Eastern Airlines today reported first-quarter profits of $3.5 million (8 cents a share), down from last year's $13.2 million (48 cents).
Although he characterized the first-quarter earnings as "inadequate," Eastern Chairman and President Frank Borman told shareholders at the annual meeting here that the fact that the airlines' first-quarter operations were in the black placed it among "one of few profitable trunk carriers."
Borman said Eastern "looks forward to a profitable 1980" despite the difficult period facing the airline industry. Another profitable year would make it Eastern's fifth in a row, following 10 years with aggregate losses in excess of $100 million.
While 1979, the first full year under the Airline Deregulation Act, was "a stormy period," Borman noted that Eastern turned in its best year with earnings of $57.6 million. "In a bad year for the industry, it was an acceptable year for the company," he said.
The most serious problem facing the industry is the same one facing the country -- inflation, Borman said. Although all costs are going up, the increase in the cost of jet fuel is "unprecedented and insatiable," he said. While Eastern paid an average price of 56.5 cents per gallon for kerosene last year, this month the average price is already up to 85.9 cents a gallon. Eastern's fuel bill for the first three months of the year was $253 million, up $133 million, or 111 percent over the same period last year. Despite a conservation campaign that held consumption to an increase of 4 percent, Borman said.
An outspoken convert on the benefits of airline deregulation, Borman said the company would be in much worse shape today had deregulation opponents like him prevailed.
Under provisions of the deregulation act, Eastern added 13 new cities to its system network last year and this summer has ambitious plans to enter the transcontinental scrap. On June 1, Eastern will take on the Big Three which has dominated coast-to-coast service -- American, Trans World and United Airlines -- with four daily roundtrips between New York and Los Angeles and three daily roundtrips between New York and San Francisco.
Borman was optimistic about the new service, calling advance bookings "good" and noting that the L-1011s to be used on the routes will be better used on the cross-country service than their current routes.
During today's meeting, shareholders approved a management proposal designed to protect Eastern from quick takeover bids.
While Borman said Eastern is not aware of any proposed attempt to take control of the company and has no particular reason to believe there will be such an attempt, management does believe the stock is undervalued. "The change would simply delay the process to give us time to thoughtfully analyze any merger movement or effort," he said. "It's defensive."
In other matters:
Borman said Eastern is not considering payment of a dividend -- the company hasn't paid any since 1969 -- because of a need to "husband our resources."
He indicated the fare for the shuttle between Washington and New York might go up soon, although it has not been raised recently despite Civil Aeronautics Board approval for numerous general fare increases. "I'm afraid we will not be able to maintain the stability of the fare much longer," he said.
In its report on the first quarter, Eastern said operating revenues were a record $853.8 million, up from $661.7 million in the first three months of last year. Operating expenses rose to $836.6 million in the quarter from $637.6 million in last year's first quarter.