United Airlines reports loss of $1.9 billion in pandemic-ladened 4th quarter

United lost $7.1 billion in 2020, an amount exceeded only in 2005, when bankruptcy-related costs pushed the company to a $21 billion loss.

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DOMINICAN REP-TOURISM-AIRPORT

A Boeing 737 from United Airlines at the Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ), in Dominican Republic on December 5, 2020 amid the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

United Airlines said Wednesday that it finished one of the worst years in its history by losing $1.9 billion in the last three months of 2020, and it predicted more of the same in the first quarter of this year.

The loss was wider than analysts expected. The number of U.S. airline passengers had been building slowly since May but was hammered again when COVID-19 cases began surging in the fall, causing health experts to beg people to stay home.

United lost $7.1 billion in 2020, an amount exceeded only in 2005, when bankruptcy-related costs pushed the company to a $21 billion loss. Including debt and severance payments, the airline burned through $33 million in cash per day.

Revenue plunged 69% in the fourth quarter compared with a year earlier. United predicted a similar decrease — between 65% and 70% — in the first quarter of 2021, a slightly more pessimistic view than the one expressed by Delta Air Lines last week.

Analysts believe that Americans who have been cooped up since March are eager to travel again once it is safer. But the slow pace of vaccinating Americans against COVID-19 and concern about new variants of the virus are hurting airline bookings. United CEO Scott Kirby said in late December that he didn’t expect much change in demand before the end of March.

Chicago-based United tried to reassure investors that it is laying the groundwork for a gradual recovery once the coronavirus outbreak is contained.

United said that it starting to cut $2 billion in annual structural costs from its operations. At the same time, the airline expressed confidence that crucial business travel will eventually bounce back, although not as quickly as leisure travel.

The combination will result in higher profit margins in 2023 than United saw in 2019, before the pandemic, the company predicted.

United officials declined to discuss the results or their outlook. The company scheduled a conference call with analysts on Thursday.

Excluding some one-time gains, United said its fourth-quarter loss worked out to $7 per share. That was worse than the $6.62 per share loss predicted, on average, by 19 analysts in a FactSet survey. In the same quarter of 2019, United earned $641 million.

Revenue tumbled to $3.41 billion, nearly matching the $3.42 billion that was forecast by analysts. Revenue from international flights plunged 83%, compared with a 72% drop in domestic revenue.

About 56% of seats were sold on the average flight in the fourth quarter, and that was after United cut thousands of flights because of weak demand.

Cargo was a rare bright spot, with revenue up 77% from a year earlier, but cargo makes up a tiny part of United’s overall business.

Shares of United Airlines Holdings Inc. rose 1% to $45.18 in regular trading before the financial results were released. During extended trading, they were down almost 2%.

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