No Quick Fix for Airlines Amid High Price for Jet Fuel

The bulk of the airline industry, whose first-quarter results come out this week and next, has no easy way to turn around its fortunes, analysts say.


''If General Electric felt it would be better off to pull the plug from one of several carriers that it's got lease agreements at, it would have done that a long time ago,'' said Daniel Kasper, who runs the transportation practice for the consulting firm LECG in Cambridge, Mass.

Instead GE, which also manufactures aircraft engines and leases planes, is lending more money in the hopes of nursing Delta - and other airlines, including US Airways and Independence Air - back to health so they can honor existing debts and, presumably, borrow more money and order more equipment.

In December 2004, Delta received more than $800 million from separate financing agreements with GE and American Express, bringing its total borrowings for the year to $2.4 billion and total outstanding debt to nearly $14 billion. In March the Atlanta-based carrier borrowed an additional $250 million from American Express.

US Airways recently secured much-needed financing from regional airline partners. Republic Airways Holding Inc. has agreed to invest $125 million after the Arlington, Va., carrier exits bankruptcy, while an affiliate of Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. agreed to loan US Airways $125 million.

''Without a partner to feed, regional jets lose money,'' Goldman Sachs analyst Glenn Engel said in a report.

But aside from these forces propping up the ailing industry, there are an equal number of outside factors _ from high fuel costs to the boom in online travel booking _ working against the nation's largest carriers and for which there are no silver bullets.

Jet fuel prices average about $1.60 a gallon on the New York spot market, up 65 percent from a year ago. At the same time, domestic nonrefundable fares are 1 percent lower than last year and unrestricted fares are 33 percent lower, according to an analysis of 100 markets by New York-based consulting firm Harrell Associates.

Once-opaque ticket pricing is now transparent thanks to the proliferation of online travel sites, where bargain-hunting corporate and leisure travelers are helping to turn air travel into a commodity.

John Donnelly of Eclat Consulting in Reston, Va., said he does not expect any major carriers to liquidate. The more likely scenario, he said, is troubled carriers will continue ''limping along'' until fuel prices drop to more manageable levels, capacity tightens and demand rises enough so that fares can be raised to profitable levels.

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