American Airlines Q1 2021 Earnings Preview: What to Look For

Focus on AAL load factor

Key Takeaways

  • Analysts estimate adjusted EPS of -$4.26 vs. -$2.65 in Q1 FY 2020.
  • Passenger load factor is expected to fall YOY.
  • Revenue is expected to decline for the fifth straight quarter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

American Airlines Group Inc. (AAL) has seen a dramatic decline in passenger demand in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many would-be travelers to stay home. The company's passenger volume in 2020 was less than half the 215 million people it transported a year earlier. On top of these financial pressures, American Airlines also faces an antitrust probe by the U.S. Department of Justice into its partnership with JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) over concerns that the agreement may inflate passenger fares.

Investors will look for how American Airlines addressing these challenges when the company reports Q1 FY 2021 earnings before the market open on April 22. Analysts predict that adjusted losses per share (EPS) will widen significantly year-over-year (YOY) as revenue falls for a fifth consecutive quarter.

A key metric that investors may focus on in the earnings report is American Airlines' passenger load factor, a measure of airline efficiency that reflects the percentage of American Airlines' seating capacity that is being used. Analysts expect load factor to fall YOY and to be slightly lower than the latest reported quarter, which is Q4 FY 2020.

American Airlines' stock has experienced multiple periods of intense volatility in the past year. In June 2020, shares surged ahead of the market, only to fall behind the next month. The stock largely traded sideways until it began a long rally in late October 2020. American's shares outperformed the market between December and mid-March, although they have fallen back somewhat in recent weeks. As of April 20, American Airlines has provided a 1-year trailing total return of 84.2%, far ahead of the S&P 500's total return of 46.5%.

One Year Total Return for S&P 500 and American Airlines
Source: TradingView.

American Airlines Earning History

American Airlines' stock has been buoyed in recent months by its recent earnings history along with investor optimism about new COVID-19 vaccines and an emerging economic recovery. While the company posted four consecutive quarters of adjusted losses per share in FY 2020, American Airlines' losses narrowed significantly in Q3 and Q4. After American's Q3 earnings report in October, the stock initially dipped and then more than doubled over the next five months through the end of March 2021. But now, analysts predict that American's earnings recovery will reverse. They see Q1 FY 2021 adjusted losses per share widening YOY, and also on a sequential basis relative to Q4 FY 2020.

American Airlines has also reported four straight quarters of YOY revenue declines, also the first in several years. Revenue dipped by 19.6% YOY for Q1 FY 2020, a reflection of the impact of the pandemic on the later portion of that quarter. Revenue then plunged 86.4% in Q2 FY 2020, followed by a 73.4% drop in Q3 and 64.4% in Q4. Analysts expect the size of the decline to be less in Q1 FY 2021, but still down 52.2% YOY.

American Airlines Key Stats
Estimate for Q1 FY 2021 Q1 FY 2020 Q1 FY 2019
Adjusted EPS -$4.26 -$2.65 $0.52
Revenue (billions) $4.1 $8.5 $10.6
Load factor 63.5% 72.7% 82.2%

The Key Metric

As mentioned, American Airlines investors are likely to look to the company's load factor as well. This key metric for the airline industry is a measure of the percentage of available seating capacity that is filled with passengers. Higher load factors indicate a higher percentage of seats that are occupied by passengers. Airlines experience roughly fixed costs to send an aircraft into flight regardless of the number of passengers on board, so there is an incentive to fill as many seats as possible in order to better distribute those costs. For this reason, a higher load factor is a sign of greater efficiency and profitability. In the past year, however, there have been strong pressures against load factor, primarily because the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the above logic on its head. Fuller planes are seen as worse from a public health perspective during a pandemic. As fewer passengers travel and load factor drops, companies like American Airlines face a profitability crisis.

American Airlines' load factor has fallen sharply during the pandemic. In the three years prior to 2020, the company regularly reported a load factor in the 80s. This metric first began to fall in Q1 FY 2020, when the company reported a load factor of 72.7%. That dropped to a low of 42.3% in Q2 and then recovered somewhat through the second half of the year, reaching 64.1% for Q4. Analysts now estimate that American's progress in turning around its load factor will essentially halt. In Q1 FY 2021, they estimate that load factor will fall slightly, to 63.5%, on a sequential basis. That number also will be down sharply from 72.7% in the same quarter a year earlier.

Article Sources
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  1. American Airlines Group Inc. "Annual report for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2020," Page 7.

  2. Yahoo! Finance. "U.S. DOJ steps up probe of American-JetBlue partnership - WSJ."

  3. American Airlines Group Inc. "Q1 2021 American Airlines Group Inc Earnings Conference Call."

  4. Visible Alpha. "Financial Data."

  5. TradingView. "TradingView."

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