Delta plans to bring back 400 pilots, signaling optimism about future air travel

Key Points
  • The airline plans to bring back some 400 pilots to active flying status by this summer
  • Delta had planned to put more than 1,700 pilots on reduced pay, with no flying requirements, in exchange for avoiding furloughs.
  • All pilots are back to full pay under the latest round of government aid.
Pilots talk after exiting a Delta Airlines flight at the Ronald Reagan National Airport on July 22, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia.
Michael A. McCoy | Getty Images

Delta Air Lines is planning to bring hundreds of its pilots back by this summer as the airline seeks to position itself for a rebound in travel demand.

Delta's pilots avoided furloughs last year after the union agreed to reduced pay and no flying requirements for some 1,700 junior aviators. Delta is now going to offer some 400 of them active status, according to a company memo that was seen by CNBC. That will include required flight training to fly certain aircraft as the company aims to have them trained and ready for summer 2022.

Because of pilot retirements, aircraft retirements and reduced flying in the coronavirus pandemic, some pilots will need to train on new types of planes, a process that can take months.

The pilots are already receiving regular pay under $15 billion in additional government aid that Congress approved late last year in the latest Covid relief package.

"As we looked at ways to better position ourselves to support the projected recovery, we saw an opportunity to build back additional pilot staffing in advance of summer 2022 by bringing 400 affected pilots back to active flying status by this summer," wrote John Laughter, senior vice president of flight operations, in a Jan. 21 staff note. "This is well ahead of when we originally estimated we would be able to convert pilots back to full flying status and is possible because of the PSP aid and available training capacity starting in March and April."

Airline CEOs have warned that they expect a rocky start to 2021 as Covid-19 continues to spread and travel restrictions keep many potential customers off airplanes.

But Delta's CEO, Ed Bastian, on the heels of the airline's more than $12 billion annual loss, its biggest ever, was optimistic about the recovery. Earlier this month Bastian said he expects the airline to return to profitability this summer as more people are vaccinated.

"We're excited to be able to offer 400 full-time pilot positions now, but it's important to remember that the recovery road ahead of us will be long and choppy," Laughter said in the memo to pilots last week. "However, we're cautiously optimistic that demand will increase as vaccinations roll out across the world, and we look forward to restoring all affected pilots back to full flying status as the recovery continues."

The Air Line Pilots Association, the union that represents the carrier's roughly 12,000 pilots, said it was "encouraged" by Delta's decision.

"As career-long stakeholders, pilots want to see Delta back where it was before the virus exploded, at the top of the industry," the union said in a statement.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian: Demand is slow, but steadily improving