Sharp travel declines fuel first-quarter rout for big airlines

The COVID-19 pandemic inflicted significant damage on the airline industry in the first quarter, with the four largest U.S. carriers closing the trading day on March 31 at a fraction of their value from three months earlier.

Share prices for three of the four major carriers declined by more than 50% from the end of last year to the end of March — United by 64%, American by 58% and Delta by 51%. Southwest, which operates the most flights out of St. Louis Lambert International Airport and Kansas City International Airport, was slightly less adversely affected than the other big airlines, but its stock price still declined 34% between the end of December and the end of March.

Those steep declines in share prices come amid a sharp drop in air travel as governments throughout the world issue travel restrictions and encourage people to remain home. Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, air traffic has decreased by about 60%, according to flight tracking service Flightradar24. The seven-day moving average for number of flights has plummeted from nearly 178,000 on March 10 to about 81,000 three weeks later.

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