DALLAS – 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.
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 gambling – and as 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.
Most airlines use a combination of strategies to reduce risk.
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.