Delta posts $5.4 billion 3Q loss as pandemic hammers travel

The summer travel season was even worse than expected for Delta Air Lines, which said Tuesday that it lost $5.4 billion in the third quarter as people hunkered down at home during the pandemic.

Delta officials pushed back their timetable for breaking even, from year-end to next spring, as their previous expectation that COVID-19 would be contained proved too rosy. The airline’s shares slipped in afternoon trading.

However, executives said passengers are starting to return and bookings for Thanksgiving and Christmas are looking up.

“It’s slow, but it’s steady — week by week, they are coming back,” CEO Ed Bastian said of passengers.



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Bastian said Delta plans to stop blocking middle seats in the first half of next year. That would reverse a policy that Delta has used to distinguish itself during the pandemic from its closest peers, American Airlines and United Airlines, who do not block seats.

The number of people screened at U.S. airports is down 65% this month, compared with last October, but that’s better than the 68% decline in September, the 71% drop in August and the 96% plunge in mid-April.

Most of the people flying now are low-fare leisure travelers. Delta depends heavily on business travel, which is still down 85% from a year ago, Bastian said. Even there, however, the CEO was upbeat, saying that 90% of Delta’s corporate customers have put some employees back in the air — just not many of them.

Bastian said a widely available vaccine, rapid COVID testing and the lifting of traveler quarantines are needed before corporate travel recovers.

Delta’s loss compared with a year-ago profit of $1.5 billion and nearly matched the loss of $5.7 billion in the second quarter, when the pandemic brought air travel to a near standstill. Since then, Delta has concentrated on hoarding cash — it raised $9 billion by mortgaging its frequent-flyer program — and cutting costs.

Delta reduced its cash-burn rate to $18.4 million a day in September from $26.1 million in July and August, and Bastian predicted it could reach break-even cash flow by spring. Investors are watching cash as a gauge for how long carriers can last in the industry’s current depressed state.

Cowen airline analyst Helane Becker said she was not surprised that Delta said it would take more time than expected to hit break-even. “Air travel demand has been improving, but the pace of the recovery has been slower than what the market wants to hear.”

Delta shares were down more than 2% in afternoon trading.

The slower cash burn comes with a human price: It is possible in part because 18,000 employees took buyouts or early retirement and thousands more have taken unpaid leave. Executives said 40,000 took leave during the summer; 12,000 were on leave in September. Delta had 91,000 employees in January.

The large number of voluntary departures has let Delta avoid layoffs, in

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Delta posts $5.38 billion 3Q loss as pandemic hammers travel

The summer travel season was even worse than expected for Delta Air Lines, which lost $5.38 billion in the third quarter as people hunkered down at home during the pandemic.

Most of the loss stemmed from the cost of paying people to quit and writing down the value of assets including planes destined for resale or the scrap yard. The rest was linked to a 76% plunge in revenue.

Still, CEO Ed Bastian offered a cautiously optimistic outlook, predicting that ever-increasing numbers of people will return to flying the rest of this year and beyond.

“It’s slow, but it’s steady — week by week, they are coming back,” Bastian said of passengers.

The number of people screened at U.S. airports is down more than 65% this month, compared with last October, but that’s better than the 68% decline in September and the 71% drop in August.

Most of those are low-fare leisure travelers. Delta depends heavily on business travel, which is still down 85% from a year ago, Bastian said. Even there, however, the CEO was upbeat, saying that 90% of Delta’s corporate customers have put some employees back in the air — just not many of them. He said a widely available vaccine and more rapid COVID testing are needed before corporate travel recovers.

Delta’s loss compared with a year-ago profit of $1.5 billion and nearly matched the loss of $5.7 billion in the second quarter, when the pandemic brought air travel to a near standstill. Since then, Delta has concentrated on hoarding cash — it raised $9 billion by mortgaging its frequent-flyer program — and cutting costs.

Delta reduced its cash-burn rate to $18.4 million a day in September from $26.1 million in July and August, and Bastian predicted it could reach break-even cash flow by spring. Investors are watching cash as a gauge for how long carriers can last in the industry’s current depressed state.

The slower cash burn comes with a human price, however: It is possible in part because Delta has fewer than half the active staff of 91,000 it had in January. About 40,000 are taking unpaid leave and nearly 20,000 others took buyouts or early retirement.

The large number of voluntary departures has let Delta avoid layoffs, in sharp contrast to American Airlines, which furloughed 19,000 employees this month, and United Airlines, which cut 13,000.

Delta could still furlough 1,700 pilots next month if the union doesn’t agree to contract concessions or if Congress and the White House don’t provide more aid for the airline industry.

“We haven’t needed to furlough — our employees took care of that themselves,” Bastian said in an interview. “They didn’t rely on the government relief to take of saving their jobs. They saved each other’s jobs.”

Back in April, airlines reached agreements with the Treasury Department for up to $25 billion in payroll relief, with Delta getting $5.4 billion. The money — and an accompanying ban on layoffs — expired this month. The industry and its unions

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Delta Says Air Travel Recovery Still Far Off Amid Pandemic

Delta Air Lines Inc.


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offered cautious optimism that demand for travel is starting to return but said its losses were mounting, as the coronavirus pandemic looks likely to continue weighing on travel for years.

“The virus has had a much broader impact over the course of the year than any of us were suspecting,” Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian said in an interview.

Delta had hoped it would be able to stop bleeding cash by the end of the year. Now the airline anticipates such a scenario won’t happen until spring, even while slashing costs. Delta ended September burning through $18 million in cash a day but expects to cut that to $10 million a day by the end of the year.

However, Mr. Bastian said: “We’re seeing a steady progression and steady improvement.”

Airlines have been overly optimistic before. Persistently high infection rates and the resulting restrictions on travel and business cut short the beginnings of a summer resurgence.

Delta has taken a further blow because of its emphasis on business travel, which has all but halted and has been slower to resume than travel for leisure. Delta had spent years wooing more premium travelers and securing higher fares from fliers with improved service, making the airline particularly vulnerable to the pullback among corporate fliers.

Delta has built a war chest that it has said should help it survive a long downturn. The airline ended the quarter with close to $22 billion in liquidity and said it has slashed costs. Delta had spent years paying down debt before the pandemic hit, putting the airline in a better position than some rivals.

On Tuesday, Delta reported a net loss of $5.4 billion for the September quarter, compared with a profit of $1.5 billion a year earlier, with sales down 76% at $3.1 billion.

After an unprecedented drop in air travel due to the coronavirus, passenger airlines are being forced to make long-term, make-or-break decisions at a time of great uncertainty and minimal cash flow. So how are they planning to survive? WSJ finds out. (Originally published July 31) Composite: George Downs/The Wall Street Journal

Delta and other airlines have spent months trying to set passengers’ minds at ease so people will feel safe flying. The airline has said it would continue limiting the number of people who can travel on a flight into early January, including blocking middle seats.

Passenger volumes have been grinding higher, albeit slowly and on a rocky course. The number of travelers passing through U.S. airports rose to its highest level since mid-March this week, while still down more than 60% from a year ago.

The airline is starting to restore flying to meet the “slow and steady” build in demand, Delta President Glen Hauenstein said in a statement. However, he cautioned that a return to a normal revenue environment could take two years or more.

While business travel has lagged, it may be starting to show signs of life, Mr. Bastian said. Revenues

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