Delta sees 2013 profit, to return cash to shareholders

Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines said on Wednesday that it expected profits in 2013 to top 2012's profits and it would introduce a plan to return cash to shareholders.

Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson said during the carrier's investor meeting webcast that Delta, the No. 2 U.S. airline behind United Continental Holdings Inc, expected a profit of $1.6 billion excluding items for this year, up about 30 percent from the year before. He said 2013 will bring "really solid improvement" over 2012.

Anderson said Delta was looking to build a model of sustainable profitability and differentiate itself with great customer service in order to be "a really good place" for shareholders to invest.

"As the industry consolidates, we can't be a commodity," he told investors.

Product improvements and competitive advantages in markets such as New York and Atlanta would help drive revenue improvement next year even as capacity growth stays flat, the company said. Delta has been upgrading plane seats, refurbishing airport lounges and expanding in-flight entertainment options to win new passengers and entice existing ones to spend more.

The carrier said it expected fourth-quarter earnings of $200 million to $250 million, excluding items, despite disruptions caused by superstorm Sandy. The storm barreled through the U.S. Northeast in late October and led airlines to cancel thousands of flights as major New York area airports shut down.

CAPITAL DEPLOYMENT PLAN

Delta also said it expected to outline a capital deployment strategy at its June annual meeting, with the program starting in January 2014. While Delta said it would analyze the business with its board next year to determine that strategy, some analysts who follow the company have raised the possibility of share buybacks or a dividend.

Delta said net debt would come down to $10 billion next year, compared with a level of $17 billion in 2009.

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