The computer screen on Scott Topping’s desk at Southwest Airlines flickered with row after row of dates and numbers, but they had nothing to do with arrivals and departures.
They tracked the price of oil futures for the next several months, and they told a grim tale: No letup in sight from record prices for jet fuel.
“We’re on a one-way street right now,” Topping said as he hunched over the screen, shaking his head.
It’s Topping’s job to oversee Southwest’s battle to control surging fuel costs. It is the most successful program of its kind in the airline industry.
In the first quarter of this year, Southwest paid $1.98 per gallon for fuel. American Airlines paid $2.73, and United paid $2.83 per gallon in the same period.
Since 1999, hedging has saved Southwest $3.5 billion. It has sometimes meant the difference between profit and loss. In the first quarter, hedging gains of $291 million dwarfed Southwest’s $34 million profit.
What is hedging?
Hedging is a financial strategy that lets airlines or other investors protect themselves against rising prices for commodities such as oil by locking in a price for fuel. It has been described as everything from gambling to buying insurance.
Airlines can hedge in several ways, making financial transactions with banks, energy companies or other trading partners.
They can buy contracts for crude oil or unleaded gasoline, and reap a gain if prices rise, offsetting the higher cost of jet fuel.
They can buy a “call option” that gives them the right to buy fuel at a certain price.
They can also use collar hedges, a combination of rights to buy and sell at set prices (“call” and “put” options). Collars provide protection from a decline in prices but less upside if prices rise.
Airlines also use swaps, contracts that require them to buy oil or fuel on a certain date at a set price. These are risky — one party in a swap wins, the other loses.
The transactions carry a price tag. Southwest spent $52 million on hedging premiums last year and $14 million in the first three months of this year.
As a result mostly of trades made years ago, Southwest has hedged 70 percent of this year’s fuel needs at $51 per barrel instead of the current price of more than $140 per barrel.
But hedging premiums rise and fall with the price of the underlying commodity, making new trades very expensive. Southwest has not done much trading in the last several months.
Airline executives say hedging is not a bet on the direction of oil prices.
“We view our program as insurance,” said Paul Jacobson, the treasurer of Delta Air Lines Inc. “Our goal is to minimize the volatility of fuel expenses. To do that, you’ve got to be in the market actively without an opinion as to what energy prices will do.”
But hedging carries risks. Airlines can lose money if oil prices turn down and their options expire.
In 2006, Delta won approval from a bankruptcy court and creditors to get into hedging. But the airline got squeezed when oil prices dropped in midyear, and it reported a loss of $108 million from the trading.
Continental Airlines Inc. reported a loss of $18 million from hedging in the first quarter of 2007. But like Delta, Continental is still hedging.
At one time in the 1990s, most major U.S. airlines hedged some of their fuel costs — even hiring experts from the oil industry to show them the ropes — said Peter Fusaro, chairman of Global Change Associates, an adviser to hedge funds.
That changed after the recession and terror attacks of 2001, which plunged airlines into huge losses. Banks and energy companies that make hedging trades with airlines grew nervous.
“The problem was that most carriers had terrible creditworthiness and couldn’t hedge,” Fusaro said. “Counter-parties feared the carriers would renege on their trades.”
Southwest was the only large U.S. carrier to remain profitable through the downturn. It benefited from higher labor productivity and lower ticket-sales costs. That, and a healthy balance sheet, allowed it to keep hedging when oil was a bargain, compared to today’s prices.
Now, Southwest is the only big carrier that has most of its fuel expenses hedged at below-market prices. And analysts say it will be the only one to earn a profit this year.
While other carriers plan to slash flights later this year — some contracting by more than 10 percent — Southwest expects to grow, although more slowly than it would like.
And Southwest has avoided the kind of fees that annoy passengers. It doesn’t charge for checking luggage or buying a ticket over the phone, doesn’t add a fuel surcharge to the fare, and still gives out free sodas and snacks.
Fuel crisis looming
But how long will the joy ride last?
The bulk of Southwest’s hedges expire gradually by 2012. Replacing them would be very expensive and risky. One plan under study is to go back to hedging only against catastrophically higher oil prices — say, $200 per barrel.
Unless oil prices stabilize or even decline, the airline could face a crisis covering higher fuel costs in just a few years.
“It’s starting to have an impact on their operating plan,” said Betsy Snyder, an analyst for the debt-rating service Standard & Poor’s. “They’re cutting back growth plans for the first time ever and exiting some unprofitable routes.”
Chairman and Chief Executive Gary Kelly said the fuel hedges have bought his airline time to adjust to higher energy costs. Now he wants to find $1.5 billion in new revenue to make up for shrinking fuel hedges.
Among possible sources of the money are higher fares, international service, in-flight entertainment for a charge, and selling hotel rooms on its Web site.
Snyder thinks Southwest can pull it off by following its current strategy of expansion in places like Denver, Philadelphia and Baltimore, where rivals are cutting flights.
“This is a company,” Snyder said, “that has always taken advantage of others’ misfortune.”