The aviation recovery is gaining momentum.
A summer travel bonanza is exceeding expectations, helping airlines earn profits again and brightening the outlook for the rest of the year. It’s a welcome relief for a battered industry and a sign that the rebound that began this spring appears to be here to stay.
The economic upturn, aggressive cost-cutting and an enormous federal stimulus that paid many salaries have helped to improve the finances of the largest carriers, which took on vast amounts of debt and lost billions of dollars during the pandemic.
This month, consumer spending on airlines briefly exceeded 2019 levels on a weekly basis for the first time since the pandemic began, according to Facteus, a research firm that monitors millions of online payments. Ticket prices have rebounded, too: In June, fares were down only 1 percent from the same month in 2019, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index, which is similarly based on website visits and transactions.
And on Sunday, the Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.2 million travelers at its airport checkpoints, the most in one day since the start of the pandemic.
“As people have gotten vaccinated and things have reopened, the demand is just very, very strong — and I think, in general, it’s stronger than people thought it would be,” said Helane Becker, an airline analyst at the investment bank Cowen. “People have money and time, and they’re using it to travel.”
A full recovery rests on the return of two pillars of the business, corporate and international travel, but executives said they expected both to improve meaningfully over the coming months. And while the Delta variant of the coronavirus could still threaten the travel rebound, customers are so far undeterred.
“We haven’t seen any impact at all on bookings,” Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, said this week on a call to discuss quarterly financial results with analysts and reporters. “The most likely outcome is that the recovery in demand continues largely unabated.”
His comments aligned with those of executives at American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, who said on similar calls that they had seen no drop in demand because of the variant. Both Delta and United added that a vast majority of employees and regular customers had received coronavirus vaccines, which appear to provide protection against the variant.
The rising demand has prompted hiring across the industry. American said Wednesday that it planned to hire 1,350 pilots by the end of next year, a 50 percent increase over previous plans. Last week, the company announced that it planned to hire hundreds of flight attendants and bring back thousands who volunteered for extended leaves during the pandemic.
Southwest Airlines said in June that it would increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour to retain and attract workers, while Delta is in the middle of hiring thousands of employees. United last month announced plans to buy 270 new planes in the coming years, the largest airplane order in its history and one that would create thousands of jobs nationwide.
Southwest on Thursday reported a profit of $348 million for the quarter that ended in June, its second profitable quarter since the pandemic began. American reported a $19 million profit over the same period, while Delta last week reported a $652 million profit, a pandemic first for each airline. United this week reported a loss, but projected a return to profitability in the third quarter as its business improved faster than forecast.
The financial turnaround has been buoyed by an infusion of $54 billion of federal aid to pay employee salaries over the past year and a half. Without those payments, none of the major airlines would have been able to report profits for the quarter that ended in June. The aid precludes the companies from paying dividends through September 2022.
Each airline offered a hopeful outlook for the current quarter. American projected that passenger capacity would be down only 15 to 20 percent from the third quarter of 2019, while United projected a 26 percent decline and Delta forecast a 28 to 30 percent drop. Southwest, which differs from the other three large carriers in that it operates few international flights, said it expected capacity to be comparable to the third quarter of 2019.
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“We are just really excited about the momentum we’re seeing in the numbers,” Doug Parker, American’s chief executive, told analysts after the company delivered its earnings report.
The financial results and forecasts for the rest of the summer are the latest sign of strength in a comeback that has been building for months. But the airlines have vast amounts of debt to repay — American, the most indebted carrier, announced a plan on Thursday to pay down $15 billion by the end of 2025 — and the rebound hasn’t been free of setbacks.
Passenger volumes are still down nearly 20 percent from prepandemic levels, and airlines suffered widespread delays and cancellations as passengers returned in droves last month, according to data from FlightAware, a flight tracking company. About 17 percent of Delta’s flights were delayed at least 15 minutes in June, along with more than 20 percent for United, more than 30 percent for American and 40 percent for Southwest.
“While the rapid ramp-up in June travel demand provided stability to our financial position, it has impacted our operations following a prolonged period of depressed demand,” Southwest’s chief executive, Gary Kelly, acknowledged in a statement on Thursday. “Therefore, we are intensely focused on improving our operations as we restore our network to meet demand.”
Carriers have also struggled to get workers in place to meet that demand. American suffered shortages of catering and wheelchair operators last month, while it also accelerated pilot training to bring more than 3,000 back from extended leaves. Last week, Ed Bastian, chief executive of Delta, said the airline had struggled to train new or long-sidelined employees.
“It takes a few months, and the demand has come back at such a fast clip,” he said. “It’s taken us all a little bit of time to catch our breath. But we’ll be fully back over the next couple of months.”
One form of travel, trips to visit friends or family within the United States, has generally recovered to 2019 levels, with Southwest saying such leisure travel exceeded 2019 levels in June.
Surveys show that corporate travelers are increasingly eager to get back on the road this fall, when business travel typically picks up. Nearly two-thirds of companies that suspended business travel in the pandemic expect to bring it back over the next one to three months, according to a recent poll from the Global Business Travel Association, an industry association. If other companies follow Apple’s lead in delaying a return to the office, though, the corporate travel recovery could be held back.
Delta said it expected domestic business trips to recover to about 60 percent of 2019 levels by September, up from 40 percent in June. Those figures roughly align with estimates from United.
“The demand is recovering even faster than we had hoped domestically,” Mr. Kirby of United said on Wednesday.
International travel has slowly started to recover, too, as more countries, particularly in Europe, open up to American travelers who can provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test. But airlines are lobbying the Biden administration to loosen restrictions in kind, which, they say, will allow the recovery to accelerate.
“I think the surge is coming, and just as we’ve seen it on the consumer side, we’re getting ready for it on the business side,” Mr. Bastian of Delta said last week. “Once you open businesses, offices, and you get international markets opened, I think it’s going to be a very good run over the next 12 to 24 months.”