WestJet expects higher first quarter 2017 revenue

(Reuters) - WestJet Airlines Ltd WJA.TO expects to generate higher revenue at the start of 2017 by flying more passengers while its chief executive said that a recently-announced U.S. travel ban might present a growth opportunity.

Snow covered mountains are seen under the wing of a WestJet commercial flight on route from Vancouver to Calgary November 23, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Canada’s second-largest carrier warned that increasing fuel costs are an anticipated headwind after the Calgary-based company reported a higher-than-expected fourth quarter profit by flying more passengers and cost controls.

WestJet Chief Executive Gregg Saretsky told analysts that the carrier has not seen higher traffic related to the recently announced U.S. travel ban on visitors from seven countries, though he said it could present an opportunity.

“As border issues and political issues continue to intensify I think there is perhaps an opportunity for Canada to benefit from increasing foreign tourist arrivals,” he said. “We are watching with interest what’s going on with the change in political landscape.”

WestJet expects a rise in revenue per available seat mile (RASM) to grow between 1 and 3 percent during the first three months of 2017, as the Alberta economy improves.

“For the first quarter of 2017 we expect strong traffic and revenue growth to continue,” Saretsky told analysts.

Load factor, which measures how effectively the airline filled seats, rose to 80.2 percent in the fourth quarter, from 78.4 percent a year earlier.

The rising costs of jet fuel remains a headwind in 2017, with WestJet expecting a price increase in the first quarter of approximately 36 percent to 40 percent.

WestJet shares were down 0.3 percent, while Canada's main stock index .GSPTSE was up 0.2 percent.

Excluding fuel and employee profit sharing, cost per available seat mile (CASM) are expected to be up 1.5 percent to 2 percent year-over-year.

Saretsky could also not give more details about the carrier’s plans to acquire new widebody aircraft.

Available seat mile (ASM), rose 11.2 percent in the fourth quarter, while cost per available seat mile, a measure of how much an airline spends to fly a passenger, fell 0.8 percent to 12.86 Canadian cents.

The company’s net earnings fell to C$55.2 million ($41.80 million), or 47 Canadian cents per share, in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, from C$63.4 million, or 51 Canadian cents per share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average had expected a profit of 41 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue rose 6.2 percent to C$1.02 billion, in line with estimates.

Reporting by Komal Khettry in Bengaluru; Editing by Denny Thomas and Bernard Orr