After a year that could hardly have gone worse for U.S. passenger airlines, the latest results of the big four U.S. carriers showed signs of recovery as travelers grew more confident returning to the skies. “Domestic leisure travel is fully recovered to 2019 levels and there are encouraging signs of improvement in business and international travel," Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines said in his company's earnings release on July 14, before it became apparent how big an impact the Delta variant would have on new infections in the United States.
As the following chart shows, all of the big four passenger airlines saw their business rebound sharply in the three months ending June 30, as all but one of them quadrupled their operating revenue compared to last year's June quarter, which was the worst in terms of the pandemic's effect on passenger traffic. Compared to 2019 results, the industry remained far below cruising altitude, however, as revenues fell 30 to 50 percent short of 2019 levels.
Following a brief period of optimism, clouds are gathering on the horizon once again, as the resurgence of new infections associated with the Delta variant is dampening Americans' travel appetite. Southwest Airline was the first of the big four to issue a profit warning this week, citing "a deceleration in close-in bookings and an increase in close-in trip cancellations in August 2021." As a result, Southwest's outlook for the third quarter has worsened by an estimated three to four points from its previous outlook, as the company now expects operating revenue to come in between 15 and 20 percent below 2019 levels. It is widely expected that Southwest won't be the last industry heavyweight to issue such a warning, as the coronavirus situation threatens to damage frail traveler confidence.