Fitch Lowers Debt Ratings on United Airlines; Outlook to Negative


Is there an echo in here? Ah, we’ll at least use another chart.

Fitch also lowered the boom and the ratings on United Airlines’ parent UAL today.

Fitch Ratings has revised the Rating Outlook for UAL Corp. and its principal operating subsidiary United Airlines, Inc. (United) to Negative from Stable. Debt ratings for both entities have been affirmed as follows:

UAL & United Issuer Default Ratings (IDR) are now rated at ‘B-‘;

United’s secured bank credit facility (Term Loan and Revolving Credit Facility) is now rated at ‘BB-/RR1’;

–Senior unsecured rating for United is now rated ‘CCC/RR6’.

The bank facility rating applies to approximately $1.3 billion of funded term loan debt, and the unsecured rating applies to approximately $1.4 billion of outstanding notes.

Fitch said in its release:

“The Negative Rating Outlook reflects Fitch’s view that the unprecedented rise in crude oil and jet fuel prices witnessed over the last several weeks will put increasing pressure on United’s margins and cash flow generation capacity through the remainder of 2008, potentially forcing the carrier to consider asset sales or new financing to shore up liquidity in an increasingly challenging industry operating environment. United has taken steps in recent weeks to counter the fuel shock by cutting domestic available seat mile (ASM) capacity after the summer, while negotiating covenant waivers with its credit facility lenders to ensure access to its $1.5 billion secured credit facility. Still, the magnitude of the recent fuel price spike is leading United and other large U.S. carriers to pursue fare and fee increases that may well begin to crimp air travel demand and undermine the industry’s ability to partially offset fuel-related cash outflows in a weak macroeconomic environment.

Ratings for UAL and United reflect the airline’s highly levered balance sheet, volatile cash flow generation capacity, and ongoing susceptibility to intense fuel and revenue shocks in an industry that remains particularly vulnerable to macroeconomic risk. Following two years of improvements in cash flow generation and steady debt reduction in 2006 and 2007, United faces an increasingly difficult operating environment in 2008 that will likely lead to a deterioration in credit quality over the next few quarters.

In a prolonged high fuel cost scenario that assumes no significant pull-back in crude oil and jet fuel prices through early 2009, United and all of the major U.S. carriers will face intensifying liquidity pressures–particularly if an extended economic slowdown drives a sharp reduction in air travel demand. However, it is important to note that United’s unencumbered asset holdings give it some room to maneuver with respect to liquidity preservation in a deep industry downturn. United’s current unencumbered fleet of 113 aircraft could be financed to shore up cash balances if free cash flow trends deteriorate further. The potential sale of other assets such as United’s maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operations, spare parts, advance sales of Mileage Plus frequent flier miles and London Heathrow slots all represent sources of liquidity that could be tapped in the coming months if unrestricted cash balances fall closer to the $1.0 billion covenant level.

Taking into account the impact of fuel hedges, United remains highly sensitive to volatility in jet fuel prices. Fitch estimates that the annual mainline fuel cost impact of a 10-cent change in jet fuel prices is approximately $220 million. A full year 2008 post-hedge average fuel price of $3.20 per gallon (well below current spot prices of about $4.00 per gallon) would translate into approximately $2.2 billion of incremental mainline fuel costs this year versus 2007.”

The rating agency added, as with US Airways, that “further negative rating actions, including a downgrade of the IDR into the ‘CCC’ category) could follow if sustained high jet fuel prices (above $3.50 per gallon) through the summer, coupled with weakening revenue per available seat mile (RASM) trends and softening air travel demand drive substantially negative free cash flow and force United to borrow heavily to avoid intensifying liquidity pressure moving into 2009.”

Ticker: (Nasdaq:UAUA)