The nine publicly traded mainline U.S. airlines will shrink by approximately 100,000 employees this year and reduce their aggregate fleet size by approximately 900 aircraft, according to an analysis by Cowen Research.

However, Cowen does not believe that any of those carriers will face bankruptcy in 2020.

“We see a path to recovery for the U.S. airlines,” reads the investment note, which was prepared by Cowen analysts Helane Becker and Conor Cunningham. “The near-term focus is on liquidity, where we believe that airlines can operate [approximately] 12 months at bare-bones operations with government grants.”

U.S. airlines entered the Covid-19 crisis healthy, raised more than $10 billion in short-term financing in the past month and will receive $25 billion in government grants and low-interest loans. 

Currently, demand for U.S. airlines is down approximately 95% compared to this time last year. 

The Cowen analysts expect it will take two to five years for a full demand recovery after Americans return to work. Leisure demand, they predict, will recover more slowly than business demand due to recession and pervasive fears of flying, especially through the summer and into the fall. 

At present, U.S. airlines have idled more than 2,300 aircraft due to the Covid-19 crisis, according to trade group Airlines for America. Cowen predicts that carriers will end up retiring between 800 and 1,000 of those planes, focusing on removal of aircraft that have been in service 20 or more years. 

The analysts noted that American has begun retiring Boeing 757s, 767s and older 737s, as well as Airbus A330s and Embraer E190s. American, United and Delta are likely to retire the most planes, while the more growth-focused discount carriers will seek to retain their fleet sizes. 

The analysts predict that the nine publicly traded U.S. mainline airlines (Frontier is privately owned) will shed between 95,000 and 105,000 employees this year, with the largest cuts coming from United, American and Delta. The moves will enable airlines to end the year between 20% and 30% smaller than they ended 2019. 

Airlines that accept federal grant money can’t lay off or furlough employees through September. But carriers have signaled mixed approaches to the period that comes afterward. United, for example, recently told its employees that job losses are likely after Sept. 30. In contrast, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in video message on April 13 that he doesn’t want to furlough employees, ground aircraft or pare down destinations. 

“We’re not downsizing the airline,” he said, though he noted that ultimately Southwest’s course will be determined by how fast passengers return to the sky. 


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