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Delta reports bigger loss

Despite 4th-quarter drop, airline upbeat about its progress

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Customers line up at the Delta Air Lines ticket counter at Salt Lake International Airport. Delta reported a $1.98 billion loss in the fourth quarter.

Customers line up at the Delta Air Lines ticket counter at Salt Lake International Airport. Delta reported a $1.98 billion loss in the fourth quarter.

Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News

ATLANTA — The amount of red ink at bankrupt Delta Air Lines Inc. swelled to more than $18 billion since the start of 2001 as the company reported Wednesday a bigger fourth-quarter loss than a year ago due in large part to restructuring items.

Even so, Chief Financial Officer Ed Bastian said the nation's third-largest carrier is making improvements — he cited a $58 million operating profit for all of 2006 — and is on target to emerge from Chapter 11 as early as April as a stand-alone company.

"I think we're pleased with the progress," Bastian said in an interview. "I wouldn't say we're happy considering we still lost money."

The Atlanta-based company, which operates a hub at Salt Lake City International Airport, said it lost $1.98 billion for the three months ending Dec. 31, compared to a loss of $1.24 billion a year ago.

Quarterly revenue rose 5.3 percent to $4.14 billion from $3.93 billion in the same period a year ago.

Excluding reorganization and other one-time items, the loss was $179 million in the quarter.

Calyon Securities analyst Ray Neidl said in a research note to investors that for Delta "the real test will be after the restructuring is complete."

Bastian said Delta still has more work to do. He said the airline's board has not made a decision about who will replace Gerald Grinstein as chief executive. Grinstein has said he plans to step down once Delta exits bankruptcy.

"I would prefer to see an internal candidate inside Delta," Bastian said.

Asked if he is a candidate, Bastian responded, "You'd have to ask Jerry." Chief Operating Officer Jim Whitehurst also has been mentioned as a possible successor to Grinstein.

On other subjects, Bastian said Delta is confident creditors will approve its stand-alone reorganization plan, and the airline has not made any decisions about its strategic direction post-bankruptcy.

Bastian said that once Delta exits Chapter 11, it will consider future options "to increase shareholder value."

Asked about a possible merger with another airline, Bastian said, "I don't see it happening in the near term, but if it is to happen over the long term, I think Delta is well-positioned to be a strong player in that arena."

A $9.8 billion hostile takeover bid for Delta by US Airways Group Inc., based in Tempe, Ariz., was withdrawn after Delta's official committee of unsecured creditors rejected the proposal and endorsed Delta's stand-alone plan.

Delta projects that it will be worth $9.4 billion to $12 billion upon exiting bankruptcy.

As for its results, Delta said its aircraft fuel costs fell 8.2 percent to $1.04 billion in the fourth quarter, compared to $1.13 billion a year earlier.

Delta said it had $2.6 billion in unrestricted cash on hand as of Dec. 31.

Earlier Wednesday, Delta said it lost $1.84 billion in December alone.

The huge loss for the final month of 2006, which amounted to $9.34 a share, was reported in a bankruptcy court filing.

Excluding reorganization items, Delta said it lost $109 million in December. Revenue for the 31-day period was $1.34 billion.

For all of 2006, Delta said its net loss was $6.21 billion, compared to a loss of $3.84 billion for the same period a year ago. The loss for 2006 includes stock dividends that accrued for preferred shareholders.

Annual revenue rose to $17.17 billion, a 6.1 percent increase from $16.19 billion in 2005.

The loss for 2006 raises Delta's losses to $18.5 billion since January 2001.

Delta said it spent $4.32 billion on aircraft fuel for all of 2006, a 1.1 percent increase from the $4.27 billion it spent for all of the previous year.