What happened

Shares of major airlines continued to be under pressure on Friday as fresh details leaked out about how the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has impacted travel demand. The airlines are bleeding cash and looking for ways to cut costs, and increasingly it appears there will be no quick turnaround.

Shares of American Airlines Group (NASDAQ:AAL) were down 8% as of 3 p.m. EDT, while shares of United Airlines Holdings (NASDAQ:UAL) and Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) were down more than 5%.

So what

Airlines have been hard hit by the pandemic, with travel demand all but evaporating overnight. The airlines have cut flights and grounded planes to try to trim costs, but no amount of cutting can offset no revenue coming in the door.

Airline executives in the last 24 hours have given an indication about how dire the situation is, with United president Scott Kirby saying during an employee town hall meeting that revenue is down $100 million per day. Southwest meanwhile operated 56 flights last Monday with zero passengers onboard, according to a memo obtained by the Dallas Business Journal.

A plane landing at night.

Image source: Getty Images.

The U.S. government came through with $50 billion to support the industry last week, but that cash will only last for so long. United management warned employees last Friday that, "if the recovery is as slow as we fear, it means our airline and our workforce will have to be smaller than it is today."

Unfortunately, the airlines see little evidence that the downturn will be quick. In a regulatory filing Friday, American said it was suspending more than 60% of total international capacity for the summer, due to a drop in demand, and has pushed back the start date for planned new international service from October 2020 to the winter of 2021.

Now what

There's no easy answer for the airlines, and their share-price declines reflect that. Shares of United, American, and Delta Air Lines are all down more than 60% year to date, and shares of Southwest have lost nearly half of their value.

Thanks in part to the government bailout, the companies have a cash runway and are not a bankruptcy risk. But until there's some sign that the pandemic is under control, and at least a hint that U.S. travel is recovering to at least normal recessionary levels, it's going to be hard for these stocks to get a lift.

I still believe the airlines can navigate through this, but investors interested in exploring the sector would be wise to focus on the top operators that should be able to withstand the slowdown longer.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.