Delta Air Lines has turned a corner from the effects of COVID-19 on travel, turning cash-flow positive in March for the first time in roughly a year.
Atlanta-based Delta on Thursday reported a net loss of $1.18 billion for the first quarter of the year, burning through $11 million in cash a day.
But that changed in March when the airline instead generated about $4 million in cash a day.
It suggests Delta is pointed toward financial recovery after losing a record $12.4 billion last year, when many of its planes and workers were idled.
Air travel has started to bounce back this spring as more Americans get vaccinated. Travelers also are booking tickets for future trips. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated, but says those who are can safely travel within the U.S.
“We are confident that we’re in a real recovery phase,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Bastian said 75% of the airline’s customers indicate they expect to be vaccinated by Memorial Day. The airline’s domestic leisure bookings have recovered to 85% of 2019 levels, before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the airline industry.
Still, the company’s first-quarter revenue of $4.15 billion was down 60% compared with 2019. That includes a 70% decline in passenger revenue offset by increased cargo and other revenue.
Looking forward, Delta expects its seat capacity in the April-June quarter will be down about 40% compared to 2019 levels, and revenue will be down 50-55%.
The company expects to continue to generate cash in the second quarter, and anticipates receiving about $2.7 billion in federal stimulus funding. But it is using cash to pay down debt and fund pensions, and aims to reach a breakeven point in June, although it doesn’t expect to return to profitability until the July-September quarter.
Corporate demand and international revenue were still down about 80% in the first quarter compared with 2019 levels.
“The next big step is to see offices reopening, which I expect you’ll be seeing in the summer into the fall,” Bastian said.
He expects that to drive a recovery in corporate travel three to four months after leisure travel, though there may be not be a significant recovery in international travel until 2022.
Delta is the last remaining U.S. airline to block middle seats amid the pandemic. It still plans to end that policy May 1, despite a CDC study Wednesday indicating that keeping middle seats empty on planes could sharply reduce exposure to the coronavirus.
“I believe it to be safe to sit in the middle seat,” said Bastian, adding that the study didn’t fully account for measures like masks.