The stock market finally moved higher on Wednesday, ending a streak of three big losing days for major market benchmarks. There wasn't any particularly obvious news that prompted the bounce, but the rise in volatility that investors have seen recently made the abrupt about-face in stock price movements easier to understand. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI -0.25%) and the S&P 500 (^GSPC 0.17%) were up 1.5% to 2%, while the Nasdaq Composite managed to climb somewhat higher.

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Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

Even with a nice performance from the markets overall, not every sector was able to keep up. In particular, airline stocks slumped across the board, and shareholders seem nervous about whether the optimism that's lifting the rest of the stock market will end up applying to air carriers.

Cockpit of jetliner with avionics systems, and blue sky ahead.

Image source: Getty Images.

A big hit to the airline sector

None of the airlines was spared from declines, although the size of the down moves differed from stock to stock. Leading the way lower were American Airlines Group (AAL 1.70%) and Spirit Airlines (SAVE 1.11%), which fell more than 4%. Losses of 3% were more common, hitting United Airlines Holdings (UAL -0.16%), Southwest Airlines (LUV 1.08%), and Hawaiian Holdings (HA 0.57%).

Delta Air Lines (DAL 0.46%) got a bit of a break, falling just 2% along with Alaska Air Group (ALK 2.10%). JetBlue Airways (JBLU 2.19%) fared the best with declines of just 1.5%.

The general mood among airline investors took a hit for a couple of reasons. First, United chose to reduce its guidance for the third quarter. The carrier now expects to see passenger revenue plunge 85% from year-ago levels, down from a previous prediction for an 83% drop. That comes even as United has cut its capacity by about 70%, slightly more than the 65% reduction it previously anticipated.

More broadly, investors were troubled by the fact that the recovery in air travel has been slow and thus far had only minimal impact on airlines' finances. Over the Labor Day weekend, passenger counts at U.S. airports topped 900,000 on a couple of days. That's the best since before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's still down by far more than half from year-ago levels.

Looking to Washington

Another source of worry came from the impending end of programs designed to help airlines. Part of the stimulus packages that lawmakers passed in early spring included billions of dollars of loans for air carriers. This money was linked to promises from airlines that they wouldn't take action to reduce their workforces despite the obvious reduction in traffic levels.

At the beginning of October, those rules could all change. United, for instance, had said that it expects to furlough 16,000 workers once restrictions on layoffs end. It reached a tentative agreement in collective bargaining with its pilots union to avoid 3,000 pilot furloughs, but it's unclear whether United will take the same measures with other employee groups.

Other airlines have similar plans in place, and similar uncertainties facing workers. Meanwhile, Congress is no closer to passing legislation to continue the programs in some form.

Airline investors have hoped that the pandemic would subside more quickly than it has, allowing things to return to a pre-coronavirus normal. That hasn't happened, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that it may not happen for quite a while. Until it does, airlines will have to work hard to adapt and survive.