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Coronavirus Costs Delta Airlines Nearly $6 Billion In Second Quarter

As passenger demand slumped because of the coronavirus pandemic, Delta parked dozens of unneeded jets at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in May. Russell Lewis/NPR hide caption

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Russell Lewis/NPR

Over the last three months, Delta Air Lines lost nearly $6 billion as the company’s CEO says a slow, brief recovery in air travel has now stalled amid a big resurgence in coronavirus infections.

Delta is the first U.S. airline to report second quarter financial results; it is the first full quarter since the pandemic began and the results are worse than anticipated.

Delta flew 93% percent fewer passengers in April, May and June than it did in the second quarter last year. Revenue fell 91% compared to the same three month period last year, as the airline says it was losing close to $100 million a day at the start of the pandemic. Atlanta-based Delta says it is still burning about $27 million a day now.

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Delta CEO Ed Bastian called the losses “staggering,” adding that “it could be two years or more before we see a sustainable recovery.”

Bastian noted that in June and early July, there was “a small but welcome uptick in passenger volume, driven almost entirely by domestic leisure travelers and those flying for essential reasons.”

But he says that uptick was short lived.

“We’ve seen demand growth flatten recently with a rise in Covid-19 cases,” he said.

As a result, Delta is scaling back it’s plan to add flights in August, cutting the number from 1,000 additional daily departures down to 500.

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“The recovery will be choppy waves,” Bastian said in a conference call with analysts and reporters Tuesday. He noted that business travel, which typically provides the airline with half of its revenue, “has not yet returned in any meaningful way.”

And Bastian added that there isn’t a clear time line for when international borders will open for U.S. travelers.

To succeed amid all the uncertainty, Bastian says the airline will focus on “building resilience throughout the company and creating a new, stronger Delta, albeit one that will need to be smaller for the next several years.”

Business travel in particular is not expected to recover for at least 12-18 months. Bastian suggested many companies may wait until there is a Covid-19 vaccine before allowing employees to travel again, and when they do, he acknowledges video chats and Zoom meetings may replace some face-to-face interactions.

These two jets were among the dozens of planes Delta had parked at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport back in May. Maintenance workers prepped them for long-term storage. Russell Lewis/NPR hide caption

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Russell Lewis/NPR

“The number of trips that the average road warrior takes I’m sure is going to come down in certain cases,” Bastian said.

While some of Delta’s competitors are warning of mass job cuts after federal payroll funding runs out September 30, including United Airlines, Bastian said he is hoping to avoid layoffs and involuntary furloughs. Delta says 17,000 of its 91,000 employees have taken early retirement or other incentives to leave the airline, while another 35,000 are taking short term unpaid leaves.

Some competitors, including United, American and Spirit, are fully booking planes and filling every seat if there is enough demand, but Bastian says that “is not what Delta is going to do.”

He says his airline will continue to block out middle seats and limit the number of people on each flight to 60% of the plane’s capacity at least through the end of September and likely beyond.

“Customers aren’t pushing us to do it,” Bastian said. “And I’d rather add more flights back and more seats into the market in a safe way than trying to maximize the number of people you can put on an individual airplane.”

“When we survey customers today about reasons you’re purchasing a ticket on Delta,” Bastian added, “the space on board the plane (and) the blocked middle seats has gone to the number one reason why customers are choosing Delta.”

“In the face of a health crisis, that space on board really matters,” said Bastian.

Delta’s net loss for the second quarter was $5.7 billion. That includes $2 billion in write downs from the company’s investments in Latam Airlines, the biggest carrier in Latin America, as well as Aeromexico and Virgin Atlantic. All have filed for bankruptcy.

In the second quarter last year, Delta made a profit of nearly $1.5 billion.

Most other U.S. airlines will report their second quarter financial results next week.

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