Few of us have exhausted our list of places to visit. That is what Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr thinks. His airline is “back” as bookings soar. Really he means his airline should start earning more from shuttling people rather than cargo fares. That is the key to Lufthansa shares staying aloft.
Shareholders loved Lufthansa’s profit recovery last year. The stock price — up by 68 per cent in six months — has outrun those of most regional rivals. A decent full-year result on Friday, bolstering the balance sheet with €2.5bn of free cash flow, led to another 6 per cent gain.
That strong run partly stems from a successful diversification of group earnings. Not only cargo but also its maintenance business (Lufthansa Technik) have delivered all group operating profits since 2019. That said, Lufthansa would like to sell a stake in the latter to lower its net debt (including pensions) to ebitda ratio below the current 2.3 times.
Investors, too, love Spohr’s optimism. Passenger bookings for this spring and summer have surpassed that seen in 2019, he said. But how much they will enjoy the experience is another story. Bottlenecks on staffing have caused problems for even the most efficient airlines. See Southwest’s experience during this winter’s US storms. That explains Spohr’s goal of increasing staff this year by a tenth over 2021.
Not that rivals are sitting on the tarmac. Ryanair, Wizz and easyJet should exceed 2019 capacity this spring, says Bank of America. Long-haul flights will have to make up the difference for Lufthansa, led by the lower fare leisure traveller. Even Lufthansa admits that more profitable corporate bookings should still be 15 per cent below pre-pandemic levels in 2024. Speaking of expansion, Lufthansa will double its short-haul cargo fleet just as profitability normalises from very high levels.
Lower fuel costs, too, boost earnings. But better earnings only tempt the industry’s insatiable desire for capacity growth and fare wars.
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