What happened

Shares of United Airlines Holdings (UAL 1.35%) fell 15.1% in January, according to data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence, as investors reacted to the growing coronavirus scare. Airline stocks were all under pressure over concerns that the outbreak would eat into travel demand, and United was hit particularly hard.

So what

Frightening stories out of China dominated headlines throughout much of January and hit travel stocks hard based on concerns that the outbreak would lead to empty flights and vacationers deferring travel plans. United and other U.S. airlines suspended flights to China late in the month, but the outbreak at the very least is certain to hurt first-quarter results and could weigh on the sector for some time to come.

United lost more than most from the coronavirus because of its oversize exposure to China and the Asia Pacific region. It has about 4% of its total capacity tied to China and 15% tied to the region. In comparison, Delta Air Lines has about 3% of capacity tied to China and 9% to the Asia Pacific, and American Airlines Group 2% and 6%, respectively.

A United plane taxis to the runway.

Image source: United Airlines Holdings.

Now what

The outbreak didn't end when the calendar turned to February, but markets appear to be growing more confident that the virus can be contained. In the first few trading days of February, United shares made back about half of what was lost in January and are now down just 8% for the year.

This story is far from over, and alarming headlines about a spike in cases or a rapid spread into new areas could easily send stocks down again. There could be more turbulence in the weeks ahead, but long-term investors able to handle the volatility should be fine holding on to airlines through the crisis.