Executive View: Ed Bastian, Delta Air Lines

Ed Bastian
Ed Bastian

Ed Bastian is CEO of Delta Air Lines

I think 2021 is going to be an interesting year, certainly a much better year than what we've been through in 2020. The development of the vaccine is going to be the single biggest factor that's going to influence travel trends in '21.

The first part of the year will continue to stay very rough. When we get to the spring and see larger groups around the world having access to the vaccine, it's going to do a lot to restore confidence.

Leisure is first back. We're carrying about a million people a week now. Even during the midst of the pandemic, the vast majority of these were leisure travelers. There's big pent-up demand, and there's going to be a big, big opportunity by midyear for air, ground, hotels, casinos, leisure destinations.

You're going to see business travel starting to kick in in the second half. We often think about the big corporations, but there are many more travelers from small and medium-sized businesses. They need to maintain relationships, it's vital to their success. And the larger meetings and the conventions will probably be later on in '21.

The U.S. aviation system has fared better than just about any other around the world primarily because of the Cares Act. Most other countries have not provided that same level of support to their airlines.

International travel, I think, will still be choppy, and it's going to take a couple of years before we see confidence for customers to travel internationally at the scale they did [in 2019]. We're probably facing a lot of international consolidation, a fair number of bankruptcies and some international airlines that are going to go away.

Ultralow-cost airlines will have a natural advantage at first because people who are traveling now are traveling purely on price, taking advantage of low fares. They're not worried as much about the virus. The next grouping are higher-value customers: our active business travelers or higher-end leisure travelers. I think by summer, they're going to be back in full force. That's where the pent-up demand resides.

The principal focus in 2021 will be on the recovery. Right now, we're only flying about 50% of our available seats, so we're getting a large number of airplanes ready to bring into the sky, particularly in international markets. We've got quarantine-free flights from Atlanta to Rome and Atlanta to Amsterdam, and you'll see more of the same because there's not going to be a green light and we're back to where we used to be. It's going to take a lot of these tests, and pilots, and testing protocols before people start to feel really safe and confident in traveling internationally.

Long-term, the pandemic affirmed to me the value of the service that we provide to customers. The fact that people look at the world today as more distant, as more isolated, as more disjointed is due to the fact that they can't be together. And air travel is the way that we're going to bring people back together again.

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