Last week, United Continental (NASDAQ:UAL) announced that it had earned a record profit in Q3. The company's strong earnings trajectory helped calm investors' nerves after newly installed CEO Oscar Munoz was hospitalized a week earlier due to a heart attack.
Following the earnings report, acting CEO Brett Hart and the rest of the United management team spent an hour talking to analysts and reporters to discuss the company's results and their plans going forward, given that Munoz is out on medical leave indefinitely. Here are five key points that United's management highlighted.
Reliability improving dramatically
Year-to-date, our consolidated on-time performance is five points better than the same period last year. Year-to-date, completion rate also improved significantly as we canceled over 30,000 fewer flights than last year, which translates into 2.7 million fewer affected customers.
-- United Continental Chief Operating Officer Greg Hart
One of the biggest factors holding back United's financial performance relative to its peers has been poor reliability. Back in 2012, the company had significant problems with its fleet of 747 jumbo jets, forcing it to base all of them in San Francisco in 2013 to concentrate parts, tools, and spare aircraft in one place.
Last year, United found itself unable to cope with severe winter weather across much of the U.S. The airline canceled more than 22,500 flights just in the first two months of 2014, causing it to report an ugly loss in Q1 of that year.
However, United has made a lot of progress on improving its reliability since then. On-time performance is rising and cancellations are falling. Over time, better reliability will help United compete for lucrative business travelers, who care a lot about flights being on time.
Continuing to retire 50-seat jets
I would say in terms of the regional piece and becoming less dependent on it, if you think about continuing to remove 50-seat regional jets, we're about halfway in total...
-- United Continental Chief Revenue Officer Jim Compton
Another change that United is making to court business travelers is reducing the size of its 50-seat regional jet fleet. These jets are uncomfortable for passengers and lack key amenities like first-class sections, Economy Plus extra-legroom seats, and Wi-Fi.
United is currently about halfway through its process of moving away from 50-seat jets. At the end of 2013, United's regional fleet included 391 planes with 50 or fewer seats (including turboprops). By the end of 2015, this will be down to 277 smaller planes.
Thus far, most of these small regional jets have been replaced by larger 76-seat regional jets that feature amenities typical of mainline aircraft. United will continue the process of moving away from small regional jets in 2016 by adding at least 11 used Airbus A319s to its mainline fleet.
More changes coming soon
Not long ago, we asked our customers and our employees to tell us how we could do things better, and we've heard from thousands of you. We are reading and listening to every single suggestion, and in the upcoming weeks, we will be announcing some changes that are a direct result of your feedback.
-- United Continental Acting CEO Brett Hart
United has announced (and begun implementing) a number of changes to improve the customer experience during 2015. Some observers had wondered if the pace of change would slow with CEO Munoz out on medical leave.
In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. United executives weren't ready to provide details on any new initiatives being prepared, but they made it clear that the airline will roll out significant improvements to the customer experience in the very near future.
Hedging loss headwind will dissipate in 2016
... [B]ased on the October 15 forward curve, we expect to incur approximately $275 million in [Q4] hedge losses while participating in approximately 81% of any future price declines. For 2016, we have about 17% of our expected fuel consumption hedged. This hedge is currently in a loss position of approximately $43 million...
-- United Continental Acting CFO Gerry Laderman
Airlines have all gotten a big boost from falling fuel prices this year, but the extent of those gains has depended on each airline's hedging policies. United Continental has captured nearly $3 billion in fuel savings through the end of September.
Still, it has reported more than $600 million of hedging losses year to date and is on pace for a $275 million hedging loss in Q4. By contrast, United's 2016 hedges are close to the current market price, so its hedging losses should be relatively small. Even if the average oil price in 2016 is in line with 2015, United could save more than $800 million year over year on fuel.
Significant benefit from new credit card terms
We expect the multiyear extension will generate an incremental $200 million of revenue in the second half of the year and approximately $400 million of incremental revenue for 2016.
-- Jim Compton
Another tailwind for United heading into 2016 is its new co-branded credit card agreement. Many airlines have been taking advantage of their desirability as rewards partners to negotiate better terms from their credit card partners. Last month, United announced that it had extended its agreement with Visa and JPMorgan Chase while improving the terms.
United had previously announced that it would get a revenue benefit of about $200 million from this agreement in the second half of 2015. The annualized improvement is $400 million. That means United will get an incremental $200 million windfall next year, cushioning the blow from the airline industry's weak unit revenue environment.