After an exceptionally strong performance in 2015, in which its operating margin more than doubled, from 8.9% to 19.0%, JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) has run into some headwinds this year. While the company continued to post strong earnings growth earlier this year, analysts expect earnings per share to plunge about 20% year over year in Q4.
However, the company's outlook is quickly improving. On Monday, JetBlue published a relatively bullish unit revenue forecast for the fourth quarter. On Tuesday, it will provide more details about future earnings growth drivers at its 2016 investor-day conference.
Revenue forecast is better than expected
During JetBlue's Q3 earnings call in late October, outgoing CFO Mark Powers estimated that revenue per available seat mile (RASM) would sink 3.5%-4% year over year for October. JetBlue doesn't provide quarterly RASM guidance on its earnings calls, but executives suggested that November would be a better month while December would be the worst month of the quarter for unit revenue, because of unfavorable holiday timing.
Since JetBlue provided these forecasts, airline industry demand has improved noticeably. Last month, JetBlue reported that RASM had decreased about 3% year over year in October, which was somewhat better than the company's original forecast.
On Monday, JetBlue announced that RASM got back to a flat line (approximately) in November. This marks the first time in a year that the company has recorded flat or better unit revenue performance in any month.
JetBlue also provided revenue guidance for the full fourth quarter on Monday. The company expects RASM to decrease 1%-2% year over year. That would be a big improvement relative to the 6.5% decline logged during the first nine months of the year. It also implies that JetBlue's December unit revenue performance won't be as bad as initially expected.
JetBlue gets ready to reveal long-term plans
Even with this relatively solid unit revenue outlook, JetBlue will record a steep EPS decline this quarter. Moreover, every single Wall Street analyst following the company expects JetBlue's EPS to fall on a full-year basis in 2017, because of various non-fuel cost pressures -- for example, JetBlue is raising most employees' base wages by 8% on Jan. 1 -- and rising fuel prices.
On Tuesday, JetBlue will hold its biennial investor-day meeting. This event will give the company an opportunity to explain its plans to keep its earnings growing in 2017 and beyond. JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes has revealed that this year's conference will focus primarily on cost-reduction efforts.
Some of these programs have already been announced. For example, JetBlue's plan to squeeze more seats onto its existing planes -- first announced at its 2014 investor day conference -- is just taking off. Over the next two years, it will add 12 seats to each of its A320s, allowing the company to spread its pilot, maintenance, and aircraft ownership costs over more seats.
JetBlue executives also noted on their October conference call that the company may have opportunities to reduce its long-term engine maintenance costs. More broadly, Hayes suggested that JetBlue's growth over the past few years has given it the scale to negotiate better contracts with suppliers, thus driving down unit costs.
These are just a few of the items that JetBlue will talk about at the investor-day meeting. It will probably announce other cost reduction projects, as well.
Mint deserves a mention, too
Even if JetBlue spends most of the conference discussing its cost reduction plans, I expect the company to devote at least some time to the ongoing expansion of its Mint premium service. At JetBlue's last investor day, Mint had just launched a few months earlier. It was promising but unproven at that time.
Today, Mint is a clear success story. After using Mint to turn around its performance on the New York-San Francisco and New York-Los Angeles routes in 2014 and 2015, JetBlue has launched Mint service from Boston to San Francisco and Los Angeles this year.
In 2017, JetBlue plans to nearly double the size of the Mint fleet, bringing Mint service to several more routes. It sees plenty of room for further expansion, including the possibility of using Airbus' A321LR to begin flying to Europe a few years from now.
This Mint expansion represents a key opportunity for JetBlue to boost its unit revenue next year and beyond. Whether JetBlue's management will quantify the expected impact at the upcoming investor-day meeting remains to be seen.