The middle seat – arguably the worst, pandemic or not – will remain empty on Delta Air Lines, as the airline has done since last year’s pandemic.
Even if the competitors have started to fill the middle places again, Delta has stuck to its ban and will do so at least until March. On a call for profits, Delta CEO Ed Bastian told investors that the ban had generated “a significant reward” for travelers and had become a differentiator for the brand throughout the health crisis in Covid-19.
“We know that this was one of the most important reasons why Delta continued to generate even more premium than before,” said Delta President Glen Hauenstein.
As the pandemic continues to ravage the entire aviation industry, blocking the center seat was one of the first steps airlines took to reassure passengers that they were taking significant steps towards safety on board. And unlike other innovations such as electrostatic sprayers and increased use of disinfectants, empty center seats are easy to spot for travelers.
However, Delta remains the only airline convinced of its ban (United has never stopped occupying the middle seats). The industry believes it is safe to fly, and messaging has moved to focus on Covid-19 tests available through airlines and airports (and in some cases advertised with light-hearted marketing of 80s hits will).
“Center seat locking is one of the most tangible differentiators – perhaps the most tangible differentiator – that Delta is seeking,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of aeronautical consultancy Atmosphere Research Group. “Flight accountants are not generous people. If Delta wasn’t happy with the premium, it would have announced today that it would end [the ban]. We have to assume it will work for Delta. “
And if the ban is lifted, it will quickly improve Delta’s bottom line. “Our middle seats will be a very powerful tool for us that will allow us to add capacity at minimal cost,” said Hauenstein.
The path to recovery
The pandemic cost Delta $ 12.38 billion in 2020. Instead of earnings of $ 1.1 billion in Q4 2019, Delta lost $ 755 million in Q4 2020. Bastian called it the “toughest year in Delta history”.
The recovery is expected to begin this spring, but so far the launch of the vaccine has not resulted in any new bookings or major changes in travel behavior, according to the airline.
An internal survey of Delta business travelers found that many business partners hope to return to their offices between June and September and that half expect to travel domestically between 50% and 100% of pre-Covid times by the end of 2021; International travel is expected to resume at 50%. Only 7% said that they would never expect the 2019 travel level again.
“There will be different types of travelers, different reasons for travelers, but I think business travel has a very, very strong chance of returning in the next two years,” said Bastian.
Consumer demand isn’t the only obstacle Delta and other airlines are facing this spring. Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines requiring all international travelers entering the US to show a negative Covid-19 test from January 26th.