ANALYSIS: Airlines keep hold on profits in 2012

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Industry profitability remained roughly unchecked in 2012 despite the tough economic climate for many this year's Airline Business World Annual Rankings show.

Operating profits among the leading 150 carriers by revenues increased slightly to more than $20 billion.

However, the fact that net profits remained much lower - and indeed slipped by almost a billion to under $4 billion for the year - illustrates the extent to which restructuring continues to take place in the industry.

Revenues for the top 150 airlines were up nearly $30 billion in 2012 to just shy of $700 billion.

"The new [economic] norm applies to the USA and Europe. When you get outside of these areas - in Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America - the markets are still growing. Maybe not quite as fast as recently, but still at five to 10%. Those are not small growth rates," notes Roger de Peyrecave, partner at PwC.

Revenue and traffic growth was relatively constrained in Europe and North America. Revenues grew nearly 2% and just over 3% among European and North American carriers respectively last year. By contrast revenues grew 5% in Africa and Asia, and 12% in the Middle East. Likewise traffic grew only 2% as North American airlines kept the tight grip on capacity which has helped lift yields, while the fast growing Middle East carriers increased traffic 13%.

Lufthansa was the biggest airline group in 2012 by airline revenues. The German group generated revenues of just short of $39 billion last year, putting it just ahead of United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Air France-KLM groups.

The rankings show Delta Air as the largest operator by traffic and passenger number, while United Airlines was the second biggest. American Airlines, if it completes its merger with US Airways, would be even bigger based on 2012 numbers.