Delta Air Lines’ cargo division achieved its best revenues ever in 2022 even though the shipping market was in full retreat for 10 months, with global rates ending 35% lower than the prior-year peak.
Fourth-quarter cargo business fell 18.4% year over year to $248 million, but a strong first half propelled full-year cargo revenue to $1.05 billion. That enabled the Atlanta-based carrier to inch out a record-tying 2021 result by $20 million, according to results released Friday. Delta (NYSE: DAL) only topped the $1 billion mark one other time – in 2011.
Compared to the pre-pandemic benchmark of 2019, Delta’s cargo revenue increased 33% during the fourth quarter. For the year, Delta Cargo outperformed 2019 by 39%.
2021 was a banner year for the air cargo sector, with volumes up 7% versus pre-pandemic levels and nearly 19% over COVID-damaged 2020 as shippers flocked to air transport to avoid severe ocean congestion. The high demand coincided with tight supply because passenger networks were still rebuilding.
The earnings report shows Delta Air Lines enjoyed a slight bounce from the traditional peak season that didn’t materialize this year because of the global economic slowdown, with revenue up from $240 million in the third quarter.
Merchandise trade for the 20 largest economies by value fell for the first time in two years during the third quarter as global demand, under pressure from inflation, slowed and commodity prices receded from their peaks.
Market analysts and air logistics executives expect demand and rates for air transport to slide further during the first half of the year but say a rebound could start in the summer if an anticipated global recession is mild and retailers start ordering to replenish depleted inventories.
“We expect to grow cargo revenues in 2023, as increased capacity offsets the cargo yield environment,” said President Glen Hauenstein on a call with analysts.
Delta’s results are a harbinger that 2022 could still be viewed as positive, depending on which lens is used, despite ongoing contraction as all-cargo and passenger airlines with auxiliary cargo business report in the weeks ahead.
Overall, Delta reported a profit of $828 million for the final quarter of the year and $1.3 billion for the entire year. Quarterly operating revenue of $12.3 billion was 8% above the 2019 level.
Adjusted quarterly income of $1.4 billion and earnings per share of $1.48 beat consensus analyst forecasts and the carrier’s previous forecast. It was the third consecutive quarter with double-digit adjusted margins.
Management said travel demand remains strong for all leisure and premium classes. Corporate bookings were 80% recovered to 2019 levels and customer surveys indicate businesses will continue to fly at the same rate in the March quarter.
Delta’s stock dipped nearly four points to $38.07 during midday trading on guidance that higher labor costs, including a new contract for pilots, could eat into profits during the first quarter.
“In 2023, we are confident in completing our network rebuild and delivering the benefits of scale and efficiency as we move through the year, resulting in a 2 to 4% decline in non-fuel unit costs year over year, including all expected labor cost increases,” said CFO Dan Janki.