Southwest Airlines Announces Drop in January Traffic

Number of flights also down year to year.

Southwest Airlines announced Wednesday that the number of passengers it flew in January dropped 6.4 percent compared to one year ago.

The key figure, known as "revenue passenger miles," dropped from 5.5 billion in January 2008 to 5.1 billion in January 2009. The figure measures the number of miles flown by paying passengers.

"The general picture is they're going backwards instead of forwards," said airline analyst Denny Kelly.

The load factor, a measure of how full flights are, also dropped 1.4 percent. The laod factor was also down at American.

The percentages would have been much higher, but the airlines are flying hundreds of fewer flights.

"They've all tried to cut capacity, and they're still cutting capacity to get their operating expenses down," Kelly said. "And because of that, they don't have as many passengers. Plus, the economy has hurt the number of passengers anyway that fly."

Southwest has slashed the number of flights from last year by nearly 6,000, meaning the money it made per passenger per mile was actually up about six percent, Southwest said in a news release.

Southwest recently suspended growth plans and announced big fare sales.

The Dallas-based carrier has lost money the past two quarters after a long record of profits dating to 1991.

The big problem has been fuel-hedging. The airline bought fuel in advance to save money, but then prices fell. Southwest is now no longer hedging fuel costs.

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