United Airlines (UAL  ) reported weaker than expected fourth-quarter results that caused the stock to tumble. This was primarily due to the company warning that near-term results would continue to be poor due to the coronavirus. In turn, the stock gave back all of its post-vaccine gains.

Despite optimism that the economy should get back to normal by sometime in Q2-Q3 of 2021, airline stocks haven't rallied like other sectors. One factor is that the airlines have taken on huge amounts of debt to get through the crisis. Another reason is that air travel will take more time than other options to return to normal especially for international and business travel, which comprises a significant portion of earnings.

Inside the Numbers

In its report, the company disappointed investors by saying that it won't likely exceed pre-pandemic margins until 2023 and said the sales outlook was weak for Q1. The company posted a net loss of $1.9 billion, and revenue was $3.41 billion. Both figures were below analysts' estimates. In total, United lost $7.1 billion for the year despite assistance from the government.

The company said it was also concerned that the vaccine rollout had been slower than expected. It doesn't expect things to fully get back to pre-COVID levels until 2023. It's forecasting Q1 revenue to be 65% to 70% below 2019's Q1 with 50% lower capacity.

Stock Price Outlook

United Airlines is a laggard among airliners. In part, it's due to its high debt load and low margins. The stock price reflects this as well considering it's trading near its November levels following the spike in many names on positive vaccine news. To compare, the airlines ETF (JETS  ) is up 15% since that announcement.

Another way to see this is that United Airlines remains 55% off its pre-COVID levels. However, this measure is misleading. A better method to see this is through enterprise value which takes into account a company's equity and debt load. By enterprise value, United Airlines is only off by 15% from its pre-COVID levels. This should give pause to any investors in the stock as it's stock price may be giving a misleading picture.

Additionally, United has high exposure to business and international travel. These will be the last areas to rebound. First to rebound will be regional travel as people will be eager to visit friends and family. Another area that should be strong is travel to vacation destinations like Cancun, Vegas, etc.