Air travel demand is breaking records. Airline profits are not

Passengers pass through O’Hare airport in Chicago, July 3, 2024.

Scott Olson | Getty Images

Record summer air travel demand isn’t translating to record U.S. airline profits. Carriers will have to answer for that disconnect when they report quarterly results this month.

Some airlines have forecast record demand, and in some cases, revenue. But higher labor and other costs have eaten into airlines’ bottom lines. To adapt to slower demand growth and other challenges, some carriers have slowed if not halted hiring compared with hiring sprees when they rebuilt after the pandemic.

And some airlines are facing delays of new, more fuel-efficient aircraft from Airbus and Boeing at the same time that a Pratt & Whitney engine recall has grounded dozens of jets.

Yet U.S. airlines have increased capacity, flying about 6% more seats in July than they did in July 2023, according to aviation data firm OAG. The expansion is keeping airfare in check, and stocks in the sector have fallen behind the broader market.

The NYSE Arca Airline Index, which tracks 16 mostly U.S. airlines, is down almost 19% this year, while the S&P 500 has advanced more than 16%.

‘Clear as mud’

What the third quarter will look like for airlines is “clear as mud,” Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth said in a note Friday, citing headwinds such as potentially weaker spending from coach-class clientele, the Paris Olympics’ impact on some Europe bookings, and possible changes in corporate travel demand.

Cheaper fares

Airports are bustling this summer. Nearly 3 million people, setting a record, passed through U.S. airport checkpoints on June 23 alone, according to theTransportation Security Administration.

Airlines have been expanding their schedules, both domestically and internationally, pushing down fares. U.S.-Europe capacity for July is up nearly 8% from a year ago, according to consulting firm Airline/Aircraft Projects, with new routes largely targeting leisure travelers.

Fare-tracking company Hopper reported in June that summer flights between the U.S. and Europe in coach were going for $892 on average, compared with $1,065 for summer 2023.

Airfare was down nearly 6% in May from a year earlier, according to the latest U.S. inflation data.

Lowered forecasts

Travelers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport

Leslie Josephs/CNBC

Southwest Airlines cut its second-quarter forecast in late June, citing shifting demand patterns. The Dallas-based airline is under pressure to quickly change its long-profitable business model — which has no seat assignments and one class of service — as big rivals such as United and Delta tout strong growth from premium cabins.

The airline is trying to fend off activist investor Elliott Investment Management, which disclosed a nearly $2 billion stake in the carrier in June and called for a leadership change.

“We will adapt as our customers’ needs adapt,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said at an industry event hosted by Politico on June 12, discussing potential new revenue initiatives.

Both American and Southwest report second-quarter results toward the end of July.

Making changes

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