The case has been settled by the bear market of 2022: Not all software technology companies have the ability to quickly pivot to profitability like they've been claiming. However,  Airbnb (ABNB 2.77%) is not one of those companies. It just turned in a fantastic third-quarter earnings report card, demonstrating its ability to kick its profit-generating engine into high gear.

But Airbnb certainly isn't being rewarded for this. On the contrary, shares are now down 42% in 2022 with just a month and a half to go. But if you think travel demand has "structurally changed," like some have claimed in the travel industry, Airbnb stock could be hands-down the best buy it's ever been right now.

Leisure travel has changed everything

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby added his voice to the chorus of calls that airline industry profits will make a huge comeback and eventually be better than ever. Kirby said this on the company's third-quarter earnings call:  

There's been a permanent structural change in leisure demand because of the flexibility that hybrid work allows. With hybrid work, every weekend could be a holiday weekend. That's why September, a normally off-peak month, was the third strongest month in our history. People want to travel and have experiences, and hybrid work environments untether them from the office and give them the newfound flexibility to travel far more often than before.

Now, don't take my quoting Kirby as a case to invest in airlines. They might be a buy to some investors, but not for me. Profits are returning to record levels, but are not quite there. A lot of that is because business travelers (highly lucrative passengers) have yet to buy tickets again in earnest, thanks to things like videoconferencing.

Kirby acknowledged this as well, although United thinks business travel will continue some sort of recovery. A slowdown in the global economy in the second half of this year and into 2023 could be a delay in takeoff for airline profits, too.  

But a surge in leisure-travel demand is helping in a big way, and could continue to do so for years to come. Paired with much of the airline industry lowering the altitude of their investments in planes and route capacity (which shows up in lower capital expenditures), executives like Kirby think airline profits are headed for the runway.  

DAL Operating Income (TTM) Chart

Data by YCharts.TTM = trailing 12 months.

What's all this to a company like Airbnb? Plenty has been said about remote or hybrid work being here to stay, how it affects travel trends, and how companies can profit from it.

Airbnb is an asset-light business model. Airlines are most certainly not. If travel demand -- which directly feeds into accommodation demand, like what Airbnb offers -- continues to rise, the company could have incredible leverage in its profits, a first-class luxury that other types of travel businesses don't have. 

Airbnb shows off its greatest asset

Software done right is an outstanding business model. It requires little in hard-asset investment to build and maintain. There are drawbacks to such software-based businesses -- they're easily disrupted by other asset-light software start-ups, for example, and thus require constant and never-ending innovation. But by and large, the write-the-code-once then sit-back-and-profit model can be wildly lucrative. 

Airbnb showed off the power of its asset-light business in the third quarter. The company had its most profitable quarter, with net income increasing 46% year over year. That far exceeded the 29% revenue growth as the company reaps the rewards from its investments in software and its global network of hosts. Just compare the following charts for the company's operating income and capital expenditures with the charts for airlines above. Mere millions of spending is translating into billions in profit.

ABNB Operating Income (TTM) Chart

Data by YCharts.

It's important to remember that Airbnb's growth is slowing. Part of this is because of its size, now that it's a huge business. And an economic slowdown will throttle Airbnb's upward momentum just as it will with airlines. A record run-up in the U.S. dollar (which lowers the value of revenue outside of the U.S.) isn't helping, either. The outlook for the fourth quarter implies revenue growth of just 17% to 23% year over year.

Nevertheless, if Airbnb stays disciplined with its expenses, profitability could continue to rise even faster than revenue does. Shares trade for 39 times trailing-12-month earnings per share, and 21 times trailing-12-month free cash flow.  

The case for packing light

For all the guff high-growth businesses have been given in 2022, it would be a mistake to write them off. For a company like Airbnb that generates massive amounts of cash, it means a steady stream of money that can be reinvested into new asset-light growth initiatives.

And once ideas have run out, it means lots of cash that can fund share repurchases ($1 billion worth repurchased in 2022) or a dividend (eventually, but Airbnb isn't there yet). This kind of cash return further enhances a company's profitability.

And by the way, Airbnb had cash and short-term investments of $9.63 billion, offset by debt of just $1.99 billion, at the end of September. This company has a huge and still-growing war chest.

If you think travel demand has "structurally changed" thanks to remote and hybrid work, the best buy around is an asset-light travel business. Airbnb fits the bill, and looks like a screaming buy to me right now.