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United Airlines Stock Is Falling Because Revenues Are Looking Weaker

Date: April 12, 2021

By Daren Fonda, Barron’s

United Airlines Holdings plans to issue $5.5 billion in senior notes and expects first-quarter revenue of $3.2 billion, below the Wall Street consensus call for $3.3 billion.

The stock was down 3.4% in early trading Monday to prices around $56.50.

United (ticker: UAL) said in a securities filing that it is planning to issue $5.5 billion of senior notes in two sets, due in 2026 and 2029, using the proceeds to pay off previous loans and $520 million that the airline had borrowed from the U.S. government under the Cares Act in 2020.

United’s cash position looks healthy. It has $21 billion in available liquidity, and it is making progress in cutting its operating losses. The airline said it is now burning through $9 million of cash a day, down from $19 million in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Indeed, United said it saw a “forward acceleration” in demand for new bookings in March and expects “positive average daily core cash flow moving forward.”

United’s $3.2 billion in revenue for the first quarter would be a decrease of 66% from the first quarter of 2019, coming in at the stronger end of its prior guidance for declines of 65% to 70%.

Those figures were positive, but investors may have wanted more, given that travel demand appears to be rapidly gaining momentum as more vaccines are distributed. About 1.5 million travelers are passing through security checkpoints daily in the U.S., down from 2.4 million in April 2019, but a huge jump back toward healthy travel volumes from a year ago. Analysts have also been raising their forecasts for first quarter and full-year 2021 revenues across much of the industry.

Still, as a full-service legacy carrier, United may not be benefiting as much from the increasing demand as low-cost airlines focused on the domestic leisure market. Indeed, United stock has underperformed shares of Spirit Airlines (SAVE), Allegiant Travel (ALGT), and Southwest Airlines (LUV) over the past six months.

Investors may need to see more signs of business and international travel picking up to push United ahead of the pack.

Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker upgraded the stock to an Equal-Weight rating last week, raising his price target to $65. But he wasn’t particularly bullish.

“The market is keen to see UAL’s go-to-market strategy on the revenue side as travelers return,” he wrote. “However, the legacy network footprint is a slightly bigger overhang than its network peers and the cap structure will likely take years to normalize, which could remain overhangs on the stock.”

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