Revenue rose 7 per cent, but higher fuel and labour costs pushed expenses higher too.
Officials said that they were monitoring bookings daily and saw no impact yet on travel from the Ebola scare. Two people who flew on domestic flights in the past month have tested positive for the virus — a man from Liberia died, one of his nurses is hospitalized in Atlanta. The nurse was cleared to fly Monday night by a monitor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Delta CEO Richard Anderson said the CDC had admitted the mistake, and he was confident that the government could prevent a U.S. outbreak.
"I think what is worth noting is you really can't catch Ebola on an airplane, and the screening techniques that the government has put in place are going to detect folks coming from the risk areas in Africa in advance of entering the United States." Anderson said.
Delta is the first U.S. airline to report third-quarter figures, and Wall Street is looking for strong results covering the last part of the peak summer-travel season. Many planes were full, as airlines continued to hold down the number of flights, which also tends to push fares higher. Passengers paid 2 per cent more per mile.
The company's president, Ed Bastian, said the revenue outlook for the October-through-December fourth quarter looks solid. He said the company expects revenue growth and higher profit margins.
The best chance for increased profit margins comes in international flying, Bastian said. Delta is reworking its network of flights to Asia and trimming planned growth on routes to Europe, where expansion by many foreign airlines has cut into profitability.
The Atlanta-based airline said that net income fell to $357 million from $1.37 billion a year earlier. Adjusted for one-time costs, profit was $1.20 per share. Analysts surveyed by FactSet expected $1.18.
Revenue rose 7 per cent to $11.18 billion, topping analysts' forecast of $11.12 billion.
"Other" revenue, which includes money collected from fees that passengers pay for many services, jumped 15 per cent. Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. analyst Joseph DeNardi said that was the main reason that Delta's adjusted profit beat expectations.
Fuel, the airline's biggest single expense, jumped 29 per cent to $2.95 billion, as Delta recorded $347 million in charges for adjustments to fuel-hedging. Those are contracts to protect against big spikes in fuel prices, and they can backfire if oil prices fall.
Delta is forecasting lower fuel prices in the fourth quarter, which analysts said will be a boon.
"Earnings beat our expectations, cost control is very good, and with oil prices down in the fourth quarter and into 2015 likely, the company has a nice tail wind," Jim Corridore of S&P Capital IQ said in an interview.
Labor, Delta's second-biggest cost, rose 5 per cent to $2.07 billion. That doesn't include a 54 per cent increase in profit-sharing, to $384 million.
Passengers had little elbow room over the summer. The average flight was 86.4 per cent full, up from 86.0 per cent a year earlier. Passengers flew 4 per cent more miles.
Delta's shares rose 13 cents to $32.51 in midday trading. At the opening bell, they had gained 18 per cent for the year, easily beating the 1 per cent increase in the Standard & Poor's 500 index.