Interview: Delta Air Lines urges early booking and expects full summer capacity

International sales managing director Shane Spyak talks to Ian Taylor ahead of the US reopening on November 8

It has been a long haul for Delta Air Lines and every other transatlantic carrier since the US border closed in March 2020.

After all that time, the mid-October announcement of the reopening to vaccinated travellers from November 8 “was a little sudden”, says Shane Spyak, Delta Air Lines managing director for international sales, noting: “It’s complicated to respond super‑quickly this time of year.”

But most of Delta’s US-UK winter schedule is already operating, Spyak says, adding: “We’re already flying from London into New York JFK 10 times a week and that is going to twice a day in December. We’re in Atlanta daily, Detroit three times a week and four a week in November, and we’re adding a three-times-a-week Boston service in November.

“Those are our key hubs which connect to more than 200 destinations beyond, and for next summer our 2019 schedule will be almost fully restored from London.”

Delta continued to fly to and from Heathrow through “all but six weeks” of the pandemic, for a time “operating cargo-only services to get PPE, medical supplies and vaccines to where they needed to go”.

Since then, Delta, like other US carriers, has seen domestic US flying bounce back strongly and return near to 2019 levels. Spyak reports: “We recovered to 2019 levels this summer, led by leisure. People were eager to travel. We saw them opting for more outdoor locations, mountains and national parks, and modified our network accordingly. It helped us achieve a first profitable month in June and turn a profit for the third quarter.”

He notes: “It’s a little different on the corporate side, which is only 44% recovered. Over 95% of our corporate customers are travelling at some level, [but] they’re obviously travelling less.”

14 Weekly Heathrow-JFK flights from December

Spyak suggests “things will be different” in the corporate sector, saying: “It’s tough to imagine we won’t use Zoom or Teams where that makes sense.” But he adds: “There are many cases where virtual interactions enable travel.”

Fares have recovered along with demand. He explains: “As things ramp up, fuel prices are going up and there is a lot of demand for relatively limited seats. So there is upward pressure on fares. But fares are rebounding to where they were pre‑pandemic, not going up from where they were before.”

Capacity remains somewhat constrained. Having parked hundreds of aircraft and retired 200-plus more, Spyak says Delta has “taken a conservative approach and been careful to match the supply of seats with demand”.

On transatlantic services, he adds: “We only recently got clarity so there was uncertainty about November and December. But we saw a 60% increase in bookings after the announcement.”

He advises: “If you’re considering travel, book early because we’re going to see full airplanes in the summer.”

Premium rebound

Delta has moved back into Heathrow Terminal 3 alongside Virgin Atlantic following the terminal’s reopening, and Spyak notes: “For the first time we have Air France-KLM also in T3 for passengers who connect from continental Europe.

“All our aircraft serving London will have a four-cabin offering – main cabin, Delta Comfort+ which comes with additional legroom, a premium economy product called Delta Premium Select, and our Delta One cabin which is fantastic.”

He points out: “We’ve seen premium rebound faster than the main cabin and Premium Select is great value if you’re not willing to jump all the way to Delta One.”

The pandemic has brought some changes, not least the emphasis on cleaning, “which was a priority anyway” he says. “But we had to escalate that to a different level. It is important agents know so they can convey to travellers that they should feel confident travelling.”

Spyak adds: “Refunds outpaced anything we’d ever seen. So we took steps to put control in travellers’ hands so if they need to make a change they don’t need to wait on hold to talk to somebody, they can go to the website.

“Over 80% of the transactions we had to do via phone can now be done on our website or app.”

200+ Number of aircraft retired since pandemic

But at the same time, he says: “There are many people who want to call their agent, want to talk to somebody, want to consult on the experience – ‘Can I get into the US? Do I have the right material? What kind of test am I going to need?’

“Agents are absolutely critical. We want to make sure they feel fully informed. I imagine not a lot have seen what travel is like these days so we want to ensure they understand the changes.”

He insists: “Travel is safe and fully enabled for vaccinated travellers. We want to ensure it’s as simple to understand as possible. The requirements changed all the time. It was really complicated and difficult to stay on top of. But we seem to be coalescing around rules that seem to be sticking. This is a permanent change to the industry, but we’re all going to get better at this over time.

“Between Delta and Virgin Atlantic, we can get you to where you want to go in the US. We fly direct to seven of the top-10 US destinations and can connect you to 200 more. We’re ready to take you where you need to go with the great service you’ve come to expect from Delta and Virgin. We’re looking forward to a great 2022.”

Delta has a Delta Professional site for agents at:

Delta Air Lines sustainability

Delta has “been a leader on sustainability for some time”, according to Spyak, who says: “We were the first airline to cap our emissions at 2012 levels and last year became the first carbon neutral global airline through a robust carbon-offset programme.

“But offsets are only going to get us so far. To really make an impact we need to stop emissions at source. So we’re doing a lot of work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get to a path towards limiting emissions.

“We retired 200 less fuel-efficient aircraft and have new Airbus A350 and A330 aircraft coming into the fleet which are 25% more fuel efficient.

“We’ve also committed to using 10% sustainable aviation fuel [SAF] by 2030. The problem with SAF is supply. The worldwide supply would only fuel Delta’s 2019 operation for a day. So we need to focus on building supply. We’ll buy 300,000 gallons of SAF this year, growing to 70 million by 2025. There is no perfect solution. So we’re investing in next-gen technologies. We’ve committed to investing $1 billion over the next 10 years.”

US travel and face masks

Face masks remain a requirement when flying and in US public spaces. Spyak notes: “Passengers will have to wear a mask at the airport and on the plane, likely in the transport they take to their hotel and in the lobby. It’s common-sense precautions. In public spaces, people generally wear masks unless there is some testing protocol in place. If you go to a restaurant you’re free to take your mask off once you sit at a table.”

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