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American Airlines passenger planes crowd a runway where they are parked due to flight reductions to slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Tulsa International Airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S. on March 23, 2020.

Nick Oxford/Reuters

Shares in American Airlines Group Inc. surged more than 20 per cent in opening trading after the carrier was mentioned on Reddit’s WallStreetBets forum and it posted a slimmer-than-expected quarterly loss on Thursday.

American joined rival Delta Air Lines Inc. in calling 2021 a year of recovery for an industry that has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, but airlines continue to burn through millions of dollars every day and the strength of the rebound will depend on the pace of vaccine rollouts and the easing of travel restrictions.

“As we look to the year ahead, 2021 will be a year of recovery. While we don’t know exactly when passenger demand will return, as vaccine distribution takes hold and travel restrictions are lifted, we will be ready,” American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker said.

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U.S. airline shares had gained ground since November’s vaccine breakthroughs but came under renewed pressure earlier this week amid concern over new coronavirus variants and tighter restrictions.

American reported a net loss of US$2.18-billion, or US$3.81 a share, for the fourth quarter, compared with a profit of US$414 million, or 95 US cents a share, a year earlier. The carrier reported an annual loss of US$8.9-billion, its biggest on record.

Shares climbed 26 per cent to US$21 a share in early trading even as the heavily leveraged airline reported large losses and faces an uncertain industry outlook. Investors said the gains are likely fueled by a short squeeze. American is the most heavily shorted airline stock, according to data from S3.

“The numbers clearly weren’t something that would cause the stock to rise like that,” said Rick Meckler, partner at Cherry Lane Investments, a family investment office in New Vernon, New Jersey.

“Troubled balance sheets and high short stock positions have become the immediate target of these squeezes and they fit right into that category.”

‘GAMESTOP 2.0’

In recent days, retail investors have piled into heavily shorted stocks including GameStop Corp and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., igniting a battle between small-time traders and major Wall Street institutions that has shaken U.S. and European stock markets.

“GameStop 2.0! I do think that some of it is related to short sellers and those that are looking at some of these short term opportunities to push stocks around. American Airline earnings were okay, they are still bleeding a lot of cash,” said Paul Nolte, portfolio manager at Kingsview Asset Management in Chicago.

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Helane Becker, an analyst at Cowen, said the company could use the share spike as an opportunity to pay down debt with an equity offering.

Airlines are hoping that sentiment will improve this year as COVID-19 vaccines are more widely distributed. However, new variants of the virus have triggered tighter rules for international travel in countries including the United States.

On an adjusted basis, the company reported a loss of US$3.86 a share. Analysts on average expected the company to lose US$4.11 a share, according to Refinitiv data.

Total operating revenue fell to US$4.03-billion from US$11.31-billion but topped analysts’ expectations of US$3.88-billion.

American Airlines ended the fourth quarter with about US$14.3-billion in available liquidity. It burned through about US$30 million a day in the fourth quarter.

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