Other European airlines have also taken the hedging route. British Airways hedged 72 percent of its fuel needs for the first half of the financial year and 60 percent for the second half. Lufthansa has hedged 83 percent of its fuel requirements through the end of 2008 and said that it saved 109 million euros ($169 million), last year by doing so.
Even low-cost carriers like Air Berlin, EasyJet and Ryanair are hedging, with Ryanair recently reversing a longstanding avowal never to do so.
But some European airlines are less protected. According to the French bank BNP Paribas, the Spanish carrier Iberia has ensured 47 percent of its 2008 fuel requirements, while Aer Lingus of Ireland has hedged 36 percent. The troubled Austrian Airlines has hedged only 20 percent of its 2008 fuel needs and is reportedly under pressure to find a “strategic alliance” with a stronger carrier, most likely Lufthansa or Air France-KLM.
European airlines are also taking advantage of a wave of consolidation that is only now reaching the United States.
Air France acquired KLM, and Lufthansa purchased Swiss International Air Lines. The two acquiring airlines succeeded in increasing the number of passengers per plane — the “load factor” — on the airlines they absorbed.
Significantly, analysts say, both of those transformative deals took place after the 2001 terror attacks in the United States and amid the ensuing global downturn in air travel, while many United States airlines were forced into bankruptcy protection.
Most European carriers that were not part of the consolidation trend, like Alitalia Airlines, which is now surviving off Italian government support, are stuck in the same position as their American counterparts.
European Union rules outlawing certain types of state aid, established in 1997, prompted struggling airlines to combine or go out of business, as was the case with Sabena of Belgium in 2001. Meanwhile, the use of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States prevented airlines from merging. Consolidation, as seen with the proposed merger of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, is only now getting under way and may be short-lived.
“The Europeans took the restructuring pain earlier and more sharply than the Americans,” said Lloyd Brown, an airline analyst at Ernst & Young in London. “They had more foresight and less support, so they had to make hard decisions.”
Finally, at least 50 percent of the business done by European airlines like Lufthansa and Air France-KLM consists of long-distance flights to regions like Africa and Asia, which are benefiting from a boom in commodities. Asian airlines are also doing better because demand is holding up in that region.
United States airlines have proportionally less international traffic — roughly 20 percent of their business — to counteract the slowing demand on national routes. Furthermore, on those shorter flights, American airlines often lack the mix of business and economy classes that enables European carriers to maximize costs by charging more at the front of the plane, said Mr. Wheeldon of BGC Partners.
Still, European airlines are striving to move quickly to limit their risks.
“We are looking at the cash contribution of every flight, on a flight-by-flight basis, not just routes,” the British Airways chief executive, William M. Walsh, said. “We are going to take flights out where it makes no sense, with oil at $130 a barrel, to continue them.”