United Airlines earnings: Even higher 2023 profit expected despite last month’s meltdown

United Airlines Holdings Inc. last month grappled with thousands of flight cancellations and delays, leaving passengers stranded right as the summer travel season began in earnest.

But the disruptions appeared to have little effect on the airline’s full-year profit outlook, which management on Wednesday bumped higher following strong second-quarter results. Shares were up 2.5% after hours on the news.

United Airlines

raised its per-share profit forecast to a range of $11 to $12, up from a prior range of $10 to $12. That forecast was higher than Wall Street analysts’ expectations for $9.78. The carrier said it expects to expand its flight schedules overall this year, with capacity — a measure of available seats and overall flight-network coverage — set to be up around 18% overall this year.

However, Raymond James analysts, in a note late Wednesday, said they believed that 18% increase implied a slight capacity reduction in the second half of the year “as a result of steps taken to fortify operations.” United will hold its earnings conference call to discuss the results on Thursday.

Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive, has blamed the Federal Aviation Administration and understaffing at the agency for last month’s flight-scheduling blowups. He later apologized for taking a private jet during the chaos. Earlier in the year, he warned that air travel — at least for United’s rivals — would likely be difficult this year, as airlines’ flight plans run up against insufficient staffing in jets and airports and aging FAA technology.

“The United team persevered through an unprecedented series of events at the end of last month,” Kirby said in a statement Wednesday.

The expectations and disruptions come as United and other airlines try to meet the ongoing surge in travel demand after pandemic restrictions stymied travel in 2020 and 2021. As part of a strategy called United Next, United plans to retire its older, less roomy jets and replace them with larger, modernized ones, potentially lowering costs and boosting profit. United on Tuesday added more flights to Asia.

“The all-time quarterly highs in the second quarter and the bright outlook for the future are evidence that the United Next strategy to upgauge the airline, increase connectivity at its mid-continent hubs, and expand its industry leading global network is working,” management said in United’s earnings release Wednesday.

For its second quarter, United reported net income of $1.1 billion, or $3.24 a share, compared with $329 million, or $1 a share, in the same quarter last year. Revenue increased to $14.18 billion, up from $12.11 billion in the prior-year quarter. Adjusted for special charges and debt extinguishment, United earned $5.03 a share.

Analysts polled by FactSet expected United to report adjusted earnings per share of $4.03, on sales of $13.9 billion.

For the third quarter, United said it expected to report adjusted earnings per share of $3.85 to $4.35, better than FactSet expectations for $3.76. The airline also forecast sales growth of 10% to 13%, above FactSet forecasts for around 9%.

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