Delta Air Lines will shrink its European footprint after coronavirus

Delta Air Lines is well on its way to emerging from the coronavirus pandemic as a smaller airline. It has retired three aircraft types from its fleet, including its Boeing 777s, and asked staff to take voluntary leave options to avoid furloughs this fall.

Now, the Atlanta-based SkyTeam Alliance carrier is warning staff that its international footprint will be dramatically smaller when it comes out of the crisis. This includes permanently ending service to some cities in Europe — a continent where it is the largest U.S. carrier — TPG has learned.

“Our international network has been set back to where we were over 30 years ago, similar to international flying in the late 1980s/early 1990s when Delta and Northwest each averaged only 30 international destinations,” Delta senior vice president of in-flight service Allison Ausband said in an internal message to flight attendants on Thursday viewed by TPG.

For perspective, Delta flew to 82 international destinations outside of North America last June, according to Cirium schedules.

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Delta long-haul international routes in June 2020. (Image by Cirium)
Delta long-haul international routes in June 2020. (Image by Cirium)


Delta is already flying a much-reduced international schedule. As of May 27, it only plans to serve nine destinations in Africa, Asia and Europe in June. The airline will offer no flights to Australia or South America.

The draw-down of long-haul flights by U.S. carriers comes as international air traffic has been hit with country-by-country restrictions on travelers. These include outright restrictions on arrivals to mandatory quarantines or simply COVID-19 testing upon landing.

Those depressed international schedules may take time to rebuild. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) does not expect international passenger numbers to return to 2019 levels until 2023 or 2024. That's as much as two years after domestic numbers return to pre-coronavirus levels.

Related: A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Last summer, Delta served 27 cities in Europe — ranging from major hubs like Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to smaller destinations like Berlin (TXL) and Venice (VCE), Cirium schedules show. Flights to partner hubs in Amsterdam (AMS), London Heathrow (LHR) and Paris, as well as major business centers like Frankfurt (FRA) are already coming back. But it is Delta's service to smaller points in Europe that may not return post-crisis.

Ausband did not indicate which cities Delta may never return to in Europe.

Travelers likely will still be able to access any destination that Delta stops serving. The airline's joint venture partners Air France and KLM offer extensive service across the European continent via their respective Paris and Amsterdam hubs.

Delta acquired much of its European operation from Pan Am in 1991. That more than doubled its size in Europe with Pan Am's assets that included everything but its London Heathrow slots. United Airlines acquired the Heathrow operation.

Related: American, Delta and United plan to fly these long-haul international routes in June

In addition to a smaller European footprint, Delta is evaluating closing or downgrading some of its flight attendant crew bases, Ausband said. Possible closures include ones at Chicago O'Hare (ORD), Cincinnati (CVG), Honolulu (HNL), Portland, Oregon (PDX), San Francisco (SFO) and Tampa (TPA).

Airline crew bases do not always correlate to hubs or even focus cities. For example, only Cincinnati — which used to be a hub —  is more than a typical destination on Delta's map of the six stations eligible for closure.

Delta has already said that it will close its pilot base in Cincinnati by the end of the year.

Related: Delta sending Airbus A350s to Los Angeles, will close Cincinnati pilot base

Still, the airline plans to remain a strong international player post crisis. Delta executives have assured staff that it will continue flying all 777 routes with new Airbus A350-900s, including service to Johannesburg (JNB) with a new stop in Cape Town (CPT) on the return to Atlanta (ATL).

In addition, Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said the airline “stands by” its partner LATAM Airlines as that carrier moves through bankruptcy restructuring. Delta owns a nearly 20% stake in the Chilean airline.

“It will likely be two to three years before we see demand recovery on a large scale,” Bastian told staff in a memo on May 27. By recovery, he was referring to a return to 2019 passenger numbers.

Related: Delta Air Lines stands by new partner LATAM, despite bankruptcy

Featured image courtesy of Airbus.

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