What happened

United Airlines Holdings (UAL -1.82%) did its best to put a good face on its third-quarter results, saying it expects that its revenue performance "will be the best ... among our large network competitors," but on Thursday morning, investors weren't buying it.

Shares of United were down by about 4% as of 12:15 p.m. EDT as Wall Street reflected on the grim reality of the long and arduous journey the airline has ahead of it.

So what

After markets closed Wednesday, United reported a third-quarter loss of $8.16 per share on revenue of $2.49 billion, falling short of analysts' already-downbeat consensus expectations for a $7.44 per share loss on revenue of $2.54 billion. The culprit, of course, was the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused travel demand to plummet, leaving United and other airlines scrambling to bring down their costs.

United burned through about $25 million per day in the third quarter, but reported more than $19 billion in total liquidity as of Sept. 30.

A United Airlines plane on the ground.

Image source: United Airlines.

Airlines were initially able to avoid layoffs thanks to payroll support provided by the federal government as part of the CARES Act, but with that assistance now drained, they are furloughing workers to bring down costs. In a statement, CEO Scott Kirby said he's optimistic United will survive the crisis, but warned of "painful" days ahead.

"Having successfully executed our initial crisis strategy, we're ready to turn the page on seven months that have been dedicated to developing and implementing extraordinary and often painful measures," Kirby said. "Even though the negative impact of COVID-19 will persist in the near term, we are now focused on positioning the airline for a strong recovery that will allow United to bring our furloughed employees back to work and emerge as the global leader in aviation."

Now what

There were some glimmers of hope in the quarter. Cargo revenue was up 50% year over year, likely a reflection of both United's push to get money coming in where it can and supply scarcity due to the reduced number of airplanes in the skies.

Kirby and United management have been among the most candid in the industry since the early days of the pandemic, and the shift in tone toward talk of an eventual recovery is notable. But the quarter's results are further evidence that a turnaround will take time to materialize, and investors on Thursday weren't in a mood to wait that long.