December 15. Since 2019, the top six network carriers in the United States and Europe have loaded up with an additional $44 billion of net debt, more than their pre-pandemic EBITDA. Even with a return to normal in 2022 – an increasingly unlikely scenario – paying that off will take years.
Alongside flogging planes, laying off staff and asking shareholders for money, airline bosses have borrowed vast sums from banks and capital markets. Taxpayers have also chipped in, with the U.S. Congress approving, somewhat controversially, $54 billion to cover salaries of grounded staff for 18 months. To a large extent, the survival techniques have worked. Only Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA) is close to nationalisation, with the French and Dutch governments holding 29% and 9% stakes respectively.
That said, the industry’s debt levels are unsustainable. Since 2019, the three big U.S. carriers Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), American Airlines (AAL.O) and United Airlines (UAL.O), and their European counterparts Air France-KLM, Germany’s Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) and British Airways-owner IAG (ICAG.L) have increased net debt by 63% to $112 billion, according to analyst estimates compiled by Refinitiv. That equates to a whopping 4.7 times next year’s EBITDA. In 2019, the year before the pandemic started, the absolute figure was $69 billion, just 1.7 times that year’s EBITDA.
Another solution is to pass the hat around to shareholders once again. But Omicron has squashed share prices anew, increasing the burden on equity investors. The additional net debt taken on board in the last two years amounts to two-thirds the six’s current market value, which itself could be inflated. Even when the viral storm clouds eventually pass, the outlook for airline shareholders looks bleak.