What happened

United Airlines Holdings (UAL -1.47%) easily topped analyst expectations in the third quarter, and the company is bullish heading into 2023. Investors are climbing on board, sending United shares up more than 8% on Wednesday.

So what

Airlines have seen demand rebound in 2022 after a couple of miserable years for travel caused by the pandemic. But investors have worried that higher inflation and the risk of an economic slowdown would eat into demand in the months to come, leaving airline stocks stuck in a holding pattern.

On Tuesday night, United Airlines offered investors some much-needed reassurance. The airline reported third-quarter adjusted earnings of $2.81 per share on revenue of $12.88 billion, easily topping analyst estimates for $2.27 per share in earnings on sales of $12.75 billion.

United is expecting a strong holiday season, forecasting that fourth-quarter operating margins would come in above 2019 pre-pandemic levels. United expects to earn at least $2 per share in the quarter, well above the $0.98 per share consensus.

"Despite growing concerns about an economic slowdown, the ongoing COVID recovery trends at United continue to prevail, and we remain optimistic that we'll continue to deliver strong financial results in the fourth quarter, 2023 and beyond," CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement.

Now what

Historically, airlines have been a cyclical business that has ebbed and flowed with the economy. Over the long term, that is likely to remain the case. But it is increasingly beginning to appear that this cycle might be the exception to the rule.

We came in to 2022 expecting a lot of post-pandemic pent-up demand, and so far it appears that demand is outweighing typical concerns about spending in a rising interest rate environment. And it isn't just United saying it: Delta Air Lines provided a similarly upbeat outlook last week.

United expects to hire 15,000 people this year and a similar number next year.  On the post-earnings call, CEO Kirby said there is evidence of "permanent structural changes" in leisure demand following the pandemic due to the newfound flexibility that hybrid work allows.

Many a fortune has been lost claiming "this time is different," and investors should remain at least somewhat cautious. Demand could fall off a cliff quickly if the economy continues to falter, or we end up in a significant recession. Or, that same workplace evolution that is helping spark leisure demand could permanently alter work travel in unexpected ways.

But for now, United sees blue skies up ahead. Investors are excited to go along for the ride.