United Airlines loses $2B in first reported US airline coronavirus-crisis losses

Apr 20, 2020

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United Airlines plummeted to a more than $2 billion loss in the first quarter, erasing more than half of its entire 2019 profit as the novel coronavirus pandemic has destroyed nearly all demand for air travel.

The Chicago-based carrier lost $2.1 billion before taxes during the three months ending in March, United disclosed in a securities filing Monday. Put another way, the loss is more than half of its $3.9 billion pre-tax profit in all of 2019 — a strong year for many U.S. carriers.

The result is the first reported loss for the period among the U.S. carriers but it is not expected to be the last.

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Airlines are struggling to stay solvent. Carriers across the country, and around the world, have tapped many of their available credit lines to raise cash to pay many of their fixed costs including staff, aircraft rents and debt payments.

The U.S. Treasury is awarding some $25 billion in payroll assistance to airlines to help mitigate the losses. United has said it will accept $5 billion from the bailout program, which is part of the $2 trillion CARES Act.

In addition, United said Monday that it has applied for a separate $4.5 billion loan from the Treasury from a separate $25 billion CARES Act pot aimed at alleviating U.S. airlines’ other fixed expenses.

United is not only relying on the government for assistance. It raised funds from BOC Aviation, a Singapore-based aircraft leasing company, by selling the firm 22 aircraft over the weekend. The deal, known as a “sale-and-leaseback” where an airline sells a plane to a lessor and immediately leases it back, is common fund-raising structure for airlines but something that United rarely taps.

Related: US airlines’ first bailout aid was tougher to get and came with more strings than expected

U.S. carriers have hundreds of aircraft that they own outright with no attached mortgages. They can use these planes as collateral for new loans or bonds, or for sale-and-leaseback transactions like the deal United inked with BOC Aviation.

New sources of funds are key for airlines to avoid running out of cash as flyers have all but disappeared in COVID-19 America. Traveler screenings at U.S. airports has hovered below 5% of last year’s numbers for over a week, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration. The numbers include some airline crewmembers.

In an April 15 letter, United CEO Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby said that during the first two weeks of April the airline carried just 3% of the six million people it flew during the same period a year ago.

“We expect to fly fewer people during the entire month of May than we did on a single day in May 2019,” they said.

Related: United Airlines warns staffing cuts to come as it slashes May flying by 90%

Airlines have culled capacity in an effort to stem losses. Data from industry group Airlines for America (A4A) shows U.S. carriers had cut capacity by 76% year-over-year during the week ending April 14. However, even with the cuts airlines were reporting on average fewer than 10 people on every flight.

United will cut capacity by 90% in May. It plans to extend those cuts into June in a signal that it does not expect travelers to resume flying anytime soon.

Carriers have also asked staff to take unpaid leave. Tens of thousands of staff members at carriers including Delta Air Lines and United have already availed themselves of such packages, however, executives warn that come Oct. 1 — the day after CARES Act protections on involuntary furloughs and layoffs lift — airlines may have to make significant workforce cuts.

Wall Street analysts are forecasting that U.S. airlines will be 25% to 30% smaller by year-end than they were at the end of 2019.

Delta and Southwest Airlines are scheduled to release their first quarter earnings this week on April 22 and 23, respectively.

Related: How will airlines rebuild their route maps after the coronavirus?

Featured image courtesy of United Airlines.

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