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Delta CEO promises empty middle seats beyond September but admits, ‘It’s not going to last forever’

  • July 14, 2020

Delta Air Lines doesn’t miss a chance to remind skittish travelers it is not filling its flights during the coronavirus pandemic, as some of its competitors are doing as travel slowly rebounds.

The policy and the pitches are apparently working. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said Tuesdaythe airline’s less-crowded flights vaulted to the top of the list of reasons customers chose Delta.

“When we survey our customers about the reasons you’re purchasing a ticket on Delta, the space on board the plane, the blocked middle seats, has gone to the No. 1 reason why customers are choosing Delta,” he said on the airline’s earnings conference call with Wall Street analysts and reporters.

Bastian didn’t say what factor the social distancing policy displaced but he did promise that the airline is going to extend the policy beyond Sept. 30. No major airline has done that yet. Southwest is the only other carrier with a seating promise through Sept. 30. JetBlue just extended its policy through Labor Day weekend.

Some competitors who aren’t blocking seats, including United, say social distancing isn’t possible on a plane and call the blocked middle seat policies a PR ploy, not a safety measure.

Empty middle seats: Delta to keep middle seats empty through September

Freaked out about flying? These airlines are still blocking seats

How long past Sept. 30 will Delta block seats?

Bastian didn’t say how far into the future it will extend its policy but Bastian’s comments suggest it could be through the end of the year or into early 2021. 

It’s all tied to consumer confidence in air travel, he said, which, of course, influences ticket sales.

“We’re gonna hear from customers as to their comfort in travel,” he said.

The airline’s first step before filling up the smaller roster of existing flights will be to add more flights to the schedule, Bastian said.

“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,” he said.

Bastian admitted the no-middle-seats policy will not go on indefinitely as travel demand rebounds and airlines seek to reverse huge losses brought on by a plunge in air travel demand.

“Everyone appreciates it’s not going to last forever,” he said, “but in the face of a health crisis that space onboard really matters and customers are telling (us) that.”

We told you so: Airline middle seats won’t stay empty forever in the name of social distancing 

Crushed by coronavirus: Delta’s financial performance in the April-June period was dismal 

Delta reported what Bastian called the worst financial results in its history Tuesday, with quarterly revenue plunging to $1.5 billion from $12.5 billion a year earlier.  91%, to just $1.4 billion from $12.5 billion a year ago, 

The airline brought in just $1.5 billion in revenue in the April-June quarter, versus $12.5 billion in the same period a year ago as passenger counts plummeted 93%. It posted a net loss of $5.7 billion, compared with a profit of $1.4 billion a year ago. It is the first major airline to report results for the quarter.

Delta’s layoff outlook not as grim as other airlines

Bastian, in a stark contrast to most of his rivals, says the airline might not have to lay off any workers despite the crushing coronavirus pandemic.

Bastian said more than 17,000 employees, or about 20% of Delta’s 90,000 employees, have accepted early retirement offers and thousands more have agreed to voluntary unpaid leave in the fall as the airline shrinks to cope with decimated travel demand.

“I think we have a shot at that, remarkably enough, given how low our revenues are,” Bastian said in an interview on CNBC early Tuesday.

“I’m optimistic if we do have a furlough, it’s going to be relatively minimal numbers.”

Last week, United warned that up to 36,000 employees face layoffs, though its ultimate number will depend on voluntary programs, too. Other airlines are also bracing for heavy fall layoffs as the payroll protections from the CARES Act end.

Airlines are prohibited from laying off workers until Oct. 1 under the payroll protection provisions of the bailout legislation.

A Delta Air Lines plane parked on the tarmac.

Travel demand has weakened but the worst is over, Delta says

Bastian told CNBC he thinks the worst is behind Delta even though bookings have begun to stall due to a surge in coronavirus cases, especially in the Sun Belt, and new quarantine measures in destinations including New York and Chicago.

“We’re not going backwards,” he said.

Paradise, delayed: Hawaii pushing back tourist return to Sept. 1

The airline planned to add 1,000 daily flights to its schedule in August, on top of 1,000 flights this month, but has now sliced that in half due to weakening demand. Even with the additions, the airline is only operating at 25% capacitythis summer, he said.

Bastian said he’s not in a position to recommend traveling during a pandemic but called this “the best time to travel” for those who need or want to, given airlines’ health and safety measures to thwart coronavirus spread. 

Asked about the rate of travelers testing positive for COVID-19 in the wake of three Delta passengers testing positive after a holiday weekend flight from Atlanta to Albany New York, Bastian said “it’s really minimal.”

“There’s no question that in the general population, there’s a virus,” he said. “When we do find out, we go back and contact-trace with anyone that would have been in their immediate vicinity of a customer but I can tell you those instances are really, really small and certainly no instances that we’ve been aware of where there’s been any transmission onboard our planes.”

Yikes: Three people on recent Delta flight test positive for COVID

Paradise, delayed: Hawaii pushing back tourist return to September

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