5 things to watch in airlines' dismal quarterly results

Key Points
  • Demand isn't expected to significantly recover until at least the second half of the year.
  • More questions than answers remain as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen.
  • The coronavirus snapped a decade-long profit streak for airlines.
Travelers wearing protective masks check-in at the Delta Air Lines Inc. check-in counter at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic snapped U.S. carriers' decadelong streak of profits. Analysts estimate U.S. airlines lost more than $35 billion. "2020 was the worst year in aviation history," is how Cowen airline analyst Helane Becker put it.

Quarantines, travel restrictions, closed attractions, grounded business trips or fears of catching the disease kept millions of travelers off airplanes. Positive vaccine news ignited a rally for airlines at the end of the year but it wasn't enough to undo the damage. American Airlines shares fell 45% in 2020, Delta Air Lines lost 31%, United Airlines shed 51% and Southwest dropped 14%, while the S&P 500 rose by 16%.

Airline executives this month will detail the brutal year and their outlook, however murky, for 2021, starting with Delta before the market opens Thursday. Analysts expect the carrier to report an adjusted per-share loss of $2.48 for the fourth quarter and a 68% year-on-year drop in revenue to $3.67 billion. United is set to follow suit on Jan. 20 and Southwest on Jan. 28.

Here's what to watch in their reports and words as the industry faces another difficult year:

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