DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — For the first time in nine years, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines posted a quarterly loss and said Tuesday that the downturn in air travel that began in late February shows no signs of letting up.
The airline said trip cancellations have pulled back from a peak in March but remain at levels that Southwest has never seen, as customers scrap plans to travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
Southwest doesn’t fly to Asia, where the virus originated, and so it felt the effects of the pandemic later than rivals Delta, United and American. However, with U.S. air travel now down about 95% from a year ago, all the carriers are flying through the same storm.
Southwest expects revenue to drop by 90% to 95% in April and May compared with a year ago, with only 5% to 10% of seats on its planes filled.
“This is an unprecedented time for our nation and the airline industry,” Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly said in a written statement. “The U.S. economy has been at a standstill, and the current outlook for second quarter 2020 indicates no material improvement in air travel trends.”
Kelly told employees a few days ago that passenger traffic was “virtually zero,” that the airline was burning through cash at an alarming rate, and that Southwest was prepared to become a “drastically smaller airliner” if air travel doesn’t improve by July. That was a stunning statement, coming from the leader of an airline that says it has never laid off employees in 49 years of flying.
Southwest has never reported a full-year loss, but analysts expect that streak to end in 2020. Southwest has canceled thousands of flights, asked employees to take unpaid time off, grounded many of its planes, and negotiated for $3.2 billion in federal aid to help cover payroll costs through September.
The airline reported a sharp fourth-quarter profits drop as a direct result of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max jet. Southwest had more Max jets in their fleet than any other airline — at 34 — and was scheduled to add more than 40 additional planes at the end of 2019, and another 38 in 2020.
The Max jets were grounded in March after two fatal crashes that killed a total of 346 people.
So far this year, the company has borrowed $6.8 billion, including the federal loan it has already received. Southwest said it plans to apply for a second round of federal help, a secured loan of $2.8 billion, and is shopping for money from other sources.
As of last week, Southwest said, it had cash and short-term investments of $9.3 billion and mortgageable assets worth nearly $8 billion, mostly planes, to ride out the coronavirus crisis. With no immediate need for more planes, Southwest is overhauling its order book with Boeing.
Southwest swung to a first-quarter loss of $94 million from a $387 million profit in the same period last year. The airline last reported a quarterly loss in September 2011.
Shares of Southwest Airlines Co. have dropped 46% this year. That is the best stock performance by any U.S. airline.
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