Tale of 2 airlines: Big profit at American, Southwest loss after December storms

an airport worker stands under a Southwest Airlines plane
American Airlines posted better-than-expected fourth-quarter profits, while Southwest Airlines lost money because of massive flight cancellations last month.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
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American Airlines and two smaller carriers gave more proof Thursday of the recovery in air travel, posting better-than-expected profit for the fourth quarter, while Southwest Airlines lost money because of massive flight cancellations last month.

Southwest said it also expects another loss in the first quarter while saying it was encouraged by booking trends for March.

Southwest reported a $220-million loss after taking a hit of $800 million from canceling nearly 17,000 flights over the last 10 days of December.


The airline had signaled it would lose money, but the adjusted loss of 38 cents per share was worse than the 7 cents per share that Wall Street expected.

Shares of the company slid 4.7% in morning trading.

Can Southwest repair its flight network and reputation after it canceled nearly 17,000 December flights? Are other airlines vulnerable?

Jan. 26, 2023

The Transportation Department is investigating whether Southwest scheduled more flights than it could realistically expect to handle, which it says would violate federal laws against deceptive trade practices. Southwest says its schedule was “thoughtfully designed” and the airline had ample staffing.

Southwest blames an “unprecedented storm” that swept the country around Christmas. Other airlines recovered more quickly, while widespread cancellations at Southwest dragged on for days.

On Thursday, Chief Executive Robert Jordan again apologized for the meltdown.

“We have swiftly taken steps to bolster our operational resilience and are undergoing a detailed review of the December events,” he said. The Dallas company has hired outside experts and created a committee of its board to review the events and reexamine Southwest’s technology priorities.

Cowen analyst Helane Becker said in a client note that Southwest’s cancellation of flights during the holiday season appears to be having a lingering impact.

“Issues from the over 16,700 flight cancellations over the holiday period appear to be spilling over into [the first quarter] as revenue guidance is below our and Street expectations given a deceleration in recent bookings,” Becker wrote.


Many Southwest Airlines passengers are still waiting to be reimbursed for costs they incurred during last month’s meltdown.

Jan. 11, 2023

Meanwhile, American reported a profit of $803 million. Excluding special items, earnings per share totaled $1.17. Analysts expected $1 per share, according to a FactSet survey.

Revenue was a fourth-quarter record of $13.19 billion, a 40% increase from a year earlier and better than analysts expected, leading to record annual revenue.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier returned to a profit for the full year and forecast 2023 earnings in a range of $2.50 to $3.50 per share. For the first quarter, American expects to break even, based on demand and fuel trends.

The stock slipped 1.3%.

American’s results added to the picture of strong demand for air travel that was reflected in an $843-million profit for United Airlines and $828 million for Delta Air Lines.

Elsewhere in the sector, JetBlue Airways said Thursday it moved to a profit in its fourth quarter after reporting a loss in the year-ago period. The airline earned $24 million, or 7 cents per share. Its adjusted profit was 22 cents per share, beating Wall Street’s view of 19 cents per share.

Revenue came in at $2.42 billion, besting the $2.41 billion that analysts expected.

For 2023, the New York-based airline expects to earn up to $1 per share on an adjusted basis with “margins approaching pre-pandemic levels.”


Shares declined 2.4%.

Alaska Air Group posted a fourth-quarter profit of $22 million, or 17 cents per share. Adjusted earnings were 92 cents per share. That’s 2 cents better than what Wall Street was calling for.

Revenue totaled $2.48 billion, missing Wall Street’s estimate of $2.5 billion. The company said its annual revenue of $9.65 billion was the highest in Alaska Air’s history.

The company’s stock dipped slightly.