There’s a limit to how much revenue United Airlines expects to see without a widely available vaccine: about half of last year’s haul.
“Our best guess is demand, as measured by revenue, will recover over time to be down approximately 50 percent and then plateau at that level until a vaccine is widely distributed,” Andrew Nocella, the airline’s chief commercial officer, said in a call Wednesday with analysts and reporters.
Scott Kirby, the airline’s chief executive, was reluctant to forecast when that might come to pass, but said on the call that United was conservatively planning that a vaccine won’t be widely available until late next year.
The airline expects passenger revenue in July, August and September to be down about 83 percent from the same period last year, a slight improvement over the nearly 94 percent decline the airline reported for the second quarter on Tuesday. United suffered a $1.6 billion loss during the quarter, compared with a $1 billion profit a year ago.
The three months that spanned the quarter were the worst of the pandemic for airlines, with passenger traffic falling as much as 96 percent on some days in April compared with last year. Travel had started to recover in May and June, but faltered in recent weeks as infections spread and travel restrictions mounted. The number of people screened at federal airport checkpoints on Tuesday was 79 percent lower than a year ago, its lowest relative level in weeks.
But United is far less focused on passenger numbers than revenue, Mr. Kirby said.
“Our focus really is on cash flow and cash generation,” he said on Wednesday.
As of Monday, United had about $15 billion of cash on hand, which it expects to increase to $18 billion by the end of September. The airline lost an average of $40 million a day in April, May and June and aims to reduce that to $25 million per day in the third quarter.
On Tuesday, Mr. Kirby joined the chief executives of American Airlines, Lufthansa Group and International Airlines Group in asking the United States and European Union to restore trans-Atlantic travel and to test passengers for the coronavirus.
International flights are more lucrative than domestic ones, and the flights between Europe and the United States are among the most valuable for airlines. For United, flights across the Atlantic accounted for about a quarter of its profit last year.