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.
planned to hire hundreds of flight attendants and bring back thousands who volunteered for extended leaves during the pandemic.
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.