American Express (NYSE:AXP) made investors happy today, with third-quarter earnings that rose on the strength of travel and healthy borrowing from its credit card customers. Although the results looked heartening, some may wonder what lies ahead.

Third-quarter net income at American Express rose 14% to $879 million, or $0.69 per share. Total revenues increased 12% to $7.2 billion, which the company attributed to "record spending on American Express cards, higher cardmember lending balances and increased travel sales."

Operating income in most of American Express' segments increased, with the exception of its American Express Financial Advisors segment (the unit that was the subject of an investigation last May), which dipped 6%.

Going forward, though, there's a development that is likely to boost American Express. Namely, AmEx and Morgan Stanley's (NYSE:MWD) Discover will soon be able to offer their cards through the same banks that Visa and MasterCard serve. So, AmEx will be free to compete for a slew of new cardholders. (For the full scoop on this imminent issue, click here.)

However, while American Express' travel-related business was up, the airline industry remains a troubled one. AmEx said that it's investing in beleaguered Delta Air (NYSE:DAL), its partner for the Delta SkyMiles rewards program. AmEx will prepay $500 million for future SkyMiles rewards and will provide a $100 million loan to Delta.

While American Express has been pointed to as a Rule Maker in the past, there may be some turbulence ahead. Although its ability to take on Visa and MasterCard on a more level playing field seems a major positive, whether traveling will be hurt by the airline industry's troubles and economic uncertainties remains to be seen.

And, although American Express is often looked at as a gauge of consumer temperament, there have been plenty of reasons to theorize that consumers may tighten up their purse strings once again. High oil prices, a fuzzy employment picture, and rising interest rates are all reasons why some consumers may decide that they need to hunker down and tame their credit card debts.

Keeping in mind such possible dampers in the short term, though, American Express may very be well positioned for the future as one of the flagship brands in the industry. Trading at 19 times forward earnings, it may be worth a second look for the long term.

If you're on the wrong side of credit card debt, our Credit Center can help. Or, visit our Consumer Credit/Credit Cards discussion board. And if you think it's impossible to dig yourself out from under your debt load, be sure to read this inspiring commentary by Tim Beyers, who fought debt and won.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.