SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Airlines in Asia are stepping up jet fuel hedge volumes after oil prices fell below $100 a barrel this month, with some locking in fuel purchases as far out as 2016, suggesting airlines see oil prices bottoming.
Airlines have been cautious about fuel hedging since 2008, when several large carriers scrambled to lock in fuel needs as oil prices surged above $100 a barrel for the first time – only to see them plummet to less than $50 by year-end as a global recession hammered travel demand.
But fuel traders at several regional banks have noted a widespread pick-up in hedge interest as oil prices have dropped, and volumes could rise in the next quarter if oil prices keep falling, they said.
"Volumes increased when Brent crude was at $100 a barrel, and they increased last week when [oil prices] fell further and now [airlines] are waiting for prices to drop to below $95," one trader said, speaking on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak with the media.
Jet fuel can account for anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of an airline's operating costs, so swings in oil prices can hit their bottom line and have an influence on fare prices.
Airlines have different hedging policies with Australia's Qantas Airways (QAN.AX) hedging as much as 94 percent of its fuel needs for the first half of next year, while Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) is hedged at around 52 percent for its 2014-2015 financial year.
The amount of hedging eased after the 2008 crisis but has picked up pace recently with prices on a downward trend.
Brent crude oil prices LCOc1 fell below $100 a barrel on Sept. 8 before sliding to a 26-month low of $95.60 a barrel on Wednesday due to a soft global economic outlook.
Singapore jet fuel prices – widely used as a regional benchmark – have fallen from around $125 a barrel in late June to about $109 currently, and have averaged $119.44 a barrel so far this year, down from last year's average of $122.86, Reuters data showed. JET-SIN
Many airlines are locking in contracts as far ahead as 2015 and 2016, a second trader said, suggesting they view the current oil price level as potentially attractive over the near to medium term.
"They've been quiet for the first six to seven months of the year and their hedge ratios were low, but they're now coming out to hedge. They are hedging at $112 to $113 a barrel for jet fuel flat prices for next year," he said.
Thai Airways International Pcl (THAI.BK) has raised its jet fuel hedging to 63 percent of fuel needs in late 2015, compared with 53 percent until the middle of next year, a senior company official said.
"As long as jet fuel prices are still in the range of $100-$125, we will not post losses," the official said.
Any airlines that locked in long-term contracts at the start of the year, when oil prices were about 10 percent higher, might be facing losses in the second half of this year unless they raised fares, traders said.
"It's better for airlines to do a consistent fixed percentage of regular hedging rather than capturing ups and downs as they usually lose big money because of this," said Kelvin Lau, an analyst at Daiwa Securities Markets (Hong Kong).
ANA did not disclose the price level it hedged, but its business plan for this year assumes a level of $125 a barrel for Singapore jet fuel prices, the company said.
Additional reporting by Manunphattr Dhanananphorn in BANGKOK, Jane Wardell in SYDNEY, Timothy Kelly in TOKYO, Fang Yan in BEIJING and Anshuman Daga in SINGAPORE; Editing by Gavin Maguire and Richard Pullin.