What happened

The airline sector, which has been hard hit by a COVID-19 coronavirus-related travel slump, got a boost Friday morning after a key administration figure pledged to support the industry during this downturn. Shares of Hawaiian Holdings (NASDAQ:HA) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) were both up more than 10% Friday morning, and shares of JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU), Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV), American Airlines Group (NASDAQ:AAL), and United Airlines Holdings (NASDAQ:UAL) all spiked higher at the open.

So what

Airline stocks have been on a downward trajectory for much of the last few weeks as near-term travel demand has all but evaporated and with bookings for key travel seasons including Easter, spring break, and summer all on the decline. Corporate travel has also dried up as many large businesses have prohibited nonessential travel and have called off major conferences.

Planes parked at an airport

Image source: Getty Images.

The International Air Transport Association, which last week estimated the novel coronavirus outbreak would cost global airlines more than $100 billion in lost revenue, warned on Thursday that government-imposed travel bans could leave some airlines vulnerable to failure.

The airlines have been trying to react as quickly as they can, cutting capacity, initiating hiring freezes, and deferring voluntary pension payments and capital expenditures. They are also working to firm up their liquidity, with United raising $2 billion earlier this week and Delta ($1 billion) and American ($500 million) each raising funds earlier in March.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, during an appearance on CNBC Friday morning designed to calm markets, said the airline industry is the "next priority on my list" for assistance, after the banking system, pledging the government will support the industry and work to avoid failures.

Now what

Mnuchin's words are some comfort. But lawmakers have been saying for more than a week that they planned to provide assistance to travel companies, including a potential tax holiday for the sector, but so far nothing concrete has materialized.

Fortunately, the U.S. aviation industry is healthier now than it has been during previous downturns, and there is a strong case to be made that the companies can avoid bankruptcy even if there is no government assistance.

The stocks are going to remain volatile until there is some indication that the outbreak is under control, and with it some clarity on the exact impact to airline balance sheets and operations.

HA Chart

Airline stock data by YCharts.

Even with Friday's bounce, airline shares are still down between 28% and 56% year to date. That's likely oversold, and could even create a buying opportunity for an investor with interest in the industry and a lot of cash on the sidelines. But with the outbreak still raging, and an increasing number of schools and corporations making contingency plans at least through the end of March, it is too soon to call a bottom on these stocks.