August 20, 2015 / 1:11 AM / 5 years ago

UPDATE 3-Qantas to expand fleet after rapid profit turnaround

* Underlying profit of A$975 mln vs loss of A$646 mln

* Exercises options to buy eight Boeing 787-9s

* Revenue up 3 pct to A$15.82 bln

* Small return to shareholders (Adds graphics link, no change to text)

By Jane Wardell and Byron Kaye

SYDNEY, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Qantas Airways posted one of the fastest turnarounds in Australian corporate history with a return to full-year profit and said it will buy eight fuel-efficient Boeing Co 787-9 Dreamliner jets, enabling it to fly the longest routes possible.

The Australian flagship carrier also said it would make its first cash payout to shareholders in six years after an aggressive cost-cutting programme and tailwinds from cheaper fuel costs led the company back into the black.

“If it wasn’t for our transformation programme, Qantas would not be announcing a profit today, nor would we be announcing a return to shareholderes, nor would we be announcing the acquisition of the 787s,” Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce told reporters.

Pre-tax profit of A$975 million ($716.43 million) for the year to end-June was slightly under analyst forecasts of A$982 million. Still, it was a sizeable and swift recovery from the A$646 million underlying loss the Flying Kangaroo reported a year ago, and the company’s shares leapt 3.7 percent in intraday trade before losing their gains along with the broader market.

Joyce claimed credit for the strategy to cut costs including 5,000 jobs, trim capacity, raise fares and overhaul the airline’s frequent flyer programme. Of A$894 million in cost reductions in fiscal 2015, lower fuel prices contributed A$597 million.

Fuel expenses were capped at 2015 levels in the current financial year because of Qantas’ hedging policy, Joyce said.

From 2017, the eight new 787-9s would shrink the fuel bill further on some of the longest direct commercial routes possible, like Melbourne to Dallas.

Qantas had postponed plans to refresh its ageing fleet of 11 Boeing 747s used on long-haul flights with the 787-9s when it was in financial difficulty. The airline has another 12 options for 787-9s from 2017 and a further 30 purchase rights.

Qantas shares hit their highest intraday level since 2008 before dipping 1 percent, outperforming the broader market decline of 1.4 percent.

The shares have soared 200 percent in the past year, the fourth-best performing airline stock among 47 large and midcap airline companies, according to Thomson Reuters data.

“All of the things that (Joyce) has done should have been done quite a while ago,” Morningstar analyst Ross MacMillan said.

Qantas didn’t declare a dividend but said it planned to pay shareholders 23 cents per share, tax-free. It last paid a dividend in 2009.

$1 = 1.3609 Australian dollars Additional reporting by Tripti Kalro in BENGALURU; Editing by Stephen Coates

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