Delta sees profit growth in 2012 despite caution

Wed Dec 14, 2011 4:42pm EST

A Delta plane sits on a runway prior to takeoff at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York December 25, 2009.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

A Delta plane sits on a runway prior to takeoff at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York December 25, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

(Reuters) - Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N) said Wednesday it expects profit growth in 2012, aided by healthy corporate travel, despite economic challenges in Europe and cost pressures.

"We expect the economic growth picture around the world to be positive but, candidly, to be a bit slow, particularly in Europe, where we're expecting that we'll see some recessionary effects coming from the euro zone crisis," President Ed Bastian told the airline's investor meeting in speaking about 2012. The meeting was broadcast over the Internet.

Bastian said that in Europe, Delta plans to cut its capacity 7 percent next year.

Still, he added that 2012 should be "a year of earnings growth," as corporate travel is expected to rise and service cuts help airlines recover higher fuel costs. For 2011, Delta projected a profit of roughly $800 million after items.

Most U.S. airlines have posted profits this year, aided by service cuts, higher fares and retirement of less fuel-efficient planes. Still, broad economic skittishness looms as a threat to overall demand for air travel.

Atlanta-based Delta said it expects an operating margin of 6 to 8 percent for the 2011 fourth quarter, compared with a previous forecast of 5 to 7 percent.

Passenger revenue per available seat mile, an important measure, is expected to rise 11 percent to 12 percent in the last calendar quarter.

As economic woes crimp activity in Europe and the United States, Delta is expanding ties in emerging markets to fuel growth. Earlier this month, it agreed to invest $100 million in Brazil's Gol Linhas Aereas (GOLL4.SA) to increase access to Latin America's largest travel market. Over the summer, it expanded a partnership with Aeromexico (AEROMEX.MX).

Delta is also banking on product and facility investments in hopes of winning new passengers and enticing existing ones to spend more. It has installed fully reclining seats on some aircraft and is upgrading its facilities at many airports, including a more than $1 billion refurbishment under way at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The company also told investors that it is looking to drive more customized offerings for passengers to produce new revenue and garner increased business through its website.

Shares of Delta were up 1 percent to $8.07 in late morning trading, and other U.S. airlines also rose. The Arca Airline index .XAL was up 0.2 percent.

(Reporting by Karen Jacobs; editing by John Wallace and Gerald E. McCormick)

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