Airlines close books on rotten 2020 and so far, 2021 is grim

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An American Airlines Boeing 777 is framed by utility wires as it prepares to land at Miami International Airport, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Miami. The airline said Thursday that it lost $2.2 billion in the fourth quarter, with revenue plunging by nearly two-thirds from a year earlier. And the airline lost $8.9 billion for the full year after earning nearly $1.7 billion in 2019. .(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

DALLAS – Just how bad was 2020 for the airline industry? The six biggest U.S. airlines lost $34 billion, and Southwest suffered its first full-year loss since Richard Nixon was president and gasoline sold for 36 cents a gallon.

It was a disaster for airlines, worse than 9/11 or the global financial crisis — some very small carriers didn't survive it — and the new year is off to a grim start.

On Thursday, Southwest, American and JetBlue reported that they lost a combined $3.5 billion in the final three months of the year. All issued dismal revenue outlooks for the current quarter that echoed similar pessimism from Delta, United and Alaska, which posted financial results earlier.

The airlines are looking past spring and hoping that as more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, they can salvage something from the peak summer vacation season.

But even that cautious optimism is threatened. Yes, the number of new reported cases of coronavirus in the U.S. have eased in the last few weeks, but they remain high. And now a halting rollout of vaccines threatens to further delay a recovery in travel and the travel industry.

President Joe Biden reinstated COVID-19 travel restrictions this week on most non-U.S. travelers from Brazil, the U.K. and South Africa. There is also a new U.S. requirement that non-citizens provide proof of a negative test for COVID-19 before boarding a flight to the United States.

On Thursday as airlines reported results, a new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa was found in the United States for the first time, with two cases diagnosed in South Carolina.

“Travel restrictions on international have resulted in a reduction in demand,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said. “We have seen that particularly on the short-haul international travel, things like Mexico and the Caribbean.”