US airline stocks rise on hopes for a travel rebound

US airline stocks rose Monday after a number of carriers reported strong demand for seats from leisure travelers.

Speaking at an investor conference held Monday by JPMorgan, executives from American Airlines, United, Delta and JetBlue all reported strong bookings going into the traditional spring-break period, and several said they’re also selling a growing number of tickets into the summer.

“The last three weeks have been the best three weeks since the pandemic hit,” American CEO Doug Parker said regarding advanced ticket sales. “We’re getting very close to 2019 levels in total bookings.”

Parker cautioned that revenue is still below pre-pandemic levels, due to fewer bookings from more lucrative business and overseas travel. But the increased ticket orders, along with a recent company bond sale and another round of help for the industry as part of the new stimulus package, mean that American is not seeking to raise additional cash for the first time since the pandemic hit.

United (UAL) shares led the sector, rising nearly 8% in midday trading, followed by a 7% rise for American (AAL). JetBlue (JBLU) was up 5%, while Alaska Air (ALK) gained 4% Delta (DAL) shares rose about 3%. Among major carriers, only Southwest (LUV) was behind the pace, up only 1%. Dallas-based Southwest warned that its February traffic was down more than expected because of bad winter storms, particularly in Texas. But March traffic was stronger than previously forecast.

The current bookings and traffic feel like the beginning of the end of the pandemic’s impact on air travel, said Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, speaking at another event Monday. But he also cautioned that he had never experienced such a challenging time to forecast future travel.

“Our hope is that by the time we get to June where you’ve had much of the population having had access to vaccinations, that we’ve got a chance at breaking even at least,” he said. Southwest reported its first annual loss since 1972 last year.

More than 1 million travelers passed through security checkpoints at US airports each of the last four days, bringing the number of passengers screened to 5.2 million, according to the Transportation Security Administration. That’s the largest four-day total since US air travel ground to a near halt at the end of March 2020.

Although the Thursday through Sunday TSA count was equal to 78% of where it stood in the same period last year, it represents only about half of the total for the same time in 2019.

But there was more good news from the airlines beyond the passenger count. United said it believes its “core cash flow” will be positive in March for the first time since the pandemic started. That measure looks at the cash the airline is spending other than on aircraft purchases. The airline was burning through $19 million a day on those expenditures in the fourth quarter, and it is not yet predicting when it will be reporting a return to profitability.

“We know we can’t yet put Covid in rearview mirror,” said United CEO Scott Kirby. “Business travel demand won’t really start to recover until 2022, and won’t get back to 2019 levels until summer of 2023.”

But all the airline executives spoke of signs of improving demand, just in time for the important spring and summer travel seasons.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand,” said JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes. “As people are getting vaccinated, they’re jumping on airplanes to see people they haven’t seen in year.”