American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines said their operating revenues were down about 70 percent in the three months through September compared to the same period last year, as the industry braces for a slow holiday season. American lost $2.4 billion over the quarter, while Southwest lost more than $1.1 billion and Alaska lost more than $430 million.
Air travel has improved somewhat steadily since early summer and reached a symbolic milestone on Sunday, when more than 1 million people were screened at federal airport checkpoints for the first time since March. But passenger volumes across major U.S. airlines are still down about 65 percent from last year, according to the industry group Airlines for America, and are expected to remain deeply depressed for the foreseeable future.
“Until we have widely-available vaccines and achieve herd immunity, we expect passenger traffic and booking trends to remain fragile,” Southwest’s chief executive, Gary C. Kelly, said in a statement. Doug Parker, American’s chief executive, agreed: “We have a long road ahead.”
Southwest also said it would start filling planes to capacity again starting Dec. 1, after capping seats in the spring. Delta Air Lines is expected to stop blocking off middle seats in the first half of next year, its chief executive said last week. United Airlines and American are not limiting seats.
Flights in the United States are carrying an average of about 74 passengers each, down from about 99 last year, according to Airlines for America. Carriers are losing about $200 million per day; those losses are expected to shrink but will continue through the winter and into next year. American said it ended September with nearly $14 billion in cash and other available liquidity, while Southwest had more than $15 billion.
IAG, the owner of British Airways and Iberia, said that its revenue declined by more than 80 percent in the third quarter compared with a year ago and the planes were only about half full. The airline group also said that it would further cut capacity for the rest of the year to just 30 percent of last year’s capacity. United and Delta last week reported large quarterly losses, too, with revenues down nearly 80 percent compared to last year.
Airlines have survived the sustained slowdown by tweaking operations, making last-minute changes to flight schedules to match demand and slashing costs, largely by encouraging tens of thousands of industry workers to take buyouts or pay cuts. This month, United and American furloughed more than 32,000 workers. With hopes of a second federal stimulus seemingly dashed, the industry will have to make do with less as it prepares for what is widely expected to be a dismal winter.