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United Airlines’ cargo decline eased in fourth quarter

Company anticipates first-quarter loss because of 737 MAX troubles

United Airlines said Monday that fourth-quarter cargo results were half as bad as for the full year.

A late-season updraft in market demand slowed the decline in cargo revenue last year at United Airlines, which reported Monday that shipment sales fell 14.8% during the fourth quarter to $402 million.

United (NYSE: UAL) said full-year cargo revenue was $1.5 billion, down 31% from the prior year. In 2022 and 2021, United topped $2 billion in cargo revenue when global supply chain dislocations fueled demand for air transport.

Cargo-ton-miles, a measure of cargo traffic by distance, increased 16.9% to 894 million, indicating that lower rates hurt the top line even as United was able to fly to more destinations with the return to near-full capacity on international routes following the COVID crisis.

Economic normalization after the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent the air logistics sector into an 18-month downturn that finally turned into positive year-over-year growth over the final four months of 2023. November and December were the best months of the year, with cargo volumes up 8% to 9% from the same period in 2022.

United outperformed Delta Air Lines, which saw fourth-quarter cargo revenue decrease 24% y/y to $188 million.

Overall, United recorded $13.6 billion in revenue for the quarter, up 9% from the previous year, and net income of $600 million on strong travel demand, solidly beating Wall Street estimates. Net income was down 29% from the prior year.

But the airline projected it will lose 35 cents to 85 cents per share in the first quarter of 2024 because 79 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft are grounded while the Federal Aviation Administration continues to evaluate the type’s safety following the blowout of a false door section on an Alaska Airlines flight this month. United said it expects the aircraft to be out of service for the entire month of January. United’s stock was up nearly 6% in after hours trading.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]