Southwest Airlines Co., the only big U.S. carrier that's still profitable, might expand its fleet next year as competitors shrink operations to blunt surging fuel bills.
The largest low-fare airline might keep as many as 10 older planes set to be retired this year and then add 14 new jets next year, Chief Executive Officer Gary C. Kelly said in an interview.
As United Airlines and others prepare to pare flying in the fourth quarter, Southwest has delayed deciding on next year's expansion, he said. Kelly did not give a time frame.
"We're all curious to see what the effects of the cutbacks in the fourth quarter will be," Kelly said. "We're willing to grow the fleet, and that's very different than what's going on with most of our competitors."
Southwest is benefiting from its strategy of locking in fuel prices in advance. About 70 percent of its fuel needs this year are hedged at prices equivalent to oil at $51 a barrel, less than half of yesterday's $134.01 closing price in New York.
After Frontier Airlines Holdings Inc. filed for bankruptcy, Dallas-based Southwest said May 20 that it would increase service in Denver, which is Frontier's home airport and a hub for United.
"That certainly has been Southwest's historical pattern," Standard & Poor's credit analyst Philip Baggaley said in an interview.
"They have the financial strength to exploit opportunities, more so than any other airline," Baggaley said.
Kelly said Southwest would keep promoting its policy of not charging fees for services such as checking an extra bag or nonalcoholic drinks, as other airlines are doing to help counter the 81 percent surge in jet fuel in the past year.
"Every company wants to differentiate itself from the pack," said Kelly, 53. "This is a great opportunity. It's been handed to us on a silver platter."
Southwest has added a charge for preferred boarding as part of its effort to boost revenue from sources other than ticket sales by $1.5 billion annually by 2010. Last year's revenue was $9.86 billion.
Adding more planes to Southwest's 534 Boeing Co. 737s would expand the second-biggest U.S. fleet, behind only AMR Corp.'s American Airlines. U.S. carriers, led by United and American, have unveiled plans since April to ground as many as 378 planes through next year and cut at least 10,300 jobs. Most of the 2008 reductions will occur after the summer travel season.
Michael Boyd, president of consulting firm Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., expects "zero" opportunity for Southwest as other carriers cut back. Large airlines aren't dropping any major markets, and "only marginal capacity is going away," he said.
Kelly said that deciding where to put new service is "a real balancing act because we are in the midst of managing our own change."
"I'm very comfortable that we have a solid plan and we are making good progress," he said. "But it's just not an environment that pays to be overly aggressive."
Southwest is now the fifth-largest U.S. airline by traffic.
Both the industry and Southwest might suffer should the carrier speed its growth, said James M. Higgins, a Soleil Securities Corp. analyst in Solebury, Pa.
"Southwest needs to get their overall pricing up, too," said Higgins, who advises buying the shares.
With Southwest's prices lower than those of its rivals, having a bigger supply of those fares would undercut the industry's efforts to get rid of its cheapest seats and cover more of its costs, he said.