BUSINESS
09/11/2014 10:19 EDT | Updated 11/11/2014 05:59 EST

Transat says it's well-positioned to currency hit of Scottish independence vote

MONTREAL - Vacation package operator Transat A.T. says it's well-positioned to withstand fluctuations in the values of the British pound and the euro, should Scotland vote next week to separate from the United Kingdom.

Polls that suggested the Yes side was gaining momentum ahead of the Sept. 18 referendum has sent jitters through the markets, prompting investors to sell of the British pound. The currency fell earlier this week to a 10-month low but recovered Thursday.

A lower pound could make it more expensive for British customers travelling to Canada but less expensive for Canadians to go the other way. Having operations on both sides of the Atlantic should help Montreal Transat to mitigate the impact of a currency change, he said.

About 60 per cent of Transat's transatlantic traffic is from Canada, compared with 40 per cent from Europe.

"I think we are well-positioned to face these kind of situations, if they happen," chief financial officer Denis Petrin said Thursday during a conference call about its third-quarter results.

Transat said this year's summer seasons got off to one of the best starts in the company's history, even though its profits dropped primarily due to the cost of fuel-hedging last year.

The Montreal-based company, which operates Air Transat and a variety of other travel-related businesses, earned $25.8 million or 66 cents per diluted share for the three months ended July 31. That's down 37 per cent compared $1.07 per share a year earlier when net profit was $41.1 million.

About $12 million of the $15 million difference was attributable to fuel hedging, a non-cash, non-operating item. Adjusted net income before non-operating items was $26.7 million or 69 cents per diluted share, down 13 per cent compared with $30.8 million or 80 cents in the third quarter of 2013.

Analysts expected Transat would earn 67 cents per share in adjusted profits on $966 million of revenues.

Transat CEO Jean-Marc Eustache said the company had one of its best third quarters in spite of an increase in transatlantic capacity from rivals including Air Canada's Rouge (TSX:AC.B).

"In the entire history of the company, we've done better on only two occasions, including last year, which was a record. So we're talking about a very satisfying start to the season," he said.

Revenues were up 1.6 per cent at $941.7 million, compared with $927 million a year earlier.

The number of travellers was stable during the quarter, while average selling prices were higher on a lower Canadian dollar compared to the euro and British pound.

Transat's North American revenues decreased four per cent or $27.9 million as the number of travellers decreased 2.8 per cent. The segment's operating incomes was $19.8 million, compared with $28.1 million a year earlier. The company reduced its transatlantic capacity by 2.1 per cent during the quarter and increased its supply to Sun destinations by eight per cent.

European business unit sales increased by 17.8 per cent or $42.6 million due largely to the lower loonie. Operating income increased to $15.3 million from $13.7 million in the prior year. The number of travellers increased 12.1 per cent while average selling prices were down.

The company said it expects to record "satisfactory" but lower results during the fourth quarter as transatlantic capacity from August to October is similar to last summer.

A total of 86 per cent of that capacity has been sold to date, with load factors down 1.5 per cent and selling prices up one per cent. The weak Canadian dollar net of the change in fuel costs are expected to increased operational expenses by 3.8 per cent.

Transat's capacity to Sun destinations from Canada is up seven per cent.

Benoit Poirier of Desjardins Capital Markets said the better-than-expected results, unchanged outlook for the coming quarter and cost reduction initiatives should boost the company's share price.

"We like management's disciplined approach to improving margins by focusing on capacity management and higher selling prices," he wrote in a report.

Transat said it also remains on track for a $20 million improvement in margins this year and $20 million in 2015 when the full benefits will be realized from the operation of its narrow-body fleet. It is also working on a 2015-2017 strategic plan taht Poirier expects should add at least $25 million more in cost savings.

Analyst David Tyerman of Canaccord Genuity said the "modest upside surprise" in the third quarter should improve the inexpensive Transat shares.

"We continue to believe Transat's results have substantial recovery potential. However, there may be risk from Air Canada's rouge expansion and industry competition," Tyerman wrote.

Transat A.T. is an integrated international tour operator with more than 60 destination countries.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Transat's shares lost 13 cents or 1.5 per cent to clost at $8.57 in Thursday.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version correctly said net income was down 37 per cent from a year earlier but erroneously blamed the impact of increased market capacity. A bigger factor was fuel hedging.