Earnings

Southwest forecasts lingering losses as bookings slow in wake of holiday meltdown

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Travelers check in at a Southwest Airlines ticket counter during the busy Christmas holiday season at Orlando International Airport on December 28, 2022 in Orlando, Florida.
Paul Hennessy | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Southwest Airlines said Thursday it expects its holiday meltdown to continue to weigh on its bottom line, but said it still expects to be profitable this year.

Southwest shares sunk nearly 5% Thursday, trading at roughly $35.

The carrier reported a net loss of $220 million in the fourth quarter after the travel chaos drove up expenses and cost it millions in revenue during what was expected to be the busiest travel period since before the pandemic.

“Thus far in January 2023, the Company has experienced an increase in flight cancellations and a deceleration in bookings, primarily for January and February 2023 travel, which are assumed to be associated with the operational disruptions in December 2022,” Southwest said in a quarterly report.

Analysts had been anticipating a per-share profit of 19 cents for the first quarter, based on estimates compiled by Refinitiv.

The Dallas-based airline said booking trends look positive in March, however, and it forecast first-quarter revenue up 20% to 24% over last year with capacity up 10%. It also estimated fuel and other costs would be higher than it previously estimated.

Southwest’s fourth-quarter loss compares with a $68 million profit during the same period in 2021. Its record revenue of $6.17 billion was up more than 22% from a year earlier.

Here’s how Southwest performed in the fourth quarter, compared with Wall Street expectations according to Refinitiv consensus estimates:

  • Adjusted loss per share: 38 cents vs an expected loss of 12 cents.
  • Total revenue: $6.17 billion vs an expected $6.16 billion.

The airline said the mass cancellations hit its pretax results by $800 million, in line with its estimate earlier this month of a hit between $725 million and $825 million.

Southwest canceled around 16,700 flights between Dec. 21 though Dec. 31 after severe winter weather swept through the U.S.

While rival airlines had largely recovered around Christmas after the winter weather, Southwest’s technology was unable to process all the flight changes and crews had to call the carrier to get rescheduled. The carrier decided to scrap most of its flights in the following days to reset its operation, CEO Bob Jordan said earlier this month.

The carrier has been processing tens of thousands of refunds and complex reimbursements for travelers who booked flights on other airlines to get to their destinations.

The Transportation Department is investigating whether Southwest’s schedules over the holidays were “unrealistic,” a spokesperson said late Wednesday.

Despite the rocky end of the year, Southwest reported a $539 million profit for 2022. That’s still down 45% from a year earlier, however.

For the full-year 2023, it plans to expand flying as much as 17%, post another profit and expand margins, echoing the upbeat outlook shared by rivals like American, Delta and United.

Southwest’s executives will hold a call with analysts and media at 12:30 ET. They are likely to face questions about any additional costs and political fallout from its missteps as well as an update on technology updates that aim to prevent another meltdown.

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