Business World

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On a record pace

WASHINGTON (NYT) - Airline passenger loads show no signs of easing, and in fact carriers have already boarded millions more passengers this year than last, when a record 581.2 million passengers flew.

Through this May, the latest month for which totals are available, Delta Air Lines alone has boarded almost 3.5 million more passengers than during the comparable period last year; at its current pace, the carrier will board more than 100 million passengers by the end of the year. Over the same five months UAL's United Airlines has flown 1.2 million more passengers than it did last year, AMR's American Airlines 922,512 more and Northwest Airlines 800,000 more. Airlines say there are still many seats available, noting that despite last year's record number of passengers the industry load factor, or percentage of seats filled, still hit only 69.8 percent. But seats are still available on many flights only if passengers don't mind a roundabout itinerary, or don't mind leaving extra early or extra late. But even seats on off-hour flights are harder to find, because airlines are making great efforts to fill them. Last week, for example, American and American Eagle, its commuter line, announced fares that average 50 percent less than regular 21-day advance purchase fares. Available in selected cities into and out of American's hubs in Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago, and subject to the usual restrictions, the fares are good for travel Sunday through Friday -- but only on flights scheduled to depart between 5 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. HMO earnings to rise NEW YORK (Bloomberg) -- Health-maintenance organizations' second quarter earnings will rise after many raised prices enough this year to cover the rising costs of prescription drugs and hospital visits by their customers. Oxford Health Plans Inc. and WellPoint Health Networks Inc. will lead the industry's profit growth, helped by mounting pressure to cut U.S. health care costs. United Healthcare Corp. and Healthsource Inc. also will benefit from boosting prices in January. "This really will be the first up quarter for a lot of HMOs" since the second quarter last year, said ABN Amro Chicago Corp. analyst Peter Costa. "You will see some improved results." Health-maintenance organizations, or HMOs, charge a fixed price to provide health care coverage to members for a one-year term, usually beginning in January. The fee is based on their estimate of how much of a plan's services and treatments the members will require during that year. Scaling the chicken GOLDEN, Colo. (Bloomberg) -- Boston Chicken Inc. will scale back its ambitious expansion plans for the next two years, as the company attempts to preserve cash and squeeze more profit out of existing restaurants. Boston Chicken, which earlier said it would review plans to open 300 Boston Markets a year, now expects to add 150 to 200 restaurants in 1997 and 150 to 250 in 1998. The slower expansion pace will reduce earnings growth for both years, though the company didn't say by how much. The size of the cutback, which is about what analysts expected, is a key indicator for investors of the once high-flying chain. If Boston Chicken cuts too many restaurants, it would no longer be seen as a growth stock and the shares would fall; if it doesn't cut enough, earnings would be hurt even more. "The changes that they have made -- both operationally and slowing sales growth -- weakens the doomsayers' arguments," said Mitchell Pinheiro, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott Inc. "This company has a lot of legs." 400 gone at Ward Holding CHICAGO (Bloomberg) -- Montgomery Ward Holding Corp. fired 400 people, or about 20 percent, of its corporate headquarters staff, a spokeswoman said Wednesday. The struggling department-store retailer said the firings are a part of its plan to turn around after a string of quarterly losses. It said the move will cut costs and improve efficiencies by eliminating management layers. …