On Thursday, Feb. 13, when Orbitz Worldwide (NYSE: OWW) releases earnings for the fourth quarter of its 2013 fiscal year, will shareholders be pleasantly surprised or horrified? For years, the company has been lagging larger rivals like Priceline.com (BKNG 0.76%) and Expedia (EXPE 5.42%) but is this trend destined to continue or does the company have what it takes to break out of the status quo?

Mr. Market's expectations for Orbitz are low
For the quarter, analysts aren't really expecting too much out of the online travel site. If they are correct, then management will report revenue of $191.17 million, 0.8% higher than the $189.74 the company reported in the fourth quarter of 2012. Such a small rise in sales pales in comparison to the 18% jump reported by Expedia on Feb. 7.

During its fourth quarter, Expedia saw its revenue rise to $1.15 billion, beating out analyst expectations of $1.14 billion. As room nights sold increased 25% and gross bookings rose 21% from $7.5 billion to $9.1 billion, the company proved to investors that it can compete with larger rival Priceline.com.

To top things off, the company converted more of its top-line growth to profit, as illustrated in its adjusted profitability. For the quarter, Expedia reported adjusted earnings per share of $0.92, beating out the $0.86 that Mr. Market anticipated and smashing the $0.63 it earned in the same quarter a year earlier.

On an earnings basis, the expectations for Orbitz are a world apart. If analysts are right about the company, then Orbitz should report earnings per share of $0.00. This represents a significant reduction from the $0.06 the company earned in the fourth quarter of 2012 and would likely be attributable to a rise in costs, combined with an increase in its number of shares outstanding.

But does any of this even matter?
In spite of the expected rise in revenue and decline in profitability for the company, the focus should not be so much on the short term as it is on the long term. Looking over the past four years, for instance, would show that Orbitz has performed quite poorly. Between 2009 and 2012, the company's revenue rose less than 6% from $737.6 million to $778.8 million.

In juxtaposition, both Expedia and Priceline.com grew much more rapidly. Over that timeframe, Expedia saw its revenue rise 36% from $3 billion to $4 billion, while Priceline.com's jumped 125% from $2.3 billion to $5.3 billion. Both companies benefited from a rise in the number of room nights sold, but were negatively affected by falling revenue per room night.

In terms of net income, the situation faced by Orbitz is even worse, but has shown some signs of improving. Over the past four years, the company has seen its net loss narrow from $337 million to $301.7 million. In all fairness, most of the company's net loss is due to impairment charges, but it has seen some rise in costs across the board. Over this timeframe, the company's cost of revenue has risen modestly, from 18.8% of sales to 19%, while its selling, general and administrative expenses rose from 63.9% of sales to 65.9%.

Just as in the case of revenue, Priceline.com significantly outpaced Orbitz in profitability over this four-year period. Between 2009 and 2012, the company saw its net income jump 190% from $489.5 million to $1.4 billion. Unlike Orbitz, the company saw its higher bottom line come about because of rising revenue but also enjoyed drastic cost cutting. Although the business saw a slight rise in its selling, general and administrative expenses in relation to sales, its cost of revenue plummeted from 46.1% of sales to 22.4%.

Expedia wasn't so lucky. Over the same timeframe, the online travel site actually saw its bottom line contract by 6% as net income fell from $299.5 million in 2009 to $280.2 million in 2012. Despite bringing in higher revenue, the company saw its cost of revenue rise from 20.5% to 22.2%, while its selling, general and administrative expenses rose from 44.6% to 63.3%.

Foolish takeaway
Based on the data above, it looks like Mr. Market has low expectations for Orbitz this upcoming quarter. This suggests that there may be some opportunity for shareholders to jump in now and reap a nice return come earnings day, but that's not how Fools roll.

Instead of looking at short-term profits, the Foolish investor should be mindful of a company's long-term performance and future prospects. Putting Orbitz in this light, it looks subpar compared to Expedia and, especially, Priceline.com. For this reason alone, the Foolish investor should be cautious about treading into a position for Orbitz lightly, or they might get burned.