United Airlines could see $265 million hit from hurricane Harvey

Hurricane to hinder profits for airlines with big presence at Texas airports

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United Continental Holdings is likely to take at least a $265 million financial hit from Hurricane Harvey because of the carrier’s reliance on Houston as one of its biggest hubs, an airline analyst said.

Flights at the third-largest U.S. carrier will decline an estimated 1.5 percent in the current quarter because of the storm, with little opportunity to recoup lost sales, Helane Becker of Cowen and Co. said in a report Tuesday. Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport accounts for about 17 percent of United’s capacity.

The projected losses would more than double the $125 million blow Delta Air Lines Inc. suffered when it canceled about 4,000 flights after April storms in Atlanta.

Harvey probably also will prove more troubling than Hurricane Ike in 2008, which cost Continental Airlines $50 million two years before it merged with United, Becker said.

Harvey “seems more powerful and impactful,” Becker wrote. Sandy, the storm that hit New York in 2012, “is probably the best (comparison), given the impact lingered beyond just the initial airport closings. After the airports opened, there was rebuilding to be done, and people just didn’t travel for a while.”

United hasn’t issued guidance to investors about the storm’s impact yet, according to the airline.

“Our focus right now is on resuming operations out of Houston and helping our customers and employees,” said United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy.

Southwest Airlines probably will take a $77 million hit in the third quarter because of its major presence at Houston’s William P. Hobby airport, Becker said. Discounter Spirit Airlines could suffer $11 million in storm-related losses, she said.

The total blow adds up to $353 million for the three airlines, assuming the airports reopen Thursday. Intercontinental is expected be reopen no sooner than the middle of that day, while Hobby officials hoped to reopen Wednesday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

A computer outage last year led to a $150 million hit for Delta.

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