How airlines are preparing for a travel rebound after dismal pandemic year

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United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft lands at San Francisco International Airport on March 13, 2019 in Burlingame, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

U.S. airlines are laying the groundwork for a travel rebound that still looks months, if not years, away.

Some carriers are buying new planes, while others are training pilots and even hiring new staff. Decisions they make now will affect how they will be positioned to capitalize on a eventual recovery in air travel.

To be sure, U.S. airlines are still struggling, losing $150 million a day, said Nick Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, an industry group that represents United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and other major carriers. U.S. carriers lost more than $35 billion, combined, last year and passenger counts dropped by more than 60% from 2019 to about 370 million, the fewest since 1984, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“We’re hopeful that by the end of the year we will break even,” Calio said Tuesday in testimony before the House aviation subcommittee at a hearing about the industry’s recovery prospects.

Capacity is down by half compared with last year while passenger traffic is still off more than 60%, the industry group says.

But with vaccinations rising and new Covid-19 infections well off their highs of early January, airlines are starting to see glimmers of a recovery. The House passed a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package last week that included a third round of federal payroll aid for airlines, $14 billion that will help soften the blow of a choppy first half of the year if it passes the Senate.

Signs of a thaw

Spring training



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