FILE - In this April 1, 2020 file photo, several dozen mothballed Delta Air Lines jets are parked at Kansas City International Airport in Kansas City, Mo. The skies are clearing up a bit for airlines as states ease lockdown measures and travelers slowly return to airport check-in lines. More airlines are restoring flights to their schedules and investors have taken note, driving up shares for the major airlines after a staggering decline.
Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File
Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

Delta says 500 employees tested positive for COVID-19

Delta Air Lines has had 500 of the company’s 90,000 employees test positive for COVID-19, the company’s chief executive officer said Thursday.

CEO Ed Bastian said the vast majority of those employees have recovered. Ten of them died due to the virus. He said during the company’s webcast of its annual shareholders meeting Thursday that the rate of infection among employees is lower than “any national average we’ve seen” for overall infectious spread.

The Transportation Security Administration has approximately 50,000 security officers and has had about 689 employees test positive, including six who died as a result of the virus. Of the total, 21 TSA employees at Hartsfield-Jackson tested positive, including one who died after contracting COVID-19.

Infection rates have been particularly high at some workplaces including meat and poultry processing plantsMedia reports in May said that at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Iowa, 555 out of the facility’s 2,517 workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Delta plans to test all of its employees for the virus through a partnership with the Mayo Clinic and Quest Diagnostics starting in Minneapolis this week, then will expand testing to other hub cities in Atlanta, Detroit and New York.

While most of Atlanta-based Delta’s nearly 10,000 administrative staff are working from home, Bastian said the majority of employees who are working need to be on site for work such as handling airport customers or working on planes.

In airplane cabins, Delta is allowing some social distancing by blocking middle seats and capping seating capacity at 60% through Sept. 30.

“As demand starts to grow and as people have more confidence in the travel experience, we will decide later this year when we start to ease up on that cap restriction,” Bastian said.

The company parked more than 700 planes, or more than half of its fleet, early in the pandemic. As the company rapidly scaled down operations and worked to raise cash to cover expenses, the board of directors was meeting virtually as often as three times a week.

Delta has now retired all MD-88 and MD-90s from its fleet, will retire all of its Boeing 777s, and continues to look at retiring other fleet types of sub-fleets. More retirement decisions are likely by the end of the year, according to Bastian.

“We are realistic that the timing and shape of revenue recovery are uncertain,” Bastian said. “It could take up to two to three years to return to a new level of normal, which could still be lower than 2019.”

Bastian said during an interview Thursday on Bloomberg Television that Delta is adding flights in July and August as traffic grows. He plans to reduce the company’s cash burn from $100 million at the start of the pandemic to $30 million this month and 0 by the end of this year -- and he expects next spring to “be at a point where we’ll be break even.”

The continuing cancellations of flights and the impact of the virus on travel continues to cause frustrations for some customers trying to get refunds or change flights.

In response to a question about long wait times for customer service, Bastian said about 2,000 reservations agents took leaves of absence as the company redesigned reservations centers to allow social distancing, and those employees will be returning to work over the next two weeks. He also said the company is expanding its use of at-home reservations agents.

“We are experiencing, as all airlines are, an unprecedented surge in calls as people are canceling flights, changing plans, looking to see the status of their refunds, and understanding what the new standards of cleanliness and care that we’re taking on board the planes,” Bastian said.

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About the Author

Kelly Yamanouchi
Kelly Yamanouchi
Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi covers airlines and the airport.
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