While the airline sector as a whole remains firmly in the red as it struggles to shake free from grip of the global pandemic, recent weeks have seen at least carriers in pockets of the industry post profits of some kind in the second quarter.

Korean Air, one of the few passenger operators in the world to post positive earnings in 2020, today disclosed a 31% increase in its operating profit for the second quarter, to W197 billion ($174 million). 

Korean Air aircraft at Seoul Incheon airport June 2021

Source: Photo Atrium/Shutterstock

FlightGlobal analysis of leading airline groups to report financial results for the second quarter – or half year where quarterly results are not broken out – shows more than 20 groups in the black. Between them this accounts for over $3.5 billion in profits.

Snapshot: Airlines to post quarterly/half-year profit in 2021 so far
Airline GroupState/territoryRegionPeriodProfit
 Source: FlightGlobal analysis of published airline results *Azul includes large foreign currency gains
Delta Air Lines USA North America Q2 operating profit $816m
Southwest Airlines USA North America Q2 operating profit $594m
Alaska Airlines USA North America Q2 operating profit $549m
American Airlines USA North America Q2 operating profit $441m
Azul* Brazil  Latin America Q2 pre-tax profit $204m
Korean Air Korean Asia Pacific Q2 operating profit $168m
Atlas Air USA North America Q2 operating profit $160m
Turkish Airlines Turkey Europe q2 operating profit $159m
JetBlue Airways USA North America Q2 operating profit $147m
Allegiant Air USA North America Q2 operating profit $139m
Skywest USA North America Q2 operating profit $115m
Sun Country Airline USA North America Q2 operating profit $49m
China Airlines Taiwan Asia Pacific Q2 net profit $43m
Eva Air Taiwan Asia Pacific Q2 net profit $29m
Ural Airlines Russia Europe 1H net profit $28m
Copa Panama Latin America Q2 net profit $28m
Frontier USA North America Q2 operating profit $18m
Hawaiian Airlines USA North America Q2 operating profit $18m
Juneyao China Asia Pacific 1H net profit $16m
Mesa Air Group USA North America Q3 (Apr-Jun) operating profit $14m
VietJet Vietnam Asia Pacific 1H net profit $6m
Air Astana Kazakhstan Asia Pacific 1H net profit $5m
Air Arabia UAE Middle East Q2 net profit $3m

WHERE CAN AIRLINE PROFITS BE FOUND?

There is a now a familiar narrative behind where what little profit there is can be found. Profitable operators largely remain those with a large freight businesses or strong domestic market to sustain them while international passenger markets have remained largely closed – or a combination of both.

Notably Korean Air flagged its strongest ever quarter for cargo revenues in the second quarter – its previous high having been recorded in the fourth quarter of last year – was also the importance of domestic routes to Jeju.

Cargo revenues are likely to be behind the profitable quarters reported by Taiwanese pair China Airlines and Eva Air, whilst a more than doubling in freight revenues helped Turkish Airlines to post a second quarter profit – a rarity among European operators.

Indeed, virtually all network carrier groups flagged improved cargo performance as one of the bright spots in their financial performance during the quarter.

In the USA, a buoyant domestic market also helped airlines in the country to profits in the second quarter – though most would have posted a loss were it not for the US government’s payroll support scheme.

And the fragile nature of the travel recovery has been further underlined by Southwest scaling back its third quarter profit expectations following a dip in bookings as the surge in the Delta variant of Covid in the USA has taken a toll on demand.

Aeroflot Group reached near breakeven in the second quarter, another example where a strong domestic market has helped airlines to restore profitability. The group notes its domestic passenger levels, on a like-for-like basis, are up almost a fifth.

The big Chinese carriers, another market where strong –  if slowing – domestic demand exists, are still to report results for the period. But one Chinese operator, Juneyao Air, has posted a net profit for the first half.

However, profits generated by airlines in the second quarter remain outweighed by the scale of losses incurred across the rest of the industry. Analysis of results for a snapshot of 18 leading airline groups carried out by FlightGlobal shows collective losses of over $6 billion. 

While these losses mark some improvement on those incurred a year ago when the pandemic first hit, reflecting airlines resetting their cost and capacity bases, they still illustrate the scale of the challenge to overcome before the industry can contemplate a return to collective profitability.

Snapshot: Selected airline group losses disclosed during Q2 2021
Airline GroupState/territoryRegionPeriodProfit
 Source: FlightGlobal analysis of published airline results
IAG Spain Europe Q2 operating loss $1.1bn
Lufthansa Group German Europe Q2 EBIT $1.1bn
Air France-KLM Group France Europe Q2 operating loss $895m
Air Canada Group Canada North America Q2 operating loss $870m
JAL Group Japan Asia-Pacific  Q2 pre-tax less $756m
Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Asia-Pacific  1H operating loss $699m
ANA Group Japan Asia-Pacific  Q2 operating loss $590m
IndiGo Airlines India Asia-Pacific  Q1 (Apr-Jun) operating loss $426m
Etihad Airways UAE Middle East 1H ‘core’ operating loss $400m
Ryanair Ireland Europe Q1 (Apr-Jun) operating loss $322m
Spirit Airlines USA North America Q2 net loss $288m
United Airlines USA North America Q2 operating loss $270m
SIA Group Singapore Asia-Pacific  Q1 (Apr-Jun) operating loss $202m
Finnair Finland Europe Q2 operating loss $178m
Gol Brazil Latin America Q2 operating loss $160m
Wizz Air Hungary Europe Q1 (Apr-Jun) operating loss $135m
Cebu Pacific Phillipinnes Asia-Pacific  Q2 operating loss $116m
Aeroflot Group Russia Europe Q2 net loss $19m