COVID-19

Airlines are burning a lot of cash — so what does that mean?

Andy Uhler Oct 12, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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An employee disinfects an airplane at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Virginia in July. Airlines are burning cash because there are still expenses, regardless if people are flying. Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images
COVID-19

Airlines are burning a lot of cash — so what does that mean?

Andy Uhler Oct 12, 2020
An employee disinfects an airplane at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Virginia in July. Airlines are burning cash because there are still expenses, regardless if people are flying. Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images
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Delta Air Lines reports third quarter earnings on Tuesday, with United reporting on Wednesday and American and Southwest reporting next week. There’s a phrase likely to be thrown around as the companies detail how they’re getting through the pandemic: “cash burn.”

A company’s cash burn rate measures how quickly it’s spending its financial reserves. The International Air Transport Association said airlines will burn through more than $77 billion during the second half of this year. 

“Most companies, particularly airlines, just don’t have revenues coming in, but they can’t get rid of all of their costs at the moment,” said IATA chief economist Brian Pearce. “So they are running down their cash balances in the bank. They are burning cash.”

And they are burning cash at a rate of many millions of dollars per day. Last quarter, Delta reported a daily burn rate of $27 million.

But cash burn calculation is not standardized.

“I figured cash burn, it’s ‘OK, we had this much cash, now we have this much cash.’ But no, there are all kinds of little carve-outs and differences between the airlines,” said Brett Snyder, who runs the airline industry blog, Cranky Flier.

For instance, whether an airline includes principal payments or debt service payments in their cash burn will tell a different story to investors. 

But no matter how the number is calculated, unrelenting cash burn means more debt. Former airline executive and industry analyst Robert Mann said an analogy might help explain it.

“You go to the rent-to-own place, buy a bunch of furniture and burn it,” he said. “You still have to pay for it, ultimately, but you burn it.”

Expenses don’t go away just because people aren’t flying

But Jack Hersch, who follows distressed businesses for S&P Global Market Intelligence, said the airlines are in better shape than they’re letting on.

“They’ve got almost uniformly more than a year in some cases, more than two years of running room with cash as it currently stands on the balance sheet before they end up in trouble,” he said.

That’s because before the pandemic hit, the industry was making enough cash to burn.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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