* Says high fuel costs, smaller yield gains will curb profit
* 2011 operating profit 49.1 mln euros vs 40.7 mln forecast
* Warns pension shortfall could cause industrial action
By Conor Humphries
DUBLIN, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Irish airline Aer Lingus warned profit would fall this year due to higher fuel costs and said a growing pension deficit had the potential to spark industrial action that would hurt the company.
The airline beat analyst expectations by posting an operating profit of 49.1 million euros ($65.77 million) in the year to December, compared to an average forecast of 40.7 million by five analysts polled by Reuters I/B/E/S.
But it said its fuel bill would increase by 60 million euros this year if oil prices remained at current levels. That would wipe out the benefit of expected low single-digit growth in passenger numbers and yield, the keenly watched measure showing average revenue gained per mile per passenger.
“We think we will make a decent profit but it will be a little bit lower than this year,” Chief Financial Officer Andrew McFarland told journalists.
Aer Lingus lost 40 percent of its value last year on weak demand in its home market and concerns it would have to contribute to cover the large shortfall in the pension scheme.
But it has regained two-thirds of that loss since the start of the year, buoyed by the collapse of rivals Spanair and Malev and reports of interest in the government’s 25 percent stake in the airline.
Its shares opened down 3 percent on Tuesday at 90.4 euro cent per share.
“The company’s underlying (performance) is good, but they can’t pay for fuel basically,” said Davy stockbrokers analyst Stephen Furlong.
“This is going to be the story in the (airline) network earnings season. Revenue is good, but it doesn’t pay for fuel.”
An additional 60 million euros in fuel costs would represent an increase of 20 percent on the airline’s 288 million euro fuel bill last year, compared to an increase of 8.5 percent in 2010-2011.
Aer Lingus is in talks with unions over how to fill a hole in a staff pension scheme. The estimated deficit increased to 700 million euros by the end of the year from an earlier estimate of 400 million euros, it said in a statement.
The airline says it has no legal obligation to increase its fixed contribution to the scheme, but is holding talks with unions about the shortfall in an effort to avoid industrial action.
“There is ... a risk that the group could become involved in industrial disputes with its employees, which could be significantly detrimental to the operations of the airline and its financial performance,” it said.
Progress in the talks was likely to be slow, McFarland said.
Aer Lingus said it would consider paying a dividend when there was a more durable recovery. McFarland said he would not rule out a pay-out this year, but no decision had been made.
Trading in the first two months of the year was ahead of 2011 on volume and price, Chief Operation Officer Stephen Kavanagh told journalists.
The airline’s growth tends to track Irish Gross National Product, which it expects will remain flat in 2012 and 2013.