AirTran sees growth in 2010

Orlando-based AirTran, which has its largest hub in Atlanta, posted a fourth-quarter profit of $17.0 million, or 11 cents a share, compared with a loss of $121.5 million, or $1.03 per share in the final three months of 2008.

For all of 2009, the company swung to a profit of $134.6 million, or 95 cents per share, from a loss of $266.3 million, or $2.44 per share for 2008.

Executives believe they can build build on that profit momentum over the next couple of years to grow the airline.

"We believe we will be profitable in 2010," AirTran Airways' chairman and chief executive Bob Fornaro said during an interview Wednesday.

"Our focus will be return to organic growth of between 4 to 5 percent in 2011."

Fuel costs will remain the variable factor that will impact profitability, he said.

Fuel accounts for about 30 percent of AirTran's costs. While the airline uses hedges, or buying contracts, to soften the effect of price swings, it remains a critical element in profitability.

"We made  a big order of airplanes in 2003 and at the time that we made the order, oil was below $30 a barrel," Fornaro said. "Last year, we averaged $48 to $50 a barrel. This year, we're starting at $80."

The airline, he said, benefits from its domestic focus and low cost structure.  While it has made forays into the Caribbean and likely will continue targeted expansion there, the company remains focused on growing U.S. marketshare, particularly the middle of the country.

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