Southwest Airlines Company (Dallas) today reported its first quarter 2015 results:
Record first quarter net income, excluding special items1, of $451 million, or $.66 per diluted share, compared with first quarter 2014 net income, excluding special items, of $126 million, or $.18 per diluted share. This represented a 266.7 percent increase from first quarter 2014 and exceeded the First Call consensus estimate of $.65 per diluted share.
Record first quarter net income of $453 million, or $.66 per diluted share, which included $2 million (net) of favorable special items, compared with first quarter 2014 net income of $152 million, or $.22 per diluted share, which included $26 million (net) of favorable special items.
Record first quarter operating income of $780 million. Excluding special items, record first quarter operating income of $770 million, resulting in an operating margin2 of 17.4 percent.
Strong free cash flow1 of $859 million used to return $381 million to Shareholders through dividends and share repurchases, and to repay $51 million in debt and capital lease obligations.
Return on invested capital, before taxes and excluding special items (ROIC)1, for the 12 months ended March 31, 2015, of 25.6 percent, compared with 14.2 percent for the 12 months ended March 31, 2014.
Gary C. Kelly, Chairman of the Board, President, and Chief Executive Officer, stated, “We are thrilled to report an exceptionally strong first quarter 2015 earnings performance. Our net income, excluding special items, of $451 million, or $.66 per diluted share, far surpasses any first quarter profit in our history and represents our eighth consecutive quarter of record profits. Our first quarter 2015 operating income, excluding special items, increased over 200 percent year-over-year to $770 million, resulting in a first quarter record 17.4 percent operating margin. Our ROIC for the 12 months ended March 31, 2015, was an outstanding 25.6 percent. These superb results earned our 47,000 hard-working and dedicated Employees a first quarter record $126 million profitsharing accrual, up 334.5 percent from first quarter 2014.
“Total operating revenues were a first quarter record $4.4 billion, driven by a 6.2 percent year-over-year increase in passenger revenues and double-digit year-over-year percentage growth in freight revenues. Customer demand was strong throughout first quarter 2015, resulting in a record first quarter load factor of 80.1 percent. As expected, first quarter 2015 passenger revenues grew in line with our available seat mile (ASM) growth of 6.0 percent, year-over-year. Considering the 4.1 percent increase in stage length and the 2.7 percent increase in seats per trip3 (gauge) from our fleet modernization, year-over-year, we are very pleased with our first quarter 2015 unit revenue performance. Strong revenue and booking trends have continued thus far in April. Second quarter 2015 year-over-year comparisons are more challenging, largely due to last year’s exceptional and above-trend performance. With the continuation of year-over-year increases in stage length and gauge, we currently expect our April 2015 passenger unit revenues to decline, year-over-year, approximately two percent.
“We are delighted also with our unit cost trends, which continue to benefit from increased stage length, increased gauge, lower maintenance costs, and substantially lower fuel prices. Our first quarter 2015 unit costs, excluding special items, declined 12.4 percent year-over-year. First quarter 2015 economic fuel costs were $2.00 per gallon, compared with $3.08 per gallon in first quarter 2014, resulting in over $450 million in economic fuel cost savings. Based on our existing fuel derivative contracts and market prices as of April 16, 2015, we estimate second quarter 2015 economic fuel costs per gallon will be comparable to first quarter 2015’s $2.00 per gallon.
“Setting fuel aside, the solid first quarter 2015 cost performance reflects our intense focus to control costs and maintain our competitive low-cost position. Excluding fuel and oil expense and special items, our first quarter 2015 unit costs were comparable to first quarter last year. Unit costs were down 3.6 percent, year-over-year, when also excluding first quarter 2015 profitsharing expense. Based on current cost trends, and excluding fuel and oil expense, special items, and profitsharing, we expect second quarter 2015 unit costs to decline in the one-to-two percent range, and full year 2015 unit costs to decline approximately two percent, both compared with the same year-ago periods.
“Our network optimization is producing strong financial results, and we are pleased with the performance of our markets under development. We continue to project roughly 700 aircraft by year-end, and an approximate seven percent year-over-year increase in ASMs versus 2014. The full year effect of 2015’s expansion is also estimated to increase 2016 ASMs approximately five percent, year-over-year, and we currently expect any further 2016 ASM year-over-year growth to be modest, with a focus on producing strong returns on our investments. Our incremental fleet growth in 2016 is currently expected to approximate two percent, compared with 2015.
