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U.S. Airlines Spent 96% of Free Cash Flow on Buybacks

Photographer: Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg

The biggest U.S. airlines spent 96% of free cash flow last decade on buying back their own shares. American Airlines Group Inc. -- which is not shown in the chart but is included in overall figures -- led the pack, with negative cumulative free cash flow during the decade while it repurchased more than $12.5 billion of its shares. United Airlines Holdings Inc. used 80% of its free cash flow on buybacks, while the S&P 500 Index as a whole allocated about 50% for the purpose. As the industry reels under the weight of the coronavirus outbreak corporate leaders are seeking federal assistance to ease the burden.