US Airways fuel prices are hedged


Aug 27, 2002
U.S. Airlines Show Disparity In Hedging for Jet-Fuel Costs
Jet fuel, now more than twice as expensive as a year ago, is emerging as a major factor in survival and bankruptcy for airlines, as several carriers, including some of the weakest, find themselves with few protective price hedges in place.
Airlines typically hedge by locking in fuel at prearranged prices or buying securities that rise in value when oil climbs. Yet the industry finds itself with wide disparity in hedging, with some airlines fully hedged at low prices, and others completely exposed to huge price increases.
UAL Corp.''s United Airlines, operating under bankruptcy-court protection, has no hedges in place this year. That will likely cost the nation''s second-largest airline more than $100 million in added fuel costs during the current quarter alone, estimates UBS Warburg analyst Samuel Buttrick. Analysts suspect US Airways Group Inc., also reorganizing in bankruptcy, has few hedges in place. US Air says it is hedged for 2003, but it wouldn''t disclose prices or percentages.

By contrast, Southwest Airlines, the only profitable major carrier, hedged 100% of its jet-fuel needs for the current quarter at prices that are the equivalent of $23 a barrel for crude oil, compared with recent crude-oil prices hovering around $36 a barrel. Southwest has lined up more than 75% of its fuel for the rest of this year and next at $23 a barrel for crude oil.
Northwest Airlines is well-hedged with 100% of its fuel needs for the current quarter priced at the equivalent of $23 to $31 a barrel of crude oil, according to Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. Continental Airlines has 95% of its fuel for the quarter hedged at $33 a barrel, Delta Air Lines has 66% hedged at $26 a barrel, America West Airlines has 63% hedged at $24 to $31 a barrel, and AMR Corp.''s American Airlines has 40% hedged at $23 a barrel, Deutsche Bank says.
On average, U.S. carriers have hedged about one-third of their jet-fuel needs for the current quarter, estimates David Swierenga, chief economist for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for U.S. carriers.
United says bankruptcy hurt it in the hedging game. The carrier had some hedges in place at the time of its bankruptcy filing in December, but the filing put the airline in default of those hedges so they had to be liquidated. United said it filed a motion with the bankruptcy court that permitted it to hedge going forward, but by that time, prices had risen. Given the volatility of fuel prices right now, it just didn''t make any sense for us to do that, United spokesman Rich Nelson said.
Good credit, on the other hand, helps Southwest because many hedges revolve around futures contracts, and those on the other side of the contract may be gambling on the credit of the airline. If you''re not a good credit then you may not be able to find a counterparty who''s willing to enter into a hedging contract with you, Southwest''s chief financial officer, Gary Kelly, says. There is a situation where you would owe the counterparty money.
Mr. Kelly''s strategy at Southwest is to start early and build positions when prices look attractive. He began buying hedges for 2003 fuel needs more than a year ago, in part because of concerns about the situation in the Middle East. Southwest had hedged 80% of its fuel needs for the first quarter of this year by this past December. When political trouble flared that month in Venezuela, the airline decided to hedge all of its remaining fuel needs for the quarter.
Concern about the Middle East has prompted Southwest to hedge far into the future, as well. In addition to being hedged on 80% of the airline''s fuel needs for 2004, Southwest has 32% of its needs for 2005 hedged, and 5% to 15% of its needs beyond that all the way out to 2008.
They''re modest positions, but the point is we start early, we build our position, Mr. Kelly said.
Fuel is the second-largest expense for airlines after labor, and the huge increase in price, a result of higher crude-oil prices, will likely cost the industry, which is grappling with depressed revenue and massive financial losses, several billion dollars this year.
A one-cent increase in the price of jet fuel costs the U.S. airline industry $180 million, based on 18 billion gallons of jet fuel purchased a year, Mr. Swierenga of the ATA said. Jet-fuel spot prices in New York have run up to $1.30 a gallon recently, compared with 61 cents a gallon a year ago.
Hedging can be a tricky business, and costly to an airline if fuel buyers guess wrong. There is no futures market for jet fuel, but airlines can buy contracts that lock in set prices of crude and heating oil, whose price moves most closely in line with that of jet fuel.
Prearranged crude-oil prices in place at U.S. airlines in the first quarter of 2003
Airline Hedges (dollars per barrel)
Southwest 100%, most at $23 a barrel
Northwest 100%, from $23-$31 a barrel
Continental 95% at $33 a barrel
Delta 66% at $26 a barrel
America West 63% at $24-$31 a barrel
American 40% at $23 a barrel
US Airways hedged, undisclosed amounts
United none