Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian’s aggressive flight path for expanding at Logan International Airport is back on track, with the airline this week announcing five new nonstop flights out of Boston.
By next summer, Bastian expects Delta’s capacity at Logan will be at least 20 percent higher than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic began, with nearly 4,000 extra seats a day. To pull it off, Delta will add new service out of Boston to Athens and Tel Aviv next May, as well as Denver and San Diego in July. Republic Airways will also add direct Delta Connection flights between Boston and Baltimore in July. At that point, Bastian said, Delta will offer direct service to the 20 most popular domestic destinations for travelers out of Boston.
Like other airlines, Delta slashed its Logan schedule during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Bastian said domestic leisure travel has rebounded in recent months. While business travel continues to lag, the demand for flights to and from Boston is strong enough for Bastian to begin thinking about expansion again.
Right now, Delta averages more than 110 flights per day out of Logan. That will grow to 160 on peak days by next July, as Delta restores flights that were put on hiatus and adds the new ones. As a result, the Atlanta-based airline will be well ahead of the roughly 140 daily flights it had out of Boston before the pandemic began.
“We’re expecting Boston to continue to grow,” Bastian said in an interview with the Globe while in Boston this week for the International Air Transport Association’s annual meeting at the Boston Park Plaza hotel. “These are some long lead-time decisions as to where you place your assets in your markets. We’re coming out of this stronger ... there’s no question about it.”
Bastian took Logan officials by surprise in 2017 when he came to Boston and declared that Delta would get to 150 daily flights in short order, up from fewer than 100 at the time. That higher number would be enough to fully utilize Terminal A, which Delta built with help from the Massachusetts Port Authority; the airline had to relinquish control of many gates there after a bankruptcy filing in 2005, the year the terminal opened.
By the end of 2018, Delta had soared past American to become Logan’s second-biggest airline behind JetBlue. Delta and American have been neck-and-neck this year so far: American carried 21 percent of the travelers who went through Logan, per Massport data, compared to Delta’s 19 percent, even though Delta had slightly more flights. JetBlue still holds a commanding lead, with about one-third of Logan traffic.
Now that Bastian is on track to beat his stated goal in 2017 of 150 daily flights, he’s reluctant to offer any further targets for Logan. (The airline subsequently upgraded its target for Boston to 200 daily flights, but the pandemic upended those plans.)
“I don’t have a number,” Bastian said. “Part of that will require some additional gates [beyond Terminal A] and access and work at the airport.”
Delta stood out among the major airlines during the pandemic by blocking sales of the middle seat on its jets until May 1 of this year. Bastian said the seats were reopened just in time to adjust to the surge in demand last spring that coincided with the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
“The reality was, consumers wanted some space next to them,” Bastian said. “It was about getting confidence back. We generated as much revenue, if not more, on board our planes despite the fact we were selling one third fewer seats.”
Now, the focus is on getting employees vaccinated. Delta stood out again, this time by announcing in late August it would add a $200 health insurance surcharge for unvaccinated workers. Bastian said Delta’s workforce vaccination rate had stalled out at 74 percent in July. Then Delta announced the new policy, and in the past four weeks, the rate has climbed to 84 percent. Bastian expects it to exceed 90 percent in November, when the surcharge takes effect. (United Airlines currently mandates vaccines for its workers, but Bastian said he is not a big fan of “forcing people against their will” to get a shot.)
Boston’s air travel has been slower to recover than in most other cities; the latest report from trade group Airlines for America shows a 26 percent decline in flights from Massachusetts (primarily Logan) this month from October 2019, compared to a national average decline of 17 percent.
Bastian remains confident in Boston. From his vantage point, the recovery there is moving at a faster pace than in New York and San Francisco, in part because of the out-migration those cities have experienced during the pandemic.
“You’re feeling the migration effects more so [in those cities] than you’re seeing here locally,” Bastian said. “We expect by next summer to be 20 percent higher in Boston relative to 2019 levels and certainly well ahead of where we think New York is.”