Airlines scramble as coronavirus causes revenue to plummet

United Airlines (UAL) CEO Oscar Munoz and President Scott Kirby warned employees early Monday morning the new coronavirus is causing revenue to drop at dramatic levels.

“The bad news it that it’s getting worse,” they wrote in an email to United’s 100,000 employees. March is typically the airline’s busiest month of the year. But passenger load has fallen more than 1 million customers in just a few weeks, according to their email.

“We’re also currently projecting that revenue in March will be $1.5 billion lower than last March,” Munoz and Kirby said.

Airline stocks have taken a big hit during the COVID-19 crisis. United shares were down more than 17% in pre-market trading, Delta (DAL) was off almost 14% and American (AAL) was off over 17%.

“The airlines are in cash preservation mode, and we fully expect to see credit facilities extended and increased in the next week,” Cowen Equity Research wrote in a note to clients last week. Cowen previously stated US bankruptcies were unlikely in the near term but warned, “If bookings do not improve in the next three months things could deteriorate quickly.”

United has started conversations with its unions about ways to reduce payroll, “in a way that minimizes what we know will be painful for all of us,” according to Monday’s memo. United’s corporate officers are all taking a 50% cut in their salaries.

Charlotte, NC, USA – May 28, 2016: American Airlines Airbus A319 (Registration No. N723UW) taking off at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

American Airlines has also taken drastic steps, including cutting international capacity close to 75%. American recently reached an agreement with its pilots’ union on issues regarding COVID-19. The Allied Pilots Association, APA, the union that represents American’s pilots, says it reached an agreement with the airline to protect pilots who may become ill. “Pilots who are placed in quarantine based on concerns related to COVID-19 or who are diagnosed with COVID-19 will be pay protected during the duration of the evaluation, treatment, or quarantine,” according to a press release from the union.

The APA also negotiated new terms for voluntary leaves of absence that preserve employee benefits for up to 12 months. But the union doesn’t expect pilots to be furloughed. “At this point, the likelihood of a furlough has not been suggested by either side. If that changes we will let you know immediately,” the union stated. The union also expects an airline industry rebound after the crisis passes.

Cowen expects the airlines to line up new lines of credit, noting that United raised $2 billion last week, Delta raised $1 billion, and American lined up $500 million.

But United warns more cuts are coming. “We will announce an approximately 50% cut in capacity for April and May,” Monday’s email stated. “We also now expect these deep cuts to extend into the summer travel period.”

Munoz and Kirby tell their employees the crisis is moving quickly and impacting nearly every aspect of their business. “But the most important thing about our business hasn’t changed,” they said. “We’re still United and focused on caring for our customers and each other together.”

Adam Shapiro is co-anchor of Yahoo Finance’s “On the Move.”

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