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Despite Recent Challenges, Major U.S. Airlines Report Post-Pandemic Profit

But a return to profit does not tell the complete story of recovery in the industry

by Fergus Cole

January 30, 2023

Flights ontime / Photo: Zhu Difeng/Shutterstock

The three largest airlines in the United States have posted profits for the final quarter of 2022 as the industry bounces back financially from the COVID-19 pandemic.

American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines went into the black during the October-to-December 2022 period after all three were in the red during the same quarter in 2021.

On January 13, Delta announced its financial figures for 2022, posting a $13.4 billion revenue for the final quarter of the year—a 41.8 percent increase over the same time period in 2021, and a 17 percent increase compared to 2019. The Atlanta-based carrier also posted revenue of $828 million for the final three months of last year, down from $1.1 billion in the same period before the pandemic (Q4 2019).

Photo: Courtesy of Miguel Angel Sanz / Unsplash

United then posted its financial performance for 2022 on January 17, reporting revenue of $12.4 billion during the fourth quarter—51.3 percent higher than the same quarter of 2021 and around 14 percent above the same period in 2019. Its profits for the final quarter of 2022 totaled $843 million, a 31 percent jump compared to the same quarter of 2019.

Then, on January 26, American Airlines posted its own financial report for 2022, scoring $13.2 billion in revenue for the final quarter. This represents a 51.3 percent increase over the same period of 2021 and a 16.6 percent increase over the final quarter of 2019. Its fourth-quarter profits of $803 million last year were a massive increase compared to the $931 million loss during the final quarter of 2021.

Photo: Courtesy of Jason Leung / Unsplash

But a return to profit does not tell the complete story of post-pandemic recovery in the airline industry. As demonstrated by Southwest’s recent operational meltdown, the industry is still struggling with staff shortages, technical failures, and other challenges which have driven employees at multiple airlines, including Southwest and Delta, to threaten strikes.

Still, airline CEOs maintained an optimistic tone as they reported their latest numbers. “The American Airlines team has produced outstanding results over the past year,” said Robert Isom, CEO of American Airlines. “We committed to running a reliable operation and returning to profitability, and our team is delivering on both.”

“We’re proud to have led the industry in operational performance over the holidays while producing record full-year and fourth-quarter revenues, resulting in a third consecutive quarterly profit and a profit for the full year. As we turn our attention to 2023, we will continue to prioritize reliability, profitability and debt reduction.”

Photo: American Airlines regional jets. Courtesy of Miguel Ángel Sanz / Unsplash

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta also said, “as we move into 2023, the industry backdrop for air travel remains favorable, and Delta is well positioned to deliver significant earnings and free cash flow growth. We expect to grow 2023 revenue by 15 to 20 percent and improve unit costs year-over-year, supporting a full-year outlook for earnings of $5 to $6 per share and keeping us on track to achieve more than $7 of earnings per share in 2024.”

Other U.S. airlines have also revealed better-than-expected earnings for 2022, including JetBlue and Alaska Airlines. Even Southwest Airlines, which experienced a disastrous final quarter in which it canceled almost 17,000 flights resulting in a $220 million loss for that period, posted profits of $539 million for the year.