Korean Air Lines Co. provided some rare positive news for the devastated global aviation industry Thursday, reporting a quarterly profit after flying planes loaded with products from South Korean technology giants to homebound consumers around the world.
The carrier’s operating profit was 148.5 billion won ($125 million) for the April-June period. Cargo sales climbed 95% from a year earlier to 1.23 trillion won. Asiana Airlines Inc. could follow suit with an operating profit of 43.7 billion won when it reports next week, according to the average estimate of analysts tracked by Bloomberg.
The profit comes as other airlines are reporting record losses; slashing routes, jobs and salaries; or collapsing altogether because of the impact Covid-19 has had on travel. The crisis has forced some carriers to retrofit their planes to haul more cargo and generate much-needed cash from surging airfreight rates.
“The cargo business has come to the rescue yet again when things are going bad,” said Um Kyung-a, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. “Countries will be in need of goods to restart their economies as many emerge from shutdowns due to the outbreak.”
Hedge-fund manager David Einhorn is on board, telling investors he bought a stake in Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc. in the second quarter because he expects the cargo carrier to benefit from a shortage of airfreight capacity.
Korean Air and Asiana benefit from enormous demand for smartphones, TVs and components from Samsung Electronics Co. and memory chips from SK Hynix Inc., said Bang Min-jin, an analyst at Eugene Investment & Securities Co. in Seoul. South Korea’s overseas shipments of semiconductors, its biggest export, rose 2.9% in June from May, while mobile equipment jumped 20%, according to the Ministry of Trade, Energy and Industry.
Samsung and LG Electronics Inc. both beat earnings estimates for the quarter ending June, as did Hynix, which said profit tripled after clients snapped up its products to meet demand from people locked down at home. Online commerce is booming: United Parcel Service Inc. posted its biggest one-day share gain in 20 years last week after beating earnings estimates, while Amazon.com Inc. posted a record profit and 40% jump in sales.
Korean Air and Asiana have strengthened cargo networks from Vietnam to transport gadgets made at Samsung and LG factories there, Um said. There’s also been strong demand for medical supplies, fresh fruit and seafood, she said.
Falling fuel prices helped drive down expenses, with every dollar adjustment impacting earnings by $33 million, according to Korean Air.
The increase in airfreight rates came as capacity was squeezed by the grounding of thousands of passenger planes, which carry cargo in their bellies. At the end of July, about 35% of the world’s passenger aircraft were still parked in storage, aviation analytics company Cirium said.