United Airlines plummets 9% as business and international travel recovery is still a long way off

A United Airlines plane seen at the gate at Chicago OHare International Airport (ORD) on Oct. 5, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.

Daniel Slim | AFP | Getty Images

Shares of United Airlines fell more than 9% on Tuesday morning after the airline reported its fifth consecutive quarterly loss, and the CEO expressed uncertainty about when two key parts of the company would recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

CEO Scott Kirby said international and business travel demand for long-haul flights has fallen by about 80% compared to 2019, depriving the carrier of high-paying customers he relied on before the crisis.

“The big question is when those two things will come back and we’re not sure when they will,” Kirby said in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” He said both segments are likely to recover in the summer and the second half of the year.

The airline reported a loss of $ 1.4 billion for the first quarter on Monday and said it could become profitable even if international and business travel demand for long-haul flights returns to 35% of its 2019 levels.

United announced new flights on Monday to countries that were beginning to open their borders, such as Greece, Iceland and Croatia, and Kirby said the airline had strong bookings for those flights after they went on sale.

However, the State Department still recommends travelers reconsider travel abroad. On Monday, it said it would increase “no travel” advisories to 80% of the world’s countries, citing the Covid-19 pandemic posing an “unprecedented risk to travelers.”

Domestic holiday travel bookings to popular holiday destinations such as beaches have surpassed 2019 levels, Kirby said.

Vacationers flying within the US have led the travel recovery as more people are vaccinated, governments relax travel restrictions and reopen tourist attractions. But companies still haven’t put many of their employees back on the road, and international travel bans or quarantine requirements continue to keep many travelers closer to home.

“I don’t know how people find hotels,” Kirby said of popular vacation spots.