Hubert Horan: The Airline Industry Collapse Part 6 – U.S. Airlines Lost Over $35 Billion in 2020

Hubert Horan: The Airline Trade Collapse Half 6 – U.S. Airways Misplaced Over $35 Billion in 2020

Yves right here. Hubert continues his deep dive into why and the way airways are preventing the operational modifications wanted to get them on a sounder footing. And par for the course, airplanes are actually falling aside within the sky! Properly just a few United and JAL Boeing 777s, however nonetheless….they symbolism is arresting.

By Hubert Horan, who has 40 years of expertise within the administration and regulation of transportation corporations (primarily airways). Horan presently has no monetary hyperlinks with any airways or different trade individuals

Readers who would really like a complete overview of the aviation points mentioned on this sequence over the past 12 months ought to check out my new article, The Airline Industry after Covid-19: Value Extraction or Recovery? simply printed at American Affairs.

That article was commissioned after my September video interview with Izabella Kaminska of the Monetary Occasions. [1]  Izabella requested whether or not there wasn’t some glimmer of fine information or hopeful future prospects. Wasn’t there nonetheless some approach to scale back the financial worth that was being destroyed? Quick reply was no, however the brand new article lays out a extra full rationalization than might be offered in a blogcast or posts like this.

Whereas the magnitude of the losses and money drains is unprecedented, the larger difficulty is that the obstacles to a restoring essentially the most doable service and employment are overwhelming. The brand new article explains the origins of these obstacles, and the way they turned powerfully entrenched.

Ugly Full 12 months 2020 Monetary Outcomes Reported

The Huge 4 airways (American, Delta, United and Southwest, that account for 86% of the trade) had full 12 months 2020 GAAP internet losses of over $31 billion, and working losses of over $33 billion. Smaller carriers akin to Alaska, JetBlue and Hawaiian have reported further losses of over $3 billion. The general aviation ecosystem (together with airports, regional feeder airways, web journey companies and upkeep/floor dealing with suppliers) misplaced billions extra.

Most of those losses occurred within the final three quarters when the Huge 4 had an working margin of unfavourable 101% and reported burned over $33 billion in money. Underlying economics are worse as a result of these carriers report a portion of the CARES Act subsides as working earnings. Excluding these presents from taxpayers, the Huge 4 had an April-December working lack of $44 billion ($50 billion worse than the identical interval in 2019) and an working margin of unfavourable 141%.

Because the earlier 5 elements of this sequence have emphasised, the central drawback is the trade’s lack of ability to scale back working bills (full 12 months 2020 down $50 billion versus full 12 months 2019) wherever remotely near the decline in working revenues (down $100 billion year-over-year). Nothing within the carriers’ fourth quarter outcomes indicated any significant progress in the direction of closing the associated fee/income hole. Southwest’s fourth quarter outcomes mentioned that income efficiency would wish to double simply to achieve money move breakeven (not profitability), the very same warning they’d issued six months in the past. [2Taxpayer Subsidies to Sustain Equity Values Reach $65 Billion, but Aren’t Enough

Since the original $50 billion in subsidies provided last March by the CARES Act did nothing to improve the industry’s terrible economics, the Big 4 carriers spent most of the summer and fall lobbying for additional funding. In December Congress provided an additional $15 billion.

As with half of the March subsides, this was packaged as “payroll support.” 38,000 staff who had been laid off in October when the March subsides expired were rehired through March 2021 even though there was no work for any of them to do. While some of this money ended up in the pockets of United pilots, the claim that the central objective of these subsidies was unemployment reduction isn’t credible. It requires believing that the same Congress that was fighting tooth and nail to prevent relief for other individuals from exceeding $600 were willing to pay $400,000 per person to keep a narrow set of airline employees employed for just four months.

As discussed previously in this series, the industry’s primary objective throughout the pandemic has been to preserve the value of equity and the ownership/senior management status quo. Over 100% of the Legacy carriers’ (AA/UA/DL) year end liquidity comes from the subsidies and funds raised from capital markets after the Congressional subsidies signaled that these airlines were Too Big To Fail.

Without these subsidies, these carriers would not have been able to sustain operations and equity-holders would have been wiped out. “Saving jobs” was a PR smokescreen. The Congressional subsidies were designed to ensure that existing shareholders received 100% of the gains from any post-pandemic equity appreciation, and that the taxpayers who made it possible got none.

