Wall Street wasn't able to sustain its positive momentum from Monday, as market participants remain highly uncertain about what a post-coronavirus world might look like and when it might come. Stocks opened the day higher on hope that reopening businesses in certain states could get the economy moving again. Yet fears about the consequences of prematurely moving forward cost stocks those gains. By the end of the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI), S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC), and Nasdaq Composite (NASDAQINDEX:^IXIC) were all down modestly.

Today's stock market

Index

Percentage Change (Decline)

Point Change

Dow

(0.13%)

(32)

S&P 500

(0.52%)

(15)

Nasdaq Composite

(1.40%)

(122)

Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

Despite the losses across the market, the hard-hit airline industry got a nice boost. Even though the near-term future looks extremely painful, investors are betting that they'll be able to recover in the long run.

Big gains for big airlines

The rises in major airline stocks were impressive. Consider:

  • Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) put up gains of nearly 10%.
  • Other major airlines generally followed suit, with American Airlines Group (NASDAQ:AAL) up 12% and United Airlines Holdings (NASDAQ:UAL) posting an 11% gain.
  • Smaller players also enjoyed nice moves higher. JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) picked up 11%, while Alaska Air Group (NYSE:ALK) was higher by 13% and Hawaiian Holdings (NASDAQ:HA) jumped 18%.
  • Even budget airlines participated. Spirit Airlines (NYSE:SAVE) saw its stock gain 17%.

Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) was the odd airline out, with limited gains of about 2%. Yet the Texas-based airline had the most important news for the industry, as it reported its first-quarter earnings results and announced a major move to raise capital through a combined offering of debt and equity. Southwest said it expects revenue to plunge 90% to 95% in April and May, with the hope that gradual reopenings could start to get passengers to take to the skies once again.

Airplane just off the ground above a lighted runway in twilight.

Image source: Getty Images.

Masking up

At the same time that they face ongoing concerns about their finances, airlines are trying to figure out what travel will look like once stay-at-home orders and travel bans get lifted. American and JetBlue gave the first glimpse of that future in announcing plans to provide masks for passengers. For now, American will take the less aggressive route, offering masks but not requiring their use. On New York-based JetBlue, mask use will be mandatory, perhaps reflecting the greater impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the Big Apple.

The general public not only seems ready for such measures but is also demanding them. A news story showing a passenger aircraft with nearly all of its seats filled prompted outrage from many, questioning why social distancing and other measures weren't taken. Many of those passengers weren't wearing masks.

More moves to come

Investors expect just about every airline to see big hits from the pandemic when they report first-quarter earnings, but the real question will be how long those effects linger. Shareholders are ready to write off much of the first half of 2020 as long as things can start to recover in the second half.

Yet airlines aren't entirely comfortable even with that time frame. Delta and JetBlue have asked the Department of Transportation to suspend flights to certain airports. Delta's request focuses on smaller markets, while JetBlue includes some huge markets like Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and Seattle.

There's going to be a lot of uncertainty in the airline industry for months to come, as companies wait to see if travelers return to the skies. Shareholders should expect continued volatility as those themes play out, and today's gains could be the beginning of a bigger move higher or just the latest bump in the turbulent environment airlines face.