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Lower fuel costs help boost airlines’ quarterly earnings

– Airline passengers are finding less room to stretch out on packed planes, but while their knees are aching, at least they’re not paying much more for the ride.

Figures released Wednesday by the Department of Transportation showed that fares were virtually unchanged in the first three months of this year from a year earlier.

And numbers from Delta and US Airways showed that average fares hardly budged – and might have even dropped in some cases – in the second quarter.

Travelers and airline investors alike benefited as oil prices moderated – even running lower than last year for part of the spring.

Delta Air Lines Inc. paid 34 cents per gallon less for fuel than it did in the second quarter of 2012, and US Airways Group Inc. saved 25 cents per gallon.

Fuel is an airline’s biggest expense, so even a modest break at the pump helped Delta post net income of $685 million. US Airways’ profit fell 6 percent, but that was due to using up a tax allowance from previous, money-losing years.

Both airlines beat Wall Street expectations and offered upbeat forecasts about travel demand for the rest of the summer and into September.

The reports lifted the stock of both airlines. Delta rose 35 cents to close at $20.80. US Airways shares picked up 45 cents, or 2.5 percent, to close at $18.50.

Despite all the grumbling about the price of travel, especially those unpopular fees for checking a bag or getting a seat with decent legroom, airline revenue isn’t growing much. It was flat at Delta and up just 3 percent at US Airways.

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