'Duh!' of the day: United loses $544 million betting on the fuel market

Hedging fuel costs sounds confusing, but it's nothing new. Some airlines, like the budget model Southwest, have managed to claim a profit in no small part because their masters were clever enough to buy most of its fuel when it was still sensibly priced. That can work out really well if gas prices go up, because those smart airlines will still be paying an older, lower price. Some experts think Southwest has saved $3.5 billion by doing this since the late '90s.

United Airlines, which has a management as sharp as a box of hammers and aging seating about as soft, thought it could imitate Southwest by getting into the hedging game, too. But, whoops! Timing is everything. It got in way too late, as the market prepared to peak. Prices went down. And right now it's paying almost $13 more a barrel than oil is actually worth, which could rack up as much as $544 million in boneheaded, unnecessary losses.

It's a lot like the guy down the street who bought his house a year ago for $400,000, only to find in this self-correcting market that it's now worth about $250,000, which everyone in the neighborhood knew was a more realistic price all along. He intended to flip it, but now he's got to live in it. Of course, if gas prices go back up a bit, United's loss may be mitigated slightly.