Once crippled by the pandemic, airlines see a fast recovery coming

A fully-booked Jet Blue flight from Washington National Airport to Orlando, Fla., Feb. 24, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
As the pandemic decimated travel a year ago, a top industry executive predicted that a major U.S. airline would go bankrupt and the carriers themselves warned of painful cuts to come.اضافة اعلان

Now, with demand for tickets rebounding, airlines are predicting the summer will be almost normal, and some companies even say they could turn a profit.

It amounts to a stunning turnaround for an industry that many people had written off and that had to go hat in hand to Washington for three bailouts, which provided tens of billions of dollars that helped to prevent painful layoffs.

With passenger traffic still down more than 40% compared with 2019, airline executives are so confident that demand is coming back that they plan to call back thousands of employees and hire hundreds of pilots.

Southwest Airlines, which carried more passengers than any other U.S. airline in 2019, even managed to turn a small profit in the first three months of this year, the first major U.S. airline to do so since the pandemic began.

“I’m relieved, I’m optimistic, I’m enthused, I’m grateful and I’m especially thankful to our tens of thousands of employees,” Gary C. Kelly, Southwest’s CEO, told investors and analysts Thursday. “We’ve got a long way to go but I’m very, very confident.”

Other major U.S. airlines did not do quite as well in the first quarter — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines lost more than $1 billion each — but their executives said they expected the rest of the year to be much better.

American and United said this month that they would start hiring pilots for the first time since the pandemic began, with each expecting to bring on about 300 by the end of the year. Southwest also said that by June, it will have recalled the 2,700 flight attendants who were still on voluntary leave.

The nation’s 11 largest airlines are planning to offer nearly as many seats this July as they did in July 2019, according to Cirium, an aviation data firm, though schedules could still change.

“There is no doubt the pace of the recovery is accelerating,” American CEO Doug Parker said.

Many countries have not yet lifted travel restrictions and some are even imposing new ones. On Thursday, for example, the United Arab Emirates suspended all flights from India because of a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in that country. The State Department escalated travel warnings for dozens of countries this week.

There is some hope, even in international travel. United said this week that it planned to add summer flights to Croatia, Greece and Iceland, and an executive told investors last week that the airline hoped to operate a busy schedule between the United States and Britain once restrictions were lifted.

While few customers are booking long international trips, many may still be eager to leave the United States for closer destinations. American is planning to fly about 60% fewer seats on longer overseas trips in July, compared with the same month in 2019, but it’s planning to offer about 20% more seats on shorter trips to nearby countries.

“No matter what the headlines have been, no matter how the market’s turned, we always tend to find bookings rebounding fastest, soonest and greatest in those markets,” said Vasu Raja, American’s chief revenue officer.

United said it expected to be able to make money even with corporate and long-haul international travel down 35%. (Both are currently down about 80%.) The airline’s CEO, Scott Kirby, said he was confident United would beat its 2019 profits in 2023.

While a few small airlines did shut down during the pandemic, large companies were able to get by. Congress provided the industry with more than $50 billion in aid to help keep pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and other workers employed. The government also provided $25 billion in loans. All of that aid came with strings attached, including a ban on stock buybacks, a restriction on dividends and limits on executive pay.

Airlines also got rid of planes years ahead of schedule, used some aircraft to ferry cargo and asked tens of thousands of employees to retire early or volunteer for paid and unpaid leave. They also raised billions of dollars by selling shares and bonds.

According to the industry trade group Airlines for America, the nation’s largest carriers — the big four along with Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue and Spirit — ended last year with $163 billion in debt, up from $105 billion in 2019. Those liabilities could weigh on airlines over time, especially if sales begin to sag.

Some airlines have outlined plans to cut debt quickly. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said last week that the company planned to cut its financial obligations by nearly $10 billion by the end of June and sees a “path to returning to profitability” by the end of September.

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