As of the fourth quarter, 2019, the average debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio of mainline passenger, public, airline companies in the U.S. was 115.62

This average includes the D/E ratios of large-, mid-, and small-cap companies as follows, from highest to lowest:

The Debt-To-Equity Ratio of Major U.S. Airlines
Airline Debt-To-Equity Ratio
United Airlines 177.35
Allegiant Airlines 166.48
Spirit Airlines 157.34
Hawaiian Airlines 125.92
Delta Airlines 117.17
Alaska Airlines 74.28
JetBlue 65.68
Southwest Airlines 40.70

American Airlines (AAL) is not included as it is currently running a negative debt-to-equity ratio.

The Debt-To-Equity Ratio

The debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio is an important financial tool in assessing the health of a business. Many times when a person hears the word "debt," a negative connotation is associated. However, debt isn't necessarily a bad liability, and it is important in running a company when managed correctly and taken on at appropriate levels.

The D/E ratio is a calculation used to assess how much debt is being used to run a business compared to the equity of the business. It shows how much debt you have for every dollar of equity you have. It is calculated, simply, as total liabilities divided by shareholder equity. Both these numbers can be found on the balance sheet of a company's financial statements. If a company has a high D/E ratio, it typically indicates that the company has a high debt level per each dollar of shareholders' equity. Therefore, investors favor companies with low D/E ratios.

A high D/E ratio could indicate that a company is under financial stress and lacks the ability to pay down its debt burden. A D/E ratio that is too low indicates that a company is relying on its own equity to run its business and can be seen as an inefficient use of cash. The D/E ratio is important for financial analysts to determine the health of a company, as well as for management on deciding how they should be running operations, and also for financiers on deciding whether they should be lending money to a company.

It is crucial to compare the D/E ratios of companies in context to the industry that they are in. Every industry has different requirements and so will have different debt requirements. For example, a company that primarily operates online is less capital intensive than a construction company. A construction company requires tremendous amounts of equipment to operate and the need to take on debt to finance the purchase of that equipment.

The Debt-To-Equity Ratio in the Airline Industry

The average D/E ratio of major companies in the U.S. airline industry is 115.62, which indicates that for every $1 of shareholders' equity, the average company in the industry has $115.62 in total liabilities. The airline industry is a highly capital intensive sector and is often considered to have some of the highest D/E ratios.

Airlines companies need to purchase planes, outfit those planes, pay for fuel, air hangars, flight simulators, repairs on planes, pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, and a multitude of other costs. It is not a surprise that their debt levels are high.

The airline industry is a service industry that uses the income it generates to pay off its debt. This puts tremendous levels of strain on airline companies, as they are constantly under pressure to generate business, and therefore income, to continuously pay off their debt. In addition, the airline industry is a seasonal industry. People tend to travel more in the summer months when the weather is warm and children are on summer holidays. This seasonality can make it difficult to pay down debt throughout the year as incoming cash flows fluctuate.

The Bottom Line

The debt-to-equity ratio is a simple formula that shows how much debt a company is using to operate its business compared to its equity. Appropriate levels of debt can help a business function well and be successful, while too much debt can be a financial burden. When comparing a company's D/E ratio, it's important to analyze it in the context of its industry. The airline industry has one of the highest D/E ratios because of the capital intensive nature of running an airline.