This industry is set to post record profits on lower fuel costs

December 15, 2015 12:07 PM

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Everyone knows there are winners and losers in any bear market, including the recent commodity rout. Low crude oil prices have definitely hurt explorers and producers. Airlines, on the other hand, appear to be thriving.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a global airlines trade group, the industry is set to post a collective $33 billion in net profits this year—a record—on fuel cost savings and stronger passenger flight demand.

Want to know how significant a record this is? In 2014, profits came in at $17.4 billion—about half of what they are today.

What’s more, profits are expected to be even larger next year.

World demand grew 6.7% from a year ago, the IATA says, and is estimated to rise a further 6.9% in 2016. And with oil likely to stay relatively low, the group forecasts that airlines will spend $135 billion on fuel in 2016, down nearly a quarter from $180 billion in 2015.

This, coupled with improved fuel efficiency, will contribute toward the group ending next year with estimated total net profits of $36.3 billion.

You can see below that global airline stocks have soared in recent years, especially in response to flagging oil, their largest expense.

In the past, airlines were notorious for their inefficiency and tendency to destroy capital. These claims were probably exaggerated, especially by Warren Buffett, who has repeatedly decried the industry as a money-loser. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Buffett didn’t do as bad as he claimed.

Former U.S. Airways CEO Ed Colodny explained in 2013 that, after Buffett’s shares didn’t appreciate, he wrote down his investment and got out when he could.

“I think at the end of the day, he got all his dividends paid and his principal back,” Colodny said.  

In any case, airlines are now going into their third year of the present secular bull market. These often last much longer. We believe this cycle is different, in that the U.S. airline industry could easily create $20 billion of free cash flow this year and next. Low fuel costs have been the cherry on top.

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About the Author

Frank Holmes is CEO and chief investment officer of US Global Investors. This first appeared in his Frank Talk blog. For more updates on global investing from Frank and the rest of the U.S. Global Investors team, follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/USFunds or like on Facebook at www.facebook.com/USFunds.