July 22, 2020 / 4:45 AM / 22 days ago

United warns travel demand will languish until COVID-19 vaccine

CHICAGO (Reuters) - United Airlines Holdings Inc warned on Tuesday that travel demand will remain suppressed until there is a widely accepted treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, which plunged the carrier to a deep quarterly loss on Tuesday.

A park-goer sits on a bench overlooking Reagan National Airport, as United Airlines announced regional layoffs of its staff due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., July 15, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/Files

Coronavirus infections are surging in the United States, causing some states to scale back reopening plans and reinstate quarantines in a fresh blow to airlines.

United, which is not blocking middle seats, plans to fly about 35% of its 2019 summer schedule in the third quarter and is forecasting a load factor of about 45% in July. Its planes flew about one-third full in the second quarter.

The setback does not bode well for airline jobs in the fall, when a U.S. government stimulus package expires. To avoid furloughs, airlines have rolled out a number of packages to encourage employees to leave voluntarily.

Chicago-based United said more than 6,000 employees had opted for such packages. But after sending 36,000 notices of potential furloughs earlier this month, that relatively low take-up suggests United might have to furlough a significant number of workers.

Airline unions have urged lawmakers to pass another round of aid through March, but airlines say they are not counting on fresh funds.

Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines, which offered cash buyouts, have reported strong employee response for voluntary departures, meaning they could have a less costly workforce on the other side of the crisis since union contracts force airlines to furlough junior workers first.

While early data from trials of three potential COVID-19 vaccines released on Monday was encouraging, it is still far from clear whether the efforts will result in a vaccine capable of ending the global pandemic that has claimed more than 600,000 lives.

With the timing of a recovery uncertain, investor focus has turned to airlines’ cash on hand and their ability to pick up demand once it returns.

United had $15.2 billion in liquidity as of July 20 and reiterated its forecast for liquidity to top $18 billion at the end of September as it taps additional capital.

The airline burned through about $40 million per day in the second quarter but sees that amount slowing to roughly $25 million in the third quarter as it matches its flight schedule to demand.

The airline, which is more exposed than peers to harder-hit international travel, reported an adjusted net loss of $2.6 billion for the June quarter, or a $9.31 per-share loss, versus a $4.21 per-share profit a year ago, as revenue dropped 87% to $1.475 billion.

Analysts on average expected a loss of $9.02 per share and revenue of $1.321 billion, according to data from Refinitiv.

Still, United Chief Executive Scott Kirby said in a statement he believed the quarterly losses and cash burn were lower than large network competitors.

Delta said last week it was burning about $27 million a day in June and July. American Airlines and Southwest report on Thursday.

Shares of United, which will hold a conference call at 10:30 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, were flat after the bell.

Reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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