Skip to content

Bailout helps Southwest become the first US airline to post a profit during the pandemic

April 22, 2021
4 min read
Bailout helps Southwest become the first US airline to post a profit during the pandemic
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Airlines have largely managed to slow or stop burning cash as travel demand begins to return, but the path to actually becoming profitable again is still a long ways uphill.

Except for Southwest.

The airline reported a $116 million profit for the first quarter on Thursday, making it the first U.S. airline to report net income for a quarter since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.

Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG's free new biweekly Aviation newsletter!

Despite an improvement in current demand and future bookings, however, the profit comes with a big asterisk. It was facilitated by federal aid distributed during the first three months of 2021.

Without the aid, the airline would have posted a loss of about $1 billion.

Still, other U.S. airlines reported losses for the quarter despite also receiving the aid. American Airlines said on Thursday that it lost $1.25 billion in the first quarter.

"The pandemic is far from over. We have to continue to fight like never before and ensure that when the green flag drops, American is out in front." American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom said in a note to employees on Thursday. "But as our world makes daily strides in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, customers are returning to travel and there is no doubt the pace of the recovery is accelerating."

For both airlines, the results reflected an improvement over the past few quarters, in line with what Delta and United have reported.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Improvements in travel demand, both in the form of immediate travel, and forward bookings for spring and summer, began to climb towards the end of the quarter as an accelerated pace of the vaccination campaign triggered a fresh wave of optimism among consumers.

Each major U.S. airline has said that bookings began to climb in March, leading to positive cash flow, short-term profitability, or a reduction in cash burn rates for the month.

One thing that helped: that new consumer optimism also coincided with spring break.

"Overnight we increased our flight activity mid-March, I think it was about March 11, by 50%," CEO Gary Kelly said on CNBC Thursday morning. "We added 1,000 flights a day."

Related: Keeping track of which countries are reopening? So is United, which is seeing a surge in bookings

Notably, the surging demand is almost entirely among leisure travelers and those visiting friends or relatives, rather than business travelers. Those customers, who tend to be more price conscious, generate lower yields for airlines. Business travel is not expected to begin returning substantially until the end of this year or 2022.

"We would be foolish to plan for a quick recovery of business travel," Kelly said.

"The good news about Southwest," he added, "is that we're a low-cost business model. We're very well suited for this environment. We're certainly in a position where we can be prosperous and profitable with mostly leisure travel."

Southwest also benefits from less exposure to the long-haul international market than its competitors, which rely on sales of highly profitable premium seats on trans-oceanic flights.

Related: Where you can go once you are vaccinated: A country-by-country guide

The airline plans to restore 85% of its pre-pandemic capacity in the second quarter.

Most U.S. airlines benefited from aid under the Payroll Support Program under the CARES Act. Southwest has received more than $5 billion in aid since April 2020, according to Treasury data, of more than $64 billion given to the industry in the form of grants and low-interest loans.

Featured image by NurPhoto via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023