After a long, dark winter, airline executives say business is starting to brighten, but they’re far from in the clear yet.
The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 4 million passengers this past Friday through Sunday, the highest levels since travel plummeted last spring.
The future is looking stronger for a return to air travel — at least for leisure.
“As the case counts are coming down in meaningful levels as the vaccinations are starting to grow, people are ready to reclaim their lives,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told NBC's Lester Holt in an interview that aired on Tuesday.
“We're seeing bookings pick up. People are anticipating what their spring and summer plans are going to look like and they're ready to reclaim that lost period that they've had,” Bastian said.
People living in the U.S. began receiving $1,400 stimulus checks this week as part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, making it easier for cooped-up passengers to purchase tickets.
But business travel, where most of the airline profit margin is made, remains reduced by about 80 percent, Bastian said, dampening a full recovery for the industry for the moment.
Overall passenger travel remains down by more than half in March compared to the same period in 2019, a year of record traffic and profitability for the airlines.
Airlines have received over $44 billion in partial payroll support from pandemic relief measures passed by Congress since last March. A funding lapse in September prompted tens of thousands of furloughs.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly predicted in a Washington Post interview on Monday that the airline would reach a break-even point by June, “where you have had much of the population vaccinated.”
In a regulatory filing, Southwest said March and April will beat expectations as both traffic and fares rise, with passengers booking travel to the beach and mountains.
“We certainly are seeing the beginning of what feels like a very large uptick,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said at a JPMorgan virtual event on Monday.
The recovery seems to “have legs,” said Ted Christie, CEO of Spirit Airlines.
Wall Street has rewarded the signs of optimism, with industry stocks rallying over the past couple of weeks, led by United Airlines and American. That prompted some profit-taking Tuesday, with airline stocks down 1.7 to 3.4 percent.
Airline executives believe business will eventually return to full strength, and have touted the intensive cleaning and safety measures they have added to protect passengers and crew and restore confidence in the face of the Covid threat.
“We have very few documented cases around the world, much less in the U.S., of transmission aboard an aircraft,” Bastian said. “The filtration systems aboard our aircraft are the safest air you can breathe, anywhere. We all have HEPA filters and we ensure that our planes are pristine.”
The passage of a federal mask mandate has somewhat abated tensions over mask-wearing, with crew members telling NBC News they don’t have to write up as many non-compliant passengers. But some conflicts remain. The Federal Aviation Administration aid Monday it will continue to enforce a zero-tolerance policy enacted in January. It has reported over 500 cases of unruly passengers since December.
“You have some people wanting to make a political statement,” Bastian said. “It's really unfortunate because it puts the customers that are sitting around them in jeopardy, they're uncomfortable, and our employees are taking a no-excuses policy.” The airline has added about 1,200 people to its no-fly list over mask non-compliance.
“If you can wear a mask and you choose not to, you won't be flying Delta,” he said.