The Six Biggest U.S. Airlines Lost a Combined $34 Billion in 2020

For comparison, airlines lost an estimated $1.1 billion after 9/11

Aerial view of Palm Beach International Airport. Florida. USA
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If we were to write a book about aviation in 2020, we might call it "Airlines and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year." While it's pretty common knowledge that the travel industry tanked during the pandemic, we now have concrete figures that show just how bad it's actually gotten. The six biggest U.S. airlines have released their 2020 financials, and boy, are they grim. All in, they lost a combined $34 billion in a single year—a far larger total than the estimated $1.1 billion lost after 9/11. Here's an airline-by-airline breakdown of 2020 losses.

Alaska Airlines: $1.3 billion

Compared to the other airlines on this list, Alaska didn't have it so bad—until you consider that $1.3 billion is still a ton of money. But Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden is optimistic about recovery. "We are not out of the woods, but we are seeing signs of brighter days ahead," Tilden said in a statement. "We're positioned to come out of this crisis with our balance sheet unimpaired and our competitive advantages intact, and both of these set us up for a strong future and a long runway for growth."

American Airlines: $8.9 billion

In 2019, American Airlines earned nearly $1.7 billion. In 2020, it lost more than five times that amount. Though its chairman and CEO, Doug Parker, is optimistic about American weathering the storm, the airline anticipates capacity to be down 45 percent during the first quarter of 2021.

Delta Air Lines: $12.4 billion

Delta might be the biggest loser on this list, but that's partially because it's the only airline that is still blocking off middle seats for social distancing, lowering its aircraft capacity. On the plus side, that move might earn Delta some major brownie points from potential passengers.

JetBlue Airways: $1.4 billion

JetBlue took a big hit as the demand for travel to and from its New York City hub diminished greatly—the city became the country's first big pandemic hotspot in March, and it has since struggled with subsequent waves of cases. However, JetBlue did mark a huge milestone in 2020, becoming the first U.S. airline to achieve carbon neutrality on domestic flights back in July.

Southwest Airlines: $3.5 billion

Last year marked Southwest's first annual loss since 1972—its first full year in operation. On the plus side, the airline launched service to six new destinations in 2020, including Cozumel International Airport in Mexico and Miami International Airport in Florida.

United Airlines: $7.1 billion

Like its competitors, United suffered in 2020, but it's poised to make a strong return one day (perhaps in 2023, according to the airline's analysts). "Aggressively managing the challenges of 2020 depended on our innovation and fast-paced decision making," United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement. "But, the truth is that [the pandemic] has changed United Airlines forever." In fact, United was the first U.S. airline to permanently eliminate change fees in August, causing a chain reaction as the others followed suit.