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Enjoy Your Cheap Summer Airfares. You’ll Pay More Next Year

When it comes to raising ticket prices, seat capacity is the biggest lever in the airline toolbox.

During the summer vacation season, think of a commercial airplane as a flying, broken cash machine: It spits out profit from June to September, but come autumn, the money slows.

That’s when the seat harvesting begins. This year, that annual airline ritual will likely feature deeper pruning than usual because U.S. carriers are desperate to stop the steady decline in revenues. To do so, they need to boost fares, which have sagged as seat supply outpaces demand.

Delta Air Lines Inc. said Thursday it would curb its seat growth to only 1 percent in the fourth quarter, with much of that cutting focused on the U.K., where the decision to quit the European Union has left airlines deeply uncertain about future travel demand. Delta had previously planned to expand 2 percent in the quarter, compared with 2015. Its quarterly revenue dipped 2 percent, to $10.4 billion.

Similar moves may come from rivals American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc., which are also striving to reverse slides in this industry metric known as passenger revenue per available seat mile (PRASM). (A seat mile is one seat flown one mile, the standard capacity gauge.)

Wall Street has soured on airline stocks this year, with the Bloomberg U.S. Airlines Index down 14 percent in 2016. Analysts have adopted a we’ll-believe-it-when-we-see-it stance on when passenger revenues will stop declining. Choppy currencies in many regions, periodic terrorist attacks, and the...