Southwest Airlines: Straightening up and flying right

Among airlines, Southwest has been famous for keeping its fares relatively low by using fuel hedging. Its accountants have kept the airline profitable by safeguarding itself against market volatility. It locked in low prices for a significant portion of its fuel needs, so when the price of oil jumped, the carrier was sitting pretty. The tactic meant the airline posted its 69th straight quarter of profit even in the throes of the summer gas-price crisis. Meanwhile, bungling airlines like United got in the hedging game near the peak of the market, and paid the price.

By the end of 2008, Southwest was paying a bit of a price, too, as the value of its original hedges declined and it had to come up with $247 million to pay for them. On balance, that's nothing compared to what it saved over the past few years -- $4 billion worth. But that's what happens when you gamble with hedging -- you take risks. And it looks like Southwest isn't interested in taking quite so many risks with its precious cash going forward.

The airline is easing up on the hedging game. Last summer, as much as 75% of its fuel was hedged. But between 2009 and 2013, only 10% of its fuel will be so. As long as fuel prices are spiking and plummeting, it's too tricky for an airline to anticipate the sweet spot when it comes to the ideal hedge price. The sweet spot keeps moving around.

Some industry observers think that the airline's reluctance to keep up with the practice means that we're in for dramatic volatility in fuel prices in 2009. Does Southwest know something we don't?

Just because Southwest seems to be bailing on the tactic that set it apart from the others, at least for now, that doesn't necessarily mean the carrier is going to start cranking up the rates. The people who run it have proved themselves prudent, creative, and savvy, and they know that the cornerstone of their franchise is strong value. Let's not forget that almost all the other major carriers in America started nickeling and diming Americans in 2008, but Southwest still doesn't charge customers for its first checked bag, second checked bag, or for changing a flight. Or even for snacks.

Southwest understands its appeal and its customers, and as its past experience in hedging proves, it grasps the art of fluid financing better that any other airline flying. Business in an uncertain economy calls for creativity, and that's something that's always lifted Southwest higher. It's easy to have faith that it's likely to meet potential shortfalls through savvy bookkeeping, and not by tossing extra charges at customers.

As if to underscore that, Southwest coupled its hedging announcement with a fare sale. Seats are between $49 and $99 for one-way flights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays if they're booked by January 19. What was that about the cost of airfare these days?
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