By Terje Solsvik
OSLO (Reuters) - Norwegian Air's turnaround gathered pace last month as the budget carrier removed unprofitable routes from its network and boosted the income from remaining flights, sending its shares up almost 6% in early trade.
The airline's yield - income per passenger carried and kilometre flown - rose 15% to 0.40 Norwegian crown ($0.0435), its monthly traffic report showed on Thursday, beating a 0.37 crown forecast in a Reuters poll of analysts.
The company cut its capacity by a bigger-than-expected 29% in January from a year earlier. Analysts had expected a 22.2% decline in capacity for the month.
Norwegian's shares traded 4.3% higher at 39.66 crowns by 0839 GMT, but are still down 46% in the last 12 months.
"I am pleased that we continue to deliver on the strategy of moving from growth to profitability," Chief Executive Jacob Schram, in office since the start of the year, said in a statement.
Norwegian has shaken up the transatlantic travel market with low fares, but breakneck expansion and the grounding of its Boeing MAX fleet also brought mounting losses, forcing the company repeatedly to raise cash from owners.
Seeking to turn itself around and avoid joining the ranks of collapsed airlines, the company announced in October it would cut its capacity by 10% in 2020 from 2019.
Another measure, revenue per available seat kilometre, or RASK, grew by 22% year-on-year to 0.32 crowns, beating the 0.30 crowns predicted by analysts, and Norwegian also raised its fuel hedges to guard against a spike in prices.
The increase in RASK pointed to better operating margins at the carrier, said Danske Bank analyst Martin Stenshall, who holds a buy recommendation on the stock.
Norwegian on average filled 80.9% of seats in January, up from a load factor of 76.1% a year ago and beating an average forecast of 80.6%.
Routes between Ireland and the United States and Canada were cut from Norwegian's schedule last September, and in December the company announced the sale of its domestic business in Argentina.
The cutbacks may also alleviate the pressure on rivals such as Scandinavian Airlines, which now faces less head-to-head competition on routes between Europe and the United States.
($1 = 9.1879 Norwegian crowns)
(Editing by Gwladys Fouche and Barbara Lewis)