Delta Air Lines is buying a refinery in a novel — and some say risky — attempt to slice $300 million a year from its escalating jet fuel bill.
The Atlanta airline said Monday that is buying the Trainer, Pennsylvania refinery near Philadelphia for $150 million from Phillips 66, a refining company being spun off from ConocoPhillips. The refinery has struggled to make money, and ConocoPhillips planned to shut it down if it couldn't find a buyer.
So why is Delta buying it?
Fuel has become the largest and most volatile expense for most airlines, including Delta. U.S. airlines paid an average of $2.86 a gallon for jet fuel last year, up from $2.09 in 2007, according to the Bureau of Transportation statistics. Nobody likes to see the price of gas climb, but for airlines consuming billions of gallons a year, it can be downright crippling. Consider this: Delta's planes burned through 3.9 billion gallons of fuel last year, costing the airline $11.8 billion — 36 percent of its operating expenses.
Airlines have been trying to combat the rising fuel cost by purchasing more fuel-efficient airplanes and experimenting with fuels made from plants. But neither is an immediate solution; it can take a decade to modernize an entire fleet and biofuels have yet to be proven economically feasible. Airlines also try to limit their exposure to big price spikes through a process known as hedging. The catch: if prices fall dramatically, they end up losing a lot of money.
Buying the refinery “is an innovative approach to managing our largest expense,” said Delta CEO Richard Anderson. He said it's a “modest investment” comparable to buying one new large jet aircraft.
Still, even though fuel has overtaken labor as the industry's biggest expense during the past decade, no airline has gone this route before.
Refining is notorious for boom-and-bust cycles. ConocoPhillips and other oil giants are getting out of the refining business by spinning off or shutting down refineries because they haven't been consistently profitable. Refineries are paying high prices for oil, particularly on the East Coast, where they import a lot of more-expensive oil. At the same time, demand for gasoline has fallen because of the weak economy and cars getting more miles per gallon.
Still taking a risk
Right now, Delta suffers when higher crude prices drive up the cost of jet fuel. As a refinery owner, Delta will still need that more-expensive crude oil to make jet fuel.
“This business is not without risk,” said Ben Brockwell, pricing director at the Oil Price Information Service. “But they thought this is a risk they're willing to take.”
Ray Neidl, an airline specialist with the Maxim Group, said it's worth a shot. He notes that for Delta the purchase price is only “about the cost of a wide-body aircraft.” Though no airline has ever owned a refinery, Delta could be on the cutting edge.
“If this works, you're going to see everybody doing it,” he said.
Delta passengers won't see much if any savings on tickets. The airline took in $33.1 billion in airfares last year. Saving $300 million would lower a $400 ticket by about $3.60.
The deal might benefit drivers more than fliers. If ConocoPhillips had closed the refinery, that would have reduced supplies along the East Coast and possibly led to higher prices at the gas pump.