Delta opens year with record first quarter revenue, $37 million profit

The airline sees strong demand for travel into the summer
A Delta airplane is seen taking off at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A Delta airplane is seen taking off at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Miguel Martinez /

Delta Air Lines eked out $37 million in net income in the first quarter, reversing the losses it saw in the same period a year ago with the help of record first quarter revenue.

The Atlanta-based airline’s profit comes after it reported a $363 million loss a year earlier, as it absorbed the costs of a new pilot contract.

In the first three months of this year, Delta brought in $13.7 billion in operating revenue, up 8%, and tempered rising costs by keeping its flight operations running smoothly. The airline said it had its lowest March quarter flight cancellation rate in its history.

Delta’s maintenance team “has really done a very, very nice job of improving the overall reliability performance of the airline,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The airline’s on-time statistics are “not only back to the levels we were pre-pandemic, they’re even better now,” he said.

While other airlines have been struggling with delays in deliveries of Boeing aircraft on order amid the aircraft manufacturer’s safety challenges, Delta has continued to receive new aircraft it has had on order from Airbus.

That has helped Delta to deliver “solid results and an upbeat outlook,” according to Third Bridge senior analyst Christopher Raite in written comments.

The first three months of the year make up the seasonally slowest quarter for airlines like Delta.

But demand was still “really strong,” with good momentum into the summer, Bastian said. The airline has had its 11 highest sales days in its history so far this year.

“It gives you an indication of the demand strength that we see coming into the spring and summer period,” Bastian said. “And then on top of that, business demand has also stepped up nicely. We’ve seen close to a 15% increase in the level of corporate travel just since the start of the year.”

Bastian said that’s evidence of continued demand for Delta.

Last year, Delta angered many of its frequent fliers when it announced it would impose higher spending requirements to reach elite status and further restrict access to Sky Clubs, after complaints from customers about overcrowded clubs with long lines for entry.

But the company reported in its first quarter results that revenue from its loyalty program was up 12% year-over-year, with increased spending on Delta American Express cards and more premium card holders.

Bastian acknowledged that some customers may end up shifting from different elite SkyMiles Medallion levels – which include silver, gold, platinum and diamond levels.

“On a one-off basis, I’m sure there’s some people moving down as well as other people moving up. But, you know, nothing out of the ordinary. … We’re not seeing any meaningful shift,” he said. “We’re up double digits in aggregate.”

That’s after Delta saw nationwide backlash from customers to the initial announcement of elite qualification changes, and then softened the blow with modified spending requirements.

“No one likes the fact that they’ve got to do more to retain the status maybe they already had,” Bastian said. “We made some pretty significant adjustments to take into account the feedback.”

On balance, Bastian said he believes people understand “that Delta had a bigger challenge in that we had more premium customers than we have premium assets, and we needed to do something to avoid deteriorating or diluting the overall experience.”

Looking forward, Delta expects to bring in $2 billion of pre-tax profit for the second quarter of 2024, on par with 2019, before the pandemic, but below last year’s performance, due to higher fuel prices, according to Bastian.

The airline is taking the final steps of restoring its flight schedules in the post-pandemic era by adding back more regional flights this summer at core hubs including Atlanta.

“Mostly we’ll be adding (flight) frequencies back in, that historically have been there from feeder markets into our core hubs,” said Delta President Glen Hauenstein during an investor conference call Wednesday.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correctly reflect that the forecast for $2 billion in pre-tax profit is for the second quarter.