Delta Says Air Travel Recovery Still Far Off Amid Pandemic

Delta Air Lines Inc.

DAL -0.52%

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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