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Mining airline financials

Photo by Photobucket user simonluckin

Photo by Photobucket user simonluckin

Here’s another example of how you can turn a cluster of related earnings reports into a business feature or package rounding up trends in a specific industry.

Most of the major domestic air carriers report earnings this week, starting with United Airlines’ parent UAL today. On Wednesday, Air-Tran and American Airlines’ parent AMR release financial statements, and the big wind-up on Thursday includes Alaska Air, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue and US Airways.

Even if none of these carriers is headquartered or hubbed in your back yard, chances are your readers rely on one or another of them for the bulk of their air travel plans, so staying abreast of changes is worth the effort.

Airline financials is one approach; what pressures are fuel prices, corporate travel restrictions, unemployment and mergers putting on the carriers? Here’s the latest Thomson Reuters round-up of the industry’s third-quarter earnings forecasts contrasted with the airlines’ performance in the same quarter last year.

If you haven’t been following a particular sector, one way to get up to speed is to review prior quarters’ financial releases; most include a brief narrative that summarizes the major issues affecting profit and loss. Get creative and look at ancillary businesses for clues as well; for example, statements and reports from online travel-booking firms such as Expedia and Orbitz offer clues to air travel demand.

Hot consumer topics these days include of course holiday fare surcharges, capacity cutbacks and the a la carte fees that are nibbling $15 and $30 from travelers at seemingly every turn. I noticed recently that Northwest Airlines (now absorbed by Delta) is charging $15 a bag if you pre-pay online but will hike the fare to $20 per piece if you wait until airport check-in to pay. Paperless transactions like the cell-phone boarding passes also make fun and interesting consumer stories. You might take a lighthearted approach and design on an online “board game” style graphic that shows the economic hits facing air travelers today.

Here’s a previous tipsheet about covering airlines using data from trade groups, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and other sources.

Don’t overlook airline concessions as a fun and timely story, too. Many spruced-up airports added amenities ranging from oxygen bars to fine jewelry shops over the past decade; how are those posh pit-stops faring in these penny-pinching times? And what are airports doing to make up for lost commissions at any moribund storefronts? Raising passenger fees, perhaps?

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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