United reports another loss, but thinks better times are just ahead

Apr 20, 2021

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United Airlines posted a $1.36 billion loss for the first quarter of 2021, its fifth consecutive quarterly loss as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the global airline industry.

But despite the loss, the airline was upbeat and optimistic on Tuesday as it shared the up-side: the losses are close to an end.

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The airline said that it was cashflow-positive for the month of March, despite averaging a $9 million daily cash burn for the quarter overall — an improvement from $19 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020. Based on current trends, it does not expect to dip into negative cash flow again.

“We expect core cash flow to remain positive going forward,” Gerry Laderman, United’s chief financial officer, on an earnings call with analysts Tuesday morning. “We are excited to reach this milestone and no longer expect to discuss cash burn metrics moving forward.”

“This confirms the view that we first shared in October, 2020, that we could see a light at the end of the tunnel,” United CEO Scott Kirby said.

The recovery thus far has been led by a boom in both close-in and longer forward bookings as the pace of vaccination in the U.S. has accelerated. As Americans continue to become more optimistic over the state of the pandemic domestically, airlines expect that trend to continue.

Still, despite the rebound in domestic and regional leisure demand — which has led the airline to predict an average load factor in the 80% range starting in June — the airline is not quite at profitability yet.

Business and long-haul international travel demand remains down more than 80%, Kirby said. The airline expects to be able to reach net-positive income by the time those segments get to the point that they’re down just 35% of 2019 levels.

Uncertainty about business and long-haul travel led United’s stock to tumble more than 9% by Tuesday afternoon, compounded by the U.S. State Department’s decision to add most of the world’s countries to its Level 4 “do not travel” advisory.

“The big question is when do those two things come back and we’re not certain of when that is,” Kirby said on CNBC earlier Tuesday morning.

However, airline executives say they’ve seen hopeful signs of pent-up demand from travelers simply waiting for the go-ahead. United has added routes to countries that have begun to reopen including Greece, Croatia and Iceland, and passengers have shown a strong interest.

“We have seen in recent weeks that immediately after a country provides access with proof of a vaccine, leisure demand returns to the level of 2019 quickly,” Andrew Nocella, the airline’s Chief Commercial Officer, said on Tuesday’s call. “A few weeks ago there was a rumor Greece was going to open. As soon as that rumor occurred, Greece bookings took off. Athens is our second-best booked Atlantic market this summer.”

Nocella added that the airline has capacity reserved to dedicate to reopening long-haul markets, specifically citing the rumored possibility of a travel corridor between the U.S. and UK.

Related: Airlines push for U.S./U.K. travel bubble

“We have the aircraft standing by, ready to fly this summer,” he said. “For example, we anticipate operating between eight and ten daily flights to London Heathrow this summer, if and when a travel corridor is permitted to open.”

Still, Nocella and the other United executives pointed out, things are not yet back to normal.

“To be clear, business traffic recovery so far — given where we are — a full schedule is not warranted in the coming months.”

Featured photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

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