The Ratings Game: Airlines faced a difficult Christmas of storms and sickness, says Cowen: Who fared best and worst?


The Christmas travel season has been a tough one for the U.S. airline industry with extreme weather and employee sickness causing disruption for travelers.

“U.S. airlines faced a difficult Christmas as a polar vortex and a holiday storm swept across the country in the days leading up to Christmas,” wrote Cowen analyst Helane Becker, in a note released Tuesday. From Dec. 16 to Jan. 3, Cowen forecast that around 35 million people would travel, equal to last year. From Dec. 16 through Dec. 25, 21.9 million people traveled, compared with 20 million last year and 23.2 million in 2019 before the COVID pandemic hit, according to Cowen.

“Inclement weather caused numerous delays and cancellations,” wrote Becker. “Delta’s operations were more challenged, and Southwest had the worst performance of the group.”

 Related: Southwest shares fall in premarket on winter storm woes 

Citing data from tracking website FlightAware, the Associated Press reports that about 4,000 U.S. domestic flights were canceled Monday, of which 2,900 were Southwest’s. The U.S. Department of Transportation has said it will look into cancellations by Southwest that left travelers stranded.

Southwest Airlines Co.’s

stock fell 3.9% before market open on Tuesday. Delta Air Lines Inc.’s

stock was up 0.2%.

Southwest also also felt the impact of employee sickness, according to Cowen. “We are aware that Southwest’s Denver operation performed poorly as the airline had an extraordinary number of employees calling in sick,” wrote Becker. “We expect Southwest to call out the impact as it was worse than the industry and likely hurt earnings more than a ‘normal’ storm.”

 See Now: Watch these airlines in 2023, says Raymond James 

Southwest’s stock has fallen 15.8% in 2022, compared with the S&P 500 Index’s

decline of 19.3% and the U.S. Global Jets ETF’s

decline of 18.3%.

As for airlines to watch in the coming year, Cowen cites United Airlines Holdings Inc.

as its Best Idea for 2023. The analyst firm continues to rate Copa Holdings S.A
Delta, Alaska Air Group Inc.
Sun Country Airlines Holdings Inc.
Frontier Group Holdings Inc.
Air Canada
Volaris Aviation

and Southwest outperform.

United Airlines’ stock rose 0.4% before market open on Tuesday, while Sun Country

is up 1.7%, Frontier Group

is up 3.7%, Volaris is up 2% and Alaska Air

is up 1.1%. Copa Holdings is unchanged.

See Now: JetBlue downgraded by Cowen as merger with Spirit Airlines ‘likely to be a distraction’

As the airline industry looks to regain its pre-pandemic footing, Delta, Southwest, and Copa were have also been cited as Strong Buy-rated top picks by Raymond James, along with Ryanair Holdings PLC

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