ATLANTA - Delta Air Lines said Thursday that 8,000 employees — or nearly 11% of its workforce — have contacted COVID-19 over the last four weeks, a factor that has contributed to thousands of canceled flights since the holidays.
The airline lost $408 million in the final quarter of 2021, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 surge fueled by the highly-transmissible omicron variant and severe winter weather. Delta predicted that it will suffer one more quarterly loss before travel picks up in the spring and summer.
"I don’t think we’re going to see a pickup in bookings or travel during January and probably the first part of February," CEO Ed Bastian. "It’s always the weakest part of the year, and it’s going to be that much weaker because of omicron. We need confidence in travel returning once the virus recedes."
Both storms and crew calling out sick forced airlines to cancel or delay thousands of flights over the busy holiday travel season, including airlines like Delta, United and JetBlue. Delta alone had to drop more than 2,200 flights since Dec. 24.
Cancellations have dropped sharply in the past few days, but the spate of spiked flights cost the airline $75 million and the latest COVID-19 outbreak is expected to push the industry’s recovery back by two months, according to the carrier.
FILE - A United Airlines plane behind a row of Delta Air Lines planes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, Georgia, on Dec. 27, 2021. Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Delta expects omicron infections to peak over the next few days and then decline rapidly as it has in South Africa and — more slowly — in the United Kingdom.
Omicron has halted a long, slow rise in travel and thrown it into reverse. So far in January, the number of people flying in the U.S. is down 20% from the same month in 2019 — worse than the 16% declines in November and December.
Earlier this week, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby sent a letter to employees saying that 3,000 employees had tested positive for COVID-19. On a single day at Newark, nearly a third of United’s staff called out sick and the airline has cut back on scheduled flights systemwide.
Both airlines have about 74,000 workers.
Delta expects to lose money in January and February and for the first quarter as a whole. Revenue this quarter will likely be 72% to 74% of pre-pandemic levels, Delta said, which is about the same as the fourth quarter. Costs other than fuel will jump about 15% from 2019, and jet fuel is getting pricier too.
However, the Atlanta-based company expects to return to profitability in March — when spring break could help fill planes, especially if virus infections are falling.
Several thousand hires are likely this year as Delta bounces back from the pandemic, Bastian said. The company set aside $108 million for special profit-sharing payments of $1,250 for each current employee.
Delta also said this week that it will extend the window for customers to rebook credits earned during the pandemic through 2023. And for customers seeking a refund on a canceled flight, the Department of Transportation regulations guarantees that they receive one.
"A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline canceled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to travel," the DOT website explains.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.