But $65 billion is not enough to protect current airline owners if major cash drains continue throughout most (or all of) 2021, and the Big 4 have already started lobbying for a third round of subsidies while warning that major layoffs will resume when the second round subsidies expire at the end of March. The Legacy carriers have already mortgaged the vast majority of assets that could possibly serve as collateral and are unlikely to be able to raise significant new funding from capital markets until after a major revenue recovery is clearly underway. They are “zombie companies” unable to repay their financial obligations out of current earnings.[3]

No Mild at Finish of the Tunnel

From the outset this sequence has identified that trade expectations for a speedy and full return to pre-pandemic income ranges had no foundation in actuality. These narratives falsely assumed that the restoration of enterprise and worldwide demand that’s essential to profitability would start inside a couple of months, and that after a restoration was underway, revenues would snap-back to their 2019 ranges inside 12-18 months. [4] When the primary reviews of vaccine effectiveness got here out final fall, hopes for a speedy snap-back resurfaced, with the place to begin repegged for the primary or maybe the second quarter of 2021.

Trade insiders are lastly starting to acknowledge the highly effective linkage between border closures and the collapse of enterprise journey. As one observer famous, “the nations which were actually good at suppressing the virus have completed it by killing worldwide aviation.” [5] Thus the trade’s restoration can not start till the unfold of the virus had been so extensively suppressed that companies may begin to rethink journey bans and governments may finish border closures with out fears of triggering new case load spikes.

Myriad vaccine points and the unfold of virus mutations may push again the place to begin of any restoration (and the tip of the trade’s ugly money drains) into 2022. Except for granting these 4 corporations limitless entry to the US Treasury, there was no public dialogue as to how persevering with drains is perhaps funded, and the way a serious trade collapse might be averted in any less-than-best-case virus suppression state of affairs.

Chapter filings final summer time may have simply stopped the hemorrhaging however it might now be too late for chapter restructuring to work. Profitable chapter reorganizations require a big amount of money, however tens of billions in money has already been burned and asset values have eroded ready for a income rebound that wasn’t going to occur. Previous airline bankruptcies have been painful however by no means needed to cope with a price/income hole remotely as massive as what these airways face right now and  by no means concerned prolonged delays whereas airways hoped that their monetary issues would magically disappear . [6]

There are additionally critical considerations in regards to the second a part of the restoration equation—the restoration of a point of economic viability and stability after the restoration begins. For the primary time trade insiders have begun overtly acknowledging that demand gained’t rapidly snap again to pre-pandemic ranges, and enterprise journey could stay severely diminished for a really very long time, if not completely. [7] However there are quite a few different components, that would additionally depress post-pandemic demand. Even after an actual income restoration begins, the trade will nonetheless be coping with the worst demand, effectivity and liquidity ranges it has ever confronted.  Larger fares may considerably harm the restoration as may exterior components akin to “lengthy covid” and ongoing recurrences of smaller outbreaks. Worldwide journey may stay extremely restricted for years till the virus has been eradicated globally.

Vital Dangers of Publish-Pandemic Predatory Worth Extraction

Within the 20thcentury, the airline trade not solely survived a number of crises, however at all times emerged stronger. Sadly, each the final means to drive ongoing effectivity enhancements and the particular means to make use of effectivity positive aspects to speed up disaster restoration have been misplaced. Trade productiveness has been declining for 20 years, particularly in home markets and for the legacy carriers. Within the present disaster the trade has categorically dominated out any of the restructuring efforts used prior to now to repair the issues that created crises and to liquidate the least aggressive capability.

As a substitute of responding to crises with efficiency-enhancing improvements, 21stcentury trade monetary enhancements have come from predatory worth extraction, particularly from exploiting the factitious market energy over customers, staff and suppliers made doable by excessive ranges of trade focus. [8] Innovation and competitors is tough, mergers and worth will increase and lobbying to guard the possession/administration establishment are a lot simpler. Returns to airline traders come from lowering the contribution of the trade to the general financial system.

Although the trade restoration has but to start, it is very important perceive why it should inevitably give attention to additional reductions in competitors and different types of elevated predatory worth extraction. As KLM CEO Pieter Elbers identified months in the past, “each massive disaster within the trade thus far has led to additional consolidation. After pure disaster administration is behind us, someplace in the midst of subsequent 12 months, there’s going to be a stage when consolidation and additional collaboration within the trade will happen.” [9]

Efforts are already underway to merge Korean and Asiana, and an analogous Japan Air Traces-All Nippon merger has been proposed. These would successfully remove significant competitors in Korea and Japan, and considerably scale back it in lots of Asia-Pacific markets. Inventory speculators have bid up the costs of the second-tier US airways (Jetblue, Alaska, Hawaiian) within the expectation that the Huge 4 will attempt to purchase them.

