Delta CEO says testing, vaccinations are ‘the answer’ as industry eyes pandemic recovery

Mar 9, 2021

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Delta Air Lines sees the path for a return to travel coming in the form of a mass vaccination rollout and a focus on long-term growth and planning.

In an interview at ITB Berlin, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said he supports the U.S. government’s move to require testing or vaccination — rather than quarantine — for a return to international travel.

“Tests and vaccinations are the answer, not quarantine,” Bastian said. “Vaccination will be the ultimate form of entry into international markets.”

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However, that reentry into international markets may still be a way off. Bastian said that widespread international travel demand is still at least a year away.

In the interim, Delta is focusing primarily on domestic U.S. flying — and more specifically, where customers want to go. The airline has revamped its route map for domestic recovery to focus on leisure travelers, rather than where business flyers need to go.

Related: 5 takeaways from Delta’s CEO on the future of travel

“Customers are anxious to go to sun destinations, whether it’s in Florida or Arizona,” Bastian said. He also noted that some winter ski destinations, such as those in Colorado, are booming. “We’re not optimized for business travel right now.”

Bastian said that Delta’s hub at Salt Lake City (SLC) is close to pre-COVID-19 capacity levels, and South Florida is close as well.

Meanwhile, Delta’s coastal cities, such as Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, have been much behind in that domestic recovery, as business travelers largely remained at home.

In the long-term, Delta is planning on the evolution of its business, including adapting its fleet and how it works with its partner airlines.

“Long-term, we’re going to get back to what we looked like before, but it will be different,” Bastian said. “We’ve changed so much — boarding planes, cleaning planes and how we clean on board our aircraft.”

Delta has committed to blocking middle seats through at least April, and Bastian said the carrier will make a decision on whether or not to extend that policy as spring approaches.

Elsewhere Delta has changed, in the past year, the airline has retired more than 200 aircraft — including its MD88s, MD90s, some 717s and long-haul 777s. It’s focusing on the Airbus A350 as its long-haul international flagship product, though Delta has begun conversations with Airbus and Boeing to come up with “good alternatives” to the medium-range Boeing 757s and 767s in its fleet.

Related: Why is Delta disclosing Boeing 717, 767 retirement plans 5 years in advance?

Looking forward, Bastian sees the return to international travel as an important factor — and one that it’s going to continue to emphasize with its partner airlines such as LATAM and Virgin Atlantic. Bastian said that Delta will continue to support those airlines and offer them strategic advice.

But for Delta itself, the carrier’s long-term growth strategy is international, not domestic, and it continues to see itself in a strong position to serve that market.

“We’ll get through this pandemic,” Bastian said. “It’s impacted us. It’s changed us. But we’ll get through it.”

Featured photo by NurPhoto/Getty Images.

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