American Airlines and United Spill the Fourth Quarter Beans


It’s that time once again dear friends. That time when we get the straight scoop on just how bad, or how good, the previous quarter was for our friends, The Things With Wings.

This morning both AMR, parent of American Airlines, and UAL Corp., parent of United Airlines, reported their fourth quarter 2008 earnings.

Top line assessment? Both airlines reported numbers that came in comfortably within previously anticipated analyst forecasts.

That does not mean, however, that the numbers were overly pleasant to digest.

Especially in the case of United, which reported a net loss of $1.3 billion or $9.91, compared with a loss of $53 million or $0.47 a share the previous year. Excluding non-cash, net mark-to- market hedge losses and certain accounting charges, the airline reported a pre-tax loss of $547 million for the quarter. This figure compares to an adjusted pre-tax loss of $105 million in the fourth quarter of 2007.

A huge contributing factor here was the fact the airline got caught on the wrong side of some very expensive hedge positions during the fourth quarter. The effect of this wrong-way bet was clearly seen in the sharp drop in the airline’s cash balance for the quarter.

At the end of the quarter, United was sitting on only $2 billion in unrestricted cash, a restricted cash balance of $272 million, and $965 million in cash deposits held by its fuel hedge counterparties. The airline saw $989 million in cash go out the door during the fourth quarter in operating cash flow and it posted a negative $1.1 billion in free cash flow during the quarter.

Excluding one-time items, the airline said it lost $4.22 per share compared with Wall Street analyst consensus forecast of $4.42.

In the case of American, the airline reported a loss of $340 million or $0.77 a share, excluding special items. This performance was more or less in line with expectations as well.

A year ago the airline reported a loss of $184 million or $0.74 a share, without special items.

The full American Airlines’ release has yet to hit the wires.

We’ll also learn more about the results from both airlines later today, after their respective earnings calls.

In the meantime, go have some more coffee.