The trade will even pursue methods to scale back competitors with out formal mergers. Qantas and JAL have proposed “strengthening” their present code alliance (e.g. rising their means to collude on capability and pricing) regardless that they have already got an 86% share of the Japan-Australia market; and a JAL-ANA merger would push this nearer to 100%. [10] On the final day of the Trump Administration DOT Secretary Elaine Chao authorized cooperation between American and JetBlue, the primary ever software for airline collusion in home US markets. [11] Lufthansa, Air France and different massive worldwide carriers have demanded that longstanding airport slot “use-it-or-lose-it” guidelines be deserted with a purpose to block new competitors at their hub airports.

The issue isn’t that the trade would possibly shrink. Given the unbelievable devastation of worldwide airline demand, it might be {that a} main portion of 2019 capability can by no means return, and that some beforehand viable airways must be liquidated. The issue is that the trade has come to consider that elevated consolidation and collusion is the answer to any monetary drawback it’d ever face. If trade income declines, the airways refuse to think about lowering capability across-the-board whereas sustaining competitors and demand that the one doable choice is to scale back the variety of rivals.

Even when complete capability shrinks, governments may take numerous easy steps to protect and shield competitors and higher stability the curiosity of airline traders and the pursuits of customers, staff, suppliers and the general financial system. Airways could insist that they can’t entice capital except new mergers and worth collusion are authorized however calls for to hurt customers with a purpose to enhance investor returns must be rejected out of hand.

Merger candidates must be required to reveal that they won’t enhance market energy and to supply verifiable proof of any price synergy claims. Collusive worldwide alliances and airport slot guidelines that had been justified by pre-pandemic ranges of competitors must be suspended till impartial evaluation demonstrates they won’t scale back competitors underneath post-pandemic situations. For example, Delta’s collusive alliance with Korean assumed wholesome competitors within the Korean market and the existence of a number of different aggressive Asia-Pacific alliances (United-Asiana, United-ANA, American-JAL), and all of those alliances must be terminated if any of the mergers being mentioned are applied. Any proposals to permit carriers to coordinate schedules whereas demand stays severely depressed will need to have strict termination clauses tied to precise site visitors restoration and should not be permitted in any circumstances the place the colluding carriers would have a big market place.

The underlying drawback is that the main 21stcentury reductions in competitors that halted productiveness progress and crippled the trade’s means to answer the present disaster all resulted from proactive authorities actions designed to assist airline traders extract worth from the remainder of society. When coronavirus hits, Washington instantly responded with large direct wealth transfers from taxpayers designed to guard present airline fairness holders. We have now no proof suggesting Washington will do something to guard market competitors or general financial welfare, or take different steps to restrict future fare will increase, job losses or cuts to the service that cities and industries rely upon.


[1]–The-airline-sector-is-in-denial-about-its-imminent-collapse/#comments  Direct YouTube hyperlink to the video (about 40 minutes):

[2] Kyle Arnold, “Southwest Airways wants ‘enterprise to double with a purpose to break even,’ CEO says” Dallas Morning Information, August 28, 2020

[3] Lisa Lee, America’s Zombie Firms Have Racked Up $1.4 Trillion of Debt, Bloomberg, November 17, 2020

[4] Hubert Horan: The Airline Trade Collapse Half 3 – Restoration Expectations Have been All the time Dreadfully Unsuitable, Bare Capitalism, August 4, 2020

[5] Philip Georgiadis and Claire Bushey, Airline trade alarm as vaccine-led restoration hopes take a dive, Monetary Occasions, February 15, 2020

[6] The necessities of a profitable chapter—based mostly on the trade’s lengthy expertise, and the main difficulties an airline chapter would face after having already suffered a full 12 months of coronavirus losses are mentioned in pp. 50-52 and 55-57 of the American Affairs article.

[7] Kevin Michaels, “Why Enterprise Journey Might Change Perpetually”, Aviation Week and House Expertise, January 18, 2021; Doug Cameron and Eric Morath, “Covid-19’s Blow to Enterprise Journey Is Anticipated to Final for Years”, Wall Road Journal, January 17, 2021

[8] The information demonstrating these productiveness/effectivity tendencies are proven at pp. 46-49 of the American Affairs article.

[9] Helen Massy-Beresford, Airways Probably To Want Extra Authorities Help, IATA CEO Says, Aviation Week, September 24, 2020

[10] CAPA Centre for Aviation, “COVID-19 disaster strengthens case for JAL-Qantas partnership”, January 6, 2021.

[11] Leah Nylen and Stephanie Beasley, “Approval of American-JetBlue deal attracts warnings of rising airfares”, Politico, January 16, 2021




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