You Are Now Free to Move About the Country. When Will Air Travel Lift Off?

Several dozen mothballed Delta Air Lines jets are parked on a closed runway at Kansas City International Airport on Thursday, May 14, 2020 in Kansas City, Mo. Delta Air Lines said Monday, Aug. 31, 2020 that it will drop the fee for domestic flights. Delta is following the example set by United Airlines and saying it will drop an unpopular $200 fee on customers who change a ticket for travel within the United States. The moves come as airlines are desperately trying to lure people back to flying. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Air travel will be a prime measure of this country’s return from the COVID-19 pandemic, and two prominent U.S. airlines underscore the uncertainty felt in the industry. Whether you “Fly the Friendly Skies” of United or prefer to “Keep Climbing” with Delta, it looks like a long, long flight back.

The CEOs of both airlines attempted to predict their companies’ trajectories. With plans for stimulus relief struggling to gain traction in Washington D.C., and the unsurprising, yet depressing third-quarter earnings reports in hand, they talked about years, not months in regards to recovery.

Delta’s president, Glen Hauenstein, said “It may be two years or more until we see a normalized revenue environment,” but “we are creating the foundation for sustainable future revenue growth.” So that’s a good thing, if a little ambiguous.

The success of Zoom conferencing, the low numbers and slow return of business travel are challenging, but Delta CEO Ed Bastian believes corporate clients already are showing “confidence in restoring their travel spend.”

United CEO Scott Kirby sounded anything but optimistic, predicting a full return could be elusive until 2024.“I think it will come back to normal,” Kirby said on the earnings call. “I’ve been fond of saying the first time someone loses a sale to a competitor who showed up in person is the last time they try to make a sales call on Zoom.”

Both companies reported billions in third-quarter losses but they aren’t abandoning hope. Not surprisingly, Kirby touted the continued value of business travel, saying, “It was our bread and butter before, and I think it will be our bread and butter in the future.”

Many of the millions of grounded airline customers are hoping for a vaccine to go with their bread and butter.

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