“The Customer response to our new Dallas Love Field service, which represents the majority of 2015 year-over-year ASM growth, is very strong, and first quarter 2015 Dallas traffic has increased 145.5 percent from year-ago levels. In first quarter 2015, we acquired the rights to two additional gates, bringing our total gate occupancy to 18 at Dallas Love Field. By August 2015, we are scheduled to operate 180 weekday departures to 50 nonstop destinations, representing a more than 50 percent increase in flight activity since the lifting of the Wright Amendment restrictions4 in October 2014. We are very pleased to provide more competition, more travel options, and low fares for the Dallas market.
“Our international expansion also continued during first quarter 2015. On March 7, 2015, Costa Rica became our sixth international country served with daily nonstop service between Baltimore/Washington and San Jose, Costa Rica. We also launched international flying from Houston Hobby with seasonal Saturday service to Aruba5. We remain on track to add an additional six international destinations from Hobby later this year with the planned October completion of the international terminal. We look forward to beginning service to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in June 2015, and pending government approvals, Belize City, Belize, in October 2015.
“We are managing our invested capital aggressively and continue to provide healthy returns to our Shareholders. During first quarter 2015, we returned $381 million through the payment of $81 million in dividends and the repurchase of $300 million in common stock. And, we expect to complete the repurchase of the remaining $80 million under our existing $1 billion share repurchase authorization next month. Our balance sheet, liquidity, and cash flows remain strong, and we ended first quarter 2015 with $3.4 billion in cash and short-term investments, with a fully available unsecured revolving credit line of $1 billion.”
During first quarter 2015, the Company returned $381 million to its Shareholders through the payment of $81 million in dividends and the repurchase of $300 million in common stock, or 5.1 million shares, pursuant to an accelerated share repurchase (ASR) program executed during the quarter. This ASR program was completed in early April, and the Company then received an additional 1.8 million shares, bringing the total shares repurchased under the first quarter 2015 ASR program to 6.9 million. During first quarter 2015, the Company also received the remaining 1.1 million shares pursuant to the fourth quarter 2014 $200 million ASR program, bringing the total shares repurchased under that ASR program to 4.9 million. The Company intends to complete the repurchase of the remaining $80 million under its existing $1.0 billion share repurchase authorization in May 2015.
Boeing 737 Delivery Schedule:
In other related news, the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association (SWAPA) announced it has joined the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies, a coalition of U.S. airlines and airline industry labor unions. These groups seek to level the playing field against heavily subsidized state-owned carriers from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“These government-owned Gulf carriers are not playing by the rules their governments agreed to when they signed Open Skies agreements with the U.S.,” said SWAPA President Capt. Paul Jackson. “Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates Airline are being fueled by tens of billions of dollars in state subsidies and that not only puts U.S. airlines at a competitive disadvantage, but also jeopardizes jobs throughout the U.S. airline industry.”
In joining the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies, SWAPA has united with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and seven other labor organizations in asking the U.S. government to open consultations with Qatar and the UAE, as provided for within the Open Skies agreements. This step is needed to address the unfair state subsidies that are enabling Qatar, Etihad, and Emirates to rapidly expand their fleets and routes into the U.S. market. SWAPA also backed the Partnership’s call for the U.S. government to seek a freeze on any new passenger service by the Gulf carriers into the U.S. as the consultations go forward.
A 55-page white paper presented by the Partnership to the U.S. government earlier this year and released to the public in March documented $42 billion in state subsidies and other unfair benefits provided to Qatar, Etihad, and Emirates by their respective governments since 2004 alone. That massive state support is a clear violation of Open Skies policy.
“The evidence is too overwhelming and the airline industry is too important to our country for the U.S. government not to take action,” continued Jackson. “Southwest pilots are proud to stand with the other members of the Partnership in calling for a level playing field.”
Copyright Photo: Joe G. Walker/AirlinersGallery.com. Southwest continues to buy previously operated Boeing 737-700s on the open market. Formerly operated by WestJet as C-FWAD, the pictured Boeing 737-7CT is now operating as N566WN (msn 32753) for Southwest in full colors. N566WN arrives at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Southwest Airlines aircraft slide show (new livery only):