been leading the way.

Most importantly, unlike its top rivals -- American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL  ) and United Continental (NYSE: UAL  ) -- Delta is keeping its capital spending in check. This will enable it to generate an average of $3 billion in annual free cash flow for the next several years.

United Continental has lagged Delta badly in terms of earnings and cash flow. Photo: The Motley Fool

This massive influx of cash means Delta can have its cake and eat it, too. On Tuesday, Delta announced plans to raise its dividend and spend $2 billion on share repurchases by the end of 2016, while also reducing its debt levels and pension liability. None of Delta's competitors have sufficient free cash flow to replicate this type of plan.

Blowing by its targets
A year ago, Delta introduced its first capital return program. The company implemented a $0.06 per share quarterly dividend to return approximately $200 million to shareholders each year. It also announced a $500 million share repurchase, to be completed by mid-2016. Meanwhile, Delta planned to reduce its adjusted net debt from $11.7 billion at the end of 2012 to under $7 billion by the end of 2017.

However, Delta's profit and cash flow improvements have far outpaced its assumptions. Just five months ago, Delta laid out a set of long-term earnings and cash flow targets. The plan called for a 10%-12% operating margin, 10%-15% long-term EPS growth, 15% return on invested capital, and $5 billion in annual operating cash flow, with half reinvested in the business.

Delta Air Lines' earnings and cash flow targets have been moving steadily higher. Photo: The Motley Fool

Delta has already revised this recent plan upwards. As of this week, Delta now expects a long-term operating margin of 11%-14%, a 15%-18% return on invested capital, and $6 billion in annual operating cash flow.

The resulting $3 billion in annual free cash flow means Delta has plenty of money to address all of its capital priorities. Now it plans to hit a $5 billion adjusted net debt target by 2017 while raising its annual dividend payments to approximately $300 million, and adding $2 billion to its buyback authorization.

United Continental and American Airlines can't keep up
The secret to Delta's strong cash flow is that it has been able to grow earnings without making massive investments in new aircraft. The same can't be said for its top competitors.

American Airlines has also posted strong earnings growth recently, and it may earn nearly the same pre-tax profit as Delta this year. However, American is spending tens of billions of dollars to replace dated aircraft in the next several years: roughly $5.5 billion per year through 2018.

American Airlines is spending heavily on new aircraft, limiting free cash flow. Source: American Airlines.

Even if American Airlines matches Delta's annual operating cash flow target of $6 billion, that would produce meager free cash flow of $500 million until American's heavy investment cycle winds down. If American is just slightly less profitable than Delta, then it could produce no free cash flow whatsoever for the next five years.

It is important to note that American Airlines has a massive cash pile right now, totaling about $10.6 billion. Some of this may be returned to shareholders in the next few years. That said, American also has nearly $17 billion in debt, and it will certainly want to use much of its cash to reduce this debt burden.

United Continental has the worst of both worlds; it's spending more money on planes than Delta, but it is not generating commensurate profits. United and Delta were posting similar earnings results as recently as 2011. However, United's earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization has fallen since then, while Delta has posted steady EBITDA growth.

UAL Free Cash Flow (TTM) Chart

United Continental vs. Delta Air Lines Free Cash Flow (TTM), data by YCharts.

As the chart shows, this low level of earnings has recently driven United Continental's free cash flow into the red. Based on United's plan to spend nearly $3 billion per year on CapEx through 2017, the company will need a significant improvement in profitability to generate a meaningful amount of free cash flow. This type of improvement is nowhere in sight.

Foolish bottom line
Delta Air Lines has made a remarkable comeback in the last several years. However, what really sets it apart from competitors is its strong free cash flow. Since 2009, most of this free cash flow has been used to reduce Delta's heavy debt burden.

Going forward, Delta is on pace to generate enough free cash flow that it will be able to return more than $1 billion to shareholders each year, while also setting aside plenty of money for debt reduction and pension funding. That's a record none of its competitors can match.

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Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 10, 2014, at 7:33 PM, asdlkfad wrote:

    This is the most light weight analysis I've seen since the last Fool analysis. What is this guys qualifications? Was he an analyst for a decade at an airline, a Fed14 bank?

    For all of the ink Yahoo gives this guy, the fact that he has 140+ followers after this long a time, should tell Yahoo to smarten up. If Yahoo wants to improve, it needs to give customers the ability to block child wannabes like this. Motley Fool is Foolish.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2014, at 9:05 AM, AcuraT wrote:

    Let's see, this article totally disregards two factors. One is the quality of the fleet of aircraft upon merging. Delta had to replace the DC-9s that Northwest had, and has to be concerned about the aging 747s. That was it as Northwest had upgraded the rest of the fleet with Airbus aircraft. With Continental United, the United part of the equation was bankrupt. They had only ancient aircraft - all of which needed to be replaced. Compounding the problem is that while Delta bought used aircraft, United bought new aircraft. So it was more costly as well compounding the issue.

    The second complicating factor for United is that they are 100% unionized. Delta is 20% unionized, as Northwest voted to LEAVE the union when the terms of the merger gave them better benefits (without the overhead) of the merged airline. Delta pays its employees more than the unionized employees at United, and it is still a lower cost. That is an advantage no matter how you look at it.

    United's (former Continental management) is very challenged by these two factors. How they deal with both of them will determine if they go bankrupt again or avoid it.

  • Report this Comment On May 13, 2014, at 10:32 AM, TMFGemHunter wrote:

    @AcuraT: I don't see how either of these two factors are relevant. The point of the article is that Delta generates far more cash than United or American, and that's the result of management's strategy more than anything else. Delta has the oldest fleet among the three, yet it still has lower CapEx plans than either American or United. It makes better use of older aircraft, which also makes it better able to integrated used planes into its fleet.

    I don't think the labor cost difference between Delta and United is very significant. Labor productivity is a different story. But that's more about strategy than union contracts. Delta uses denser seating configurations on its planes (on average), which require less labor per seat mile.

    Adam

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